Your Blueprint For Back: HOW TO ROW

Rowing exercises

I’m sure by now, if you have been following these articles, you will be well versed in shoulder anatomy! So if you need a refresher, please refer back to previous articles.

Rows are one of the most effective ways to build a bigger back, they are also an effective way to create a tendonitis if done incorrectly. In this article I'll look at which muscles we aim to train with a row, and the common compensations that happen when we use incorrect techniques.

Applied kinesiology

Here I will examine the muscles used in a rowing movement. I will go into depth about the action, line of pull, innervations and the antagonist (please see article on shoulders for the description of agonist/antagonists). Please skip this part if you are just looking for common mistakes and corrections!


Trapezius upper

Origin: external occipital protuberance/nuchal line.

Insertion: medial acromion/distal clavicle.

Action: shrugging action/lateral flexion of head.

Innervation: accessory nerve.

Antagonist: serratus anterior/latissimus dorsi.

Points of interest: always overactive when the shoulder feels unstable, especially in rows.

Trapezius middle

Origin: spinous process of C7-T5.

Insertion: acromion.

Action: retraction of scapula/approximation with spinous processes.

Innervation: accessory nerve.

Antagonist: serratus/latissimus.

Points of interest: regularly weak and underdeveloped.

Trapezius lower

Origin: spinous processes C7-T12.

Insertion: spine of scapula.

Action: depression and downward rotation of scapula.

Innervation: accessory nerve.

Antagonist: serratus/latissimus.

Points of interest: again regularly inhibited, when you see round shoulders you can bet this muscle is inhibited.


Latissimus dorsi

Origin: spinous of T7-L5 thoracolumbar fascia.

Insertion: intertubercular groove.

Action: adducts arm, also acts to stabilize the trunk when lifting heavy weights.

Innervation: thoracodorsal nerve.

Antagonist: deltoid and trap.

Points of interest: This is one of the most important muscles in scapula stability (second to the rotator cuff). If the client can “lock” his latissimus down, he can pretense the thoracolumbar fascia, which allows for a more forceful core contraction.


Serratus anterior

Origin: upper eight ribs.

Insertion: front of the scapula (between the scapula and ribcage).

Action: pulls the scapula into the ribcage, helps to upwardly rotate it.

Innervation: long thoracic nerve.

Antagonist: rhomboid, trap.

Points of interest: this is the muscle that is often inhibited in a “winged scapula”, proper rehabilitation of the scapula is imperative here.

Rotator cuff

Here I write what the individual muscles of the rotator cuff do. However, the muscles will NEVER function in isolation, so their solitary function should be ignored. The rotator cuff always act together to form dynamic stability of the shoulder






Origin: back of the scapula (infraspinatus fossa).

Insertion: greater tubercle.

Action: lateral rotation of the arm.

Innervation: suprascapular nerve.

Antagonist: subscapularis.

Points of interest: all of the rotator cuff acts to depress the humeral head into its socket, increasing approximation and thus stability.

Teres major

Origin: back of the scapula.

Insertion: intertubercular sulcus.

Action: adduct the arm (brings arm closer to body) and internal rotation.

Innervation: lower subscapular nerve.

Antagonist: infraspinatus.

Points of interest: none.

Teres minor

Origin: back of the scapula.

Insertion: greater tubercle.

Action: laterally rotates arm.

Innervation: axillary nerve.

Antagonist: subscapularis.

Points of interest: tightness in this muscle (myofascial trigger points) can send pain into your arm/hand/fingers, mimicking a slipped disc in the neck.


Origin: front of the scapula.

Insertion: lesser tubercle of humorous.

Action: internally rotates arm.

Innervation: subscapular nerve.

Antagonist: infraspinatus.

Points of interest: often found in a spasm with shoulder pain, this muscle is very important to release before starting rehabilitation.


Origin: coracoid process.

Insertion: upper forearm.

Action: flexion of elbow brings palm upwards.

Innervation: musculocutaneous nerve.

Antagonist: triceps.

Points of interest: often overcompensates for the latissimus on the rows.


Origin: humorous.

Insertion: forearm (radial styloid).

Action: flexion of elbow and supination.

Innervation: radial nerve.

Antagonist: triceps, extensor carpi ulnaris.

Points of interest: very often overworked in the row, acting synergistically in for the latissimus.


Origin: spinous of C7T5.

Insertion: medial aspect of scapula.

Action: pulls scapula to spine.

Innervation: dorsal scapula nerve.

Antagonist: pecs maj/min.

Points of interest: again often left in a long and weakened position with rounded shoulders, when a muscle is kept in a lengthened position it becomes painful. Rhomboid pain is very common, it is however, not a great idea to just treat the rhomboid as the rhomboid is often the victim, not the criminal.



Basic types of row

When we talk about a “row”, we mean a generic pulling exercise. This can be done in many different ways in order to isolate or challenge different aspects of the individual.

Seated row – bog standard row, can be done on a cable machine, or a hammer strength machine.

Standing row (horizontal) – again, similar set up except the individual is standing, so there is an increased postural stress across the body. This could be deemed more appropriate for athletes, as most sports take place standing. While standing, the athlete will have to coordinate their centre of mass/neuromuscular system before generating any force production, in my opinion a better overall exercise, but less capability to isolate. NB not an upright row.

Prone row – laying flat on a bench and rowing against gravity. This variation gives slightly more stimulus to the scapula stabilizers are they are more heavily involved with this line of pull. Issues can start to show when the individual has weakened mid/lower traps. If you watch from above with someone who has faulty scapula mechanics or using too high a weight, you will see overactivity in the rhomboids and upper traps.

Half-kneeing row/Kroc row – this variation is similar in mechanics to the prone row, except you are half kneeling on a bench, this variation is very commonly used by general gym goers. This variation calls for full abduction and mild protraction of the scapula (the arm should hang fully down). This is useful as the scapula is then forced to move through its range of motion, rather than being held stuck to the ribs.

Many other variations exist but are predominantly spin offs from these main five.

Now we will revisit scapula mechanics which we touched upon in the last article. If you remember, there is what we call a “scapula-thoracic rhythm” – this is what we refer to when we see the scapula (shoulder blade) moving across your back. Often with improper training and poor posture, we see dysfunction in this movement, with the scapula being locked down to the ribcage.

Common mistakes can be grouped into categories of dysfunction.

Common mistakes

Locking scapula down

Probably the most common dysfunction seen in rowing exercises. Personal trainers will often tell you to squeeze your shoulder blades together and pull solely through your arms – this is an outdated cue, which in fact reinforces faulty shoulder mechanics. When you lock the scapula in one place, you negate the scapula-thoracic rhythm which dictates a 2:1 ratio of movement. The ST rhythm is important as it allows the scapula and arm to move as one, keeping the tendinous structures safe. A row should always be performed with natural fluid movement of the scapula. When watching from behind, you should literally see the shoulder blade moving across the ribcage. This dysfunction will overactivate the rhomboids, it will overactivate the biceps and limit the amount of involvement of the latissimus.

ROW5 Figure 1 – Locked up starting position, inducing faulty shoulder mechanics.


ROW6 Figure 2 – neutral scapula position, allowing the scapula to travel over the thoracic cage.

Upper trap over activity

We have seen how not enough movement can negatively affect a row, now we will explore how incorrect movement can affect mechanics. As you can see from the aforementioned muscular kinesiology, the upper trap acts to pull the shoulder upwards, towards your ear, as when you shrug. The upper trap is a muscle that often gets involved in exercises that it shouldn’t – you will see people excessively overactivating their traps on numerous different exercises. The upper trap is mechanically a strong muscle due to its origin and insertion, thus when you’re feeling slightly weak in a movement, the first thing that’s often done is the recruitment of the upper trap to aid in stability. When the upper trap kicks in you have already negated the usefulness of the exercise, so it’s best to stop and deload the weight. The upper trap when consistently overused becomes excessively hypertrophied – this leads to an imbalance in shoulder mechanics propagating the overactivity of the upper trap, which then leads to further inhibition of the mid and lower trap. Once the upper trap has been overloaded for a while, the negative effects of reciprocal inhibition will need to be addressed before any new technique can be patterned, thus clients should first begin stretching the pecs, stretching the SCM and suboccipial muscles, followed by increasing the tone in the lower and middle traps, as well as deep neck flexors (longus colli and capitus).

ROW7 Figure 3 – over activity of the upper trapezius, lack of lower scapula stabilization.

Humeral head slide

Now if we were to observe a row from the side aspect, we expect to see the humeral head (upper arm) staying level with the shoulder (centration) – however, what we often see is the “anterior humeral slide”. This dysfunction evolves from a lack of rotator cuff stability/lat activation and compensatory overactivity of the biceps brachii. The rotator cuff's (comprised of numerous muscles) most important role is often neglected, when synergistically contracted, the cuff compresses the ball and socket joint in the shoulder, holding it intact (approximation = increased proprioception). When the cuff weakens or misfires, the ball and socket joint can come out of alignment, impinging upon ligaments and tendons – this is what is deemed microinstability and is often the cause of shoulder problems. Simply strengthening the muscles of the rotator cuff will not solve this issue – the muscles need to be coordinated as well as effectively recruited; this is why all rotator cuff rehabilitation plans need to have some sort of balance/proprioceptive exercise included. To correct a humeral head slide, the participant needs to assess their rotator cuff integrity, they should also concentrate on pulling through the back and not the bicep. The anterior humeral slide is correlated with long head of biceps tendonitis (please see shoulder article for more information on this). This dysfunction will also be apparent on dips.

ROW8 Figure 4 – Anterior humeral migration, you can see the shoulder sitting forward of its centrated position, overactive biceps and brachioradialis, a lot of stress across the bicep tendon.

TL junction

The thoracolumbar junction is the area of the spine between the lower back and ribcage (lumbar spine/thoracic spine). This area is often over used in a pulling exercise. When the weight is too heavy or you lack stability in the mid back, the individual will hyperextend through this area, which will look like an overarching of the mid-lower back. The T/L junction is an integral keystone for spinal mechanics and is often a problematic area. If you remember from the first squatting article, when people attempt to squat with faulty motor patterns, they often default into the hyperextension pattern, which is again in relation to the T/L junction. When you perform a rowing exercise your spine needs to be stable, you cannot have excess movement in certain segments/areas, and this is what we call the “weak link in the chain”. For a distal area to move with efficacy, you need the proximal area to be completely stable – excessive movement through the T/L junction is not providing proximal stability.




ROW9 Figure 5 – Overextension of the T/L junction, observe the excessive curvature in the lower back.

Thanks to : Flex Gym NI, 42 Montgomery Road, Belfast.

Safe pulling!

Dr Luke Thomas Neal MChiro

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