The bodyweight row is an exercise that you may not see bodyweight athletes doing in fancy videos or promotional content, but truth be told, when it comes to getting stronger, they are one of the few exercises that can help boost your athletic ability further than other exercises.
Not only does the bodyweight row require a deep amount of core strength and structural integrity, but it places your posterior chain in a sequence that will help boost your strength in other exercises like the pull-up and deadlift.
The biggest downfall to the bodyweight row is that there really isn’t any glory to it.
Unlike many exercises that look epic and impressive, the bodyweight row (sometimes called the Australian row) is relatively easy and can be completed by nearly any athlete.
For this reason, some people may want to avoid the bodyweight row, but you shouldn’t!
The bodyweight row is an exercise that needs to be in your workout regime.
If you have plans for bodyweight mastery or just want to improve your pulling strength, the bodyweight row is a must in your workout program.
In this detailed guide, we are going to walk you through the most important concepts you need to know about the bodyweight row.
Let’s get started.
What Is Bodyweight Row?
First things first – what exactly is a bodyweight row?
You can check out this video for a visual overview of a bodyweight row, but the actual movement is quite simple.
A bodyweight row is a pulling motion where your feet are planted on the ground, and your objective is to pull your body closer to a bar or suspension trainer using the big muscles in your back and arms.
Think of completing a barbell row – these are the same muscles that you will want to utilize during a bodyweight row.
Some athletes may prefer to use a stationary bar to complete the bodyweight row.
For example, you can use a traditional smith machine, arrange yourself under the bar, plant your feet, grab the bar overhead, and pull yourself into the bar using your upper back muscles. In this way, you are completing a bodyweight row.
On the other side of the gym (or at home), another athlete might choose to use gymnastic rings or a suspension trainer to complete their bodyweight row.
The actual object you are using to “row” will make a difference.
While gymnastic rings and suspension trainers are free-moving objects – they will be slightly more complicated.
Since the smith machine or straight bar is a stationary object, it could be easier to complete – which could also be better for completing more repetitions (see more about this below).
What Muscles Are Used in the Bodyweight Row?
The bodyweight row is an exercise that uses a large amount of the muscles in your back and posterior chain.
To complete this exercise correctly, you will need to keep your body aligned and connected.
For this reason, we have broken down the muscles for this exercise into stability muscles and strength muscles.
These are the muscles that keep you aligned during your training.
In other words, while completing the bodyweight row, you must maintain a connected posture and a relatively straight line.
The muscles of your hips and deep shoulder will be responsible for the maintenance of the correct posture.
Engaging your gluteus maximus will help to posteriorly tilt the pelvis to allow the best possible posture and translatable strength to other exercises like the deadlift.
In the same way, your stability muscles in the posterior shoulder, like the trapezius and teres major, will help to ensure that your shoulder (and scapula) is in its correct position on every repetition.
Muscles that act as prime movers will always be the foundation of your success in any exercise – but especially a bodyweight movement like the row.
The bodyweight row will utilize the large muscles of the upper back.
Muscles like the latissimus dorsi will allow you to contract in scapular retraction while the rhomboids will help to ensure a complete contraction and lock-out at the end range of motion.
In any pulling exercise, you will be engaging in flexion at the elbow – which means you will start to develop strength in the biceps.
Depending on the amount of resistance on the row, you may also find that grip strength will start to develop, meaning you are training the flexor muscles of the wrist.
Although the bodyweight row looks like a rather simple exercise, when completed correctly, you will be training many muscles in a very foundational way.
This is an exercise that will help you to progress to more challenging exercises and will serve as a great deloading exercise when your shoulders are tired from completing pull-ups.
Can Rows Help With Pull-ups?
This is a question we get quite often.
This simple answer is yes, but it is a little more complicated than that.
Here are two reasons why completing rows can help to increase your pull-up.
1. Similar Muscles Involved
While completing the pull-ups, you will notice that you are using the same assortment of muscles as that of a bodyweight row.
Although there will be more resistance during a pull-up, starting with a bodyweight row will help your body to develop a foundation of strength and the neural connections for the pulling motions.
2. Great for Recovery Weeks
All athletes should be using recovery weeks – this will help to ensure you are not entering injury territory.
If you are trying to increase your pull-ups (or just want to build strength), you should understand that you cannot be completing a strenuous exercise like this consistently.
Using a similar exercise like the bodyweight row will help to ensure that you are still training the same muscles, but with less resistance.
How to Train Bodyweight Rows
Now that you have a grasp of what a bodyweight row is and what some of the benefits are, it’s time to start thinking about how you can implement them into your training program.
Step 1: Understand Reps and Sets
Every exercise will use slightly different reps and set schemes.
While a heavy exercise like the deadlift will be best performed at a low rep and high set scheme, exercises that are light like the bodyweight row will benefit from a higher rep count and a lower set count.
This will allow you to max out the number of reps you have in a set and will enable you to maintain a higher intensity even though your resistance (amount of stress on the muscle) is not very high.
We’d recommend completing rep/set schemes similar to 12x3s.
In other words, you would complete 12 reps (or more) by three sets.
Step 2: Implement Volume and Tempo
Volume and tempo will be the deciding factor for total strength. Reps and sets will only take you so far.
If you are new to training, you must use volume (total amount of reps per workout) and tempo (the time the muscle is under tension) to your advantage.
An exercise like the bodyweight row will be most effective when you can ensure you are completing more than 35 reps per workout while maintaining a relatively slow tempo.
This will help you to best train for exercises like the pull-up while allowing you to ensure you are avoiding overuse/overwork injuries of the shoulder.
Step 3: Use a Variable Environment
This is just a fancy way of saying, make sure you are not always using the same bar or rings for your bodyweight row.
Be sure to get onto different devices or suspension trainers to train your muscles and movements.
Becoming comfortable on an exercise machine can be a good thing, but when we are looking for the best strength long-term in a bodyweight row, we always want to be training in a variable environment.
Dumbbell Row vs. Body Row
Old-school bodybuilders or strength athletes will probably scoff at the idea of a bodyweight row being a good strength exercise.
In some cases, they could be correct, but we prefer to take a complete approach.
Yes, some exercises can be more effective, but you will always find that by using a variety of exercises and exercise equipment – your training will be more comprehensive.
Our suggestion would be to find a balance between both exercises in your workout program.
While the bodyweight row might be more effective for transferring into a pull-up, the dumbbell row might be best for developing balanced pulling strength in both arms.
Bodyweight Row vs. Pull-up
Which is better, the bodyweight row, or the pull-up?
This is a common question, so let’s take some time to answer it correctly.
I want to start by saying that no pulling exercise will beat the pull-up when it comes to pure strength and neural ability.
With that said, the bodyweight row has the advantage of being much easier to progress in.
As a bodyweight athlete, you must consider that many of the exercises you will be completing will require you to progress into a more challenging exercise.
Although the pull-up is excellent for strength, it takes a very long time and a keen eye for programming to progress into more difficult exercises.
In contrast, the bodyweight row has much less resistance (weight being placed on the muscle) and allows you as the trainer to progress into different exercises like the archer row and face pull (ice cream makers).
Nothing Beats the Pullup for Strength
We know that nothing will beat the pull-up when it comes to bodyweight pulling strength. Still, it is essential to have a variability of exercises and utilize low-resistance training as much as possible when you are on a recovery week.
Comparing the pull-up and the bodyweight row is difficult.
The pull-up is better for strength, but the row is better for the average lifter and those who wish to progress quickly in their training.
CSEP-CPT, Expert in Exercise Physiology.
Gabriello is a writer and strength expert best known for his science-based yet practical approach to exercise physiology, nutrition, and strength. After serving in a directors position for The Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology, Gabriello moved towards writing to help more people understand the importance of living a healthy life. Gabriello's articles have been published globally, in several languages, on some of the largest health and fitness websites helping people learn, grow and understand the complex components of optimizing human performance in a simplistic way.
Gabriello also takes on specialized, high-performance athletes who seek strength, mobility, and conditioning. Through individualized and progressive programming he can optimize your fitness through his Earned Fitness program.