Build a big and strong back with the seated cable row
If you want to build a strong, lean and defined back then the seated row is an exercise that must appear on your workout to-do list. Here’s how to do the move the smart way to to get the better-body results you want faster, says New Body Plan creator and Men’s Fitness cover model Jon Lipsey
Look around the gym the next time you train and do a quick calculation. How many people are exercising their “mirror muscles”. They are those on the front of their body. The ones you can see in a mirror, such as the shoulders, chest or arms. Then add up how many people are training the one major muscle group you can never see working: your back.
We’d wager that one group significantly outweighs the other. But to build a bigger and stronger body, you must dedicate as much training time to the muscles you can’t see with your own eyes as to those you can. That way you will get faster and better results. And you’ll also build a more balanced physique that’s at less risk from joint aches and pains and even injury.
How to train your back
One issue is that the back can be an awkward body part to train. The fact you can’t see it when you’re lifting doesn’t help. It can also feel harder to effectively contract than other muscle groups. It’s pretty easy, for example, to contract your biceps. And it’s relatively easy to activate your pecs in chest pressing movements. But the back – the back can be a bit more elusive.
That’s why your exercise selection really matters. And it’s why the seated row should form part of your back-building strategy. It’s one of the best moves for improving upper back size and strength. And it makes a good quality back muscle contraction accessible even for inexperienced lifters. And it offers you a really effective opportunity to add size to your lats.
As a bonus the biceps also get in on the act so you get bigger arms into the bargain. The barbell bent-over row is a similar move. But using the cable machine allows you to go heavier more safely for rapid results. Here’s how to make the most of every rep to start building up your upper back.
How to do the cable seated row
Here’s how to perform the seated cable row to build a broader and more defined back
• Position yourself on the seat with your soles on the foot rests.
• Grasp the handle in both hands with your knees bent.
• Keeping your back upright, straighten your knees to create tension in the cable.
• Pull your elbows back to bring your hands in towards your stomach.
• Squeeze your shoulder blades together at the top of the move.
• Slowly return the cable towards the stack until your arms are straight. That’s one rep.
What is the seated row?
The most common form of seated row is performed on a cable machine. You position yourself on a seat with a weight stack, a cable and a handle in front of you. You pull the cable horizontally towards your stomach to activate the back muscles.
What muscles does the seated row work?
The seated row is a compound, multi-joint move. That means it works multiple muscles at once. These are the main ones that you’ll train when you do the exercise properly.
These are your big back muscles. The horizontal pulling movement means you’ll tend to add back thickness rather than width (the lat pulldown is the best option for building broader back).
The action of bending the elbow will recruit the biceps muscles.
Gripping the handle, then maintaining a tight grip, will fire up your forearms.
Abs and core
You’ll get a certain level of activation in your abs when you brace your core. You should do this to avoid your spine getting pulled out of position.
What are the benefits of doing the seated row?
There are common seated row mistakes that you see, and we’ll look at them later. But if you pay attention to the form guides below then you should be able to do it effectively. And if you do it effectively, you’ll get the desired result of a bigger, stronger back.
It’s easier than a lot of other back exercises
A lot of people struggle to successfully execute bent over row variations. There are a few reasons for this. They may not be in the correct set-up position. They may get the rowing mechanics slightly wrong. Whatever it is, it means they’re not getting the most out of the move. The seated row gives you a great chance of properly engaging and working your big back muscles.
It lends itself to set extension strategies
Just because the seated row is relatively easy to perform doesn’t mean it is just for beginners. More experienced lifters can benefit from how well it allows you to use set extension strategies. For example, it’s easy to do a drop set on an exercise that uses a weight stack because you can change the weight quickly and easily.
What seated row attachment should I use?
If you want to emphasise the back muscles, use an attachment that allows for a wide grip. If you want to emphasise the biceps, use a narrow D-grip.
When should you do the seated row?
Because it is a compound, multi-joint exercise, it makes sense to do it towards the start of your session. But there’s a fair bit of flexibility in when you do the seated row. It could be the first move in your workout. Or it could be the second back move in a chest and back session. That may mean it is the fourth move.
How many seated row sets and reps should you do?
This depends on your experience and goals. And again, there is a reasonable amount of flexibility. You could do 3 sets of 10 or 4 sets of 8, for example. There’s probably no point in doing about 5 reps or fewer. It’s not an exercise where you’re tracking your one rep max. Equally, there aren’t many instances where you’d go beyond 15 reps because it is a hypertrophy (muscle growth) move. You might do more than 15 reps in a drop set but probably not in a simple set.
Get better at the seated row
Use these five expert form-guide tips to master the cable seated row and gain a lean, strong and defined back
Seated cable row set-up
The move is best performed on a dedicated seated cable row machine. But if your gym doesn’t have one you can use a standard cable machine. Just attach a double-grip handle to the bottom pulley then sit with your chest up and core engaged, holding the handle with fully-straightened arms.
Start seated cable rows stable
Make sure your feet are pressed hard into the footrests, if using a specialist row machine, or planted securely if using a standard cable machine. Maintain a slight bend in your knees so your legs aren’t fully locked out.
Lead with your elbows
Keeping your chest up and back straight, initiate the move with your elbows to row the handles in towards your abs. Make sure your elbows stay tight to your sides and don’t flare out to the sides, and keep your torso at right angles to your legs: you don’t want to “rock” back as you row the weight towards you, nor “rock” back forwards as you return to the start position.
Contract your upper back muscles
This is an upper-back exercise, so you want your powerful back muscles to do the majority of the work, not your biceps. So really drive with your elbows and focus on getting a good muscular contraction at the top of the move, when your hands are closest to your torso. Hold this position with your shoulder blades retracted for a second or more to place even more tension on the working muscles.
Squeeze and hold your back muscles
If you train with a partner get them to place a finger between your shoulder blades then try to “squeeze” their finger between your upper back muscles as you row the bar or handles in towards your ribcage. If training alone then imagine there is a finger there to squeeze. It’s a simple tip, but it focuses the mind on moving the muscles better, and works wonders for developing a thicker and stronger upper back.
Try these tips to build a bigger, stronger and wider chest!
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