Have you heard the term out of sight, out of mind? This can be applied in many gym settings where some beginner and intermediate lifters train the mirror muscles—you know, abs, pecs and biceps—and forget those all-important posterior muscles. That’s where the inverted row comes in.
One muscle group that gets neglected regularly is the upper back, and an excellent exercise to train this vital area is the inverted row. The inverted row is an exercise that is great for all levels of lifters because it can easily be regressed and progressed.
Plus, it also targets the biceps as well. Now do we have your attention?
More experienced lifters shrug off the inverted row and opt for pullups and chinups, but sleeping on the inverted row is an error in judgment. Why? Because inverted rows will improve your performance with those exercises, and you can add volume for juicy muscle-building gains.
Here we’ll dive deeply into the inverted row, including what it is, how to do it, benefits, standard errors, and variations to keep you progressing.
Ready to row to grow? Then let’s go.
Inverted Row Explained
Rows are broken up into two major categories vertical (pullups, chinups, lat pulldowns, and upright rows) and horizontal, like the inverted row. With the inverted row, you’re lying faceup underneath a barbell in a squat rack or smith machine and pulling your bodyweight toward the bar, working your forearms, biceps, upper back, and lats while maintaining a neutral spine.
Think of it as a faceup plank, but one that works the biceps. The beauty of the inverted row is that you can change the barbell’s angle to progress or regress the exercise. Moving it up the rack means less body weight is involved, and moving it closer to the floor means more of your body weight is worked.
How to Do the Inverted Row
- Set up a barbell in a squat or power rack high enough that your body isn’t touching the floor when you extend your arms. About waist level is a good starting point and adjust from there.
- Lie faceup underneath the barbell, ensuring it aligns with your lower chest.
- Grip the bar with a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip and straighten your legs while keeping your glutes grounded.
- Engage your glutes to raise them off the ground with your body in a straight line from head to heel.
- Pull yourself toward the bar by squeezing your shoulder blades together.
- Once your shoulder blades are fully contracted, slowly lower down until your elbows are extended. Reset then repeat.
Inverted Row Muscles Trained
The inverted row is predominantly an upper-body exercise, but the lower body is involved, mainly isometrically, to allow the upper body pulling muscles to do their job. Here are the primary muscles worked by the inverted row.
- Upper Body
- Forearms: Grip and elbow flexion
- Biceps: Elbow flexion
- Posterior deltoid: Shoulder extension
- Upper back: Scapular adduction
- Lats: Shoulder extension
- Lower Body
- Lower back and glutes: Used isometrically to keep a neutral spine.
- Anterior core: This helps prevent the lower back from arching.
Inverted Row Benefits
Vertical pulling is more challenging because either more of your body weight (chin-ups) is involved or gravity is acting on the weight more (;at pulldowns and upright rows). What does this mean for you? Body-weight horizontal rows are slightly easier, allowing you to do more reps for added size and strength.
Here are some vital benefits of performing Inverted rows.
- Improved Back Size and Strength: Bodyweight inverted rows are easier and allow you to add more volume for potential muscle-building gains. Because it’s a bodyweight movement, you can rep out and add pauses and tempo for more time under tension. Adding back size and strength improves your squat, bench, and deadlift because the upper back and lats are vital in bar path and keeping a neutral spine under load.
- Easily Scalable: Like an incline pushup makes it easier to perform pushups, changing the angle of the barbell (higher is easier, lower is harder) allows beginners to enjoy the muscle-building benefits the inverted row provides. A sign of good exercise is the ability to make it easier or more difficult, and the inverted row certainty does that.
- Improved Relative Strength: Absolute strength is the total weight you can lift, and relative strength is the amount you can lift compared to your body weight. Being able to do more reps, sets, and volume with the inverted row, you’ll be improving your relative strength by default. Plus, you’ll improve your grip and core strength which has a direct carryover to all exercises grip and core related, like chin-ps, deadlifts, etc.
Common Inverted Row Mistakes
The inverted row is less technical than a barbell deadlift, but there are a few things to watch out for to get the best out of this excellent horizontal pulling exercise.
- Loss of Tension: The same thing will happen with the inverted row when you lose position with the front plank with the lower back arching. Losing tension in your glutes will cause your body to sag, and all the benefits will go poof like magic. Make sure to keep your glutes engaged the entire time.
- Hand Position: The inverted row calls for a wider than shoulder-width apart, but because we’re all put together differently. So, take some time during your set-up to find the best grip width for you. Plus, there is a tendency, especially when you’re tired, for the wrist to bend and not remain neutral while pulling. If that is the case, discontinue the set and rest.
- Pulling too High up the Chest: Pulling to your lower chest to get the best results from this exercise would be best. Pulling to your upper chest and shoulder decreases the lat engagement and increases upper back activation. That is not terrible, but when the elbows flare to the sides, it can jam your shoulders up, especially if shoulder mobility is an issue.
Inverted Row Programming Suggestions
The inverted row is an excellent exercise to program on a full, lower, or upper body day, making it versatile. It can be your main strength exercise on full and upper body days and an accessory exercise on lower body days to improve posterior strength for squats and deadlifts.
Here are a few general programming suggestions depending on your goals.
- To Build Muscle: Volume and tension are always the keys when building muscle. Perform each rep intentionally, creating a good mind-muscle connection with your pulling muscles. Three to five sets of eight to 16 reps, resting two minutes between sets, is a great start.
- To Build Strength: There are better rowing exercises to build strength, but beginners to intermediate lifters can build strength with the inverted row. Do three to five sets of five to eight reps, using a slow eccentric (or the 2 & 1 exercise below), resting two minutes between sets.
Inverted Row Variations and Alternatives
Below are inverted row variations and alternatives to stave off boredom and reduce overuse injuries.