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Upper Back Rows: The Most Explosive Upper Back Exercises

upper back row: unilateral dumbbell row

 

It’s back day. 


And you go ahead with your normal PULL exercises. Because you want that thick back. 


Don’t we all? 


BUT do you actually know which exercises work out WHICH MUSCLES in your back? 


For instance, let’s say you wanted to target your upper back specifically. Those deltoids, rhomboids, and traps. How would you do that? 


Or do you just throw some weight around hoping you get all parts of your back? If that’s you, no judgment. We’ve all been there. But let’s get you educated on all things UPPER BACK. 


Today, I’ll cover how YOU can get a super-built upper back by using these 6 upper back row variations. 


Not to be exclusive, but we’re leaving out the lower back today because it’s time you KNOW how to bias your upper back. 


How to Target the Upper Back in an Upper Back Row 

More detail to come in our Pro Tips section, but let’s start with the basics. This same rule applies to every upper back row exercise variation we talk about today. 


To target the upper back in a row: 


1) Bring your grip a bit wider

2) Keep those elbows flared 

3) Row higher–think chest level 

4) And pinch your shoulder blades together 


To compare: Rowing lower–closer to your hips, for example–along with a narrow grip will result in more of a mid-back, LAT-focused row. 


You can apply these rules to most rows, and you’ll be targeting that upper back with the row. 


Now let’s get more specific. Which upper back row variations are THE BEST for building a chiseled upper back? 


Here are some of my favorites. 

 

6 BEST Upper Back Row Exercises

1. Seated Cable Row 

Upper Back Row: Seated Cable Row
Upper Back Row: Seated Cable Row

 

The cable machine is a great place to start when it comes to upper back rows, especially if this is a machine you’re familiar with. 


To ensure that you bias your upper back, practice drawing your elbows back. Then, lift them slightly up–as far as they will go. 


Once you get your elbows into that lifted position, you can know you’re in the prime position to target your upper back in this upper back row. 

 

How to Do This Upper Back Row Exercise 

1) Fix a lat bar with stirrup handles on each side to the seated cable machine, and grab it with a neutral grip. 


2) Row the attachment in towards your chest, keeping your elbows flared at about a 30-40-degree angle. 


3) Bring your shoulder blades together with this motion. 


4) Slowly return back to the starting position, allowing your shoulder blades to slide forward for the full extension at the end. 


While this upper back row variation is effective, the seated cable row does provide less stability than other upper back rows with some chest support. I’ll explore some more exercises with increased stability below. 

 

2. Chest Supported Upper Back Row

Upper Back Row Machine: Chest Supported Row
Upper Back Row Machine: Chest Supported Row

 

The chest supported upper back row is clutch because the chest support brings stability to your movement. And with more stability, the higher your gains will be! 


To set up on this upper back row machine, adjust the chest pad vertically, so it hits just below your chest. Then horizontally–making sure your arms are fully extended and not bent.  


How to Do This Upper Back Row Exercise 

1) Find a chest supported row machine at your gym, and load the appropriate weight. 


2) Pull the handles towards you–using the chest pad as a support. 


3) With this motion, drive your shoulder blades together, keeping your elbows wide to target your upper back. 


4) Pause briefly at the contraction. 


5) Then, release slowly, returning to the starting position–letting your shoulder blades get a full stretch forward at the bottom. 


Think about driving your chest into the pad, so you’re not leaning back too much. It’s okay to arch your back slightly through this movement–keeping your chest upright. 

 

3. Bent Over Barbell Row 

Upper Back Row: Bent Over Barbell Row
Upper Back Row: Bent Over Barbell Row

 

If you’re more of a barbell kind of person, this upper back row could be for you. With no chest pad, this one’s got a bit less support and stability than a chest supported upper back row. 


BUT that barbell helps provide some form stability throughout the exercise. 

 

How to Do This Upper Back Row Exercise 

1) Load up a barbell with your desired weight. 


2) Now, grip the barbell with an overhand grip–slightly wider than shoulder-width apart for that upper back focus. 


3) Hinge back at your hips, slightly bending your knees, and lowering the barbell as low as it will go without rounding your back. 


4) Make sure those shoulder blades are fully stretched forward (protracted) at the starting position. 


5) Now, pull the weight up towards your chest, driving your elbows up and keeping them flared. 


6) Squeeze your shoulder blades together at the top. 


7) Then, slowly lower the weight back down to the starting position, fully protracting your scapula.


You’ll feel your lower back and hamstrings fire with this exercise as well, so it has a bit less of a focus on just strictly upper back. 

 

4. Dumbbell Row 

Upper Back Row: Dumbbell Row
Upper Back Row: Dumbbell Row

 

This one’s gonna look real similar to the barbell bent over row. 


The main difference: you’re using dumbbells instead of a barbell. 


And this comes with some pros and cons. 


Pro: You have a higher range of motion. This happens naturally because you won’t get those dumbbells stuck on your torso and chest as you row the weight up. 


Con: Less stability. The natural contour of the barbell locks your form into place a bit more. This form can more easily break down when it comes to a dumbbell row. 


How to Do This Upper Back Row Exercise 

1) Hold a dumbbell in each hand. 


2) Hinge back at your hips, leaning your torso forward, so it forms a 45-degree angle with the floor. 


3) For your starting position, extend your arms fully with the dumbbells in your hands. 


4) Now, row the dumbbells up towards your chest. 


5) Pause at the top, squeezing your shoulder blades. 


6) Then, release and return to the starting position. 


For some variations on this move: 

- You can turn your hands in to neutral position to see how that angle feels. This is a luxury the barbell cannot afford. 


- You can use a bench at an angle as a chest support to add some extra stability to this move. This has a lot of the same benefits at the chest-supported row when you do this.  

 

5. Unilateral Dumbbell Row 

Upper Back Row: Unilateral Dumbbell Row
Upper Back Row: Unilateral Dumbbell Row

 

And one more variation: Let’s try the single-arm or unilateral version of the dumbbell row. 


When you do this, you can fix muscular imbalances in your back and arms. We all have that one side we favor, right? 


Plus, this version helps minimize potential injuries. 

 

How to Do This Upper Back Row Exercise 

1) On a flat bench, place your left knee and left hand flat on the bench, supporting your weight with your right foot on the ground. 


2) Now grab a dumbbell with your right hand.


3) Brace your core, and puff out your chest. 


4) Bring your right arm with the dumbbell as far down into the stretch as you can–fully protracting your scapula. This is the starting position. 


5) Row the weight up to your chest–keeping your elbow out and squeezing your shoulder blades at the top. 


6) Repeat as needed; then it's time to switch sides! 


If using a bench is not your jam, you can also choose to utilize a table or a rack, and just use the opposite arm to support your weight during this upper back row. 

 

6. Meadows / Landmine Row 

For this upper back row, you’ll need to find a landmine attachment at a gym and load it up with the weight you want. 


Just like the unilateral dumbbell row, this one’s also unilateral–meaning it helps you even out both sides of your back

 

How to Do This Upper Back Row Exercise 

1) Stand at a perpendicular angle to a landmine attachment–both feet planted by the weighted end of the attachment. 


2) Now, stagger your stance, bringing the leg closer to the landmine attachment a bit further back. 


3) Rest your non-working arm on the same-side knee. 


4) Use your working arm to grab the bar, and row it up toward your chest. Squeeze that shoulder blade at the top. 


5) Now, slowly return to the starting position. 


6) Repeat as needed, and then go work that other side! 


Pro Tips for Stellar Upper Back Rows 

Now that you’re equipped with the 6 best upper back rows, let’s get into some more specifics about how to really maximize your form. 

 

Pro Tip #1: Keep Good Form in Your Back 

Rowing is all about making your back stronger, more muscular, and healthier. 


But to fully promote back health, that means you wanna keep a neutral spine the ENTIRE TIME you do those upper back rows. 


Lots of people like to load up on the weight during upper back rows. Loading up on appropriate amounts of weight for upper back rows can be a very effective way to achieve muscle growth. 


BUT it stops when the weight starts to compromise the form in your back. So as soon as you feel that back starting to round–stop the exercise and go lighter with the weight. 


Pro Tip #2: Use Straps 

When it comes to rows, grip strength HUGELY impacts how much weight you can row. 


If you’re keeping good form with the amount of weight you’re using, but you find you’re stopping the row prematurely because you just can’t hold on–this means you need some straps, my friend! 


When you use straps, it gives you that extra ability to hold on to that weight–even for just one more rep! This means you can max out your muscles more effectively.  


Pro Tip #3: Squeeze Those Shoulder Blades

Lots of people like to rush through rowing motion during upper back rows–and when you start to rush, one of the first things to go is that shoulder blade squeeze


Without that scapular retraction, you’re not gonna be able to work those rhomboids, delts, or traps quite the same. 


For some people, it helps to think about literally pinching something or holding something between your shoulder blades


Pro Tip #4: Fully Stretch Your Shoulder Forward 

On the way down with the rowing motion–many people also like to stop the row a bit too soon. 


Instead, fully extend those shoulder blades and get a good scapular stretch. So, think about allowing the weight to fully protract each shoulder blade before you row the weight back up. 


This will help you get the most bang for your buck! 

 

Upper Back Rows: Other Resources 

We love a good back workout at Back Muscle Solutions. 


And even more than that–we like healthy backs. 


That’s why we strive to promote THE BEST resources on back health out there. 


Check out some similar articles below: 


“Unleash Shoulders of Steel With the Face Pull: Muscles Worked & Variations”


“Landmine Row Ultimate Guide: How to, Alternatives, And More”


“How to Get Major Gains Using the T Bar Row: Muscles Worked and Variations”


“Gorilla Rows: Get an Enormous Back When You Work These Muscles”



Or check out our back muscle massage device that’s changing people’s back health–the QL Claw

 

Upper Back Rows FAQs

What row hits upper back?

There are many exercise variations you can use for upper back rows–including the 6 in this article. To perform an upper back row, you’ll want to flare those elbows out and row the weight in towards your chest. This will bias your upper back during the movement. 


What row is best for upper back?

My personal favorite is the chest supported upper back row. I like this upper back row machine because the chest pad provides extra stability, which helps you work your back muscles even more and get ripped! 


What muscles does the upper back row machine work?

Muscles worked by the chest supported upper back row machine include the lats, traps, and rhomboids. 


How to target the upper back with cable rows?

To target your upper back with your cable rows, flare out your elbows instead of tucking them. Then, bring them towards your chest rather than driving them towards your hips. 


How do you target your upper back vs lats?

Row high with your elbows out–and you’ll feel that upper back starting to work! 


Are rows for upper back or lats?

Rows can hit either upper, mid, or lower back depending on your positioning and form. 



Sources: 

 

[1] https://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/fulltext/2013/01000/effect_of_grip_width_on_electromyographic_activity.25.aspx


[2] https://journals.lww.com/acsm-healthfitness/fulltext/2019/07000/Do_It_Right__The_Seated_Cable_Row_Exercise.9.aspx 


[3] https://pubs.aip.org/aip/acp/article-abstract/2750/1/020002/3278255/Electromyographic-activation-during-unilateral-and?redirectedFrom=fulltext 



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