Improve Your Back Strength with the Inverted Row

The Inverted Row is an important exercise for developing back, arm and core strength, but you must do it correctly.

Whether you want to be fit and look good, put up some new PRs at your next meet or truck through some unfortunate defensive back who stands between you and a TD, a big strong back, thicker arms and an unbreakable core  are critical. And few exercises can help you achieve all of them better than the Inverted Row.

What Is the Inverted Row?

The Inverted Row targets the back, core and arms. The difference between most rowing exercises and the Inverted Row is it's a closed-chain row, meaning your feet are also in contact with the ground.

The Inverted Row, when performed correctly, is a monster with many progressions and variations for strengthening and growing the upper back, lats, arms and core.

Who Should (and Should Not) Perform the Inverted Row?

If you are injury free and moving well, you should perform the Inverted Row.

But if you have been paying attention to many of the common injuries that are popping up in the performance and physique world, you may have noticed an absurd number of overuse injuries of the shoulder and low back.

The lats, and the force and stability they produce, are key players when pushing and pulling more weight, sprinting faster and making athletic movements. These muscles also heavily influence extension of the low back, as well as shoulder depression and downward rotation.

If you have extension-based back pain—usually evident in the low back—or shoulder pain, performing the Inverted Row (and other rowing variations) is not a good idea until the issues are resolved and movements are cleaned up. Even after the movements are sufficient, monitoring the volume of rowing and balancing them out with movements that reinforce elevation and upward rotation are encouraged. Lastly, if you're an overhead athlete, performing the Inverted Row may not be best for your performance and health.

If you fit one of the above descriptions, I'm not saying you can't perform the Inverted Row. But if you want to take advantage of the strength, size and performance gains the Inverted Row provides, your technique must be spot on.

How Not to Perform the Inverted Row (With Fixes)

When performing the Inverted Row a few fatal technique flaws typically occur, which result in improper alignment and muscle activation. Knowing what to watch for is critical to maximizing the benefits of the exercise. Check out the video player above for a demonstration of the TRX Inverted Row.

Mistake 1: Pulling with Your Arms

Your arms will be working, but to initiate the row you should work through your shoulder blades. If the movement is not initiated with retraction, posterior tilt and slight downward rotation of the scapulae, your finished position will probably result in hyperextension of your back and your shoulder traveling too far forward.

The Fix: Initiate the Row With Your Shoulder Blades

A simple cue I give my athletes is to imagine that I cut their arms off. Then I tell them to pull themselves up by pinching their shoulder blades together (bring them across their back) and follow that with the arms. Also, don't let your elbows pass too far behind your back. I like to take a picture that shows the ending position and make sure the upper arm is aligned with the torso, not behind it.

Mistake 2: Starting or Finishing With Your Lumbar Spine

As mentioned above, the Inverted Row is a great core exercise, especially for the frontside of your core. It's very similar to a Plank, forcing your core to prevent extension and stabilize your spine.

Gravity tries to pull your hips to the floor, which creates lumbar flexion. To stay out of flexion, you must actively extend, but you don't want to overextend. Overextension typically results in a large arch in the low back and flared ribs.

The flaw will occur at either the start (the hips pop to start) or at the end of the movement when you try to get that finishing pinch. This is likely to result in back pain, either directly or as a contributor to exacerbating an extended posture, which many of us find ourselves in these days.

The Fix: Keep Your Hips, Back and Core Engaged

Focus on keeping your hips in line with your shoulders and ankles or slightly lower. Also, focus on keeping your lower abs engaged and your hips neutral by actively posteriorly tilting your pelvis (think about pulling your zipper up to your ribcage). Finish the row with your scapulae and upper back rather than popping your chest/ribs, as this usually results in hyperextension at the lumbar spine.

Mistake 3: Popping Your Chin Out 

You should work to achieve a full range of motion, but you do not want to finish by popping your chin out and extending your cervical spine. Popping your chin out at the top of the movement makes you  feel like you've achieved a greater range of motion, but you are setting yourself up for neck problems. Not only are you more likely to experience pain or suffer an overuse injury, but by extending your cervical spine you create an improper chain effect down the spine, which limits performance and force output.

The Fix: Roll Your Chin Down

We hear the phrase "pack the chin" to prevent the chin from popping out during training. This works well for many, but if you tell some of us to pack your chins, we end up going into an anterior shear at the cervical spine. Instead of "packing the chin," think about rolling your chin down toward your chest while elongating the back of your neck. Maintain this rolling feeling throughout the movement, especially at the top of the Row.

Progressions and Variations

Because the Inverted Row is a closed-chain exercise, progressing and overloading the movement can be tricky after a certain point.

To progress the Inverted Row, simply decrease the angle and bring your body more parallel to the floor. Once you are completely underneath the equipment you are using (e.g., suspension trainer, rings or fixed barbell, etc.), elevate your feet so your shoulders are lower than your feet.

Once you acheive this position, it gets a bit more challenging.

From there, you can place chains across your waist, wear a weight vest or put plates on your chest. If you are going to put plates on your chest, be careful that the plates do not shift toward your chin during the movement. I would not suggest wearing a dri-fit shirt or similar material, as the plates tend to slide rather easily across that material.

If you get to the point where you need to stack multiple plates to progress (which is not suggested but can be done), I encourage you to try one of the two following variations.

Single-Leg Inverted Row

Single-Leg TRX Inverted Row

As the name implies, you row with one leg on the ground. By lifting one leg, you place a greater demand on your core to prevent you from swaying to one side. Check out the video player above for a demonstration.

Single-Arm Inverted Row

Single-Arm TRX Inverted Row

Like the single-leg variation, using one arm requires more core control and performance to prevent you from twisting during the movement. Also, using one arm places a greater demand on your working arm so you don't have to load up with plates. See the videos above for a demonstration of the Single-Arm Inverted Row.


Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock

Topics: CHEST | EXERCISE | LOW BACK | SPINE | ROWING