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Columns: Do It Right

Do It Right: The Seated Cable Row Exercise

Ronai, Peter M.S., FACSM, ACSM-RCEP, ACSM-CEP, ACSM-EP, EIM III, CSCS

Author Information
ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal: 7/8 2019 - Volume 23 - Issue 4 - p 32-37
doi: 10.1249/FIT.0000000000000492

EXERCISE TYPE

Figure
Figure

The seated cable row is a compound, multiple joint upper body exercise intended to increase the strength of muscles within the upper and middle back, posterior shoulder girdle, and anterior elbow joint (1–3).

BENEFITS OF THE EXERCISE

The seated cable row is often performed as a means of enhancing upper body strength and posture.

INTRODUCTION

The seated cable row exercise is a basic multijoint upper body exercise that can be performed by athletes and nonathletes alike for improving the strength of the posterior shoulder girdle, back, and elbow flexor muscles (1–5). Because the seated cable row exercise uses a three-point base of support (both feet against machine foot plates and the buttocks on a bench) versus a two-point base of support (the feet on the floor), it is thought to impose lower compression and sheer loads on some lumbar spine structures than the barbell row and other rowing exercises (3,6). It is often taught to athletes during initial stages of strength enhancement training and with novice nonathletes because of its relative ease to teach and learn. To enhance safety and effectiveness, proper teaching, posture, and exercise techniques are warranted (2–4). Lifters should be free of back pain, and those with a history of back pain should consider an alternative exercise (3). A seated machine row with a chest pad (not discussed in this article) imposes even lower compression and sheer loads on some lumbar spine structures and can be considered an option for persons unable to perform a seated cable row comfortably (6). The seated cable row exercise appears in Figure 1.

Figure 1
Figure 1:
A–G. The seated cable row exercise.All photos in this column are courtesy of Peter Ronai, M.S., FACSM.

PRIMARY MUSCLES ACTIVATED

Latissimus dorsi, teres major, rhomboids, middle trapezius, lower trapezius, posterior deltoid, infraspinatus and teres minor, erector spinae, biceps brachi, brachialis, and brachioradialis are activated (1–4). Figure 2 depicts posterior and anterior views of the muscles activated during the seated cable row exercise.

Figure 2
Figure 2:
A–B. Anterior and posterior muscles activated.

TEACHING AND SAFETY POINTS

The seated cable row is a two-phase exercise consisting of the pulling and lowering phases. The pulling and lowering phases of the seated cable row are preceded and followed by the starting and ending positions. Before beginning the seated cable row exercise, the desired weight to be lifted (which is attached to a cable and handlebar) is safely raised and remains just off the remaining weights of a weight stack column. After the exercise set is completed, the weight is slowly lowered back on the weight stack in a controlled manner (1). The seated cable row is an example of a descending strength curve exercise because the ability of the activated muscles to produce force and create torque is greatest in the first quarter of the lift and progressively decreases throughout the last three-quarters of the lift as the mechanical advantage decreases throughout the exercise (7,8). Concerted effort should be made to complete the full pulling motion into the upper abdomen or lower chest on every repetition and to avoid rocking and jerking the weight backward into the torso with momentum (1). To enhance exercise safety, and to learn the proper exercise technique, lifters unfamiliar with performing the seated cable row should perform initial sets with light enough loads to ensure full control during execution of every phase of the exercise. The seated cable row exercise is typically taught or coached with close supervision but generally not directly spotted like the biceps curl, barbell squat, or bench press exercises. Optimal viewing of the phases of the barbell row can occur when combining anterior (front), lateral (side), and posterior (back/rear) views. Clients should be screened for and free of musculoskeletal injuries before performing this exercise. Clients should demonstrate proper posture, technique, and control before increasing the load on the weight stack to be lifted.

STARTING POSITION

Proper alignment in the starting position is fundamental to performing all rowing exercises and should be taught to novices. Feet are placed firmly in a shoulder width position against the foot plates with the knees comfortably flexed. Handlebars are grasped below shoulder height with a narrower than shoulder width, closed, neutral (midpronated) grip. Elbows are fully extended, roughly parallel with the ground, and the handlebar remains just above the knees/legs. The head and the neck stay directly aligned above the shoulders, torso, and hips during the start by focusing the eyes ahead or slightly upward and remain in this position throughout the seated row exercise (1,3). While maintaining a rigid torso and neutral or flat back, the hips are extended enough to raise the selected weights just above the remaining weight stack below. The elbows remain extended, the knees remain slightly flexed, and the torso remains in an upright position. All repetitions begin and end in this position (1,2). Common errors include rounding the upper back, leaning forward at the waist to grasp the handlebars, keeping the elbows bent or flared outward, arching the back and leaning backward instead of using the hips and legs to lift the desired weights off the weight stack, extending or locking the knees, and pushing the head, neck, and chin forward (1,2). The upright torso and slightly flexed knee positions help reduce compression and sheer forces on some lumbar spine structures (3,6). Verbal teaching cues for this stage of the exercise include “sit tall and keep back flat or slightly arched,” “hold the chest up and out,” “look straight ahead or slightly upward,” “keep ears directly over the shoulders and the hips,” “keep elbows straight,” and “press the feet through the foot plates but keep the knees soft.” Figures 3a and 3b depict the starting position and the proper technique for lifting the weight off the weight stack, respectively.

Figure 3
Figure 3:
A. The beginning of the starting position. B. Proper technique for lifting the weight off the weight stack during the starting position.

THE PULLING PHASE

Proper alignment and technique should be mastered before loading the weight stack. The torso remains rigid and motionless with the knees and hips bent slightly. With the elbows fully extended and parallel with one another, the handlebar is maintained in a midprone position above the knees and below the shoulders. The head and the neck are aligned with the trunk by focusing the eyes slightly forward and upward. All repetitions begin and end in this position. The torso remains perpendicular/vertical with the floor. Hips and knees remain slightly flexed, the chest is pushed upward and outward, and the scapulae (shoulder blades) are slightly retracted or adducted (pulled toward each other). Exhale while pulling the bar backward in a smooth, continuous, and controlled manner by extending the shoulders, retracting the scapulae, and flexing the elbows, respectively (1,2,4). To prevent excessive stress on anterior shoulder joint structures, the upper arm and elbows should not pass behind the back of the rib cage (9). Pause approximately 1 second before lowering the bar to the starting position. A duration of 1 to 2 seconds during the upward pulling phase is appropriate. Verbal teaching cues include “keep the hips and knees slightly bent and sit tall,” “pull the shoulders and elbows backward towards the ribs,” and “pull the bar into the lower chest or upper abdomen.” Common errors include jerking the handlebars backward with momentum from the torso and lower back, rounding the upper back, failing to pull the handlebar completely into the abdomen/lower chest, failing to fully extend the elbows between repetitions, pushing the head forward or pulling it backward beyond neutral position, leaning forward or backward, hyperextending/locking the knees, and breath holding while pulling or pausing with the handlebars. Figures 4a, 4b, and 4c depict the beginning, middle, and ending positions during the pulling (backward) phase of the seated cable row. Please refer to Supplemental Digital Content 1, Video 1, https://links.lww.com/FIT/A116, and Supplemental Digital Content 2, Video 2, https://links.lww.com/FIT/A117, for videos depicting proper technique for performing the seated cable row exercise with two sets of handlebars.

Figure 4
Figure 4:
A. Beginning of the pulling (backward) phase of the seated cable row. B. The middle of the pulling (backward) phase of the seated cable row. C. The end of the pulling (backward) phase of the seated cable row.

THE LOWERING PHASE

Although the head, neck, and torso maintain the same alignment as during the upward pulling phase, the handlebars are lowered and returned to the starting position in a controlled manner. The erector spinae multifidus and abdominal muscles provide spine stability during the entire barbell seated cable row exercise (2,3,6). Verbal teaching cues include “keep the trunk motionless,” “keep the knees bent,” “lower the handlebar with control, don't drop it,” and “straighten the elbows fully.” Figure 5 depicts the end of the lowering phase of the seated cable row exercise.

Figure 5
Figure 5:
The end of the lowering phase of the seated cable row exercise.

Loading intensities expressed as the percentage of the one-repetition maximum, the number of repetitions and sets, and the rest period durations should reflect the specific objectives of the overall training program, which can include hypertrophy, strength, endurance, or power (10).

A pronated or supinated forearm position can be a comfortable alternative for performing the seated cable row exercise for some individuals. Figures 6a and 6b depict the start and the end of the pulling phase with a pronated grip. The seated row also can be performed with either an adjustable height cable column or tubing. Clients unable to or uncomfortable with getting up and down from a lower position can use either a training bench or a plyometric training box or bench. Figure 7 depicts the seated cable row exercise performed on a plyometric training box with an adjustable cable column and with resistance tubing. Please refer to Supplemental Digital Content 3, Video 3, https://links.lww.com/FIT/A118, and Supplemental Digital Content 4, Video 4, https://links.lww.com/FIT/A119, for videos depicting proper technique for performing the seated cable row exercise on a plyometric training box with an adjustable cable column and with resistance tubing, respectively.

Figure 6
Figure 6:
A. The start of the pulling (backward) phase of the seated cable row with a pronated grip. B. The end of the pulling (backward) phase of the seated cable row with a pronated grip.
Figure 7
Figure 7:
A–E. The seated cable row on a plyometric training box with an adjustable cable column and resistance tubing.

SUMMARY

The seated cable row exercise is one of the rowing exercises used to enhance strength and muscle development in the upper back, posterior shoulder girdle, and shoulder joint muscles, respectively. It is often taught relatively early in a strength and conditioning program because of its relative simplicity. It also can be adapted for use in a chair with resistance exercise bands and tubing secured around either a doorknob or pole. Its utility as a safe and effective strength development tool is predicated on sound instruction, effective supervision, and proper execution.

References

1. Caulfield S, Berninger D. In: Haff GG, Triplett TN, editors. NSCA's Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. 4th ed. National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). Champaign (IL): Human Kinetics; 2016. p. 362–6.
2. Exercise Prescription on the Net. [cited 2019 January 4]. Available from: http://www.exrx.net/WeightExercises/BackGeneral/CBStraightBackSeatedRow.html.
3. Fenwick CM, Brown SH, McGill SM. Comparison of different rowing exercises: trunk muscle activation and lumbar spine motion, load and stiffness. J Strength Cond Res. 2009;23(5):1408–17.
4. Floyd RT. Manual of Structural Kinesiology. 19th ed. McGraw Hill Education: New York (NY); 2015. 222 p.
5. Mazzone T. Sports performance series: the kinesiology of the rowing stroke. Strength Cond J. 1988;10(2):4–11.
6. Saeterbakken A, Andersen V, Brudeseth A, Lund H, Fimland M. The effect of performing bi- and unilateral row exercises on core muscle activation. Int J Sports Med. 2015;36(11):900–5.
7. Cronin J, James J, Hagstrom J. Kinematics and kinetics of the seated row and implications for conditioning. J Strength Cond Res. 2007;21(4):1265–70.
8. McMaster DT, Cronin J, McGuigan M. Forms of variable resistance training. Strength Cond J. 2009;31(1):50–64.
9. Lantz J, McNamara S. Modifying the seated row exercise for athletes with shoulder injury. Strength Cond J. 2003;25(5):53–6.
10. Ratamess NA, Alvar BA, Evetovich TK, et al. American College of Sports Medicine Position Stand: progression models in resistance training for healthy adults. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2009;41(3):687–708.

Recommended Resource

Exercise Prescription on the Net. [cited 2019 January 4]. Available from: http://www.exrx.net/WeightExercises/BackGeneral/CBStraightBackSeatedRow.html.

    Supplemental Digital Content

    Copyright © 2019 by American College of Sports Medicine.