Do you use the bodyweight row in your strength training? In this article, I will detail why the bodyweight row is such a great exercise, and how we can modify and program the bodyweight row for rowers to keep it challenging and engaging for off-season and in-season strength training.
Key Points: The bodyweight row is an effective exercise to strengthen the muscles of the back, shoulders, and arms for improved rowing performance. Unlike other popular horizontal pulling exercises, the bodyweight row reduces injury risk to the low back and ribs. The bodyweight row also requires very little specialized equipment, so just about anyone can do some variation of the bodyweight row in any training environment. Use different variations of handle height, grip, stance, equipment, and set-and-rep schemes to keep the bodyweight row challenging and engaging for rowers of all ages and levels.
Table of Contents:
Horizontal Pulling Pros and Cons
Horizontal pulling exercises are crucial for rowers to build strength, muscle mass, endurance, and power in the muscles of the back, shoulders, and arms. However, many horizontal pulling exercises come along with a major downside of injury risks for rowers. The benefits of any exercise need to be considered alongside the potential negatives to determine their net value in strength training for rowing.
The bent-over row is a popular horizontal pulling exercise. The lifter performs this from a forward-hinge position, bent over like the middle position of a deadlift, and then pulls the bar to the torso while maintaining this position. This is a popular exercise in general strength training, personal training, and strength sports. The bent-over row can be loaded fairly heavily and performed almost as a full-body exercise, due to the demand of the lower body to maintain the hinge position and create stability and power from the floor.
However, the full-body demands of bent-over horizontal pulling exercises can be a specific downside for rowers due to the increased loading on the hips and lower back. For one, some rowers simply aren’t strong enough or coordinated enough to maintain a good hinge position while also performing horizontal pulling. We get “either-or” with these rowers: a good hinge with no real horizontal pulling power, or a poor hinge in order to achieve the pull. Rowers also constantly use the hips and lower back in the hinge position while rowing and erging, performing high volumes of training and requiring a lot out of these muscles. Non-specific low back pain is the most common rowing injury and causes the highest frequency of missed training sessions in rowers. One incident of low back pain is a risk factor for future low back pain, so preventing the first injury in rowers is key to reducing the impact from this injury overall. Reducing unnecessary loading on the low back is a priority for me in rowing-specific strength training.
My verdict: Some utility, mostly as an off-season exercise if rowers are putting less stress on the back with reduced rowing and erging.
Bench Pull/Seal Row
I’ve already written a whole article about why I hate the bench pull for rowing, so I won’t flog it too much here. Rowers and coaches try to take the low back stress out of the horizontal pulling exercise with the bench pull, but trade it instead for rib cage stress. This is arguably worse, as rib stress injuries affect approximately 10% of rowers and cause the most missed total time due to injury of any rowing injury.
People often say that the bench pull is “specific” for rowing, but I don’t see how when the athlete is lying face-down on a bench without using any lower body or torso musculature to support themselves, pulling against a fixed-resistance object with the arms as a main mover. The bench pull is a leftover relic from the old days of rowing strength training, before Concept2-made ergometers were widely available and rowers had to do something for training over the long winter months. The net value of the bench pull falls off a cliff when we consider the risk and impact of the rib stress injury, as well as modern equipment access and training needs.
My verdict: Firm no.
Machine-Based Horizontal Pulls
Some rowers and coaches turn to machine-based horizontal pulling exercises, like Nautilus or Hammer Strength machines or seated cable rows. Machine exercises reduce stress on the low back and hips by eliminating the forward-loaded hinge position of the bent-over row.
One problem with machine exercises is that machines are usually built for the average-sized person, for commercial utility. Very tall rowers can be forced into bad positions by machines that aren’t built for their dimensions. Long-limbed rowers may not be able to get enough range-of-motion out of a standard cable-stack or lever machine, for example. This can increase injury risk and decrease effectiveness of the training.
Another problem is the oversimplification of training and movement. Machines typically focus more specifically on individual muscles and positions with the different designs of the machines. This can be good for basic strength and muscle growth, but might not do much for the highly dynamic, variable elements of rowing performance. Part of the purpose of strength training for rowers is to teach full-body coordination and athletic movement. This is a strength of the bent-over row, but it comes with the downside of low back stress. Machines and isolation exercises do not train this element of athletic movement at all. Rowers will gain strength and muscle size from machine-based training, but it might not matter for the actual goal of rowing performance if they cannot transfer the improved performance.
My verdict: Some utility, such as in the off-season for the rower who fits the machine well, needs extra attention to the back muscles, and uses machines as a supplement for other horizontal pulling exercises.
I do like exercises like the single-arm dumbbell row and landmine row. Rowing is a bilateral sport, using both limbs at the same time, but rowers do not necessarily equally contribute with both arms all the time. Sweep rowers in particular often develop imbalances between their left and right sides due to the uneven rotational nature of the rowing stroke. Single-arm rowing exercises are an opportunity to correct this imbalance at the movement and muscular level.
However, I haven’t found single-arm exercises to be enough on their own to improve strength, muscularity, and rowing performance. Since rowing is bilateral, bilateral training is more specific for performance. Bilateral exercises can also often be loaded heavier and trained harder than single-limb exercises, which can be beneficial for strength, muscle, power, and endurance outcomes.
My verdict: Decent utility as a supporting exercise for other horizontal pulling exercises. I will often use a single-arm row once per week for rowers strength training twice per week, especially with sweep rowers in the off-season to help restore left/right balance.
You can probably see why I like the bodyweight row for rowers so much now.
Unlike the bent-over row, the bodyweight row is not a hinge-position row, so loads on the low back are quite low. In a 2009 study, researchers measured muscle activation and lumbar spine loading from the bodyweight row, the bent-over barbell row, and the standing one-arm cable row. The bodyweight row resulted in the lowest loading on the lumbar spine, as well as the greatest activation of the latissimus dorsi, upper back, and hip extensor muscles. The researchers propose that the bodyweight row is an especially useful exercise with people who “are prone to having low back trouble,” which in my opinion, describes all rowers!
Unlike the bench pull, the bodyweight row does not directly load the rib cage, so we’re reducing risk of an especially painful and disruptive injury typically requiring at least 4-6 weeks of healing and retraining time, as well as long-term management even after full rehabilitation.
The bodyweight row is a more dynamic exercise than machine-based horizontal pulling exercises. It requires stability of the lower body and torso, as well as coordination of the different back, shoulder, and arm muscles to produce the movement. We are still getting some basic athletic coordination training from the bodyweight row that we miss with machine exercises.
The bodyweight row is a bilateral exercise, so it is more specific for the bilateral sport of rowing. This makes it more likely that the physical qualities we develop in strength training will transfer to rowing performance. The goal is not just to get stronger and more muscular, but to have these qualities make us better, faster rowers.
Finally, the bodyweight row requires very little specialized equipment. Bent-over rows require a barbell and an array of weights to achieve the right loading for the athlete. The bench pull requires all of that and an expensive padded bench setup (or use a wooden plank DIY job to save money for your rib injury medical bills). Machine exercises require machines, which is fine if you’re in a gym that has them anyway, but not if you’re training out of a boathouse, home-gym, or other less-equipped situation. Single-arm rows require an array of some sort of weight to achieve the right loading. You can do the bodyweight row with just a towel for a handle anywhere that you can safely attach it. Sturdy trees, bolted-in boat racks, playground equipment, and more all offer opportunities to do the bodyweight row. The towel handle also challenges the grip strength of the forearm muscles. A barbell in a power rack, a TRX, or gymnastics rings all work great as well.
The bodyweight row is the all-around winner, as long as we can be creative to find the right amount of challenge for the athlete. Read on for more.
Bodyweight Row Exercise Variations
I think the bodyweight row is underused because rowers and coaches don’t get creative enough with the exercise to keep it challenging. Rowers will often tell me that sets of 10 reps are too easy, until I ask a few more questions, review video, or directly coach them during the exercise, and then they find a whole new world of challenge and progression. Below are my key technical points, additional methods of keeping the bodyweight row challenging and productive for rowing strength training, and a demonstration video of these variations.
Good Technique: The lower body and torso should be fairly static, without much spinal flexion (rounding) or extension (arching) during the lift. Rowers will often sag into flexion at the bottom of the lift due to a lack of trunk strength and control, and then arch at the top of the lift due to a lack of shoulder and arm strength and control. Think of the torso as a “reverse plank” in a bodyweight row, with a straight line from the heels to the shoulders. If you find your feet slipping around, use a weight or something to push your heels against.
We also want the shoulders to stay depressed, or down “in the back pockets” through both the lifting and lowering phase. Rowers will often shrug upwards to engage the stronger upper trapezius muscles, reducing contribution of the other supporting muscles that we want to target with the bodyweight row. The shoulders should move smoothly between neutral or slightly protracted (forward) at the bottom position of the lift, to retracted (pulled together backwards) at the top position of the lift. Rowers will often stay in the protracted, rounded forward position and never get to full retraction of the shoulder blades.
Controlled Lowering: Rowers need to control the lowering phase of the lift with at least a 2:1 ratio. If the lifting phase takes one second, the lowering phase should take two seconds. Rowers often just drop from the top position of the lift to the bottom position of the lift. Failing to maintain control during the lowering phase misses half of the work from each rep!
Handle Height: A low handle position will often make it too challenging to perform good technique with controlled lowering. Rowers typically go straight to a parallel torso position, with their back almost touching the ground at the bottom position, but then struggle to use good technique and maintain controlled lowering. Raise the handles so that the rower can use good technique and control for the target number of reps, and then gradually decrease handle height from there. A lower handle height and a more parallel body position will be harder than a higher handle height and a more upright body position. This modification makes the bodyweight row scalable for athletes of different strengths.
Once we get those basics down, we can modify the exercise in several different ways to increase the variety and challenge of the bodyweight row for rowers. Watch my video below for demonstrations of different bodyweight row variations.
High Handle or Low Handle: Even when athletes are strong enough to do a low handle position, we can still use the higher position to achieve more reps or use different variations with how we perform the reps. High handles continue to be useful.
Overhand or Underhand Grip: Researchers in a 2016 study evaluated bodyweight row grip and stance effects on muscle activation, and found that the overhand grip places slightly more emphasis on the trapezius muscles, while the underhand grip places slightly more emphasis on the latissimus dorsi muscles. Both are effective and beneficial for rowers. There were no significant differences in muscle activation between the two-leg or one-leg stances.
Barbell, TRX, Rings, Towel Handle: We can use a variety of equipment depending on the training environment, athlete needs, and preferences.
Tempo Modifications: The 2:1 lowering-to-lifting ratio is the basic starting point, but we can get more creative from there to increase challenge. Try a 3:1 ratio for more time-under-tension during the lowering phase. Add a pause at the top position, squeezing hard with the arms and shoulder retraction muscles. Add a pause halfway down during the lowering phase, again increasing time-under-tension and overall challenge. Do one-and-a-half reps: Lift all the way up to the top position, then lower halfway down, lift back to the top position again, then lower all the way down. I have yet to see a rower do more than 10 reps with good technique from a parallel handle position using a 3:1 tempo or 1.5 reps–that’s getting into “crazy strength” territory!
Add Load: Combine any of the above with added load to increase challenge. Use a resistance band around the waist attached to a stable object behind the lifter. The lifter will have to pull against the lengthening band for more tension and challenge. Use a weighted vest to increase the “bodyweight” of the lifter. Adding just 5-10% of the lifter’s bodyweight can make a big difference in challenge.
Programming the Bodyweight Row
The bodyweight row is an upper body assistance exercise, so I typically use it for higher volume, approximately 25-50 total reps (ie. adding all sets together). Conventional sets and reps are a fine starting point for programming the bodyweight row for rowers, such as 3-5 sets of 8-15 reps. We can’t use percent-1RM here, so this is another good reason to use Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) in your strength training. The athlete should set the height of the handle for each set to achieve good technique for the desired rep and RPE output.
We can also program the bodyweight row as a number of sets to a target RPE, and then the athlete determines how many reps to do. For example, an athlete doing “3 sets from low handle height to RPE8” might achieve 9 reps on the first set, 10 reps on the second set, and 8 reps on the third set, while leaving 2 reps left in reserve at the end of each set (RPE8). This is often how I program the bodyweight row during in-season rowing phases, when athlete fatigue is more variable and more rigid programming doesn’t work quite as well.
We do not need to worry too much about “progression” of the bodyweight row for rowers. Movement quality, performing the reps well, and using different exercise variations are much more important to me than exactly how many reps the athlete performs or how much semi-quantifiable load the athlete uses. Work it and move on. I do not track personal records or anything with the bodyweight row, because it’s more important to me that the emphasis stays on performing the exercise well and keeping it in perspective as an upper body assistance exercise. Improvement will happen naturally from consistent good effort, rather than a specific outcome goal that gets challenging to assess when we consider different variations, tempos, handle heights, etc.
In both the in-season and the off-season, I will often superset the bodyweight row with an upper body pushing exercise, or include it in a three-lift circuit with a pushing exercise and a lower body exercise. Because the bodyweight row does not significantly load the low back and hips, we can pair it with a single-leg squat (lunge or rear-foot-elevated split squat) or even a hinge lift assistance exercise (Romanian deadlift, glute-ham raise, Nordic hamstring curl, etc.), with minimal fatigue spillover between exercises. This improves economy of training and ability to get more work done in a shorter amount of time. This is valuable during in-season training when we’re trying to minimize the impact of strength training on increased rowing training, and also in the off-season when we’re trying to get more total volume into each strength training session.
I use more variety and volume in the off-season, when rowers are doing less specific erging and rowing training and have more time, energy, and recovery ability for harder strength training. Muscle soreness increases when we make significant changes in movement or loading, such as changing equipment or doing very different set-and-rep schemes. We don’t need to worry as much in the off-season about next-day muscle soreness affecting an important rowing training session, so make the most of that time and make real improvements in strength training.
This could be as simple as going from 3-5 sets of 8-12 reps to 4-6 sets of 10-15 reps, or using tempo modifications to increase time-under-tension and challenge of the exercise. I also like to use variable set-and-rep schemes, such as a set of 12 reps at one height, a set of 10 reps at a lower height, a set of 8 reps at a lower height again, and then a set of 15-20 reps at a higher height. Rowers with more strength training experience can use set-and-rep schemes with greater intensity and complexity, such as the “3-50 method” and “Myo-Reps.”
In the 3-50 method, perform three sets with two minutes of rest between each set and a goal of 50 total repetitions across all three sets. Each set should be close to failure: approximately RPE8 on the first set, RPE9 on the second set, and RPE10 on the third set. Two minutes of rest is enough to recover some, but not completely, so expect rep output to fall with each set. For example, a 3-50 set will often look like 20-22 reps on the first set, 15-20 reps on the second set, and 12-15 on the third set. Increase or decrease the challenge of the exercise accordingly to get close to the goal of 50 total reps.
Myo-Reps is a system of cluster set or density training, modifying the amount of rest time to increase the challenge of the exercise and total time-under-tension. I’ve made some modifications from the original, and wrote and spoke about this in my “At-Home Minimalist Strength Training” webinar for USRowing in April of 2020. This is a very challenging way to get a lot of work from not a lot of external load, perfect for the bodyweight row. Here’s the protocol:
- “Activation Set” of 15-30 reps, stopping before failure.
- Take 5 deep breaths for rest while dividing the number of reps you got by two.
- Perform subsequent sets of that number (½ as many as your activation set) with 5 deep breaths for rest between each set, until you don’t hit that target anymore.
Check out my demonstration video below of a high position, towel handle, bodyweight row for rowers using Myo-Reps. I do 20 reps on my activation set, and then five subsequent sets of 10 reps before reaching failure.
The “ladder row” is another fun way to use different handle heights to increase challenge and muscular development with the bodyweight row for rowers. This is the same idea as the “ladder pushup,” but done with a bodyweight row variation. You can do this in a power rack or with a TRX or gymnastics rings, as long as you can set up two or three different handle heights to gradually decrease the challenge as fatigue increases. Begin with the lowest handle height you can use to achieve one set of 8-12 reps. Complete the set, and then immediately increase the handle height and perform another set. Complete that set, and then raise the handles one more time for a final set. Watch my video demonstration below.
The bodyweight row for rowers offers a scalable exercise with little required equipment and a great challenge to the strength and coordination of the back, shoulder, and arm muscles. Beginner lifters can use a higher handle position and incrementally progress to a lower handle position, while more advanced lifters can use different exercise variations, set-and-rep combinations, and other ways to keep the exercise engaging and productive for building strength and muscle in the upper body pulling muscles. The bodyweight row is useful in-season to reduce load on the lower back during rigorous rowing and erging training, as well as off-season for higher volume upper body strength training and more creative variations.
Read “The 10 Best Strength Training Exercises for Rowing” for more of my favorite movements and how they improve rowing performance and reduce risk of common rowing injuries.