Horizontal rows are an extremely underrated exercise.
While pullups work the vertical pulling plane, horizontal rows work the horizontal pulling plane. This helps maintain muscular balance with your pulling muscles.
Many people lump horizontal rows in with the pullup progression. This is a mistake in my opinion. The horizontal row deserves its own progression.
If you’ve ever wanted to work toward the front or back lever, you need to be doing horizontal rows.
In this post I’ll take you through a series of exercises to help you build a basic level of strength in horizontal pulling. Once you achieve this basic level of strength, you can begin working towards more advanced exercises.
The end goal is to get to the point where you can perform 25 perfect reps of horizontal rows.
Step 1: Vertical Rows
The first step in the horizontal row progression is vertical rows. This may sound counter-intuitive because the exercise is labeled vertical and we are working the horizontal pulling plane.
But don’t worry, this exercise is still a horizontal pulling motion.
Find a sturdy vertical base you can grab onto in an upright fashion. Doorframes, light poles, or a fence is perfect. I personally hang rings from my pullup bar.
Place your feet together such that when you pull yourself towards your hands, your body is nearly vertical. Now extend your arms until you feel a gentle stretch in your back. Your arms should be approximately shoulder-width apart.
This is the start position.
Keeping your body as straight as an arrow, pull yourself up until your body is vertical or near vertical. Pause for a moment before returning to the start position.
By pausing for a brief second at both the top and bottom positions, you remove any type of momentum that may help you perform your reps.
Step 2: Incline Rows
The next step in the horizontal row progression is incline rows. Incline rows are the same as vertical rows, except you place your body at a steeper angle. This requires you to pull more of your bodyweight.
Find a sturdy base or bar that allows you to position your body at about a 45 degree angle relative to the floor when your shoulder-width arms are straight. This is the start position.
Using strength alone, pull yourself up until your hands are close to your chest. Pause for a second before returning to the start position.
If you find your feet sliding, try creating some friction between your heels and the ground by wearing socks or chalking your heels.
You can also place a weight or other sturdy object on the ground (shown above) to prevent your heels from sliding.
Step 3: Knees Bent Horizontal Rows
Once you’re comfortable with incline rows, it’s time to get horizontal!
Find a sturdy base you can reach up and grab while your body is in a horizontal position. A table works well, but you can also use a broomstick over two surfaces or rings.
You want to lower yourself to the point where your back almost touches the floor. If you have rings, this will be easy to attain. But if you are limited by a table or other surface, do the best you can.
Bend at the knees and keep the lower legs close to vertical. The remainder of your body should be relatively straight (don’t let it sag). This is the start position.
Now pull yourself up until your hands are close to your chest. Pause for a second before lowering yourself back to the start position.
Knees bent horizontal rows are an excellent stepping stone between incline rows and full horizontal rows. With the knees bent your center of mass is closer to your shoulders, which makes the exercise easier.
Step 4: Full Horizontal Rows
Once you master knees bent horizontal rows, all that’s left to do is extend your legs out straight.
Grab onto your sturdy surface and get your back down as close to the ground as possible without touching. Extend your legs so that your body is straight. This will require you to engage your core.
This is the start position.
Now pull yourself up until your hands are close to your chest. Once there, pause before slowly lowering yourself back down to the start position.
If you’ve worked through the previous steps slowly and methodically, then you should have no trouble with horizontal rows. Once you get to this step, spend some time here and increase your reps.
I recommend at least 25 perfect horizontal rows, done at a slow tempo before even considering anything more advanced.
Advanced Horizontal Row Training
Once you master the basic horizontal row and have built up to a decent number of reps (20-30), then you can start looking to progress in your row training.
At this point I recommend adding the pullup progression to your training routine. Full pullups are extremely tough for beginners, but if you’ve worked through to horizontal rows you will have built a basic level of pulling strength.
If you decide to add pullups to your routine (which you should!), I recommend continuing to progress with horizontal rows as a separate progression from pullups.
This strategy will help to you to maintain strong pulling muscles in both the horizontal and vertical planes, keep your pulling muscles balanced, and help prevent injury.
You can progress with horizontal rows for years and years, all the way up to the almighty front lever row (think horizontal row without your feet touching the ground).
Advanced horizontal row training is another post in and of itself. But here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Move your hands close together until you are doing close-grip horizontal rows.
- Begin raising your feet up onto a box or other elevated surface. This causes you to have to pull more of your bodyweight through your arms.
- Raise one leg into the air so that only one foot touches the ground.
- Begin progressing towards front lever rows by starting with the tuck front lever. This can be done for reps, or held in a static position.
So there you have it, the horizontal row progression. This is as basic a calisthenics exercise as pushups and squats, and should be mastered by anyone new to calisthenics.
By following this progression, even the most out-of-shape individual will be able to work their way up to performing full horizontal rows for reps.
If you enjoyed this post, you know what to do. Leave a comment below and let me know what you thought.