Strength & Conditioning

7 Horizontal Pull Exercises For Better Back Strength

horizontal pull exercises

There are many row variations that you can do in the gym and, whether you perform them with free weights, resistance bands, or on a cable machine, they’re essential horizontal pull exercises. 

Horizontal pulling movements recruit several upper body muscle groups at once, including the biceps, rear delts, and lower and upper back muscles promoting overall mid-back development and helping to keep your shoulders healthy. 

single arm cable row

Horizontal pulls are crucial for muscle balance, supporting compound lifts like squats and deadlifts, and they can enhance your posture. 

Stick around to discover some of the best horizontal pulling exercises to help you develop a wider and thicker back while improving your posture and shoulder stability.  

What is a Horizontal Pull Exercise

A horizontal pull exercise, like cable rows, is to pull the weight towards your torso.  

Any form of horizontal pulling retracts your shoulder blades and engages your rhomboids and trapezius muscles attached to your scapula.    

This is different from vertical pulling exercises, such as the lat pulldown which recruits more of your latissimus dorsi or as they’re more commonly known, the lats.  

7 Best Horizontal Pull Exercises To Build A Bigger Back

Many lifestyle factors can have quite a detrimental effect on our posture causing too much overload at the front of our upper body.  

This causes our shoulders to roll forward, weakens certain muscles, and causes others to become overactive.  

By adding in some of our recommended horizontal pull exercises to your back workout, you can encourage engagement of the traps and rhomboids making them stronger.  

Strong upper back muscles can better support your shoulders, neck, and spine.  

This in turn promotes better posture and mobility and helps to prevent issues like shoulder impingement.    

Let’s dive into our proven horizontal pull exercises suitable for all fitness levels.  

1. TRX Row

The TRX row is one of the best bodyweight exercises for working your mid-back muscles.  

As with all exercises, proper form is important to engage the muscles correctly.  

You’ll need to use suspension training equipment to be able to do this exercise.

TRX Row

How To Do The TRX Row:

  1. Stand facing the anchor holding a handle in each hand. 
  2. Lean back and keep your feet flat on the floor. 
  3. Extend your arms fully with your body forming a straight line.  
  4. Walk your feet forward to increase the angle of your body to the floor. 
  5. From this starting position drive your elbows back so that your chest moves towards the handles. 
  6. At the top of the movement squeeze your shoulder blades together and keep your elbows tucked in.  
  7. Use control to lower yourself back down and repeat for around 12 reps.  

Tips For Doing TRX Rows:

  • Maintain shoulder retraction when in the starting position by keeping your shoulders in line with your ears.  
  • Don’t let your hips sag or your lower back arch, make sure your body maintains a straight line throughout. 
  • Work to the entire range of motion only stopping when your hands reach your chest. 
  • Alter the angle of your body to make it more challenging, the lower your upper body is to the floor the more difficult the movement. 

2. Inverted Row

The inverted row is another fantastic horizontal pulling movement that shouldn’t be missed off of your back workout routine.

You can do this on a Smith machine or by using a barbell positioned on a power rack.  

How To Do The Inverted Row

  1. Set the barbell so it’s around waist height.  This allows you to do the exercise with a full range of motion. 
  2. Get yourself under the bar so you’re facing the ceiling and the bar above your chest.
  3. Take hold of the bar with either an overhand or underhand grip, keeping your hands around shoulder width apart. 
  4. Extend your legs straight out and push your heels into the ground.  
  5. Keep your arms fully extended but make sure your shoulders stay in line with your ears.  
  6. Using your back muscles, pull your chest up towards the barbell.  
  7. Pause for 1-2 seconds and slowly lower back to the start. 
  8. Do 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps. 

Tips For Doing Inverted Rows:

  • A common mistake is to curl your upper back towards the barbell.  Keep your head and chest up and pull with your upper back.  
  • Make sure your entire body moves in a fixed plane of motion and keep your hips straight.
  • If you find the exercise too easy you could try elevating your feet on a weight bench
  • On the other hand, if it’s too hard then bend your knees.    

3. TRX Reverse Fly

The horizontal pull movement during a reverse fly is going to put more emphasis on your rear shoulders with assistance from your rhomboids and traps.

Because you’ll need stabilization of the shoulder joints this exercise can be a great way of improving shoulder stability helping with posture.   

How To Do The TRX Reverse Fly

  1. Set your suspension trainer high enough so the handles hand down at hip height.
  2. Take hold of the handles with a neutral grip so your palms face each other.
  3. Lean back and extend your arms until they’re straight with hands in front of your shoulders.
  4. Keeping your back straight, pull the handles out and away so your entire body moves forward. 
  5. At the top of the exercise, you should be forming a ‘T’ position with your body. 
  6. Use control to lower back to the start and repeat for 3 sets of 8 to10 reps. 

Tips For Doing TRX Reverse Fly

  • If you want to make the exercise more challenging, lean back a little more by taking a couple of steps forward. 
  • When you lean back, keep your eyes in line with the top of the suspension trainer. 
  • Keep your hips straight without letting them sag. 

4. Pendlay Row

Horizontal rowing exercises like the Pendlay Row are excellent for increasing Rate of Force Development (RFD) as they demand a rapid and explosive contraction of the back muscles, promoting quick force generation.  

This benefits anyone who wants to improve their athletic performance and strength gains.

It’s one of the best exercises for increasing strength and offers great carry-over to the deadlift.  

The setup for the two exercises is very similar and the Pendlay Row is one of the more popular rowing movements within the powerlifting community.  

How To Do A Pendlay Row:

  1. With your loaded barbell on the ground step up to it so that the bar is above your shoelaces. 
  2. Push your hips back and get into a deadlift position taking hold of the bar with an overhand shoulder-width grip. 
  3. Keep your lats engaged and your torso up. 
  4. Use power to quickly row the barbell up towards your chest. 
  5. Just as quickly lower the bar back to the floor (gravity will help you here!). 

Tips For Doing The Pendlay Row:

  • You can go heavier with this horizontal pull exercise but it’s a good idea to work your way up to it as it requires strict form to prevent injury. 
  • Keep your torso locked in position when doing this movement, it should be just above parallel to the floor. 
  • Try and get the bar to touch your chest if you can. 

5. Dumbbell Bent-Over Row

The dumbbell bent-over row is one of the more versatile horizontal pulling exercises as you can modify it by doing it unilaterally or bilaterally.  

You can adjust the tempo, performing each rep at different speeds.  

You can also adopt different starting positions.  

For example, you can support one leg on a bench, stand with feet together, or try out a split stance.  

It’s also easier when compared to using a barbell as the dumbbells allow you to move in a more natural plane of motion when compared to the fixed path of a barbell.  

supported-dumbbell-bent-over-row

How To Do A Dumbbell Bent-Over Row

  1. Stand upright with a dumbbell in each hand. 
  2. Maintain a neutral spine and push your hips back to hinge your torso forward. 
  3. Keep a slight bend to your knees and allow the weight to hang down with your palms facing each other. 
  4. From here, squeeze your shoulder blades together and row the dumbbells up to your chest.
  5. Pause for a second before using control to lower the dumbbells back down.  

Tips For Doing The Dumbbell Bent-Over Row:

  • Keep your neck in a neutral position and avoid looking up or down.
  • Lower the dumbbells slowly rather than letting them drop.
  • Complete each rep with a full range of motion by bringing the dumbbells to your sides.  

6. Kettlebell Gorilla Row

If you want to minimize stress on your lower back muscles, then the Gorilla Row is one of the best horizontal pull movements you can do.  

You’ll need a pair of kettlebells, and the movement involves alternating the row between sides so it’s also great for addressing any muscle imbalances.  

If you’d to know more about the Kettlebell Gorilla Row; have a read of our article here.  

How To Do The Gorilla Row

  1. With two kettlebells just in front of you adopt a wide-foot stance with your toes pointing out slightly. 
  2. Push your hips back and bend your knees as though squatting. 
  3. Make sure your torso is around parallel to the floor. 
  4. Take hold of the kettlebells and row one kettlebell up towards your chest. 
  5. Lower it back down and immediately repeat by rowing the other kettlebell up. 
  6. Keep alternating in this way until you’ve completed your reps. 

Tips When Doing Kettlebell Gorilla Rows:

  • Hold the kettlebells in a neutral position so that your palms face each other. 
  • Make sure the kettlebells aren’t too far in front as this could impact your form.  

7. Underhand Bent-Over Row (Yates Row)

The Yates Row, sometimes known as the underhand bent-over barbell row, was made popular by Dorian Yates.  

It’s a great muscle-building movement that is going to work your lats, spinal erectors, and lower traps.  

You need to do this exercise with an underhand grip (supinated) which recruits more of your biceps.  

The starting position looks quite similar to the Pendlay Row.  

However, the main difference between the Yates Row and Pendlay Row is the tempo to which you perform the exercise.  

It requires control during the concentric and eccentric phases of the movement, this makes it better for muscle hypertrophy as opposed to explosive power.  

How To Do The Yates Row:

  1. Deadlift the barbell up to a standing position using an underhand, shoulder-width grip.  
  2. Push your hips backward so your torso lowers towards the floor. 
  3. Retract your shoulder blades and raise the bar towards your hip crease.
  4. Pause briefly before using control to lower back to the starting position and repeat. 

Tips For Doing The Yates Row: 

  • Keep your elbows close to your body when performing the exercise. 
  • Focus on squeezing your shoulder blades together at the top of the movement to fully engage your upper back muscles. This helps to establish a good mind-muscle connection.  

Muscles Recruited by Horizontal Pulling Exercises

Horizontal pulling movements work muscles like the middle traps and upper lats, with secondary involvement from the biceps, rhomboids, rear shoulder muscles, and erector spinae.  

Your latissimus dorsi (the lats) is the widest muscle of your back and attaches to the upper arm and around the connective tissue of your lower back.  

Whereas the traps attach to your shoulder blade and spine.  

Both are large muscles and it’s the middle division of each muscle that is recruited during a horizontal pull movement.  

This is because they comprise more horizontal muscle fibers.  

You can place more emphasis on certain muscles by altering the angle of your elbow to the side of your body:

  • A horizontal pull exercise with your elbows tucked in will work more of your lats. 
  • Holding your elbows at a 45-degree angle from your body will recruit more of your mid-back muscles.  
  • Maintaining your elbows at 90 degrees, so they’re in line with your shoulders, will activate your upper back muscles.  

You can also play around with grip width (more suited when doing barbell work) and switch up your hand positions by trying out overhand grip, underhand, and a neutral grip.  

Neutral grip exercises tend to be a little easier on the rotator cuff as they keep your shoulder joints in a more natural alignment.  

Why Is Horizontal Pulling Important

Horizontal pulling is important as it strengthens your mid and upper back muscles which keeps your shoulders moving properly and encourages better posture.

The lats, rhomboids, and traps all help to provide stability to your scapula (shoulder blades).  

As the scapula facilitates movement of your shoulder joint, when these muscles are stronger, they help to pull your shoulder blades back keeping them in their correct anatomical position.

It’s not uncommon for training programs to focus on horizontal push exercises, like the bench press or dips.  

But if you neglect to work on your horizontal pulling strength, you’ll suffer from imbalances in strength and muscle size between the front and back of your upper body.  

When this happens your posture can be negatively impacted which may cause you to hunch forward resulting in a lengthening of your upper back muscles and a shortening of your chest muscles.  

As a consequence, your back muscles become weak or overactive as they have to work much harder to maintain your posture.  

What’s more, your chest muscles in this position can limit lung capacity which could even affect breathing.  

Your shoulders will also suffer as the tendons of the shoulder joint can wear causing impingement.  

Wrapping Up

Now that you know why it’s important to focus on improving your horizontal pulling strength, be sure to incorporate some of our recommended horizontal exercises which will improve the strength of your back and keep your upper body healthy.  

Your back muscles are antagonists to your chest muscles meaning they act as an opposing force when the muscles contract or relax.  

With that in mind, create a balanced workout with both horizontal push and pull exercises so that you equally train your back and chest to prevent any imbalances.  

Also, to prevent any plateaus (or from boredom setting in) you can switch up your training and include other popular horizontal pulling exercises like seated cable rows, renegade rows, horizontal pull ups, and the t-bar row.  

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