What are Cable Rows? (A guide to a bigger back)

What are cable rows

What are cable rows?

In this article, we will look into the muscles activated with cable rows, the benefits of adding them to your programme, how to perform the movement and the variations available. But first, what are cable rows?

Cable rows are a resistance exercise performed on a cable row machine or a cable pulley station. As the name suggests, they are a rowing movement, so the target muscles are in the mid and upper back. 

Which muscles are worked with cable rows?

Muscles worked with cable row

The main target muscles for a cable row are the lats and rhomboids in the mid-back. The traps and rear deltoids can also be classed as primary movers as they support the lats to a high degree by bringing the shoulders together at the top of the movement.

There are a lot of other muscles that come into play with cable rows as secondary movers or stabilisers. The biceps aid with the pulling of the bar by flexing the elbow joint, whereas the triceps and pectoral muscles stabilize the movement. 

Forearms come into play to help with gripping the bar and the spinal erectors keep the back in a rigid position. 

As you can see by the amount of muscle activation, the cable row is a much more complex and involved exercise than the simple movement would suggest. There are few better exercises for developing the upper back for both strength and hypertrophy. 

What are the advantages of adding cable rows to my routine?

Every exercise programme that involves resistance training should have a variety of pressing and pulling movements. This makes sure that the entire body is strong, healthy and has good aesthetic appeal. 

Cable rows are the ultimate back exercise to add to your routine as you can adjust the height and grip to activate virtually all of the muscles in the back. 

Strength trainers benefit from adding cable rows as they can develop strength in the lats, rhomboids, and spinal erectors. These muscles assist with the pulling lifts used in competitions such as deadlifts and cleans. 

Bodybuilders can use cable rows to promote hypertrophy in the back and achieve the 'v taper' or 'Christmas tree' effect. 

Even casual trainers can benefit from regular cable rows. Having a strong back helps with posture and prevents back injury. 

Cable rows are one of the easiest back exercises to perform. The cable row station allows you to use very little resistance and work your way up to heavier loads. By using progressive overload in this way, you will get a stronger and healthier upper back.

How do I do a cable row?

To perform a cable row of any variation you will need a cable row machine or a cable station at your gym. There are various attachments you can use to perform the row movement and different angles that you can row from to target different parts of the back. 

Before performing any resistance exercise, make sure that you are thoroughly warmed up and ready. This means doing the following first...
  • Get blood into the muscle. A good way to do this in preparation for cable rows is to jump on a rowing machine for a few minutes. Do not exhaust yourself, but get the muscle activated.
  • By warming up on a rowing machine, you are also warming up the shoulder joints and spine. This is essential to avoid injury.
  • The final step is to perform some stretches. Make sure that you stretch the spinal erectors at the lower back as these are particularly prone to injury. 

Below we will take a look at the standard cable row with a V-bar as well as other variations. 

Cable row.

The standard cable row targets the mid and upper back. The activated muscles used as primary movers are the lats, rhomboids, mid traps, and rear delts. This makes it a great 'all round' back exercise for adding thickness and mass. 

How do I do a cable row

  1. Set up your cable pulley on a low setting with a V bar attachment and select your weight from the stack. Start with a low weight and pyramid up to your working sets. 
  2. Place your feet on the footplate and grip the handles of the bar. 
  3. Take the strain on the bar with outstretched arms and straighten the spine. Keep your legs slightly bent at the knee for stability. This is your starting position. 
  4. Keeping a straight back and your elbows in, row the bar to your ribcage.
  5. Hold this position for a second or two and squeeze the lats.
  6. Slowly release the bar back to the starting position. 
  7. Repeat for the required number of reps and sets breathing out as you row towards you and in as you perform the negative motion. Use strict form for maximum benefit and to avoid injury. If you can not use quick form and controlled motion, you are training too heavy. 
There are a few different variations of the V-bar. As long as you have a neutral grip with your hands close together and elbows tucked in, they all do the same thing. 

Wide grip cable row.

The wide grip cable row is another exercise performed on a cable row machine. It is effectively the same as a standard cable row, but instead of using a narrow V-bar, you are using a wide grip bar. 

How do I do a wide grip row

By using a wide grip, you are placing more emphasis on the lats and traps and taking the strain away from the rhomboids. Many people use a wide grip cable row to train the rear delts and traps by rowing to the upper chest instead of the ribcage. 

It is worth mixing in different grips and angles to attack the muscles from all angles and break down as many fibres as possible. Using a narrow cable row and rear delt cable row as a superset is a great way to obliterate the upper back. 

Other variations of cable rows. 

There are numerous other ways to perform cable rows. Rowing from a high pulley position is a great way to target the lats without putting too much stress on the rhomboids. 

A hammer grip bar provides a neutral grip and is great for squeezing the lats at the top of the movement, and an underhand grip is good for bringing the biceps into a higher degree and adding thickness to the lats. 

Alternatives to cable rows.

If you do not have a cable row machine in your gym, you can perform all of the above exercises on a standard pulley station. Just set the pulley to a low pin, attach a bar, sit on the floor with your feet resting against the base of the machine, and row away. 

If you do not have a cable row machine, a lat row machine, or a cable station, consider one of the following exercises as an alternative. 

Bent over row
Lat pulldown
Dumbbell row

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