Inverted Rows – What They Are, and Why You Should Do Them

When I go to the gym, I try to keep things as simple and efficient as possible.

I’m a huge supporter of pull ups and chin ups, as those are the exercises that are a true test somebody’s fitness level in my opinion.  There’s just something inherently badass about being able to lift up your entire body, which is why competitions like Ninja Warrior require ridiculous back and bicep strength.

I know a lot of you guys are just getting started out with your fitness training, and doing a pull up seems like an absolute impossibility. That’s okay, I’d guess that 80% of this country probably can’t do one either, so don’t beat yourself up too much.  Just because you can’t do a pull up now doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work out your back.  I have just the exercise for you instead: the inverted row.  Big thanks to Mehdi over at Strong Lifts for bringing the exercise to my attention.

So what the hell is an inverted body weight row you ask?  GREAT QUESTION.  In fact, it’s a question I get all the time in emails, and nobody ever has any idea what I’m talking about – which is nothing new – so I figured I’d add it to the repertoire of explained exercises here on the blog.

The Inverted Row

3743CB32D2C136941715AF47C54F6EA.standardYou’ve probably heard of the regular barbell row.  You pick up a barbell, bend over at the waist (keeping your back straight), and pull the weight up towards your chest.  I used to love these exercises – unfortunately, I could never get the form right once I moved to heavier weights and I could never isolate my back and arms completely.  Needless to say, it was an accident waiting to happen.  Luckily, the inverted row takes care of all of that.  You get to use your body weight, and there’s no extra stress on your back.  As an added bonus, you get decent core workout too.

This exercise has been referred to as the reverse bench press, as you grab a bar like you were getting ready to bench press it, but instead of lifting the weight down towards you, you’re pulling your body up towards the bar.  Let’s go SAT on this s.o.b. – “benchpress” is to “pushing” as “inverted row” is to “pulling.”  Balance FTW!

Why Is the Inverted Row Is So Great

I’m a huge fan of compound exercises, and I’m a huge fan of exercises that don’t require extensive knowledge, expensive equipment, and lots of extra bells and whistles.  An inverted row works your back, biceps, traps, and all the stabilizer muscles in between.  If you’ve been doing just pushups and bench presses, you need to start doing equal work with your back to stay in balance and away from injury.

If you want to eventually be able to do pull ups, THIS is the exercise you need to work into your routine until you can do a full pull up.

How To Do It

Let’s start with the people who have access to a gym (see a variation for No-Gym people at the end).  You know I hate the Smith Machine (boooo, don’t do squats on it like this guy! bad!) for pretty much every exercise, due to the fact that it only moves straight up and down, while your body wants to move differently.  However, this is the ONE exercise where I’m okay with using it.  Here’s what you need to do:

  • Lie on the floor underneath the bar (which should be set just above where you can reach from the ground).
  • Grab the bar with an overhand grip (palms facing AWAY from you).
  • Contract your abs, and try to keep your body a completely straight line. Your ears, shoulders, hips legs, and feet should all be in a straight line.
  • Pull yourself up to the bar until your chest touches the bar.
  • Lower yourself back down.

Here’s a video of Joe DeFranco doing an advanced version of this exercise with his feet elevated:


Joe DeFranco – Inverted Body Weight Row

Elevating your feet makes this exercise extremely difficult, so only do that after you’ve mastered the exercise with your feet on the floor.

If you’re still struggling and they’re too difficult, it’s okay.  We just need to back up a few steps.  Set the bar higher on the Smith machine so that when you lean back, your body isn’t at a 90 degree angle; maybe it’s only at a 45 degree angle.  This example video here shows a guy doing the exercise at less of an angle.  It takes more of your body weight out of the equation.  As you get stronger (and/or lose weight), you’ll be able to drop the bar until you’re parallel when pulling yourself up.

Some tips and tricks:

  • Don’t let your ass sag (on purpose anyway…maybe you have a saggy ass – not my place to judge).
  • Don’t flail your elbows. Grab the bar with your hands a little closer than you would if you were doing a bench press, and keep your elbows at that angle from your body.
  • Pull the bar towards the middle of your chest. Don’t pull the bar up towards your throat, or down towards your belly button.  Right in the middle!
  • Keep your abs tight. Keep your abs tight throughout the whole routine.  Your body should be a straight line the whole time, and the only thing moving is your arms
  • Think of pulling your shoulder blades together at the top of the exercise.
  • GO all the way. Don’t half-ass it.  Lower yourself until your arms are completely extended, and raise yourself until your chest touches the bar.

When should you do this exercise

When I go into a gym, my time is extremely limited, and I’m working towards developing strength.  I’ll try to do one leg exercise (either squats or deadlifts), followed by a pushing exercise (either bench press or overhead press), and then a pulling exercise (pull ups or inverted rows).  Here’s a sample two day split for me:

  • Day 1: Squats, bench press, inverted rows, dips
  • Day 2: OFF
  • Day 3: Deadlifts, Overhead Press, Pull Ups (or chin ups), Planks (Floor Swipes).
  • Day 4: OFF

Both days work my full body, I can do a full routine in less than 40 minutes, and I’m building strength.  If you can’t do dips on Day 1, you can do pushups.  If you can’t do pull ups on day 2, you can substitute assisted pull ups or lat pull downs (although I don’t like lat pull downs very much).

On the rows, aim for 3 sets of 10. If you can’t do that, do 3 sets to exhaustion, and build your way up to 3 sets of 10.  Once you can do that, put your feet up on a chair, throw some weights in a backpack, put it on reverse (so the bag is hanging in front of you), and then do the rows.

What if I don’t have a gym?

Just because you don’t have access to a gym doesn’t mean you can’t work out your back, you just need to get VERY creative.  Try these few things for example:

  • Get a really thick wooden dowel or pipe, something strong enough to support your weight.  Lie it across two of your kitchen chairs, and then lie down underneath it.  Make sure its sturdy, and the bar isn’t going to break/move on ya, and pull yourself up.
  • Use your kitchen table. Or your desk (if it’s in the middle of the room and doesn’t have a back.  Be very careful on this one.  Lie underneath your table so your head and shoulder are sticking out above it.  Grab the table edge with an overhand grip, and pull yourself up (just like it’s explained above).  Warning, don’t pull the table over with you, and make sure you’re not gonna break the thing.  Obviously this is a pretty crude way to get the job done, but it works.

Don’t forget, you want to stay in balance. Don’t just do push ups at home if you can help it, try to work out your back too.  If you don’t have a pull up bar, find a way to do some body weight rows whether it’s between two chairs or under a table.  You’re smart, get creative.

Here’s a video of me explaining how to do Inverted Body Weight Rows using just my kitchen table:


Inverted Body Weight Rows Nerd Fitness Video

Do You Care?

Before I sign off for the day, I want to get your opinion on something.  I’ve done 5 of these exercise posts now, and I probably have a few more I want to get done (just to cover the basic compound exercises that I love).  Is my description and these videos enough for you?  Or would you rather have me film my own video and explain it all that way?

I’m just trying to be a little more transparent and helpful, so let me know what you think.  If  you want me to start filming some exercise videos (don’t worry, I’ll wear lots of spandex and put on some crappy techno – thanks Tripp), let me know and I’ll see what I can do.  I don’t exactly have access to a gym that would let me film in there, but I’ll see what I can do.

Happy Friday everybody, don’t eat TOO many chicken wings this weekend. My plan is to watch lots of football, read through Spark, and hopefully beat GTA IV.

-Steve

Related Articles:

picture source: MSN health

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  • Alessandro Almusura Azara

    Hi mates, thanks Steve!

    Steve has already explain how to adjust the exercise to suit your level of fitness. I’d like to contribuite to this thread by adding a piece of information for those who wants to increase the difficulty of this wonderful exercise.

    I’m refering to the vertical leg inverted rows, which is the most challenging type among bodyweight rows.

    The execution of the vertical leg rows is almost identical to the “regular” rows as instructed by Steve with two exceptions:
    1. you’ll have to raise your legs (your toes pointing to the ceiling and your legs forming a 90° angle with your abdomen);
    2. you’ll need to pull the bar towards your belly (a prerequisite not to lose the balance, since the belly is sort of a center of mass).

    Please, keep in mind that “the only thing moving is your arms”.

    Hope this was helful!
    Cheers ;)

  • Paul

    awesome stuff, steve, the tip about trying with a bar is helping me progress much faster! my final goal: 10×3 pull ups, which i’ve never been able to do before :)

  • Tim Emerson

    simple, easy and effective. This is what I lie with exercise

  • Windhorse Rider

    Awesome. I’m working with an on-line trainer and this was a very helpful article. I’m on my way to the gym to give it a try… :O

  • Paula

    I never comment on these things but…
    “Don’t let your ass sag (on purpose anyway…maybe you have a saggy ass – not my place to judge).”

    Seriously, LOL.
    Thanks for this article, very informative and helpful. Can’t wait to try! :)

  • Aloke Sahu

    Thanks for this! It really helps, especially the video of you doing the inverted rows under a table.

  • Jamie

    I Loved the article. However the proper form with the elbows is not so clear for me. My question is if in the overhand row do the elbows go straight back like in a tricep push up?

  • blu3fintuna

    Videos … always videos

  • Michael Manila

    im a 16 year old kid in high school. i am overweight. not by much, but still overweight. i am going to join the Marine corp after i finish high school, which will be when im 17. one of the requirements is pullups, at least 3, and this is a great help to me, since i am not able to do even one. i thank you sir, for this helpful post. this is really going to help me.

  • Brittany

    I like the descriptions. I don’t watch a lot of videos, I am big on reading, and eatching video if I need clarification :-)

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  • Laura Garnham

    Thanks for this, I shall try some later today. There’s nowhere in my house or neighbourhood to do pull ups (well I could go to the park but its full of kids who STARE at me, which is rather disconcerting to say the least especially as I am CRAP at pull-ups :P ). Hooray for an alternative :)

  • Mila

    I do this same exercise at the gym, but with TRX. Do you think it’s not as good, really the same, or maybe even more effective?

  • manny

    Great post…Could you please comment a bit more on the feet position for inverted rows. I have seen videos of people doing it with feet together and some with feet apart. Is it OK to do it with feet apart at about shoulder width?

  • Baru

    This is totally life changing. Every time I google something about working out I end up on your web site. Great info!

  • http://thejabberwocki.tumblr.com thejabberwocki

    I don’t know whether or not it’s more effective, but it’s certainly harder. I don’t have anything static to use for this so I ended up using my brother’s TRX instead.

  • Allan

    Great post

  • katmessing

    Hey Steve, I know this is an older article but I’m still sticking to it for my first 6 week rebellion challenge (complete a pull-up!). Though my gym has a smith machine, the guy at the gym recommended I try the same exercise using the TRX suspension system. Can you tell me if that would work for the same purpose? From what I can tell, the only difference is that you’re pulling yourself up using suspended straps instead of a stable bar.

    Thanks!

  • Dannnisaur

    The description and video demonstrations are good enough for me, Steve.

    I’d like to thank you for introducing the inverted pull-ups as well since I haven’t been able to do pull-ups at all, and negative pull-ups have been too strenuous. It may have been just what I needed.