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Fact checked by Kirsten Yovino, CPT Brookbush InstituteFACT CHECKED
November 23, 2021
Back rows and massive backs go together like the bench press and a huge chest. It just makes sense. They are an extremely easy and effective movement that trains the posterior muscles in a natural and functional way. The king of back rows would be the barbell row as it allows massive loads and full body muscle activation.
However, you would be cutting yourself short if all you ever did were bent over rows. What makes rows an even more "awesome-er" exercise is the vast range of variety that exists. Barbell row, bench row, dumbbell row, elevated row, cable row, single-arm cable row….literally dozens. In this article, we’re going to look at one back row version that the majority of people have likely done, the machine high row, also referred to as the Hammer Strength High Row.
If you haven’t done it, you’re going to learn about it today. In this article you’ll learn:
The machine high row is a fantastic pulling exercise to train your back muscles and biceps. As the movement occurs at the shoulder and elbow, it is a compound movement, meaning it will train a lot of muscle mass and allow heavy loads.
If you have ever seen it called a Hammer Strength high row and wondered why here’s why. Hammer Strength is one of the premier strength and conditioning companies that produce excellent equipment for machine exercises. They are especially famous for their row machines as they have a large variety, including the high row.
When looking at the biomechanics, we’re going to use exercise comparisons again. In the same way the incline bench press fits between the bench press and shoulder press, the machine high row lays somewhere in the middle of a seated back row and a pull-up. You’re not pulling directly in front of you (horizontal pull) or nor directly above (vertical pull); rather, you pull down at an angle. This difference in the movement pattern will provide a bit of a different stimulus to keep things interested and your muscles trained.
The machine high row is going to train the same set of muscles that other back rows train. The main difference is in the movement pattern, which can affect the percent of muscle activation in the muscles. These are the main machine high row muscles worked and their function during the movement.
The lats are the big muscles that run down the entire side of your body. During the machine high pull, the lats primary function is shoulder extension (pulling down) and horizontal shoulder adduction (pulling back).
The trapezius muscle or “traps” consists of upper, middle, and lower traps. Their primary function during the machine high pull is to retract the scapula and maintain scapula positioning. As you pull the weight towards you, the force will want to pull your shoulders forward. You don’t want this, so it’s the job of the traps to prevent this from happening. They pull the scapula back and hold it in place, which gives you a solid foundation to pull from.
The rhomboids consist of two muscles; the rhomboid major and the rhomboid minor. Both are smaller rhomboid-shaped muscles that sit on the upper back and are attached to the upper spring and scapula. Both work in unison with the traps to help stabilize the scapula.
Teres Major And Minor
The teres major and minor are two small muscles that connect the humerus to the scapula. Their primary function is to pull the humerus down.
The biceps are the primary flexor of the elbow. During the machine high row, their main function is to help flex the elbow to pull the bar down.
When comparing the machine high row to these two exercises, they can look a bit similar but not quite. As mentioned before, the high row sits in the middle of these and in a way, gets the best of both worlds.
Compared to the cable row machine, the high row will work the upper back to a higher degree as you are pulling from above. Compare that to a cable row, specifically if performed with an underhand grip, which is going to hit the mid-back, and even low back muscles to a higher degree.
Compared to the lat pulldown, you can use a much higher load as you will have more involvement from the traps. However, the lat pulldown will be better at isolating the lats. To be clear, none of these movements are “better” or “worse”; they just have specific scenarios in which they are more suitable.
Related: 21 Best Cable Back Exercises
Performing the high row is relatively easy, but there are some key points you need to follow. Here is a full explanation of how to perform the machine high row and what to look out for.
1) The first thing you’ll need to do is adjust the seat height, thigh pads, and chest pad.
Important note about the seat and thigh pad. IF you need to choose, set the thigh pad so it’s lower rather than higher. If it’s too high, you won’t be able to push into it or hold yourself down.
2) Next, you’ll want to first stand up and grab the handles with an overhand grip. The vast majority have the handles at an angle so that the palms of your hand will be slightly angled towards each other. One gripped, sit down, place your legs under the thigh pads, and get your body tight to the chest pad.
Note: if you can use an underhand grip, you can alternate grips. An overhand grip will target the upper back more while an underhand grip hits the lower back.
3) When ready, draw your shoulders back and retract your scapula. This is an integral part of the exercise. DO NOT perform the exercise with your shoulders pulled forward. This limits the amount of force your back muscles can contribute while putting your shoulders and elbows in a vulnerable position. Therefore, ALWAYS retract your scapula before pulling.
4) Once your scapula is pulled back, you are going to drive your elbows down and back. When you pull, think about driving your elbows down towards the floor, not pulling the handles to your chest. When trainees focus on the handles, they tend to use their biceps too much to “curl” the handles and get the handles closer. Instead, just focus on driving your elbows back while the handles will come along for the ride.
5) Pull back until the handles reach chest level. Give a little squeeze, and then let the handles go back in a slow and controlled manner.
6) Once your arms are fully extended, you can either let them pull your shoulders forward so that you need to retract your scapula again or just keep your scapula retracted and perform another rep
The machine high row is a fantastic piece of equipment. Even those “I’ll never use a machine” types of trainees will often include the high row in their strength training. Here are the top reasons to have the machine high row in your training program (even if you “hate” machines).
Isolates The Back Muscles For Serious Muscle Growth And Strength
One of the most significant benefits of the machine high row is that it is a machine exercise. This means the movement pattern will be fixed with no (minimal) stabilization required. As a result, your back muscles will be the sole muscles being worked. And that means every back muscle; the lats, trap, rhomboids...everything will get an incredible workout. Since the weight is stabilized, you can put all your focus on pulling with the back meaning a more intense exercise for muscle hypertrophy and strength.
Superb For Injuries Or Rehab
Another benefit again stems from the fact it’s a machine exercise. Since you are seated and steady, the high row is a great exercise to use to “train around the pain”. Further, if you are training an elderly pop, sitting down can be much safer when they begin training to mitigate any risk from possible balance issues.
Can’t Be Replicated With Free Weights
The machine high row is unique as pulling at an angle can’t be duplicated with free weights. Sure, you can set something up with a pulley system (discussed below), but it wouldn’t be the same nor will it allow you to use such heavy loads. This means that the only way to train your back muscles in this manner is by using the high machine row. Variety is essential for optimizing your strength and hypertrophy training, so including this unique movement is a must.
It’s A Bilateral And Unilateral Movement
The vast majority of machines use arms that are independent of each other. This means that you can pull them together (bilateral) or one arm at a time (unilateral). This is a huge advantage as all programs should have a mixture of both types of movements for maximal results.
Further, you can use this to use a range of training patterns. I.e. 1 rep bilateral, 2 reps unilateral, 1 rep bilateral, etc. This just provides a different stimulus and can help things interesting.
Easy To Set Up
One downside about barbells is setting them up. Not only does this take time gathering the equipment, it seems you always get stuck with a plate that won’t slide down the barbell. Plus, you need to use clamps to secure the weight unless you want them sliding up and down the collar.
With the machine high row, all of these problems disappear as you either need to change the pin if it uses a weight stack or throws on some plates if it’s plate loaded. Easy-peasy. This is especially nice if you’re doing your rows after some heavy deadlifts and you’re exhausted.
The machine high row is a pulling movement to train the back so it will obviously be trained on one of those two days. This obviously depends on how your own program is set up (we love a PPL split!).
After you figure out what training session you will use the high row, you have a bit of freedom with how you use it. Machine rows are a bit different than other machines as it is common to use them with light loads OR heavy loads. In other words, you can use it to train your back for muscle hypertrophy or strength.
One benefit of machines is that they are great for specialty sets such as drop sets as they are easy to unload. Or, if you train with a partner, it’s much easier to perform assisted or forced reps with a machine making the machine high row a perfect option. The machine high row is an awesome choice for training your back muscles to failure for optimal muscle hypertrophy with these two combined.
On the other hand, the machine back row can be used for strength training. Due to the positioning of the machine and the movement of pulling, the machine high row allows a heavy load with little risk of injury to the joints. Still, the machine high row has benefits for strength as well. The chest pad will enable you to thrust your body into it to generate higher levels of force. This means more weight and more strength.
As you can see, the machine high row is a very versatile machine.
As mentioned above, it is nearly impossible to replicate the movement pattern of the machine high row; especially with high loads. This means there aren’t a ton of machine high row replacements. However, some alternatives can be used to support the movement. Here are the top high row alternatives.
KNEELING HIGH CABLE ROW
The movement with the most similar motion is the kneeling high cable row. To do this movement, you’ll want to set the cable at a high position and then kneel on the ground several feet away for the pulley. At this position, you are able to mimic the movement pattern pretty well.
However, because you do not have the pads to brace yourself, you will not be able to use as high of loads. Further, you are going to use your core muscles to a much higher degree to stabilize your body. While not quite the same, a study examined pull up alternatives and looked at the kneeling lat pulldown. They found that the muscle activation was very similar to the pull up including very high levels of activation in the core. Their reasoning was due to the need to stabilize which we can assume would be similar to the kneeling high cable row.
One great benefit is that you are able to use multiple handles with the kneeling high cable row. Straight bars, ropes, single handles, and various grips are just some of the ways you can add variety to his movement. Again, you won’t use heavy loads, so this machine high row substitute works best as a muscle hypertrophy movement.
STANDING MACHINE HIGH ROW
Another unique high row alternative is really a high row variation. It’s the standing machine high row and simply has you stand while performing the movement. Because you are standing, you are going to pull the weight down much lower, likely to your stomach. What this is going to do is target your lower back more.
As mentioned above, the machine high row is usually performed while sitting, which has you pull the weight from a high angle down to your chest. This movement will target your upper back. By standing, you’re able to then target the lower back to add some variety for total back training.
The machine high row is an awesome piece of equipment to get a burn that’s hard to duplicate with the barbell. The barbell back row is king, but because you can isolate the back muscles with the high row, it just can’t match the pump you get. On top of that, it has so many benefits. To briefly recap just a few:
And remember, you can’t replicate this movement with free weight. Considering all of this together, including the machine high row in your back training is a no-brainer. That is, assuming you want to have a massive, thick back.
Quit messing around and do machine high rows.
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June 02, 2023
June 02, 2023
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