The Row

Last week, I wrote about that classic calisthenic the push-up, which works the anterior musculature of the upper body. This week, I will be focusing on an exercise that works antagonistically to the push-up, the row, and targets the often underutilized posterior musculature. And although rowing does require at least some light equipment, it is still a very portable exercise that can be executed easily without joining a gym or investing in heavy, specialized machinery. 

Perhaps the most basic version of the exercise is the one-arm row, using a dumbbell or other hand weight and a weight bench, if you have one, or if not, then something roughly approximating one in height with some type of padding for the knee. Like push-ups, this and every other version of the row takes place mainly in the sagittal plane (see "Push-Ups," September 12, 2016); however, this exercise is the "pull" compliment to the former, which, of course, is very "push" oriented (elbow flexion versus extension). 

One-arm row: start position. 

One-arm row: start position. 

Begin with the knee and hand on the same side of the body resting on the bench, and the weight in the opposite hand, arm hanging straight down. Your spine should be in neutral posture with an appropriate lumber curve and no rounding of the upper back. Be sure to "set the shoulder blades" before you begin the first rep, retracting and depressing the scapula (squeezing and lowering) so that the scapular area is stable and upper-back posture is optimal for exercise.


Next, pull the weight up, flexing the elbow, in a motion similar to pulling a cord to start a lawnmower, only instead of doing this quickly, do so in a controlled manner (around two seconds to pull and two more seconds to return to the start position).

Muscles of the neck, shoulders, and trunk--posterior view (from Thompson W.R.   ACSM's Resources for the Personal Trainer.  Baltimore: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2010).

Muscles of the neck, shoulders, and trunk--posterior view (from Thompson W.R.  ACSM's Resources for the Personal Trainer. Baltimore: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2010).

This action done while pulling a weight against gravity works the latissimus dorsi, middle trapezius, rhomboids, and posterior deltoids (see above). These muscles work antagonistically to the upper-body "push" muscles one uses when executing a push-up, bench or chest press. They are also antagonists to the muscles that often stay shortened due to too much time sitting and working at a computer, or driving, or a number of other activities of daily living that cause us to slump forward. Consequently, the row is a nice way to counterbalance the forces that life places on us and hold us in the kind of upright, erect posture that mom and grandma used to extol. 

TRX Row start position

TRX Row start position

Another version of the row can be done using a TRX or other suspension trainer. As seen in the photo above, grab the handles of a securely attached TRX and walk your feet forward, leaning back as you do so. The closer you step toward the attachment point the more difficult this exercise will be. 

Next, pull your upper body toward the attachment point, setting you shoulder blades first then flexing your elbows in a rowing motion. (It could take a couple reps before getting the feet in the right spot for appropriate resistance.)

You can also use elastic tubing to execute a row: seated, as in this video from the Mayo Clinic, or while standing with the band wrapped around a sturdy, fixed object or held by an exercise partner. Elastic tubing is an inexpensive and portable way to add resistance to any workout.

Try these versions of the row to counterbalance your push-ups and other pressing exercises and help maintain erect posture and a healthy back. A balanced approach is the best approach. And please visit us again next week for an exercise for lower body that can be done by most anybody, anywhere!