Building upper body strength and definition is a common goal at the gym for both new and seasoned athletes alike. As the largest muscle group in the upper body, the back is a driving force for powering challenging movements.
Ring rows are one of the most effective calisthenic exercises for building upper back strength. Here’s what you need to know about this fantastic movement for people trying to improve their functional fitness level while building a beastly back.
What are Ring Rows?
Ring rows are a form of an inverted row, in which the athlete pulls their body toward the rings while leaning back at an incline. This form of bodyweight exercise pits you against gravity, challenging both your grip and core strength, as well as your tenacity. This basic movement is versatile and adaptable, making it both an awesome beginner workout with a wide array of training progressions.
What Muscles do Ring Rows Work?
Ring rows are a compound movement, using multiple muscle groups rather than isolating specific targets. The benefit of compound exercises is that you get a better workout for your time and effort. Compound movements also help correct dysfunctional movement patterns and help trigger an anabolic response to build muscle more effectively.
With ring rows, you’ll work your lats, rhomboids, rear delts, erectors, and biceps— the upper back, parts of the shoulders, and even the arms and core to an extent.
The Benefits of Doing Ring Rows
Doing ring rows offers a variety of benefits to both new and seasoned athletes. Aside from generally building a strong back with a compound exercise, the benefits of ring rows include:
Works the Stabilizer Muscles
While this accessory movement s often considered a variation of traditional inverted rows, it offers one key benefit over doing bodyweight inverted rows with a beam or barbell: instability. Rather than pulling yourself toward a fixed point, your small, secondary muscles will engage to maintain stability as the rings respond to your movement. Whereas a barbell would remain fixed without those working the stabilizers, using the rings improves muscular engagement.
Improves Grip Strength
Grip strength is a must for gymnastic movements, and ring rows are a safe, effective way to build it. Ring rows are also the first step in practicing and strengthening your false grip— the transitional position to shift into muscle-up movements. Building false grip strength before attempting more advanced movements will help ease the learning curve.
Supports the Development of Other Exercises
The biggest benefit of ring rows is that every aspect of the movement carries over into other lifts. The increased strength from ring rows will become the strength for pull-ups and deadlifts, as well as carrying over into push exercises, like push-ups and bench pressing. Regardless of whether you’re a dedicated CrossFitter or you enjoy some powerlifting now and then, this basic movement can help you boost your PRs.
How to Properly do Ring Rows
- Fix a set of gymnastic rings overhead with the rings adjusted to approximately chest height.
- Grab the rings with an overhand grip, knuckles facing upward. Lean back and take a few steps forward until your chest is almost under the rings with your body at an angle. The lower you are under the rings, the more intense the workout.
- Brace your core and let the weight hang on your arms. This is your starting position.
- Pull your shoulder blades together and pull yourself upward, bringing your ribcage to the rings and keeping your elbows tucked.
- Pause at the top, then slowly lower back to the starting position. That’s one rep.
One of the most common mistakes people make when doing ring rows is letting their hips drop. You’ll need your core strength for this one. Squeeze your glutes and keep your core braced as though you’re doing a plank.
Another common mistake is allowing for loose shoulders. Be sure to start each pull in an active shoulder position with your chest up. Doing rows with rounded shoulders puts you at risk for injury.
Finally, don’t let yourself fall back to the starting position; maintain tension and control through the entire range of motion, and keep it slow for the eccentric portion of the movement.
Ring Row Variations and Alternatives
One of the easiest ways to modify the ring row— whether you’re trying to simplify or make a more advanced movement— is to adjust your foot positioning and level. Stepping back and completing the rows at a more upright angle will make up for the lack of strength in beginners. Conversely, completing a feet-elevated ring row is the hardest variation, ideal for advanced athletes.
Adjusting your hand positioning will also shift the muscular focus. Pulling so the rings hit higher on your chest shifts the focus to the upper back muscles while pulling lower toward the rib cage shifts the muscular benefits to the lower back. You can also build unilateral strength by trying single-arm ring rows.
If you don’t have access to gymnastics rings or a TRX system, you can complete an inverted row variation with a barbell. Chest supported rows and pendlay rows also target the same muscles with a pull exercise.
Did You Know
Did you know that gymnastics ring training dates back to the 1800s, and was first featured in the Olympics in 1924?
Ring rows are an effective exercise for building a strong upper back. You can add these to any WOD or as an accessory lift to other training styles. Use the modifications and variations above to adjust this simple movement to your skill level for functional strength that will benefit your other lifts and daily living activities.