Bodyweight exercises are often shunned by “hardcore” gym-goers who only deem worthy exercises when you lift heaps of hard-cast iron. Yet they forget that bodyweight movements can be very beneficial, and even humbling. Some would argue that being able to lift a proverbial ton isn’t very worthy if you can’t lift yourself and master your own body weight.
When it comes to training your back, pull-ups aren’t your only option. The inverted row — sometimes jokingly called the Australian pull-up because your body is “down under” the bar — targets your back, shoulders, and biceps.
The inverted row is highly effective because it provides benefits to beginners and experienced lifters alike, improving pulling strength, back muscle size, and whole-body stability and coordination. Here’s how to perform a perfect inverted row, along with everything you need to know about this powerful and overlooked exercise.
- How to Do the Inverted Row
- Inverted Row Mistakes to Avoid
- Benefits of the Inverted Row
- Muscles Worked by the Inverted Row
- Who Should Do the Inverted Row
- How to Program the Inverted Row
- Inverted Row Variations
- Inverted Row Alternatives
- Frequently Asked Questions
Simple and Effective Inverted Row Demonstration
Call it an inverted row, a bodyweight row, an Australian pull-up, or even the light-hearted but derogatory “fat man pull-up.” Whatever term you use, the movement is the same. Take a look at the straightforward technique and then continue learning.
The inverted row is a relatively less challenging bodyweight back exercise compared to the classic pull-up because you’re lifting a lower percentage of your body weight. This makes it a perfect exercise for newcomers. Nevertheless, improper execution will lead to poor muscle recruitment and minimal benefits, so pay attention to good form.
Step 1 — Get Into Position
Lie on the ground in a rack or Smith machine and reach your arms toward the ceiling. Note the spot slightly above your fingertips, and set a barbell in the rack at that height. Return to a lying position with your chest under the bar, and take slightly wider than shoulder-width, palms-down grip.
Keep your legs straight and your heels on the ground. Maintain a stiff core and hips to keep your body in a straight line.
Form tip: Because the resistance comes from leveraging your bodyweight, you can easily scale the exercise to suit your strength level. The steeper your body angle, the easier the exercise will be. The more horizontal your body is, the more challenging it will be. However, your back should not be able to rest on the ground in the stretched position. Instead, if necessary, elevate your feet on a bench or step to increase the difficulty.
Step 2 — Pull Your Chest to the Bar
Flex your abs, squeeze your shoulder blades together, and pull yourself up until your torso touches the bar. It should make contact near your lower chest. Think about driving your chest “up” through the bar toward the ceiling.
Do not let your elbows flare out too much on your sides. Keep them relatively close to your body to improve the recruitment of your lats (back muscles). In the top position, don’t bend your legs or let your glutes hang down.
Form tip: If your chest cannot reach the bar, adjust the height and reposition to reduce the difficulty. Achieving a full range of motion is critical for building strength, stimulating muscle growth, and improving shoulder and upper back joint health.
Step 3 — Stay Tight As You Lower
Keep your entire body tense and keep your shoulder blades squeezed together as you slowly straighten your arms. When you’ve reached full lockout, your back and shoulders should still be slightly off the ground.
Pivot your body on your heels, don’t bend your legs during the exercise. Let your back, shoulder, and arm muscles do the work of lifting and lowering.
Form tip: Maintain a stiff posture and an engaged core for maximum benefits. Ensure total-body tension and do not relax during the eccentric (descent or lowering phase).
Just because the inverted row is a bodyweight exercise doesn’t mean you get a free pass to butcher basic technique. Good form matters as much with bodyweight exercises as with free weight movements. Review these frequent mistakes to make sure you’re not doing them.
The main muscles of the inverted row are the back and the arms, but the whole body is involved in the lift. If your glutes start dropping down and you lose tension and posture, the mechanics of the exercise will change and you will reap less benefits. Your body should form a straight line from your ankles to your shoulder joints.
There’s one acceptable exception to the “straight line” rule: To significantly improve your leverage and make the exercise easier, you can bend your legs and plant your feet flat on the floor. However, you should still keep a straight line from your knees to your shoulders while maintaining tension in glutes, core, and shoulder blades.
Avoid it: Push your heels into the ground to tense your legs and contract your glutes. Imagine having a string attaching your hip bones to the ceiling.
Rowing Too High
In the top position of each repetition, the bar should touch the lower part of your chest. If you’re positioned incorrectly and pull too high, with the bar hitting your upper chest or neck, you turn the exercise into a type of face pull variation.
This is a mistake because it decreases activation of your bigger lat muscles and increases recruitment of your rear deltoids (shoulders) and upper back. A higher pulling position also causes your elbows to flare out to the sides, which can increase strain on your shoulder joint, especially if you lack shoulder mobility.
Avoid it: Prior to beginning your set, when setting up the bar position, be sure your lower chest or upper abs are lined up under the bar. This helps to put you in a good pulling position before the movement even begins.
Pulling with “Broken” Wrists
When any exercise becomes difficult, because of fatigue or excessive weight, the body will naturally try to recruit additional muscles to come to the rescue. This can happen with the inverted row if your arms are much stronger than your back, when your wrists bend during the movement.
Pulling with bent or “broken” wrists will shift more stress to your arms and can cause joint pain and discomfort. It also excessively fatigues your gripping strength which will limit the amount of back work you can achieve.
Avoid it: Keep a neutral wrist position at all times, from the stretched position to the top contraction. Think about pulling with your elbows instead of pulling with your hands. If you have wrist pain, use a neutral grip by placing a football bar (sometimes known as a Swiss bar) in the rack instead of a straight barbell or by switching from a barbell to suspension straps (like a TRX).
The simplest exercises can sometimes be overlooked, but they are often the ones that can provide major benefits. The inverted row can provide several benefits in terms of strength, muscle mass, and core stability.
Just like the pull-up, the inverted row is a fantastic exercise for building muscle mass in the back, arms, and forearms using just your bodyweight. In fact, it can recruit more lat and upper back muscle than a traditional barbell row (1) The inverted row makes it easy to accumulate volume (repetitions and/or sets) to stimulate muscle growth in your target muscles. (2)
Bodyweight movements have a reputation of being less effective for building strength because you can’t move extremely heavy weights but, if you’re a beginning lifter, it can prove very efficient. (3) As a multi-joint exercise, the inverted row is indeed an ideal choice for building pulling strength. (4)
The inverted row demands whole-body coordination and power. Like many bodyweight movements, you can eventually add resistance, like a weighted vest, to provide basic progressive overload. This will challenge the back, biceps, and grip strength of any experienced lifter.
Less Lower Back Stress
Rowing exercises usually involve the lower back to maintain proper posture and provide stability, but this can often be a limiting factor, especially for lifters with pre-existing lower back problems.
The inverted row creates very little spinal load because your spine isn’t put under any significant strain. As such, if you’re having back pain, it is an ideal option for a rowing movement with nearly zero stress on your lower back. Moreover, it also engages your core, which has been linked to less lower back pain and a better core and spinal health. (5)(6)
A properly done inverted row can be one of the most efficient back exercises in your arsenal. It recruits multiple muscles in your back without straining the often overused lower back like many alternative movements. As a pulling exercise, the inverted row also recruits several support muscles.
The lats are the biggest and strongest back muscles. They go from your hip bone and lower spine to your humerus (arm bone) and are heavily involved in moving your arm through a variety of motions. Because they cover so much of your torso, the lats also contribute to spinal stability and trunk movements. They are the main target of the inverted row.
This includes your trapezius, rhomboids and posterior deltoids — all involved in scapular (shoulder blade) motion and joint health. These muscles work similarly to move the shoulder blades in several ways, assist in pulling motions, and contribute to stabilizing the scapulae during pressing movements.
Of course, we all know the biceps. On the front of the upper arm, it is the biggest arm muscle and goes from the radius (forearm bone) to the scapula. The biceps are recruited to perform the inverted row, but other relatively smaller muscles will help the biceps flex (bend) your arm.
The pronated (palm down) grip used during the inverted row actually puts an emphasis on the brachialis, the strongest arm flexor muscle. (7) It is actually located just under the biceps, and can help your biceps appear larger because a well-developed brachialis will “push” it higher.
Your forearms will be trained by nearly every back exercise because your grip transfers force from the weight toward the target muscle. Several muscles work throughout your forearms, but the forearm flexors on the palm-side of your lower arm are responsible for your grip and will be taxed the most. The brachioradialis, the biggest muscle on the opposite side of your forearm, will also assist in flexing your upper arm.
In order to maintain proper posture and be more efficient during this exercise, you’ll have to engage your whole core. All of your abs (rectus abdominis, obliques, transverse abdominis), your erector spinae (spinal muscles), and some hip muscles are recruited synergistically. Your abs are the anterior core muscles running on the front of your torso while the erectors are along your back (beginning at the lower back, they run up to your neck).
Your core muscles do not move through a range of motion during the inverted row, but are contracted isometrically to maintain a strong, stable, and safe body position.
The inverted row is versatile and demands bare minimum equipment —any bar or beam that can support your weight. Lifters with a variety of goals and abilities can incorporate this exercise into their routine.
The inverted row is an ideal pulling exercise for beginners starting to master their own body’s resistance. The exercise can be scaled in an instant to your strength level by either raising the bar or bending your legs to make it easier, or placing your feet on a bench or adding a weighted vest on — or both — to make it harder.
As pull-ups are significantly harder for inexperienced lifters without a base of strength, the bodyweight row is a great first step to increase pulling strength, general fitness, and whole-body tension.
Be it a bodybuilder or someone that just wants to pack on some size, many lifters overlook the inverted row as a muscle-building exercise. Despite being a bodyweight exercise, it can be more efficient than some other rowing exercises, especially for targeting your lats and strengthening your upper back. It also has the benefit of being low-stress on your lower back, so you won’t interfere with recovery from low-back intensive exercises like squats or deadlifts.
General Fitness Advocates
Whether you’re a CrossFit enthusiast, sports athlete, or a Regular Joe that wants to improve their functional fitness, the inverted row is a multi-function exercise for developing several physical qualities. You can program it to improve strength, muscle size, muscular endurance, whole-body stability and coordination. You can even build cardiorespiratory capacities by tossing it into a circuit workout to improve your fitness as a whole.
Bodyweight movements are very versatile in programing, and the range of repetitions can vary considerably depending on your goals and strength level. If you’re a newer lifter, focus on only performing high-quality repetitions and treat it exactly like any other resistance exercise — no cheating on your form to squeeze out extra reps. A more experienced lifter can add external load or use a high training volume to make the movement more challenging.
Unweighted, Low Repetition
When you are at the early phase of training and still developing fundamental strength, coordination, and body awareness, your goal is to improve your form and build a general base. You cannot do too many repetitions because you lack the strength to do it without your form breaking down. Three to five sets of four to six repetitions is a good range to stick with.
You can also use a “total reps goal” approach instead of specific sets and reps. Aim for a modest number, roughly 20 repetitions, and complete them in as many sets of quality repetitions as needed. It could take 15 sets or it could be four. Over time, aim to reach the target in fewer total sets.
Unweighted, High Repetition
If you’re a strong lifter, you can use bodyweight training for high repetitions to build muscle while sparing your joints from excessive loading stress. (8) Aim for two to three sets of at least 15 repetitions to failure while keeping a good form. This will provide a great pump and will challenge more your core and postural muscles because of the longer set duration.
Weighted, Medium Repetition
If you can add external resistance to the lift using a weighted vest, a backpack, or a pair of chains draped across your torso, you can treat this exercise like any other resistance training movement and hit it hard and (relatively) heavy. The traditional bodybuilding scheme of three to four sets of eight to 12 repetitions will be your best bet to promote hypertrophy and provide a challenging time under tension.
Once you’ve mastered the basic movement, you can very easily switch the focus of the exercise to accommodate your goals or individual needs. Here are some simple tweaks to provide variation to your inverted rows.
Supinated Inverted Row
Using a palms-up grip is a simple change if you want to experience more biceps growth, because the arm muscles will be in optimal alignment. As such, most lifters will also be stronger and will be able to bang out more repetitions or use more weight.
This is similar to using chin-ups in place of pull-ups. The adjusted hand position changes muscle recruitment and emphasizes the biceps and forearms over the muscles of the back.
Neutral Grip Inverted Row
The neutral grip, or hammer grip, can be a welcome relief for lifters with achy shoulders, elbows, or wrists. The stress on these joints is drastically reduced because brachialis and brachioradialis recruitment is increased. As an added bonus, building these muscles will help you build a set of classic Popeye arms.
To perform it, use a football bar (or Swiss bar) instead of a straight barbell. If your gym doesn’t have one, you can use a neutral-grip “V-bar” attachment from the pulldown station and set yourself up parallel to the barbell. Suspension straps, like a TRX or gymnastic rings, would also be effective.
Using any suspension straps like a TRX or a pair of gymnastic rings is the most versatile and joint-friendly row option. You can use whatever grip you want: palm-down, neutral, or palm-up. You can even add a natural twisting motion by rotating your hands during each repetition. Begin pulling with a palm-down grip and rotate to neutral or palm-up as you approach the top position.
The main benefit is that the ring’s instability will challenge your core and your shoulders. This variation is the hardest, but the required stabilization will greatly improve your core and shoulder health and stability, which transfers to overall athleticism and power in other upper body exercises.
Variety is the spice of life, and of muscle growth. (9) If you’re ready to switch things up or if you don’t have a spot to perform the inverted row, you’re covered with these effective alternatives.
The seal row is the free weight equivalent of the inverted row. Lie prone (face down) on an elevated flat bench and grab a pair of dumbbells or a barbell — there even are specially designed stations for this exercise with easy to grab weights. Pull the weights from the stretched position beneath the bench toward your chest, as if performing an upside down inverted row.
Because your body is fully supported, cheating with momentum is very difficult. It also nearly eliminates any strain on the lower back, like the inverted row. With this variation, there’s no need for total-body stabilization, so you can solely focus on using your pulling muscles and develop a great mind-muscle connection.
They say the pull-up is the king of upper-body bodyweight exercises, and for good reason. It’s a tremendous back-builder. When you’re comfortable with inverted rows, get started with this vertical bodyweight exercise.
Like the inverted row, the pull-up will target more of your lats than your upper back. You can use the same grip variations and set/rep programming schemes as the inverted row.
Bent-Over Barbell Row
The standard barbell row might be an upper body pulling exercise in its purest form. Grab a barbell, bend forward and gather tension in your whole body, and start rowing heaps of iron.
This exercise will demand superior whole-body engagement, particularly your glutes and hamstrings to counterbalance the load. If you want to improve your pulling strength, back muscle size, and total body stability, get familiar with this classic movement.
Are inverted rows and pull-ups the same thing?
No. Despite both being bodyweight pulling exercises, they are different. One is a vertical movement pattern while the other works horizontally. This means that muscle recruitment will be similar, but not exactly be the same. The inverted row will recruit more of your upper back, for instance.
Pull-ups are also harder, because your body is completely hanging in the air and you’re required to lift proportionally more of your body weight. The inverted row has your feet supported on the ground and angled, which means that you’re lifting a lower percentage of your body weight.
As a bodyweight movement, when should I do the inverted row?
There are no clear rules because it will depend on your specific goals and strength levels. If you want to develop your strength or technique, include them at the start of your workout. If you’re using them to build muscle mass, they can be performed later in session, after your muscles are fatigued from other exercises.
If you really want to speed up your strength and technique gains as a newer lifter, you can also use the grease the groove technique. Perform a single set of a few high-quality repetitions, several times throughout the day (for instance, you can do it at home under a sturdy table), waiting at least 30 minutes between each set. This training method will develop your strength, coordination, and skill so that you quickly become very good at the exercise.
Get Back to Bodyweight Training
The inverted row is a highly effective addition to any training program, whether you’re just getting started in the gym or if you’re well-experienced. While the pull-up has a much more widely known reputation as being “the” bodyweight back-training exercise, the inverted row deserves plenty of attention and can deliver plenty of results. It shouldn’t be treated as an introductory exercise that’s forgotten once you build some strength. It’s definitely time to get on the ground and start pulling.
- Fenwick CM, Brown SH, McGill SM. Comparison of different rowing exercises: trunk muscle activation and lumbar spine motion, load, and stiffness. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Mar;23(2):350-8. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181942019. PMID: 19197209.
- Brigatto FA, Lima LEM, Germano MD, Aoki MS, Braz TV, Lopes CR. High Resistance-Training Volume Enhances Muscle Thickness in Resistance-Trained Men. J Strength Cond Res. 2022 Jan 1;36(1):22-30. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000003413. PMID: 31868813.
- Lipecki, Krzysztof & Rutowicz, Bartosz. (2015). The Impact Of Ten Weeks Of Bodyweight Training On The Level Of Physical Fitness And Selected Parameters Of Body Composition In Women Aged 21-23 Years. Polish Journal of Sport and Tourism. 22. 10.1515/pjst-2015-0014.
- Brandão, Lucas & Painelli, Vitor & Lasevicius, Thiago & Silva-Batista, Carla & Brendon, Helderson & Schoenfeld, Brad & Aihara, Andre & Cardoso, Fabiano & Peres, Bergson & Teixeira, Emerson. (2020). Varying the Order of Combinations of Single- and Multi-Joint Exercises Differentially Affects Resistance Training Adaptations. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 34. 1. 10.1519/JSC.0000000000003550.
- Joan Aguilera-Castells, Bernat Buscà, Azahara Fort-Vanmeerhaeghe, Alicia M. Montalvo & Javier Peña (2020) Muscle activation in suspension training: a systematic review, Sports Biomechanics, 19:1, 55-75, DOI: 10.1080/14763141.2018.1472293
- Kumar T, Kumar S, Nezamuddin M, Sharma VP. Efficacy of core muscle strengthening exercise in chronic low back pain patients. J Back Musculoskelet Rehabil. 2015;28(4):699-707. doi: 10.3233/BMR-140572. PMID: 25467999.
- Kleiber, T., Kunz, L., & Disselhorst-Klug, C. (2015). Muscular coordination of biceps brachii and brachioradialis in elbow flexion with respect to hand position. Frontiers in physiology, 6, 215. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2015.00215
- Schoenfeld BJ, Peterson MD, Ogborn D, Contreras B, Sonmez GT. Effects of Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Well-Trained Men. J Strength Cond Res. 2015 Oct;29(10):2954-63. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000958. PMID: 25853914.
- Baz-Valle E, Schoenfeld BJ, Torres-Unda J, Santos-Concejero J, Balsalobre-Fernández C. The effects of exercise variation in muscle thickness, maximal strength and motivation in resistance trained men. PLoS One. 2019 Dec 27;14(12):e0226989. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0226989. PMID: 31881066; PMCID: PMC6934277.
Featured Image: Breaking Muscle / YouTube