The Seated Cable Row is one of the very first back exercises people are taught when they first start training.
It's an excellent introduction to rowing movements, being relatively safe and effective for working the back.
Here's the problem...many people pick up bad habits either right off the bat (because they haven't received proper instruction) or by watching other people with bad habits.
My mission today is to eliminate any bad habits you might have picked up and help you get MORE out of your Seated Cable Rows. They're a GREAT exercise for the back when done properly...the key lies in knowing proper form, putting it work, and using a few form cues along the way.
Seated Cable Row Tip #1 - Sit Up Straight and Stay There
One of the most common errors is the exaggerated forward lean, done in attempt to "get a better stretch" on the lats.
This leaning forward, while it does give you a little bit more stretch on the back muscles, also puts your lower back into an awkward, rounded-over position, which can cause injury.
The other problem with this lean forward is that it can very easily lead to momentum being used on the pull, generated by returning the torso to the vertical position.
This momentum does NOT help put more tension on the back. By doing, any good things you've done by giving the lats a bit more stretch is completely undone by heaving the weight up using the lower back.
Here's the proper bottom position for the torso to be in.
Let the weight pull the shoulders forward while keep your core tight and lower back arched. The lats need that arch in the lower in order to fully contract.
Now pull the handle in to your lower midsection.
Seated Cable Row Tip #2 - Breathe IN As You Pull In
The next common error I see is people exhaling as they pull the handle in to their midsection. This will cause the chest to cave in at the moment where you actually want it to puff out.
Puffing the chest out helps pull the shoulder blades back behind you, which helps activate the lats strongly. And you can't puff the chest out while you're exhaling.
So as you pull in, inhale. It'll make a big difference in how the exercise feels.
Seated Cable Row Tip #3 - Use a V Handle
I prefer to use the V-Bar handle for Seated Cable Rows. Most machines already have this attached. While it is possible to use the straight bar and do underhand and overhand grip rows, you'll have to straighten out the knees more so they don't get in the way of the bar path.
If you're using lighter weight, that's not a big problem. As you get into heavier weight, it can become more of an issue as keeping the knees bent will help take pressure off the lower back.
If you're using a wide overhand grip on the straight bar attachment, you'll be pull up higher on your body anyway, so it won't be an issue there.
Seated Cable Row Tip #4 - Pour Ice Water Down Your Back
Not literally...just imagine as you're pulling that handle into your midsection that somebody is pouring ice water down your back (or sticking a knee in between your shoulder blades). That arched-back position is what we're looking for.
Seated Cable Row Tip #5 - Your Hands Are Hooks, Push Back With Your Elbows and Pull Yourself Towards the Weight Stack
Don't have a death-grip on the handles...envision your hands are hooks that connect your arm to the cable machine. This will help decrease bicep involvement and put more tension on the lats.
Also, as you're doing the exercise, try to imagine that you're pushing your elbows against something behind you rather than simply pulling the handle in.
And finally, to further increase muscle activation, imagine that the weight stack is a solid block and the handle won't move. Now pull your torso towards the stack like you're trying to pull yourself towards the stack rather than pulling the cable towards you. This small change in mindset helps a lot.
Seated Cable Row Tip #6 - Go Strict...Most of the Time
This exercise is best done with strict form, however there are times when you actually do want to loosen up the form a little and use heavier weight, without opening yourself up to injury.
After all, building power in the back is just as important as building muscle.
Here's how I do it...
First, make sure your legs are solidly in place...the heavier you go, the more your legs are going to be involved.
Let the weight stretch your arms forward and allow your torso to come forward a bit. As you can see, I'm still keeping the arch in my lower back and my torso is not past vertical.
Now start pulling with a very powerful pull and push HARD with your legs at the same time. Your torso will move backwards a bit.
Finish the movement with the cable handle in the lower midsection. Your torso will be leaning back a bit. This is fine as long as you maintain that arch in the lower back and you puff your chest out.
In terms of breathing, the trick with this one is to take a deep breath at the bottom of the movement then hold it as you pull. Then exhale on the way down. When you're using heavier weight, you need that extra stability that comes with briefly holding your breath.
Naturally, if you have blood pressure issues, don't do that, but if you don't have issues, it's a very natural and very effective thing to do.
Those are my best tips and tricks for getting the most out of the Seated Cable Row. This simple exercise is a great way to build strength in the upper back and lats and when used properly, can challenge even the most advanced trainer.
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