The seated cable row is an excellent back exercise, which in principle is not inferior to rowing exercises with barbell or dumbbells. Given its relatively easy performance, it is often seen as an ideal beginner exercise. Yet there are pitfalls.
Before we go any further, we want to clarify something. When we talk about ‘seated cable rows’, we are talking about the strict execution where you keep the back almost straight and in the same position. Not about the variant where you bend the lower back.
The big difference between the two exercises is the role of your back stretcher (erector spinae). In a strict execution, it is ‘just’ stabilizer, while in the second variant it turns into an auxiliary muscle. This flexion in the lower back (the lumbar spine) and active role of the back extensor is not necessarily dangerous, but we think it is undesirable because it distracts attention from the target muscles and thus undermines the effectiveness of the exercise.
For visualization: on ExRx.net you will find that non-strict version with a ‘swaying’ back. The strict variant, with a straight and barely moving back, can be found there under the name Cable Straight Back Seated Row .
In fact, every implementation variant can be defended. Based on the full-body principle, you can say that when rocking your upper body you train your lower back. Simple as that. In fact, only then is there a complete back exercise. In addition, a more functional exercise. Just look at the Strongmen at the truck pull. If you want to move as much weight as possible, use your lower and upper back.
However, we believe that rows are primarily intended for the middle and upper back. If you, as a bodybuilder, want to grow muscle mass there, then we believe that you will benefit most from a stricter implementation.
Incidentally, most modern rowing machines that you find in the gym nowadays only allow ‘our’ strict variant. The longer cable limits your range of motion (ROM) and the weights hit the weight stack if you — at least according to the manufacturer of the device — come too far forward.
Although we believe that bending and straightening your lower back is undesirable, a slight bend in the thoracic spine, or your middle and upper back, is normal. Just like a ‘good’ stretch and flexion in the shoulders, caused by pro- and retraction of the shoulder blades. So moving your upper body a little bit is okay.
In fact, creating some momentum will prevent you from pulling too much from your biceps. We see the latter happening all too often in this exercise. Therefore, always start the movement by contracting your shoulder blades, not pulling your arms back.
The seated cable row focuses on almost your entire back. It trains the middle and lower regions of your traps, your rhomboids, your broad back (latissimus dorsi, or “lats”), teres major and minor, and back shoulders.
In addition to your shoulder joint, there is also movement in your elbows, which means that your arms join in and it is a compound exercise (the opposite of isolation exercises).
As mentioned, your broad back muscle plays a stabilizing role and that also applies to your buttocks and muscles at the back of your thigh. In this light, it might not be superfluous to note that your legs don’t help in the exercises, which can be easily achieved by keeping your butt in the same spot on the bench all the time.
NARROW OR WIDE GRIP?
You usually see the cable row with a narrow grip (using, for example, a V-handle – see also below). This is the standard version and there is basically nothing wrong with that.
Yet there is also much to be said for a shoulder-wide grip, which achieves a slightly larger ROM. This creates extra tension on your upper lats and the muscles in the middle of your back (traps, rhomboids, teres muscles and back shoulders), making it, in our opinion, a better exercise for the total back than the cable row with narrow grip. However, if you mainly do the exercise for the total lats, then the narrow grip should be preferred. The slightly smaller ROM with the narrow grip also means that you can use slightly higher weights.
Narrow and wide grips both have their advantages, so both are worth considering depending on your goals.
STANDARD VERSION (NARROW GRIP)
For seated cable rows you need a cable row device with footrests or a ‘normal’ cable station with a height-adjustable pulley and a separate weight bench.
You perform the exercise with a narrow, neutral grip, with your palms facing each other. Suitable cable accessories for this are a V-handle, horseshoe handle and triangle handle. A slightly wider rowing grip with parallel grip is also suitable.
Many cable row devices today have two cables for attaching two one-hand grips. That is also a good option. Of course you can also attach two one-handed handles to one cable.
The implementation step by step:
- Sit on the weight bench and place your feet on the footrests.
- Lean forward and grab the handle.
- Now sit up straight, with your torso perpendicular to the bench, and keep your arms outstretched in front of you so that you feel a good stretch in your lats.
- Now pull the handle towards the area between the bottom of your sternum and navel by moving your shoulders back (shoulder retraction) and bending arms. So start the movement from shoulder retraction and not from your arms. During this part of the exercise, you exhale.
- Hold this position for a while and tighten your muscles.
- Slowly and controlled return to the starting position by extending your arms and letting shoulders come forward (shoulder protraction). During this part of the exercise, you breathe in.
- Repeat for the desired number of repetitions (‘reps’).
With a wide grip you increase the ROM and you make the cable row a more total back exercise than mainly an exercise for the broad back muscle (the lats), which the cable row with a narrow grip is in principle. Not that it leaves the other back muscles untouched, by the way.
By ‘wide’ we mean shoulder width and it is best to use the bar with which you do lat pulldowns.
IMPLEMENTATION TIPS AND COMMON MISTAKES
- Don’t keep your legs straight, but bend your knees slightly.
- Striving for a strict execution, many people fix their shoulders by squeezing their shoulder blades together. This while shoulder protraction or -retraction (moving your shoulders back and forth) is an essential part of the exercise. Although, on the other hand, this pro-/retraction should certainly not be exaggerated!
- Do not perform the exercise with shrugged shoulders. You change the exercise from a general back exercise to an exercise for your upper back in particular.
- Pull until your upper arms are parallel to your torso. Moving your elbows past your torso is unnecessary and even undesirable. Continue until the rowing grip touches your body is therefore bad advice. It is enough if your wrists do that.
Seated rope rowing is a seemingly simple exercise that, if you take a closer look, has many pitfalls. Therefore, start with relatively light weights that do not stand in the way of correct output.
To train your total upper back, it’s best to use a strict execution, that is, with your back straight throughout the exercise, with at most a little bit of momentum. ‘Strict’ does not mean that your shoulders always stay in the same place: they move back and forth.
If you mainly focus on your total lats, use a V-grip. If you find the upper lats and the muscles in the middle of your back just a bit more important, use a wide grip.