Rows and their many variations are a classic exercise for building upper body size and strength, but what muscle does rows work? And how can you get the most out of the exercise? In this article we’ll be covering:

Let’s jump straight in.

What Muscles Do Rows Work?

Rows are a horizontal pulling movement that works your back muscles, specifically the muscles that rows work are:

  • Your rhomboids, teres minor, teres major
  • Your lats
  • Your spinal erectors, depending on how much you flex and extend your spine
  • Your rear delts (especially with higher elbow angles)
  • Your lower traps

So the major row muscle groups that you’ll use are all based on your back.

Row Muscles Worked Diagram

Row muscles worked diagram

Row Muscles Not Used

There are various muscles not used when performing rows. For a balanced training programme, you should incorporate exercises to address these missing areas. Some of the biggest upper body muscles not used in row variations include:

  • Chest
  • Front delts
  • Triceps

do rows work biceps?

Technically yes, rows do work your biceps to some small degree, however when performed properly rows should place very little tension on the bicep, and so are a poor choice of bicep exercise. Classic exercises like dumbbell and barbell bicep curls are a far better choice.

do rows work chest?

No, rows do not work your chest. I would use exercises such as pushups or bench press instead.

Row Variations and Alternatives

There are plenty of row variations and alternatives that you can use, here are three of my favourites, plus when and why you might use them.

Seated Cable Row

Seated Cable Row Muscles Worked

The seated cable row is a great row variation that allows you to get tight, brace and really focus on your rows. You’ll primarily be using your rhomboids, teres major and minor, and rear delts, with some help from your spinal erectors and lats.

Personally, I like to perform these by keeping my lower back flat, but allowing my upper back to slightly round into flexion on the eccentric, getting a great stretch under load, before coming back up into extension on the concentric. Performed like this your rows should also provide a great erector spinae stimulus.

Dumbbell Rows

What muscles do dumbbell rows work?

Dumbbell rows work your rhomboids, lats, teres major and minor, rear delts and lower traps. Dumbbell rows are a good unilateral row variation, allowing you to target each side of your back independently. This makes dumbbell rows great for addressing imbalances and improving symmetry.

Barbell Bent Over Rows

What muscles do bent-over rows work?

Bent-over rows work your rhomboids, lats, teres major and minor, lower traps, rear delts and spinal erectors, making them a full back-building movement. Barbell bent over rows allow you to load a good amount of weight and deliver plenty of stimulus to your back muscles. Just keep in mind that they can also be quite systemically taxing, so are best performed for a smaller number of sets.

Quick Training Recommendations for Rows

I recommend using rows in your training anything from 1 to 3 times per week.

  • For hypertrophy, anything from 5 to 30 reps is acceptable
  • For strength, I would stick in the 4-8 rep range

From experience, most of your back training will likely fall in the 10-20 rep range, as it tends to provide the best stimulus-to-fatigue ratio for most people.

Should you go heavy for rows?

You should only go as heavy on rows as allows you to perform the exercise with good form. A common row mistake is to go too heavy and ‘cheat’ your reps, taking focus away from the target muscles.

I recommend picking a weight that allows you to control the eccentric (downwards/outwards) portion of the movement and get a deep stretch under load.

More Row Variations For Back

Some more row variations for back include exercises such as:

  • Low Rows
  • Incline Bench Dumbbell Rows
  • Seal Rows
  • Flexion Rows
  • T-Bar Rows
  • Inverted Rows
  • Landmine Rows
  • Ring Rows

Row Muscles Worked Frequently Asked Questions

Do rows help deadlift?

Yes, rows help deadlift to a small degree by adding size and strength to your back muscles, which work to stabilise and support your torso during the deadlift. However, you should expect multiple weeks, even months or training before you see much transfer.

Are rows better than pull-ups?

Rows are better than pull-ups for building your overall back thickness and targeting the muscles of your mid back. However, pull-ups are better at targeting your lats, which will help you to create the classic ‘v-taper’ look.

Do rows build back thickness?

Absolutely, rows build back thickness by targeting your mid back muscles such as your rhomboids, lower traps and spinal erectors. Generally speaking, people who perform lots of rows tend to have very thick backs, especially when they follow hypertrophy (muscle-building) training guidelines.

What is the number one best back exercise?

There’s no such thing as the number one best back exercise, as it depends on the individual person, and can even vary for that same person over time. For example, I might get a great stimulus from seated rows, but you might find them sort of meh. Similarly, you might get an amazing stimulus from barbell rows, but then after a few weeks the exercise gets stale and you need to swap for something else.

I recommend trying a few row variations and going with whichever gives you the best pump, disruption and soreness.

Next Steps

Alright, that’s enough reading for today, time for action…

1) Get in the gym and start using some row variations to build strength and size in your back. Or if you need a bit of help with your training, consider having a look at my custom programme options

2) If you want more training tips, workouts and programmes, feel free to join my mailing list.

3) And if you’re looking for 1:1 strength and conditioning coaching, you can find more information about my services here.

‘Til Next Time


Strength coach

Alex Parry, MSc, BA

Alex is the Head content writer and Coach at Character Strength & Conditioning, as well as an Assistant Lecturer and PhD Researcher at the University of Hull.

His experience includes 8+ years within professional strength and conditioning, as well as working as a tutor & educator for British Weightlifting.