A complete guide to the Seated Cable Row: Technique, muscles worked, benefits and more

Having a thick wide back is one of the premier goals of most gym enthusiasts. All-time bodybuilding greats such as Arnold and Frank Zane made their livings as professional bodybuilders with strong muscular backs.

A wide back not only looks aesthetically pleasing but also gives the body a naturally larger appearance.

If you want to look large and in charge, having a developed back is a good place to begin.

Back size has a strong genetic component but also depends on building a solid workout with proper movements.

Deadlifts and bent-over rows may be solid workout staples, but there’s always room for some new additions.

Although compound movements such as bent-over rows and deadlifts are the best tools for building your back, there are several secondary movements considered just as effective.

In conjunction with other exercises, the seated cable row is safe and powerful as a tool to have in your workout arsenal.

One of the best back movements to include in your workout are the seated cable rows. Great for building both width and depth, the seated row is perfect for building wings so wide you can fly.

Here’s everything you need to know about seated cable rows, and how to add them to your work out routine to target your upper back.

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Seated cable row

What is a Seated Row?

The seated row is a cable accessory back movement performed as a stationary isolation exercise focused on mainly stimulating the latissimus dorsi muscles.

The seated row has numerous attachments that can be used to provide different stimuli to the various back muscle groups.

As a staple in any back workout, the seated row is best performed in moderate to high rep ranges. Try sets in the ten to fifteen rep range for optimal muscular hypertrophy.

Like the name implies, the exercise is performed in a seated rowing motion. So row, row, row your gains gently down the gym.

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Setting up for the Seated Cable Row

To set up for the seated cable, the first step is to pick an appropriate attachment. There are several different options available for targeting the various back muscles including:

Each of the attachments above will target different areas of the back muscles. The closer grip attachments will help build back muscle thickness.

Additionally, changing your grip on certain bars can also help selectively target specific muscle groups. Overhand work engages the upper back muscles more effectively, targeting the rhomboids, and trapezius. Underhand work shifts the focus to the latissimus dorsi.

The wider grip attachments will help increase back width. Having the proper balance of both exercises will help create a wide bodied appearance.

The next step is to be sure you are sitting in the proper position. Sit upright with your feet against the foot support. Keep your back upright and your spine in a neutral position.

Avoid rounding the lower back to prevent back injuries from occurring. The top portion of your body should remain stationary and your arms should be the only thing moving.

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Seated Cable Rows vs. Rowing Machine

There’s some confusion over the differences between doing seated cable rows and using a rowing machine, like the Concept2 Rower.

While both the seated cable row on a cable row machine and using a rower are compound movements, rowing on a machine engages both the lower and upper body while using the cable pulley for rows only engages the upper body.

The rowing machine builds both strength and endurance, engaging the full range of motion while using momentum and power. The combination of intensity and resistance while rowing on a machine can help burn fat more effectively.

Whereas, the seated cable row machine is primarily for strength training and is often a multifunctional pulley machine that allows for other movements, including the lat pulldown and exercises targeting the triceps.

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Seated Cable Row Technique

The effectiveness of any exercise depends largely upon using proper technique and form. Steady controlled movements will always be more beneficial than swinging the weight back and forth.

Try to use a moderate amount of weight you can control as opposed to ego lifting.

Heavy weight is not effective if you have to use bad form. There is also an increased risk of potential injury.

Perform the seated cable row by doing the following steps:

  1. Sit with your back straight in an upright position

  2. Retract your scapula and rotate your shoulders backwards— try to pinch your shoulder blades together.

  3. Grab the attachment with both hands (or one hand if performing a single arm movement). This is your starting position.

  4. Begin the movement by performing the rowing motion, bringing your shoulder blades together and keeping your scapula retracted. Keep your elbows tucked and abdominals braced.

  5. When you reach the end of your range of motion, with the handle pulled to your chest, pause, and slowly reverse the movement.

  6. Control both the eccentric and concentric portions of the movement by using slow, methodical movements.

  7. Be sure to breathe in and out with each repetition.

  8. Focus on keeping the back straight without allowing your form to breakdown.

Remember proper form always is more effective than unnecessarily swinging around heavy weight.

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cable rows

Are Seated Cable Rows a Compound Exercise?

Compound movements are defined as exercises focused on building multiple muscle groups simultaneously. Common examples of compound exercises include: deadlifts, squats, bench press, and bent-over barbell or dumbbell rows (or chest supported barbell or dumbbell rows).

Although the seated cable row is not considered one of the “staple” compound movements, it does work multiple muscle groups concurrently.

Muscles worked

The seated cable row works various muscle groups with a single movement. Although the exercise is mainly a latissimus dorsi dominant movement, several other back muscles are also worked at the same time including: the trapezius muscles, the erector spinae, rear deltoids, biceps, biceps brachialis, and the forearms. Due to the nature of the exercise, it can be considered a compound movement. There’s also a core bracing component to ensure you’re maintaining form.

If you feel your biceps are being used too much throughout the movement, consider using grip attachments. These grips are wrapped around the cable attachments to remove bicep activation from the exercise.

This allows the focus of the exercise to be entirely on the back as opposed to using bicep and forearm strength.

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Seated Cable Row Benefits

The seated cable row should be a staple in your back routine if it isn’t already. Compared to other back movements, the seated cable row provides benefits other back exercises are lacking.

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  • The seated row is a safer exercise providing less stress on the lower back compared to other movements such as deadlifts and bent-over rows.
  • Cable movements provide constant tension throughout the entire movement. Using cables allows you to work both the concentric and eccentric portions of the exercise. More tension equals more muscle activation.
  • Allows you to build both the width and thickness of the back simultaneously.
  • The variety of seated cable row exercises at your disposal are almost limitless. Having a range of different attachments will keep your workouts fresh as well as providing new stimuli. Just a small change can make a significant difference in your normal routine.

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How to Change up your Workout

If you feel that your workout has gone stale, it may be time to sprinkle some life into it. If the seated row has become overly routine try the following steps to mix it up:

  • Use different attachments: if you have used the same attachment most of your life, it may be time for something new.
  • Try doing the exercise at different heights: Many people will sit on a dumbbell while doing the exercise to activate different muscle groups.
  • Do single arm variations: To prevent muscle imbalances from occurring you should do at least one single arm variation each workout. If you notice one arm is stronger than the other, add some extra volume to decrease muscle imbalances.

Keep your routines fresh by changing small variables each workout.

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Seated Cable Row Alternative Exercises

The seated cable row is just one of many exercises that can be performed to maximize back strength and hypertrophy. If you don’t have access to a cable machine try the following movements in lieu of the seated cable row:

  • Standing Cable Row: Perhaps you don’t have access to a weight bench but have cable machine. You perform the same movement in a standing position. However, you will not be able to isolate the back in the same manner as the seated position. Don’t expect to move as much weight if performing the exercise standing.
  • Barbell Bent-Over Row: One of the best compound movements for building the back is the barbell bent-over row. This movement is great for building muscle but should be avoided if you have pre-existing back problems as it can make symptoms worsen.
  • Dumbbell Bent-Over Row: If you don’t have access to barbells, you can do dumbbell bent-over rows in place of the barbell variation. You should not perform this movement if you have lower-back related issues.

The seated cable row works several different back muscles simultaneously and can be performed with several different variations.

If your workout tends to get repetitive and you’re searching for a new stimulus, simply try a new cable attachment to mix things up.

The seated cable row should be a staple in most any person’s workout routine regardless of experience or skill level, unless the trainer has received medical advice pointing to the contrary.