5 Highly Effective Cable Row Alternatives (With Pictures)

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
July 29, 2022

Though a variety of exercises exist to train the latissimus dorsi, trapezius, and other muscles located along the back - few are as convenient and effective as the cable row, of which makes use of a cable machine in order to impart a unique and highly efficient form of training stimulus.

Despite these benefits, however, certain situations may require that the cable row be alternated out with another exercise that fulfills the needs of said situation, whether it be an out of order machine or the need for more encompassing muscular activation.

Depending on what sort of characteristics the potential cable row alternative needs, several options are available to the exerciser or physical therapy patient, with such movements like the cable lat pulldown and the barbell row differing in certain ways but serving the same purpose.

Why Should the Cable Row be Alternated?

The cable row exercise may be alternated with a similar exercise for a variety of reasons, such as a lack of available equipment, or the need for a different type of training stimulus that the cable row is not capable of providing in its ordinary form.

Just as in the case of athletes or recovering physical therapy patients, a primary drawback to the cable row is in the fact that it does not usually tax the erector spinae and other muscles present throughout the lower back - primarily due to the fact that, unlike other row variations, the cable row does not require the exerciser to support the weight of the row with their own core.

standing cable row

This can result in not only a weaker back and core stabilizer muscle group but also muscular imbalances, alterations in the posture and form of the exerciser, and even a reduced strength output capacity if the lower back is not trained by other exercises in the workout routine.

By extension of this fact - being a machine based exercise - the cable row also fails to significantly activate stabilizer muscle groups that are normally contracted in an isometric capacity when performing other variations of the row exercise.

As such, exercisers regularly utilizing the cable row as their sole form of back muscle resistance training will come to find that their total strength output and muscular endurance in said back muscles and surrounding musculature is less than what would be accrued from performing free weight exercises as well.

Fortunately, despite the drawbacks involved in the cable row exercise, many alternatives exist that retain its positive characteristics while also avoiding the problems normally found in said cable row exercise.

What to Look For in Potential Cable Row Alternatives

When searching for potential alternative exercises to the cable row, the most obvious requirement is that it activates the same muscle groups that the cable row itself normally activates - that being the latissimus dorsi, trapezius, rhomboids and the biceps brachii.

While the exact ratio in which these muscle groups are activated to a significant capacity may differ between each alternative exercise, it is generally best to utilize one that activates all of aforementioned muscle groups so as to recreate the training capacity of the cable row.

cable standing row

Other factors to look out for when substituting the cable row with an alternative exercise is a similar or lower level of injury risk, with potential alternative exercises of higher or similar injury risk defeating the entire purpose of such a substitution in the first place.

Conversely, however, one must also search for an exercise of similar intensity so as to avoid programming in additional exercises or wasting time on more sets of repetitions throughout the workout routine.

This does not apply in the situation that the cable row is considered too intense for the exerciser, however, and as such once again it is up to the particular needs of the exerciser themselves and their reasoning behind the substitution of the cable row.

How is the Cable Row Substituted in a Workout Routine?

Depending on what sort of alternative exercise has been chosen and the muscular activation pattern of this alternative exercise, subsequent alteration of the exerciser’s workout routine may be necessary so as to retain the same goals and training stimulus of the entire training session.

In the case of the cable row being alternated for an exercise of higher perceived intensity, it may be advisable for the exerciser to reduce the volume or intensity of other exercises targeting the latissimus dorsi, biceps brachii and trapezius in other sections of the workout session.

The opposite should also be quite obvious with a less intense or less demanding alternative to the cable row resulting in the addition of more sets or exercises in order to compensate for the loss of training stimulus and subsequent muscle gains.

This may be done by either introducing additional isolation exercises targeting whatever muscle group has been most neglected by the alternative exercise, or by adding an additional compound exercise to the workout season that makes up for whatever shortcomings the cable rows substitute exercise has.

Alternative Cable Machine Back Exercises

If a lack of available cable machine equipment is not a concern for the purposes of alternating the cable row with a similar exercise, it should be by no stretch of logic that utilizing a similar exercise with the same sort of equipment will also result in a close type of training stimulus.

This is most noticeable in terms of time under tension wherein the muscle groups activated are also contracted in an isometric capacity alongside the ordinary dynamic type contraction normally found in most resistance exercises.

Naturally, however, exercises also using the cable machine as a main provider of resistance and tension will also inherit whatever drawbacks are inherent to cable machine exercises as well - making choosing a non-cable machine based exercise just as viable an option.

1. Cable Lat Pulldown

Considered the counterpart cable exercise to the cable rows, the cable lat pulldown trains the same muscle groups as the cable row itself - though with a vertical angle as opposed to the horizontal angle of resistance encountered in the latter exercise.

The cable lat pulldown’s primary advantage over the cable row is in its superior latissimus dorsi dynamic contraction and biceps brachii isometric contraction, resulting in greater muscular hypertrophy and strength conditioning than what one would accrue from the cable row.

lat pulldown

This comes at the cost of reduced posterior deltoid head activation, however, as the eccentric portion of the cable row places significant emphasis on such a muscle group, of which is otherwise activated in a far lesser capacity during the cable lat pulldown.

In terms of core and erector spinae muscular activation, the cable row and cable lat pulldown are approximately the same in intensity - that is to say, significantly less than what one would encounter in a free weight exercise or other alternative exercise, and as such neither are suitable for such an express purpose.

For individuals with a history of shoulder and wrist injuries, the cable lat pulldown may be a somewhat more suitable choice due to the more natural angle at which tension is placed on the connective tissues of said areas; though it is still important to first consult a physician prior to attempting either exercise.

2. Single Arm Cable Lat Pulldown

A variation of the cable lat pulldown that makes use of a single arm instead of a straight bar or detachable pullup bar, the single arm cable lat pulldown is especially effective in terms of muscular activation and mind-muscle connection focus due to the bilateral nature of the exercise.

cable one arm lat pulldown

Much like the unilateral cable lat pulldown, the single arm cable lat pulldown activates the biceps brachii, trapezius, latissimus dorsi and rear deltoids in a compound fashion similar to that of the cable row - though with a reduced emphasis on the posterior head of the deltoids in exchange for superior latissimus dorsi and biceps brachii training.

The single arm cable lat pulldown is best used over the more traditional lat pulldown as a cable row alternative if muscular imbalances are a concern for the exerciser, as the bilateral nature of the single arm cable lat pulldown will ensure an equal amount of training stimulus is spread over both sides of the body.

3. Straight Arm Cable Lat Pulldown

Also referred to as the “swimmers pull down” due to the high level of intensity the back muscles are trained with during the exercise, the straight arm cable lat pulldown activates the latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, trapezius and other muscle groups located in the back at a level equal or superior to that of the cable row.

cable straight arm lat pulldown

This is due to the fact that the straight arm cable lat pulldown takes a significant amount of the biceps brachii and deltoids out of the muscular activation pattern, forcing the back muscles to bear the brunt of the resistance instead.

A drawback to the straight arm cable lat pulldown is the increased rotational tension placed on the shoulder joint, making the straight arm cable lat pulldown an otherwise unsuitable choice for individuals and patients with a history of rotator cuff injuries and similar connective tissue problems in the shoulder.

Alternative Row Exercises to the Cable Row

Though it is best to substitute the cable row with another type of cable machine based exercise, certain circumstances may require that one of a more free weight nature be used instead - providing a somewhat different type of training stimulus that nonetheless can still be of great benefit to the exerciser.

4. Dumbbell Row

The first and most obvious among these possible non-cable based exercise alternatives is that of the dumbbell row, of which provides a somewhat more intense form of training stimulus than the cable row at the expense of less time under tension throughout the repetition.

single arm dumbbell row

The dumbbell row may be performed either bilaterally or unilaterally depending on the desires of the exerciser, and requires only a single suitably weighted dumbbell at its absolute minimum, making the dumbbell row a far more efficient and compact exercise than the cable row itself.

When substituting the cable row with the dumbbell row for the purposes of muscular hypertrophy and strength conditioning, it is best to utilize a somewhat lower range of repetitions in comparison to the cable row, with most dumbbell row performers performing reps between the numbers of five to twelve at most.

5. T-Bar Row

A barbell based free weight compound exercise that makes use of a T-bar handle attachment in order to alter the grip of the exerciser, the t-bar row provides a quite similar pattern of muscular activation as the cable row, though with the added benefit of contracting the various core stabilizer muscles and erector spinae in an isometric capacity.

t-bar row muscles

Much like in the case of the dumbbell row, the t-bar row is best performed at a somewhat lower range of repetitions than the cable row was originally intended to be performed at - both for connective tissue safety reasons as well as the fact that free weight compound exercises are better performed at lower amounts of volume and higher levels of resistance.

Unlike the various cable machine based alternatives to the cable row, the T-bar row is considered quite taxing on the nervous system and any connective tissue involved in the exercise, and as such is a poor substitute for physical therapy patients, inexperienced gym goers, or individuals with a history of upper body or lower back injuries.

References

1. Lorenzetti, Silvio, Romain Dayer, Michael Plüss, and Renate List. 2017. "Pulling Exercises for Strength Training and Rehabilitation: Movements and Loading Conditions" Journal of Functional Morphology and Kinesiology 2, no. 3: 33. https://doi.org/10.3390/jfmk2030033Lorenzetti, Silvio, Romain Dayer, Michael Plüss, and Renate List. 2017. "Pulling Exercises for Strength Training and Rehabilitation: Movements and Loading Conditions" Journal of Functional Morphology and Kinesiology 2, no. 3: 33. https://doi.org/10.3390/jfmk2030033

2. Cronin, John & Jones, Julian & Hagstrom, John. (2007). Kinematics and Kinetics of the Seated Row and Implications for Conditioning. Journal of strength and conditioning research / National Strength & Conditioning Association. 21. 1265-70. 10.1519/R-21246.1.

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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