The standing cable row is a beginner-friendly exercise primarily designed to strengthen the muscles of the back.
It’s a horizontal pulling movement, which means there’s more trapezius activation compared to vertical pulling movements (like pull-ups)… and as we’ll explain, that provides some really important benefits for musculoskeletal health, as well as athletic performance.
In this exercise guide we outline how to perform standing cable rows properly, muscles worked, benefits and alternatives that work similar muscles if you don’t have access to a cable machine.
- A standing cable row is a horizontal pulling movement, primarily targeting the back muscles.
- It is a beginner-friendly exercise that is suitable for all levels by selecting an appropriate weight.
- Change the cable height to activate the muscles slightly differently.
- Focus on slow, controlled repetitions.
Standing Cable Rows – The TL;DR
Who should do it?
- Beginners – An excellent introduction to upper-body strength training.
- Experienced Gym-Goers – A simple way to add horizontal pulling movements into a workout routine.
- Those Looking to Improve Posture – For those looking to correct or improve posture, standing cable rows (high variation) are an effective way to target the lower trapezius.
What sets it apart from similar exercises?
- Controlled Tension – Unlike dumbbell/barbell rows or pull-ups, the cable machine ensures continuous tension throughout the exercise and reduces the impact gravity has on how weight is applied, giving a smooth, constant resistance.
- Customization – The setup allows for variations in grips, angles, and attachments, making it more adaptable to individual needs than many other back exercises.
- Safety – The controlled motion and adjustable weight make it safer and more accessible for people at various fitness levels.
How to Perform Standing Cable Rows Properly
To do standing cable rows:
- Select an appropriate weight on the cable machine and attach your preferred grip handle.
- Slightly bend your knees and engage your glutes and quads to create a stable base.
- Keep your back straight and chest up, and eyes forward.
- Brace your trunk and exhale as you pull the handles towards your midsection, squeezing the shoulder blades together.
- Pause for a moment at the top of the movement to fully engage the muscles.
- Inhale and slowly extend your arms back to the starting position, maintaining control over the weight to prevent it from pulling you forward.
- Perform the desired number of repetitions and sets, maintaining proper form throughout.
Coach’s Tip – Focus on slow, controlled repetitions. You can do a warm-up set to gauge how much weight is appropriate for your fitness level. We usually aim for between 8-12 repetitions, so choose a weight that fits this sort of range. If you’re struggling to do 8, or you can do 12+ with ease, consider changing the weight.
Standing cable rows primarily work the muscles of the back, shoulders and arms; including the latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, trapezius, and biceps.
They also recruit the core, glutes and quads to maintain a stable base.
Latissimus Dorsi (Lats)
The movement of pulling the cable towards you primarily engages the latissimus dorsi.
These large muscles on the sides of the back are fundamental for any sort of pulling movement. Strengthening the lats contributes to a wider back appearance and aids in stability during many daily activities.
The rhomboids are targeted as you squeeze your shoulder blades together during the pull. These muscles, located between the shoulder blades, help in retracting the scapula, contributing to an upright posture.
Strengthening them can help combat the slouched appearance that often accompanies desk work.
The trapezius muscles get worked when you maintain a straight back during the rowing motion. These muscles run down the back of the neck and spine and are involved in moving and rotating the shoulder blades.
Strengthening the traps can enhance shoulder stability and neck support, useful for heavy lifting or maintaining good posture.
The biceps are engaged as secondary muscles during the pulling phase.
While they aren’t the primary focus of the exercise, strengthening the biceps is essential for arm strength and function, aiding in tasks that require lifting and pulling.
In a Nutshell
Standing Cable Rows Benefits
Full Upper-Body Workout
The standing cable row isn’t a one-trick pony… it targets multiple major muscle groups in the upper body, including the back, shoulders, and arms.
This means you get more bang for your buck in terms of time and effort, engaging different muscles in a single motion.
By focusing on the muscles that align the spine and retract the shoulder blades, standing cable rows promote an upright posture.
It’s a bit like having an invisible string pulling you up, aligning your body into a more confident and healthy stance, particularly beneficial for those spending hours at a desk.
Customizable and Adaptable
Standing cable rows can be your best gym buddy, whether you’re a beginner or a pro. With adjustable weight and various handle attachments, it’s an exercise that grows with you.
You can tailor it to your fitness level and goals, making it an evergreen addition to your routine.
The controlled nature of the movement and the focus on muscles that support the spine make standing cable rows a tool for injury prevention. By strengthening key areas, you enhance stability and reduce the risk of strains in daily life or other exercises.
Bent-Over Barbell Rows
A classic back-building exercise, bent-over barbell rows engage the lats, rhomboids, and traps much like standing cable rows. You’ll bend at the hips and pull a barbell towards your lower ribcage. While it lacks the constant tension of the cable machine, it offers a solid alternative for muscle building.
Pull-ups are a bodyweight exercise that hit many of the same muscles, especially the lats. Though they require significant strength and control, they can be an excellent way to challenge your upper body.
Because pull-ups are a vertical pulling movement, they tend to work the lats more.
Getting Started with Pull-Ups
Performed with a rope attachment on a cable machine or with resistance bands, face pulls target the traps, rhomboids, and rear deltoids.
By pulling the rope towards your face and keeping elbows high, you focus on those vital posture-enhancing muscles.
Standing Cable Row Variations
One of the standout features of standing cable rows is their adaptability. With a few tweaks here and there, you can target different muscles or add a new challenge. Here’s a peek at some variations that might spice up your routine.
By attaching a straight bar and pulling it towards your upper chest or shoulders, you put more emphasis on the upper traps and rear deltoids. It’s like giving your regular cable rows a promotion – they’re aiming higher, literally and figuratively!
Switching to a low bar attachment and pulling towards your hips emphasizes the lower lats. Think of it as a grounded approach, focusing on the foundation of your back muscles. It’s a humbler version of the standard cable row but equally mighty.
Performing the exercise with one arm at a time allows for a more isolated focus on each side of the back.
This variation can help identify and correct any imbalances between sides.
Using a rope attachment instead of handles offers a different grip and range of motion. You can pull the ends of the rope apart at the peak of the movement, squeezing those shoulder blades even more.
It’s a subtle twist that adds a little extra “oomph” to the exercise.
Standing Vs Seated Cable Rows
The upper body biomechanics of a standing and seated cable row are very similar.
The main difference is how your lower body is engaged.
With seated cable rows, you’ve got a very stable base… and therefore you’ll probably find you can pull more weight. You can dig your heels in and really gain a solid foundation.
Standing cable rows, on the other hand, require your core, glutes, quads, hamstrings and calves to help create a stable base… and this inherently means you probably won’t be able to pull as much weight.
So, if you want to focus exclusively on strength, seated cable rows are probably your better choice… but if like the idea of activating more muscle groups, then try standing cable rows.
Standing cable rows are a versatile and effective exercise for upper-body strength.
Offering continuous tension, adaptable resistance, and plenty of variations, it’s a simple but effective exercise to help you reach your fitness goals.
Featured image and video demonstration credit – Rob Fowkes