If you’ve been in the iron game for more than a few months, you’ve likely heard how the grip you use during rowing exercises can affect back development. Lifters have sought to target the lats with a supinated (i.e. underhand) or neutral (i.e. palms facing each other) grip and target their upper back with a pronated (i.e. overhand) grip during rows. Similarly, a close grip width is often used for the objective of boosting lat involvement while a wide grip width is commonly utilized to emphasize the upper back. In this article, we’re going to discuss the variables that really affect back development from rows, and how to most effectively target the different muscles in your back.
Anatomical Planes and Joint Movements
The ability of grip position to influence which muscles are preferentially trained during a row ultimately stems from how the selected grip affects which actions are occurring at the shoulder joint. Anatomical movements can occur in three planes: sagittal, frontal, and transverse. As a ball and socket joint, the shoulder can move in all three planes.
In the sagittal plane, which divides the midline of the body front to back into symmetrical halves, shoulder flexion occurs as the upper arm is raised in front of the body, while shoulder extension occurs as the upper arm is pulled toward the body’s backside. For example, during a straight arm cable pulldown, the shoulder extends as the arm moves toward the back of the body during the concentric phase, while the shoulder flexes as the arm is raised overhead during the eccentric phase.
In the transverse plane, which divides the body into top and bottom halves, shoulder horizontal flexion (AKA horizontal adduction) occurs as the upper arm is moved toward the midline of the body, while shoulder horizontal extension (AKA horizontal abduction) occurs as the upper arm is moved away from the midline of the body. For example, during a reverse fly with an elastic band, shoulder horizontal extension occurs as the arm moves outwards throughout the concentric phase, while shoulder horizontal flexion occurs as the arm moves inwards throughout the eccentric phase.
In the frontal (AKA coronal) plane, which divides the body into front and back halves, shoulder abduction occurs as the upper arm is moved away from the midline of the body, while shoulder adduction occurs as the upper arm is moved towards the midline of the body. For example, during a cable lateral raise, shoulder abduction occurs as the arm is raised out to the side during the concentric phase, while shoulder adduction occurs as the arm is lowered during the eccentric phase.
The Effect of Grip on Shoulder Joint Actions during Rows
The grip width used during a row does not directly determine which back muscles are preferentially targeted; however, it may influence the type of movement that occurs at the shoulder joint, which can influence the primary musculature being used. As the angle of shoulder abduction used for a row decreases (i.e. elbows become closer to the trunk), a row will involve more shoulder extension, while more shoulder horizontal extension will occur as the angle of shoulder abduction increases (i.e. elbows flare out).
With a close grip, you may be more likely to have your elbows pinned close to your sides and primarily perform shoulder extension. If you maintain a position of 0° of shoulder abduction in the frontal plane during a row, shoulder movement will be exclusively comprised of extension in the sagittal plane. A row with anywhere between 0-30° of shoulder abduction can be considered to be shoulder extension-dominant.
In contrast, with a wide grip, you may be more likely to have your elbows flared out and primarily perform shoulder horizontal extension. If you maintain a position of 90° of shoulder abduction in the frontal plane during a row, shoulder movement will be exclusively comprised of horizontal extension in the transverse plane. A row with anywhere between 90-60° of shoulder abduction can be considered to be shoulder horizontal extension-dominant.
While rowing with 45° of shoulder abduction, equal parts shoulder extension and shoulder horizontal extension will occur as the shoulder moves through the sagittal and transverse planes in balanced proportions.
As with grip width, the decision to utilize either a pronated, supinated, or neutral grip will only affect preferential activation of different back muscles if it alters which types of movement occur at the shoulder joint. For instance, during a wide grip shoulder horizontal extension row, a pronated grip may be the most comfortable and practical to use, while a neutral grip can only be used with a specialized attachment, and a supinated grip is physically impossible for this variation (unless you’ve got some really freaky wrist mobility). When the hands are free to move during a row, such as when utilizing a cable machine with a rope attachment, a close grip can also be used to perform a pronated or neutral grip shoulder horizontal extension row.
Any of the three grip types can be used to perform a close grip shoulder extension row, though the supinated or neutral grip may feel more natural and comfortable.
How the Back Muscles are Affected by Shoulder Movement
Shoulder extension and shoulder horizontal extension are primarily performed by different muscles, so the degree to which you perform each joint movement during a row will consequently affect the degree to which these back muscles are trained. However, the concept of targeting either the lats or upper back muscles is only part of the larger picture that can be painted by exploring the functions of the back musculature. For the purpose of this article, I will define upper back muscles as muscles whose majority of muscle fibers attach to the back surface of the scapula (i.e. shoulder blade), which excludes the lats. As the widest muscle in the human body, the lats’ expansive bony origin sites descend as low the pelvis and as high as the lowest tip of the scapula (9). Given that only a minuscule proportion of its muscle fibers attach to the lowest part of the scapula, I will not consider the lats to be part of the upper back.
Note that our examination of upper back muscles will exclude the intrinsic muscles of the back, whose largest muscle group is the erector spinae. These muscles, which run along the entire length of the spine, primarily stabilize the spine and are certainly recruited during standing bent-over rows, but they are a topic of their own for another day (10, 23).
Shoulder horizontal extension is primarily produced during a row by the deltoid’s posterior (i.e rear) head and three of the four muscles comprising the rotator cuff, namely the teres minor, infraspinatus, and supraspinatus (16). While these rotator cuff muscles would rarely be included in a list of the top 25 sexiest muscles, they play a pivotal role in stabilizing the shoulder joint (29). Consequently, developing the teres minor, infraspinatus, and supraspinatus can help a lifter develop all-around strength while potentially improving his/her likelihood of staying healthy.
During a row, shoulder extension is primarily produced by the latissimus dorsi, teres major, and posterior head of the deltoid (1, 16). To a lesser extent, the teres minor can also assist in extending the shoulder, although it is better suited to perform shoulder horizontal extension (1, 16).
The teres major, deltoid’s posterior head, teres minor, infraspinatus, and supraspinatus all originate on the back surface of the scapula above the origin of the lats. Consequently, a shoulder extension-dominant row will preferentially target the lats and one upper back muscle (i.e. teres major) to a greater degree than a shoulder horizontal extension-dominant row. On the other hand, a shoulder horizontal extension-dominant row will preferentially target three other upper back muscles (i.e. teres minor, infraspinatus, and supraspinatus) to a greater degree than a shoulder extension-dominant row.
Given that the deltoid’s posterior head can meaningfully function as both a shoulder extensor and shoulder horizontal extensor, it will be effectively trained during either type of row. However, it is quite plausible that a shoulder horizontal extension-dominant row could yield somewhat greater development of this muscle. The deltoid’s posterior head has greater leverage for producing shoulder horizontal extension than shoulder extension, and it has greater leverage for producing shoulder horizontal extension than any other muscle in the human body (16). In contrast, the teres major and possibly the lats (contradictory research findings exist) have greater leverage for producing shoulder extension than the posterior deltoid (1, 16).
While the teres minor can also contribute to shoulder horizontal extension and shoulder extension to a lesser degree, the infraspinatus and supraspinatus lack the capacity to aid in extending the shoulder in the sagittal plane, so they will not be trained to a large extent by a shoulder extension row (1, 16). Similarly, the lats and teres major have close to non-existent leverage for horizontally extending the shoulder during a row and will consequently not be adequately strengthened during a shoulder horizontal extension row (16).
Primarily due to the lats being the largest back muscle, a shoulder extension-dominant row can effectively train more overall muscle mass than a shoulder horizontal extension-dominant row (13, 28). Nevertheless, the rotator cuff muscles are greater in size than many people may realize, so a shoulder horizontal extension row still preferentially targets a sizeable amount of muscle. According to two studies, the combined volume of the teres minor, infraspinatus, and supraspinatus has been measured to be 55-67% of the volume of the lats and teres major together (13, 28). The teres minor and supraspinatus are slightly smaller and larger, respectively, than the fairly small teres major, but the infraspinatus is a sizable muscle, along with the posterior head of the deltoid (4, 13, 28). In fact the combined volume of these two primary shoulder horizontal extensor muscles has been measured to be essentially equivalent (ranging from slightly lower to mildly higher) to the volume of the lats (4, 13, 28). Much to my surprise and likely yours as well, the lats have actually been consistently measured by three separate MRI studies to have a lower volume than the deltoid when accounting for all three of its heads (4, 13, 28). The research from which all of this data on muscle size was obtained did not assess subjects who regularly performed resistance training, so the proportional size differences among muscles for experienced lifters may differ from the findings of these studies. To my knowledge, a detailed examination of upper body muscle size in experienced lifters unfortunately has yet to be conducted, so information derived from general population subjects is currently the highest quality available evidence.
How the Back Muscles are Affected by Scapular Movement
The other muscles that constitute the upper back, namely the trapezius, rhomboids, and levator scapulae, do not cross the shoulder joint and consequently cannot directly perform shoulder extension or shoulder horizontal extension. Rather, the recruitment of these muscles will be dictated by the type of scapular motion which occurs during a row.
The trapezius, rhomboid major, and rhomboid minor will be prime movers during scapular retraction (i.e. squeezing the shoulder blades back and together) (21).
While scapular retraction can be incorporated into nearly any type of row, you can preferentially target these muscles by loading them through a full range of motion. To do so, you can end the eccentric phase of a row in a position of scapular protraction (i.e. where your shoulder blades are pulled forwards) and emphasize full scapular retraction at the end of the concentric phase. If you opt to return your scapula to a neutral position rather than protracting them at the end of the eccentric phase, you will be training your trapezius and rhomboids at shorter muscle lengths through a lower range of motion. This could be akin to performing half squats as opposed to full squats for glute development. While hypertrophy may be induced by any type of squat with a sufficient volume and intensity, full squats (with a peak knee flexion angle of 140°) train the gluteus maximus in a more stretched position and yield greater growth of this muscle than partial squats (with a peak knee flexion angle of 90°) (15). So too may the trapezius and rhomboids experience the same benefit of stretch-mediated hypertrophy by loading them in a lengthened position of scapular protraction each rep. Some people may find that they can most effectively utilize this technique when performing rows with moderate to light loads given that full control of scapular motion can be more challenging when using relatively heavy loads.
An additional stimulus can be provided to these muscles by immediately following up a set of rows with pure scapular retraction reps. When a row can no longer be performed due to fatigue, strength of other prime movers rather than the trapezius and rhomboids may be the limiting factor. If your scapular retractor muscles are not the limiting factor during a multi-joint row, you can perform isolated scapular retraction directly after a set of rows to ensure that these muscles are maximally stimulated. This technique, along with utilizing full scapular protraction and retraction during each rep of rows, can readily be performed with a shoulder horizontal extension-dominant row or a shoulder extension-dominant row as demonstrated in the accompanying videos.
Regardless of the type of shoulder movement which occurs during a row, the trapezius and rhomboids will be trained when the scapula is retracted. Nonetheless, it is possible that some individuals may achieve better activation of these muscles during a shoulder horizontal extension row than a shoulder extension row. When shoulder movement is performed in isolation (i.e. not as part of a row), the trapezius and rhomboid major (rhomboid minor was not assessed) have been measured to be more active on average during shoulder horizontal extension than shoulder extension (2, 8). Similarly, somewhat greater activation of the trapezius has been measured to occur during single joint shoulder horizontal extension than a neutral grip shoulder extension row where untrained subjects were not instructed to actively retract the scapula (3). This may arise from people, particularly those with limited experience actively training scapular movement, being naturally more likely to perform a greater degree of scapular retraction during shoulder horizontal extension than shoulder extension. If a similar trend occurs when performing a row, some lifters who are not consciously focusing on scapular movement may also be more inclined to retract the scapula during a shoulder horizontal extension row and train their trapezius and rhomboids more effectively. However, similar activation of the trapezius has been measured to occur when performing a shoulder horizontal extension-dominant pronated wide grip row, shoulder extension-dominant neutral close-grip row, and pronated close-grip row with a fairly even balance of shoulder horizontal extension and shoulder extension (12). A supinated close-grip shoulder extension-dominant row and a pronated close-grip row with approximately even proportions of shoulder extension and shoulder horizontal extension have also been measured to produce comparable activation of the trapezius (30).
Data obtained by using electromyography [EMG] to measure muscle activation during different movements is more valuable than no data at all when the anatomy of a muscle does not clearly indicate if it will be trained more effectively during one exercise compared to another. However, the scope of practical conclusions which can be drawn from this type of research is limited in part due to the phenomenon known as “cross-talk,” where the EMG value from one muscle partially reflects the electrical activity of an adjacent muscle. Furthermore, surface EMG cannot be used to measure the activation of a muscle which lies underneath another, such as the rhomboid minor, which is situated beneath the trapezius. Even if an EMG study reports that a muscle is more active during one exercise compared to another, this snapshot finding does not necessarily mean that the exercise that yields greater EMG activation will produce greater hypertrophy of the measured muscle during an actual block of training. One example relates to the aforementioned difference between using full or half squats for inducing glute hypertrophy. EMG research has reported the gluteus maximus to be substantially more active during an isometric back squat with a knee flexion angle of 90° (half squat) or 20° (not even a quarter squat) than 140° (full squat) (18). Despite these EMG findings, the full squat group in a different study experienced three times as much gluteus maximus growth as the half squat growth after 10 weeks of actual resistance training (15). For a deeper dive into the utility of EMG research, you can check out Dan Ogborn’s article on Stronger By Science.
To my knowledge, no resistance training study has been conducted which examines trapezius and/or rhomboid hypertrophy after performing a mesocycle of shoulder extension-dominant or shoulder horizontal extension-dominant rows. Presently it is unclear whether the type of grip or shoulder movement utilized while rowing affects the training stimulus presented to these muscles if a lifter intentionally protracts and retracts the scapula to the same degree during different variations. In light of this uncertainty, I recommend that you employ the full scapular protraction and retraction technique with different row variations to subjectively assess if you feel a more vigorous contraction of the trapezius and rhomboids with one style of rowing compared to another.
Scapular elevation (i.e. shrugging) is primarily produced by the levator scapulae and trapezius (9). In contrast to scapular retraction where all regions of the trapezius have been measured to be quite active, the lower region of the trapezius is not meaningfully involved during scapular elevation, which is to be expected from the direction of its muscle fibers (3, 11, 19). The most direct way to train scapular elevation is, unsurprisingly, with any type of shrug variation, but scapular elevation can also be trained during some row variations.
During a seal row or seated machine row, the line of resistive torque will be applied perpendicular to your trunk position and scapular retraction can be effectively loaded, but no external resistance will be applied against scapular elevation. However, as the line of resistive torque becomes closer to being parallel with your trunk position during a row, greater resistance can be applied to scapular elevation. Consequently, as your trunk position becomes more upright during a free weight row where the line of resistive torque is directed downwards, scapular elevation can be loaded to a greater degree.
Of all the back muscles, the trapezius is the second largest, with a mass that is over 80% of the lats (27). The rhomboids and levator scapulae are noticeably smaller, with a combined mass of these three muscles equivalent to a little over half of the trapezius (27). Approximately half of the muscle constituting the trapezius is found within its lower region, while the middle region contains slightly more than a quarter, and the upper region contains slightly less than a quarter (14). Due to this distribution, scapular retraction will effectively train a greater amount of muscle mass than scapular elevation. Both for the efficiency of targeting more muscle and for longevity, I recommend that most lifters focus on training scapular retraction rather than scapular elevation during their rows.
In addition to functioning as a scapular retractor, the lower trapezius plays a pivotal role, along with the upper trapezius, in rotating the scapula to enable safe and effective shoulder movement, particularly when nearing an overhead position (14). As the arm elevates, motion occurs not only at the glenohumeral (i.e. shoulder) joint but also at the scapula (20). The importance of scapular rotation for full shoulder movement can be readily observed if you consciously depress your scapula into a packed position while attempting to elevate your arm via shoulder flexion or abduction. When the scapula cannot freely move, shoulder range of motion is severely limited. Individuals experiencing neck pain and shoulder impingement have been measured to have impaired strength and activation of the lower trapezius on the injured side, and those with shoulder impingement have also been found to exhibit a high upper trapezius to lower trapezius activation ratio (5, 6, 7, 22, 24, 25). Correlation does not equate to causation, so it is presently unclear whether directly strengthening the lower trapezius can contribute to a reduced risk of injury. Nonetheless, prioritizing scapular retraction, which strengthens the entire trapezius, over scapular elevation, which neglects the lower trapezius, may be worthwhile to promote balanced back development and address a common strength discrepancy. To be clear, I am not advocating that you avoid training scapular elevation, but rather that you should account for the overall context of your training to determine which focus will provide the greatest benefit for you.
Because different types of rows have their own distinct advantages in terms of preferential muscle involvement, no single way to row can be considered superior to another in isolation. Rather, your priorities and the overall context of the rest of your training will determine which variations are best suited for a particular training session. Additionally, it is important to consider the other functions of the back muscles that are trained during rows. Notably, the lats and teres major also function as primary shoulder adductors, while the supraspinatus also functions as a primary shoulder abductor (1, 16). This means that vertical pull variations (even those where minimal shoulder extension occurs, such as pronated grip pullups) can effectively train the lats and teres major, and lateral raises will effectively train the supraspinatus.
The levator scapulae also functions as a cervical extensor, along with a handful of intrinsic back muscles, so it can be directly trained with any type of neck extension exercise (26). Additionally, the infraspinatus and teres minor are the two strongest shoulder external rotators in the body, so a face-pull, during which the shoulder simultaneously externally rotates and horizontally extends, will effectively train both primary functions of these muscles (17).
Exercise selection does not need to be an “either-or” scenario where you exclusively choose to perform a single type of row, and a combination of different variations is often optimal. No two individuals will respond identically to the same exercise, and how a single person is affected by a given movement can change over time as training experience and lifestyle factors change. However, if you prefer to utilize a more minimalist exercise selection and want to maximize the benefit you receive when selecting a single type of row for a period of time, there are certain situations when one type of row likely provides greater advantages than another.
For instance, I would recommend a:
- Shoulder horizontal extension-dominant row if you are also performing a type of vertical pull (e.g. lat pulldown or pullup) or single joint shoulder extension movement (e.g. straight arm cable pulldown or machine pullover) but are not performing a movement that trains shoulder horizontal extension or shoulder external rotation (e.g. face-pulls, rear delt flies, or band pull aparts).
- Shoulder extension-dominant row if you are not also performing a type of vertical pull but are already performing a movement that trains shoulder horizontal extension or shoulder external rotation.
- Row with an even balance of shoulder extension and shoulder horizontal extension if you are just performing a single back exercise.
- Row with a scapular retraction focus, unless you are already performing a moderately high volume of direct scapular retraction exercise.
At the end of the day, you should focus on the type of shoulder movement and scapular movement you perform during a row. The type of grip you select is merely a means to an end. The grip you select may affect how you perform these movements, which can meaningfully affect which muscles are predominantly targeted when training rows.
The anatomical plane and intrinsic back muscle anatomy images were published by “OpenStax,” are licensed as a Creative Commons work, and can be found here.
All other muscle anatomy images were published by “BodyParts3D, © The Database Center for Life Science,” are licensed as Creative Commons works, and can be found at here.
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