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January 16, 2022
Everyone knows you need to be performing some kind of row to build a barn door back. Unfortunately, the most common free weight rowing exercises are susceptible to form breakdown, cheating, excessive momentum, and require substantial support from other large muscle groups. If you’ve ever seen someone turning a bent over row into a kind of ‘squat-row-shrug’ hybrid or if you’ve ever been too sore from leg day to maintain your position on bent over rows, you know what I’m talking about. The issues with traditional rows means your back is often left under-stimulated. Meanwhile supporting muscles are fatigued and this hinders their performance in subsequent training sessions. As a result, neither your back or legs grow as quickly as they could. The seal row can solve all these issues, allowing you to build your back and maintain a higher quality of training in your other workouts.
Seal rows are horizontal, chest supported rows traditionally performed using a barbell or cambered bar and a pronated (palms down) grip, but dumbbells can be used as well. This exercise has been popular in powerlifting circles for a long time. Powerlifters love it because it takes some of the strain away from heavily stressed lower backs. This allows them to push harder on squat and deadlift workouts. The rowing movement pattern also helps to balance out the high pressing volumes most powerlifters do. Maintaining the appropriate muscle mass and strength ratio between pressing and rowing muscles is essential to shoulder health. The Seal row does all this and more.
The strict nature of the Seal row is another huge plus of the exercise. The set-up makes cheating almost impossible. If you can’t cheat then you can’t use momentum or other muscle groups to do the work. This means the tension is placed through the target muscle and you can be confident that you’ve stimulated size and strength gains. Take a look around most gyms when people are bent-over rowing and this is anything but the case. Those are usually ugly lower back, partial range reps that don’t do anything other than train the ego.
The fact that you do not have to stabilize and rely on your core or legs to maintain position in the Seal row can be a massive plus. It allows you to perform high rowing volumes without compromising your lower body training or having your leg training harming your back work. The wonderful thing about this exercise is that it can be manipulated to target anything from the rear delts and rhomboids to blasting your lats. Its versatility means whenever you’re in a programming jam, you have an efficient and safe exercise to fall back on.
Note: Supposedly this exercise got the name "SEAL row" because of the resemblance of a seal (animal) walking when you row. However, we recommend keeping your core and glutes tight and contracted to avoid any unwanted flapping of the legs.
Whether you’re performing seal rows to train your upper back or lats, the initial set-up is the same. You need to be lying face down, with your forehead and chest in constant contact with the bench. The bench needs to be high enough off the ground that the weights only touch when your arms are fully extended, and your shoulders are protracted when the weight is in your hands.
Note: There are seal row benches, but not every gym has this type of bench. If not, there are simple work arounds that we will teach you and that you will see pictured throughout this post.
SEAL ROW VARIATIONS FOR DIFFERENT MUSCLE EMPHASIS:
Upper-and-Mid Back: If you’re targeting your upper and mid-back, rear delts, rhomboids, and mid traps, you’ll need to grab the bar with a pronated, wide grip. This should force your elbows to flare outwards, and you want to keep them at a 70°–80° angle. This arm path targets the muscles responsible for retracting your shoulder blades (pulling them together) so start in the opposite position, with your shoulder protracted. Initiate the movement by retracting your shoulder blade, rowing the bar up into your sternum in line with your nipples. Squeeze your shoulder blades together before slowly lowering the weight back into the starting position, keeping your chest and head in contact with the bench the whole time. The key here is maintaining your elbow position. A good rule of thumb is where the elbow goes the back contracts, so keeping your elbows wide is paramount.
Lats: There are subtle but crucial differences if you’re looking to bias your lats. Your grip should be narrower. It should still be pronated, but this time at shoulder width. Secondly, you want your elbows tighter into your sides at around a 30° angle. Finally, the bar should be pulled into between the bottom of your ribs and belly button. Remember, one of the primary functions of your lats is to extend your shoulder. Cues for this are to drive your elbows towards your pockets, bringing them back and not up.
1) Firstly, elbow position. Back training is all about elbows and angles. Whether you're doing seal rows, pull-downs or reverse flyes, elbow position is king. Not only is it important to know where and why your elbow is traveling somewhere, but it's also important to keep that consistent from rep to rep, set to set, and session to session. As you tire, you're likely to let this slip, letting the lesser fatigued muscles increase their contribution. The body likes the path of least resistance. It will look for shortcuts and ways to make a movement easier. You need to understand this and hold yourself accountable to keeping your form on point as fatigue kicks in.
2) If you don’t stay consistent with the set-up and execution of your reps it makes tracking progress messy. Adding 30lbs to your seal row is great but not if all you’ve really done is narrow your grip to recruit your lats and stopped targeting your upper back as productively.
3) Another mistake to avoid is allowing your chest and forehead to come up off the bench by extending your lower back. One key reason for selecting a seal row is to take the strain away from your lower back musculature, and there are far better ways to train it than flailing around on a bench. The point of the exercise is to bring the bar to your chest, contracting your back as your elbows cross the midline of your body. Pulling your chest away serves only to limit how short your target muscles can get before the bar is blocked by the bench. Making this mistake will create momentum and limit your ability to get a peak contraction of the target muscles. Both are terrible ideas if you want to gain muscle mass.
With the relatively low burden of seal rows on other muscles and typically lower weight required, compared with exercises like bent-over rows, you can feel confident performing this exercise multiple times per week. This is especially true if you create a varied stimulus by adjusting rep-ranges. Changing which muscles you target also increases the frequency with which you can perform this exercise as part of a well-structured program. For example, on one day you could bias the upper back with a wider grip and your elbows flared. Later in the week you could emphasize the lats by taking a narrower grip and keeping the elbows more tucked. This strategic variation means that accumulative fatigue in the muscle groups is controlled and you can achieve high training volumes without generating excessive fatigue. This high stimulus to fatigue ratio is a key benefit of the seal row.
This combined with the versatility of the seal row is a fabulous combination. When working with clients I often have them performing moderate reps of lat focused seal rows in one session and a higher rep upper back focused version in the next. Depending on the rest of your program, you could comfortably incorporate a seal row variation at a frequency of 1-3 days per week without some of the careful considerations required with other free-weight rows. Essentially the seal row gives you more bandwidth and a higher margin for error with your programming than most other free weight row variations.
Volume and frequency are closely linked. As such, many of the same considerations apply. The relative safety and variety inherent in seal rows mean they are a great choice if you really want to ramp up your rowing volume.
If you’re someone who already loads their lower back frequently through squats and hinges, you would be wise to consider getting the majority of your rowing through seal rows. This allows you to maintain your current lower body sessions, and not add to lower body and low back fatigue through unsupported rows. Additionally, you would have more energy to focus on the back muscles you’re targeting as opposed to just trying to forget about how sore your hamstrings are while you're bent-over rowing. If you aren’t someone who typically has issues with lower back and lower body fatigue impacting your back work, you can still get a high amount of volume from seal row variations.
In contract, if you’re performing most of your lower body training on machines with little lower back loading performing then, utilizing seal rows might not expose your lower back to adequate stimulus. You need to think big picture with your programming and consider the overlap between exercises and from workout to workout. Don’t look at each workout in a vacuum. Consider how they impact one another and use this to guide your exercise, frequency, volume, and intensity.
So how much volume should you do?
If you sound more like the first example and perform an average of 10 sets of horizontal rowing per week, you could accumulate 6-8 of those sets using upper and mid-back biased seal row variations. If you sound more like the latter example and still are happy to expose your lower body and back to the added stimulus, upper and mid-back biased seal rows could account for closer to 2-4 of your 10 sets per week.
You'll notice I've not mentioned how much volume you could do for a lat biased variation. Seal rows provide a much greater range of motion for mid-back and upper back training than for lat training, as the shoulder doesn't fully flex. This means lat biased seal rows should be used to supplement exercises like chin-ups, pull-downs, and pull-overs, which allow for a greater stretch. Lat biased seal rows could account for 2-4 in 10 of your lat training sets however, for maximal lat development, they must be accompanied by other exercises.
Overall, you could be doing as many as 10-12 sets of seal rows per week, spread across lat and upper back training.
Seal rows make it easy to quantify your volume, establish when range of motion decreases, and determine when to terminate a set. Unlike many other rows is the clear start/stop point, allowing you to track volume easily. As you fatigue with other exercises, the bar can slowly but surely get further from your chest, or your squat can become a little shallower. You know when you've completed a rep of seal rows as you'll hear the satisfying "clink" as the bar clips the bench. You can easily track your volume and determine when it's time to call the set.
Some exercises are safer to take close to failure than others. For example, taking a set of leg extensions to failure is far less risky and far less fatiguing than a set of front squats. Seal rows are far closer to leg extensions than front squats in this respect. Lying on the bench provides a lot of external stability. You’re essentially locked into place once the bar is unracked, making it hard for any extraneous movements to cause an injury (unless you really try).
Typically, you would expect a rowing injury to occur when the lower back is compromised. Seal rows can help you to avoid this danger. Finally, the bar is below you. This means failure doesn’t risk you being pinned by the bar as it does on exercises like bench press. All that happens is you can’t do any more and you can just drop the weights. Seal rows are an exercise you can be confident taking close to failure without risking it all. From a practical programming standpoint, this means I often get my clients to push their final set to failure. Seal rows allow you to do this safely and without from breakdown.
OVERLAP WITH OTHER EXERCISES:
A key variable when contemplating exercise selection is to understand why you’ve picked an exercise and the overlap it has with other exercises.
A major benefit of seal rows is that they have minimal impact or overlap on lower body training and actually easily complement it. After challenging sets of Romanian deadlifts, you’re more likely to maintain rowing performance going into a seal row than a bent-over row variation. The bent-over row taxes the already fatigued lower body and back. Thus, fatigue negatively impacts your back work and increases injury risk.
As briefly mentioned in the "Volume" section, lat based seal rows provide full shoulder flexion and lat stretch. However, they do allow significantly more shoulder extension than many pull-down variations. This means they require a more nuanced approach, ensuring they accompany other pull-down or pull-over variations in your program to hit the muscle through a full range. Despite this consideration, the predominant overlap with Seal rows falls within other horizontal rowing exercises or lat movements. This means you aren’t left having to solve a puzzle when including them. They are a back exercise that primarily stresses the upper back or lats with minimal confounding factors. So, the main factor to consider is your overall direct back training volume. You don’t have to worry about what you’ve done on leg day impeding seal row performance as it might on a bent-over row variation.
STIMULUS TO FATIGUE RATIO (SFR):
Like almost everything in training, the SFR of an exercise varies a lot from person to person. Individual differences in body structure and limb lengths can make an exercise that is extremely fatiguing for one person relatively easy to recover from for another. For example, someone with long legs and short arms will find deadlifts very taxing. On the other hand, a person with short legs and arms the length of an Orangutans can probably deadlift heavy and often without running into trouble.
Despite the potential for individual differences, from the outside looking in, seal rows have all hallmarks of an exercise with an excellent SFR. Being locked into place, lying horizontally works to both decrease fatigue and increase the stimulus of the exercise. This position increases the stimulus by reducing momentum and input from other non-target muscles. This means your upper back or lats are forced to do the work, likely resulting in an exercise that you have a good mind-muscle connection with and get a good pump from. A totally horizontal position is neither common nor easy to maintain with bent-over row variations. The more horizontal you are, the greater degree of shoulder flexion you get, increasing the range of motion and stretching the muscle further. These factors also decrease fatigue.
Firstly, by limiting load. Not being able to swing up the weight and moving the weight through a larger range means dropping the load, often accompanied by reduced perceived exertion of the exercise. This has a knock-on effect on how much energy you have available to complete the rest of your session. A few sets of seal rows are unlikely to negatively impact what follows it, but barbell or dumbbell rows might not mean you're as fresh for the rest of your session. Finally, there is no reason why seal rows might cause joint issues more than any other type of row. On the contrary, they appear to be less risky than their alternatives. Provided you can achieve a good mind-muscle connection, feel seal rows where you want to, and you don’t experience pain, they have an excellent stimulus to fatigue ratio.
There are some simple changes you can make if you’re looking for some variations or don’t have access to the set up required.
1. No access to a high horizontal bench?
Elevate a flat bench using boxes or plates high enough your arms can hang freely below while the weights are in your hands.
2. Too short a range of motion with a barbell and no cambered bar?
Option 1 is simple - use dumbbells! This allows not only for freer wrist and elbow movements but also potentially increase the range of motion of the exercise. The second option is to loop d-handles or cable handles around the barbell. This serves to increase range of motion of the barbell and allows for that freedom of movement at the wrist. With both of these you just have to make sure you’re leading with your elbows and maintaining a consistent position.
3. Lying face down on a bench is uncomfortable or you don’t want to balance a bench on plates and boxes?
In these cases, you can change the exercise slightly. Putting the bench at around a 30° angle, turn to face the bench, with the bottom of your ribs in contact with the top of the bench and your feet on the floor. This still supports your lower back and have you fixed in a position almost parallel to the floor. You’ll be slightly less supported and slightly less parallel to the ground, but it’s an excellent alternative. These are most easily done using dumbbells, preventing the bar from catching the floor or bench.
4. What are some lat based variations?
As discussed in the article, a primary role of your lats it to extend the shoulder so any variation you chose you want to bias this movement. Underhand grips and twisting dumbbells as you row them in can really help keep your elbows in tight, pulling the weight into your belly button.
Building a big back separates the men from the boys in the gym. A broad, thick, v-tapered back can complete a physique and oozes power. Seal rows are an exceptional exercise to develop your back. Sadly, they are grossly underused. If you have struggled to build your back, suffered lower back injuries, or find that you can’t develop a mind-muscle connection with your back I urge you to include seal rows in your program.
Author: Tom MacCormick (BSc in Sports Science and Coaching, MSc in Strength and Conditioning)
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