Inverted rows are an exercise that I didn’t give much attention to until recently. I figured they were good for beginners who couldn’t do pull-ups (they are, after all, sometimes called “fat man pull-ups”) but that there wasn’t much use for them beyond that for more experienced lifters. However, this summer, I decided to take a break from all lower back intensive rowing. I had hurt my back a little bit and decided I just wanted to give it time to heal. I’m not a big fan of using machines, so this left me primarily with inverted rows as far as horizontal pulls (I still included lots of chin-ups, too).

Lo and behold, I’m really starting to like them. For one, they’re very easy on the lower back. But beyond that, I think they’re actually great for strengthening the upper back and promoting good posture and shoulder health. This is essential for any program to balance all the pressing most lifters do. Furthermore, properly performed rows are a great way to activate and strengthen the lower traps, which are inactive in so many people. Simply put, without rowing, you can pretty much count on shoulder problems down the line. In addition, a strong upper back will have tremendous carryover to other lifts such as squats, bench presses, and deadlifts. Some strength and conditioning programs advocate a ratio of 2:1 or even 3:1 for rowing to pressing. While the ratios may vary, the point doesn’t change—do your rows.

Being a horizontal pull, inverted rows differ in feel quite a bit from pull-ups, and they’re much more shoulder friendly in my opinion. You will often hear of pull-ups aggravating someone's shoulders, but you will rarely hear of rows causing any issues. In fact, rows are usually prescribed as part of a shoulder rehabilitation program. For the most part, I like to do them using blast straps (though a TRX would work well, too), which allow your shoulders to rotate in a more natural path than with a fixed bar (though a bar will work fine as well). Plus, for people who struggle with pull-ups, this is a great way to work on your strength while still getting in enough reps to work the muscles.

Another thing I like about rows is that you can progress and regress very easily, depending on your strength levels. In general:

  • The higher the bar or the straps are off the ground, the easier it will be.
  • Having your feet on the floor will be easier than elevating them.
  • Bent knees are easier than straight legs.

This means that you could start with bent knees with a higher bar and progress to a lower back (just enough to get a full ROM at the bottom of the rep) with legs straight and elevated on a bench. From there, you can add resistance via plates, a weighted vest, or even bands.

However, more experienced athletes may find that these more basic variations are quite boring or simply not challenging enough. This was my big qualm at first, so I started thinking of some more advanced variations to add a greater degree of difficulty. I really love them right now. My low back feels great, my shoulders feel great, and I’m getting stronger. I recommend you try these out.

Here are five fun variations:

Towel rows: Simply drape a small towel over the bar and row. You can adjust the bar height based on your strength level. These will fry your grip and also allow for an awesome contraction when you pull the towel apart at the top. This will also teach you proper rowing form by forcing you to pull back and squeeze your shoulder blades together.

Fingertip rows: This is a harder variation that will absolutely fry your grip because you can only hold on with your fingertips. To perform this exercise, simply suspend a loading pin from a small chain and start rowing. I actually use the chain from my Spud dip belt because it has the carabineers already attached. Again, grip is so vital for many athletes, so these variations can kill two birds with one stone.

Fat Gripz rows: This is yet another variation that puts added emphasis on grip. I’ve also liked adding Fat Gripz to normal exercises to get added grip work in without adding extra time to my workouts. Because I prefer doing inverted rows with blast straps, I decided to combine the two. The Fat Gripz fit perfectly over the straps handles without any slippage. It’s a match made in heaven. This variation will be especially hard for people with smaller hands. (Note: Hard means good. It’s supposed to be hard.)

Unstable rows: I’m not a big stability ball guy, but in this situation, I think it’s a nice change to add some difficulty and force you to stay tight so you don’t shift around, which helps increase core strength. It also forces you to control the reps because if you jerk, the ball will roll (especially important when using straps). Be sure to brace your abs and squeeze your glutes to stay tight.

One-arm rows: I saved the best for last. This is the hardest version of all but probably my favorite. This will fry everything—your back, your grip, and your core. You can start these with your feet on the ground to get used to it and progress to elevating your feet. Be sure to stay very tight through the set and make special note to keep your hips up (by flexing your glutes).

I’ve been surprised at how many gains I’ve made doing rows. I think it would be a good addition for anyone, especially those with low back pain or those who struggle with chin-ups. Before you make the same mistake I did and write this exercise off, try some of these variations for yourself and see how you like them. Be creative and try to come up with your own variations. Enjoy!