The inverted row is staple for any goal: size, strength, athleticism, or structural balance. Here are 14 challenging ways to do it.
If you can bench press your bodyweight ten times but can’t do the strict inverted row ten times, then your relative strength sucks, and so does your back development… probably.
Every time you do an extra set of bench presses without also adding an extra set of horizontal rows, you’re becoming more structurally unbalanced. Not only will your body start letting you down, it’ll actually refuse to build size and strength in the exercises or muscles you care about most.
If you’re structurally unbalanced, the muscles pulling your shoulders and scapula in one direction are proportionally weaker than the muscles pulling them in the opposite direction.
This not only includes your prime movers, like your pecs versus your mid-traps, but your shoulder stabilizers as well. Your muscles need to be strong in all directions. And arguably, it’s the ones you see the least that need the most attention.
Bottom line? You need to be doing more horizontal pulls and rows to even that out. Inverted rows are your prescription. Pick one of these options and get to work.
Rings allow your shoulders to move more freely and use any grip or angle you like. You can stick with one grip throughout the pulling motion or give it a twist… literally. When doing this for the first time, go with whichever grip feels the most natural.
You want the grip to feel good so you can place more attention on keeping your hips straight and locked out.
For the hardest option, start with your feet on a bench. To go easier, bend your knees and plant your feet on the floor. For the easiest option, stand more upright.
The next step to making them even harder is adding a weighted vest or some chains.
Cuffed inverted rows work best using rings or a suspension trainer. That’s because, unlike many scenarios where a booty band is misapplied, here it actually does something.
The booty band is constantly pulling your arms toward each other. Imagine that happening while tracking the action of the row.
As your arms are closer in, there’s more of a pull of your shoulders towards internal rotation. That means your external rotators have to resist.
As your arms are further away, there’s more emphasis on resisting horizontal adduction. That means your shoulder horizontal abductors are working harder, too.
Basically, at various points of the row, the muscles you need to be working more often are getting a big wake-up call. Use cuffed inverted rows to hit your external rotators, rear delts, and back.
Bars are stiff. Stiffness will give you more control. With more control and support, you’re able to get your body organized easier and focus on your back working. This is better for those who would otherwise struggle with using something unstable like Olympic rings.
On the other hand, a stiff bar also means less freedom for your shoulders and wrists, which means more wear and tear potential due to suboptimal joint alignment.
Experiment with different grip widths and rowing angles to see which works best. You can even try using an extra-wide grip for more rhomboids emphasis.
Using an underhand grip may be the most comfortable grip when using a straight bar. Your elbows will be less likely to flare out, and you might be able to lift yourself up further.
You’ll get a little more bicep activation, but the rowing angle might also allow you to get full scapula retraction at the top and greater mid and lower trap activation. Tucking your elbows in will work your lats a little harder, too.
Grab a battling rope and throw it over your pull-up bar. Now you’ve got yourself some pretty badass-looking inverted rows that wouldn’t be out of place in any program.
The grip and wrist angles are specific to a lot of sport and daily movements, and the thickness of the rope will have your forearms working like you need them to. To make them even more challenging, look for thicker ropes (on Amazon).
Rope climb inverted rows are an ideal choice to improve your performance for military, fire and rescue, law enforcement, and Spartan race events. Don’t underestimate how difficult these are, especially for your grip and forearm strength.
Begin with your feet on the floor and allow your legs to help out a little. To make them harder, elevate your feet on a bench and use a weighted vest. Chalk up if needed.
Bar pads are a good way to modify the range of motion. Just as you can bench press with a bar pad to save a cranky shoulder from a painful range of motion, you can do the same with rows and inverted rows.
If you struggle to get your chest all the way to the bar, the pad means you don’t need to worry about that last inch for now. It gives you a closer target for your chest to hit until, eventually, you can do it without the pad.
Want to make things harder? Add an NT Loop (on Amazon) to the lift. While you might argue that using a resistance band in this scenario will make the hardest part of the row even harder, you also forget that sometimes more “optimal” loading options aren’t in the cards.
If you can’t add weight to your inverted rows because you don’t have a weighted vest, or placing a weight across your hips is uncomfortable, a band can be the next best way to make them more challenging. There are also some scenarios where you might actually want to be loading the top of the row even more. Context is key.
If you enjoy kicking your own ass or take pleasure in seeing your training partner squirm, try performing drop sets. Start with a heavy weight across your hips, then strip it off as you start failing. You can even put your feet on the floor and bend your knees to knock out some extra reps.
The Swiss bar is one of the most underused pieces of kit, not just for bench and floor pressing, but for things like push-ups, overhead presses, and rows.
You can also use the Swiss bar (on Amazon) for inverted rows. This allows you to row with a fixed neutral grip with the choice of different grip widths. Use the narrowest grip to really hammer your forearms and upper arms. Use wider grips to target different areas of your back.
Fat bars are great for curls and presses, but with rows, your performance can often be limited by a lack of forearm and grip strength. To turn those weaknesses into strengths, use a fat bar for inverted rows.
If you don’t have a thick bar, put some Fat Gripz (on Amazon) on your straight bar, or even wrap a towel around the bar to thicken the grip and increase the challenge. Using a narrower grip will also help add some meat to your forearms and upper arms.
Trap bars come in various designs with different lengths and grip widths. Not all work for inverted rows, but those that do offer some unique benefits to your back and shoulder health.
The trap bar offers an element of instability, which depending on how you angle the bar, can challenge your stability in certain planes of motion. The standard setup allows the trap bar to move in the sagittal plane (forward and backward).
What’s termed the “longitudinal method,” as popularized by Dr. Joel Seedman, would mean setting the trap bar up length-wise to your body where your grip would be on the front and back of the bar with it able to move side to side. Pick the method that’s best aligned with your goals.
If you’re all show and no go, then you have no business trying this. Stick to the basics and do your inverted rows using rings or a straight or Swiss bar.
If, however, you’re training to be an elite fighter, for man-handling sports such as rugby, or for tactical strength and conditioning, then grab a kettlebell and try this.
All you’ll need is the strap from your Olympic rings or even a long daisy chain. Attach that to your pull-up bar, then hang your kettlebell from it. A larger kettlebell will be the hardest to grip, while a smaller one will be easier to start with.
The hanging kettlebell method can be used to challenge your grip and forearms one side at a time while also working your entire back and posterior chain.
Pick the size of kettlebell that feels best and works your grip the right way. Row yourself up with some power, allowing your hips to help out a little. Have your other arm free and return your elbow to the floor.
Or you can even add some form of dumbbell, kettlebell, or band press on this side for a combined pull-push motion. For tactical strength and conditioning and grappling sports, these beat the basic inverted rows.
If you lack relative strength, inverted rows will feel tough, but they can also be performed more frequently than a lot of other exercises. This means you can improve fast.
If your back is lagging, start out with as much as 9-12 sets per week of inverted rows, but spread them out over 3-5 days. You might do 3-4 sets on three of your workouts, or just a few sets 4-6 days each week.
If you feel your back strength is up to par, then just 4-8 sets each week will be more than enough. Stick with one or two variations for 4-6 workouts before changing it up.
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