Pull-Ups are one of the best exercises for building a strong back. They develop your lats and are a great measure of strength.
But they are not the king of all back exercises. That title belongs to the Horizontal Pull.
Horizontal Pulls include any exercise where you perform a rowing movement horizontally (Pull-Ups are considered a vertical pull). They include Single-Arm Rows and Inverted Rows, which develop the major back muscles—your lats, traps and rhomboids.
According to Dr. John Rusin, a strength coach, physical therapist and creator of the Functional Hypertrophy Training program, athletes should prioritize horizontal pulling over vertical pulling to keep their shoulders healthy. Sore shoulders is a complaint that seems to bo becoming more common.
Dr. Rusin explains that athletes are “cursed by posture” because they tend to stare at their cellphone and sit for too long throughout the day. The resulting forward rounded posture and dysfunctional shoulder blades prevent athletes from using their shoulders effectively and can lead to soreness and pain.
When combined, these two problem make it difficult for athletes to get into the overhead position required to perform Pull-Ups—which is why Pull-Ups are often performed with sloppier form than any other exercise.
“The internally rotated position that happens in the vertical pull is exacerbated, and that causes irritation on the frontside of the shoulder, which everyone and their brother is complaining about these days,” he asserts.
On the other hand, Horizontal Pulls allow for a joint-friendly hand position, which can actually alleviate shoulder pain, correct posture and build more durable shoulder joints—capable of handling heavy lifts and performing explosive sports skills, such as throwing a ball.
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Dr. Rusin recommends performing two or three horizontal pulling exercises for every vertical pulling exercise in a back-focused workout. Load up on heavy weights or high reps with the horizontal exercises, and shift your Pull-Ups to later in the workout, when your joints are prepared for the vertical movement.
You won’t be able to do nearly as many Pull-Ups as you would at the beginning of a workout, but that’s OK. You will be able to train the movement with fewer reps or less weight if you typically use resistance, which is easier on the shoulders. And, it helps to stretch out the muscles that you blasted earlier in the workout.
“It makes it more advantageous to use the Vertical Row almost as a pseudo mobility-strength hybrid move,” Rusin adds.
Some of you may be wondering, “How the heck do you train your lats?” We are aware that Vertical Pulls are the preferred way to isolate this muscle. But if you perform a horizontal pull properly and focus on squeezing your lats on each rep, you should have no problem developing them.
So with that said, here are a few of our favorite horizontal pulling exercises:
Dumbbell Single-Arm Row
Setup: Place your left knee and hand on a bench and your right foot on the ground. Hold a dumbbell with your right hand directly under your shoulder. Keep your back flat and core tight.
Action: Pull your shoulder back and row the dumbbell to your hip. Squeeze your back at the top of the movement. Your elbow should be in line with your torso, not winging upward. Slowly lower in control.
Sets/Reps: 4×8-10 each side
Landmine Single-Arm Row
Setup: Place a barbell in a landmine machine and load the opposite end with plates no larger than 25 pounds (you can use multiple 25-pound plates). Stand with your feet hip-width apart with the collar of barbell to your side. Bend at your hips and knees and reach down to grasp the collar of the bar with your right hand. Make a fist with your left hand and drive it into your left thigh.
Action: Without moving your torso, drive your right elbow back to row the bar so your hand finishes by your right hip. Slowly lower the weight until your arm is straight and repeat.
Landmine or Dumbbell Meadow’s Row
Setup: Place a barbell in a landmine machine and load the opposite end with plates no larger than 25 pounds (you can use multiple 25-pound plates). Stand with your feet hip-width apart with the collar of the barbell in front of your right foot. Bend at your hips and knees and reach down to grasp the collar of the bar with your right hand. Make a fist with your left hand and drive it into your left thigh.
Action: Without moving your torso, drive your right elbow back to row the bar so your hand finishes just below your armpit. Slowly lower the weight until your arm is straight and repeat.
TRX or Barbell Inverted Row
Setup: Adjust the TRX straps to the shortest position. Grab the handles with an overhand grip and stand with your feet hip-width apart positioned under the anchor point—the exact position depends on your level of strength. Keep your core tight and body in a straight line.
Action: Pull your shoulders back and row the handles to your sides, just under your chest. As you perform the row, rotate your hands so they are facing each other when you complete the row. Slowly straighten your arms and rotate your hands to return to the starting position.
Setup: Lie with your stomach on a flat or incline bench. Hold dumbbells or kettlebells directly under your shoulders. If you’re using a flat bench, the dumbbells should be on the floor and your arms should be slightly bent.
Action: Pull your shoulders back and row the weights until your thumbs are in your armpits. Squeeze your shoulder blades together at the top of the movement and hold for one or two counts. Slowly lower and repeat.
In addition, Dr. Rusin uses Dumbbell Incline Rows and Band Face Pulls in his training programs. Find what works for you and start developing a strong back and tough shoulders.