4 Row Variations That Will Build a Stronger Back

By the Editors of SilverSneakers |

These exercises can help you sit, stand, and move with better posture—and less pain.

row variations

Imagine if one exercise was powerful enough to help banish pain in your upper back and shoulders. What if it could also help you avoid or correct a hunched-over posture?

You’re in luck. There is such a move: the row. And it’s one of the best exercises for older adults.

Based on the movement of rowing a boat, the row is a pulling exercise that helps fix your posture. It strengthens the muscles in your upper back that are often neglected, but it also works your shoulders, biceps, triceps, and even your core.

By adding the row to your exercise rotation, you’ll help balance the front and back of your body, making it easier to keep your torso upright.

In fact, pulling exercises like the row are the antidote to everyday activities—hovering over smartphones, slouching in chairs—that pull your shoulders and upper back forward, says SilverSneakers fitness expert David Jack.

Plus, the row is a beginner-friendly exercise. You can start with the seated row machine, which will guide you through the movement. Or you can do a seated row in a chair with a resistance band.

Once you’re comfortable with the seated row, you may want to try other variations. The four below use dumbbells and work your body from different angles. They also increasingly require you to support more of your own bodyweight, which will challenge your core and strengthen your bones.

How to Use These Exercises

Like all strength exercises, prioritizing good form can help you get the most benefit from the movement and avoid injury. Exercising in front of a mirror makes it easier to monitor your form and adjust as needed.

With a row, even though your arms are moving, you want your upper back to do most of the work. Keep your shoulders down, and don’t let them shrug up to your ears. As you pull, think about squeezing a lemon between your shoulder blades.

You also want to brace your core, which will help protect your back. Imagine you’re about to be punched in the gut.

Start with the first variation. Work up to three sets of eight to 10 reps, resting for 30 to 60 seconds between sets. If that feels good, try the next variation, and so on. Add any you like to your regular rotation.

As always, safety is key. The exercises here may be different or move advanced those you’ll experience in a SilverSneakers class. If you have a chronic condition (including osteoporosis), an injury, or balance issues, talk to your doctor about how you can exercise safely.

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Variation #1: Bench Row

This exercise helps you work up to a standing bent-over row. You’ll train your upper body in the same way, but you’ll have the support of a bench rather than having to stand on your own.

Do 8 to 10 reps

How to do it: Grab a pair of dumbbells, and lie facedown on an incline bench. Let the dumbbells hang at arm’s length from your shoulders, palms facing in.

Squeeze your shoulder blades together as you row the dumbbells up to the sides of your torso, keeping your elbows tucked close to your sides. Pause, then slowly lower the dumbbells. That’s one rep. Do eight to 10 reps, or as many as you can with good form.

Make it easier:
If it’s uncomfortable to lie facedown on the bench, try the next variation.

Variation #2: Arm-Supported Row

With this exercise, you’ll stand on your feet, but you’ll support yourself with one hand on a bench to make it easier.

Do 8 to 10 reps per side

How to do it: Grab a dumbbell in your right hand, and stand in front of an incline bench. Take a wide split stance with your left foot forward. Brace your core, and hinge forward slightly from your hips. Hold the bench with your left hand, and let your right arm hang straight down from your shoulder, palm facing in.

Squeeze your shoulder blades together as you row the dumbbell up to the side of your torso, keeping your elbow tucked close to your side. Pause, then slowly lower the dumbbell. That’s one rep. Do eight to 10 reps per side, or as many as you can with good form.

Variation #3: Bent-Over Row

This is a standing, weight-bearing exercise, meaning your body will support its own weight against gravity. Weight-bearing exercises help increase bone density—and help prevent a hunchback.

Do 8 to 10 reps

How to do it: Grab a pair of dumbbells, and stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Pushing your hips back and allowing your knees to bend slightly, lower your torso until it’s almost parallel with the floor. Let the dumbbells hang at arm’s length from your shoulders, palms facing in.

Squeeze your shoulder blades together as you row the dumbbells up to the sides of your torso, keeping your elbows tucked close to your sides. Pause, then slowly lower the dumbbells. That’s one rep. Do eight to 10 reps, or as many as you can with good form.

Variation #4: Row with Triceps Kickback

Up for a challenge? This variation combines a row with a triceps kickback, helping you firm your back and arms at the same time.

Do 8 to 10 reps per side

How to do it: Grab a dumbbell in your right hand, and stand with your feet shoulder-width apart to the side of a flat bench. Keeping your knees soft, place your left hand on the bench, and hinge from your hips so your torso is almost parallel with the floor. Let the dumbbell hang at arm’s length from your shoulder, palm facing in.

Squeeze your shoulder blades together as you row the dumbbell up to the side of your torso, keeping your elbow tucked close to your side. Then keeping your upper arm stationary, extend your right arm behind you.

Pause, bend your arm back to the row position, and then lower the dumbbell. That’s one rep. Do eight to 10 reps per side, or as many as you can with good form.

Make it easier: Practice each move—the row and the triceps kickback—separately first. When you’re ready to combine them, try doing the movement without weights to get a feel for it. Then add a light weight.

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