High Row Machine Alternatives: How to Target the Same Muscles

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
May 18, 2022

The high row machine exercise is a compound movement performed with a specially made exercise machine meant to induce significant time under tension and dynamic contraction in much of the upper back and shoulder muscle groups.

Despite its rather safe and effective training ability, many exercisers seek to substitute the high row machine exercise with a similar alternative - either due to issues relating to the exercise itself, or simply because of a lack of access to a high row machine.

Fortunately, the high row machine is not unique in the majority of its aspects, and as such may be quite easily substituted with a variety of different movements and exercise implements, most of which can fulfill whatever requirements the exerciser may have.

Why Should the High Row Machine be Alternated Out?

Generally, the most common reason why the high row machine is alternated out is simply due to the unavailability of its prerequisite machine, though certain situations may call for its replacement with another row variation that presents a different distribution of resistance across the various back muscle groups.

high row

In relation to this is the angle at which the exerciser performs a repetition of the machine high row, with its upright and overhead position placing the shoulder joint in a position of weakness - especially if the exercise is performed with improper form or excessive resistance.

Another reason why the high row machine may require substitution in a training program is in its machine based nature, wherein it is less capable of recruiting stabilizer muscle groups and thus is not as effective for training athletes or exercisers that require such a training stimulus.

All in all, regardless of the reason why the exerciser has chosen to alternate out the high row machine in their workout program, they are spoiled for choice and simply need to choose an alternative exercise that best meshes with their training goals.

What Muscles are Worked by the High Row Machine and its Alternatives?

The high row machine and its subsequent alternative exercises train a small number of muscle groups present throughout the upper back and shoulders, with the latissimus dorsi of the mid back, teres major of the upper back, rhomboids and biceps brachii all being activated to a significant degree.

lever high row

Alongside these are the deltoids - with the posterior deltoids in particular - being activated either in a contradictory capacity or in a static manner as stabilizer muscles, depending on what portion of the repetition the exerciser is performing at the time.

How to Program for a High Row Machine Alternative

The high row machine exercise can either take the form of a heavy compound movement performed as a secondary or primary source of upper back training stimulus, or as a light compound exercise used as an auxiliary adjacent to more intense or comprehensive back exercises such as the deadlift or barbell row.

When choosing to use an alternative exercise that retains the training stimulus or nature of the high row machine exercise, programming it into the exerciser’s training routine simply requires substitution of the same role that said high row machine exercise originally had.

In terms of volume and relative amount of weight, the high row machine will generally translate in a nearly 1:1 ratio with most exercises - though certain lifts with more advantageous form mechanics may allow the exerciser to move more weight with less exertion, requiring adjustments be made to preserve the intensity of the workout session.

Variants of the High Row

In situations wherein the exerciser is searching for a high row machine alternative due to a lack of available equipment or other reasons that do not necessarily preclude the performance of other high row variations, the barbell high row or cable machine kneeling high row may act as perfectly suitable substitutes.

By simply utilizing a variant of the high row instead of an entirely different alternate exercise, one may ensure that a similar muscular activation pattern and form are carried over to the alternative variant exercise - thereby preserving the original purpose of the high row machine in the training routine.

Barbell High Row

The barbell high row is the free weight counterpart of the high row machine, wherein instead of the exerciser pulling an implement from overhead, they will instead pull a barbell from the ground towards their sternum.

This, while similar to the standard barbell row, is in fact more similar to the high row machine due to the altered resistance distribution it places on the shoulders and back - training the trapezius, posterior deltoid head and rhomboids to a more significant degree than other row variants.

Due to the barbell high row being a free weight exercise that requires the exerciser to bend over, however, it is capable of recruiting stabilizer muscle groups in a manner that is not present in the high row machine exercise - thereby increasing the exertion required to perform the movement, and lowering the total repetition volume possible.

Kneeling Cable High Row

In cases wherein the exerciser wishes to retain the benefits of a machine based exercise but does not have access to a high row machine, the kneeling cable high row is as close as they could possibly get to fulfilling such a goal.

This is due to the extreme similarity in the angle of resistance, form, and muscle group activation shared between the two exercises, with the only difference being the fact that the kneeling cable high row may be more difficult to perform in a bilateral manner without the usage of an interchangeable pulley handle.

The kneeling cable high row may be performed in the exact same manner, level of intensity and volume as the high row machine exercise, as the two are practically interchangeable, and require no further programming or alteration in the training routine if substituted.

The Barbell High Pull

The barbell high pull is the closest possible alternative exercise to the high row machine, sharing a large number of characteristics and advantages that may even make it a more suitable exercise than the high row machine itself.

sumo deadlift high pull

Being a free weight exercise, the barbell high pull places significantly more emphasis on the trapezius and deltoids than the high row machine exercise - with the drawback of somewhat reduced latissimus dorsi activation, and a significantly higher level of intensity, thereby requiring that lesser volume be used per set.

In addition to this, the particular mechanics of the barbell high pull make it somewhat more prone to inducing injury than the high row machine, especially if performed with incorrect form or excessive amounts of weight.

However, if performed in an appropriate manner, the barbell high pull is capable of inducing an excellent training stimulus in much the same muscle groups as the high row machine exercise - all in a more efficient manner that requires far less specialized equipment to achieve.

Other Free Weight Alternatives to the High Row Machine

As one of the main complaints of the high row machine is in the very nature of its machine based training stimulus, utilizing a free weight equivalent exercise that trains the same muscle groups in a similar level of intensity should more than suffice for remedying such an issue.

It is important for the exerciser to keep in mind that, due to the fact that free weight exercises do not self stabilize, the particular distribution of resistance among all activated muscle groups will be somewhat different than in the high row machine exercise itself.

Alongside this is also the fact that free weight exercises more readily recruit stabilizer muscle groups, resulting in a more functional and wide-reaching type of muscular development, though at the cost of more exertion and thus more muscle fatigue.

T-Bar Row

A modification of the standard barbell row wherein the exerciser attaches a T-bar handle to one end of the bar so as to utilize a closer neutral-type hand stance during the exercise, the t-bar row makes a functional and somewhat more intense alternative to the high row machine exercise with few of its actual disadvantages.

t-bar row muscles

In terms of muscular activation pattern, the t-bar row recruits the deltoids, biceps brachii, rhomboids and the latissimus dorsi in a manner similar if not superior to that of the high row machine exercise - though the trapezius is somewhat sacrificed during this movement as the relative percentage of resistance placed on it is greatly reduced.

Alongside being more intense and activating the aforementioned muscle groups to a greater extent, the t-bar row’s altered angle of resistance also makes it more friendly to individuals having trouble with the overhead nature of the high row machine exercise due to injuries.

Dumbbell Rear Delt Row

For exercisers seeking a lower intensity alternative to the high row machine exercise, the dumbbell rear delt raise is capable of activating a similar set of muscle groups in a manner not as significant as the aforementioned high row machine.

dumbbell rear delt row

This, much like other variants of the free weight row, is made possible by the exerciser bending at the hips and knees as they draw a set of dumbbells towards their chest - though with the difference that the exerciser do so in a manner that draws the elbows behind the torso in a strict line.

If performed correctly, the dumbbell rear delt row should recreate the muscular activation pattern in a near identical manner, with the total level of resistance and intensity lowered, making the dumbbell rear delt row just as suitable an auxiliary or accessory movement as certain kinds of the high row machine exercise.

Machine Based Alternatives to the High Row Machine

When searching for an exercise of similar characteristics, it is no stretch of logic to look towards exercises of a similar nature or equipment requirement for potential candidates.

As such, alternating out the high row machine with another exercise of a machine based nature should retain many of its positive characteristics; such as the reduced risk of injury, being a source of resistance capable of stabilizing itself, and even a constant time under tension that free weight exercises have difficulty recreating effectively.

Face Pulls

A classic among posterior deltoid head exercises, the face pull is a cable machine based exercise wherein the exerciser will grip both ends of a pulley rope handle and draw it towards their face (hence the name face pull), recruiting the posterior deltoid head, rhomboids, trapezius and biceps to a moderate extent.

cable face pull

The face pull is a suitable alternative to the high row machine for the purposes of choosing a lower intensity movement that retains the benefits of being a machine based exercise while reducing the risk of overtraining and shoulder joint related injuries.

If substituting the high row machine with the face pull, it is best to increase the total volume of repetitions within the workout so as to ensure a similar level of exertion is being utilized despite the relatively lower amount of weight being moved.

Reverse Pec Deck Fly

A modification of the standard pec deck exercise where the exerciser performs the movement facing the cushion of the machine instead of away from it, the reverse pec deck activates much of the same muscle groups as the high row machine, though with the noted exclusion of the latissimus dorsi muscle group.

seated reverse fly

Despite this difference, the reverse pec deck nonetheless still makes an excellent machine based alternative to the high row machine exercise in the capacity of an upper back and shoulders training exercise, especially when paired with other intensive compound back movements such as the barbell row or pull up.

This comes with the distinct drawback of placing significantly more stress on the various joints involved in the movement, however - a distinction that makes the reverse pec deck fly unsuitable as a rehabilitory exercise, or for individuals performing the high row machine so as to avoid aggravating any previous injuries.

Conclusion

As a large number of potential alternative exercises exist to the high row machine, alternating it out is more a matter of preference and comfort rather than simple specificity.

Regardless of which exercise they choose and for what purposes, it is important for the exerciser to retain the original purpose of the high row machine exercise in their training program, be it an auxiliary movement for inducing muscular hypertrophy or a remedial exercise meant to fix a muscular imbalance.

References

1. Ian Gee T, Caplan N, Christian Gibbon K, Howatson G, Grant Thompson K. Investigating the Effects of Typical Rowing Strength Training Practices on Strength and Power Development and 2,000 m Rowing Performance. J Hum Kinet. 2016 Apr 13;50:167-177. doi: 10.1515/hukin-2015-0153. PMID: 28149354; PMCID: PMC5260651.

2. 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/jfmk2030033

3. Lehman GJ, Buchan DD, Lundy A, Myers N, Nalborczyk A. Variations in muscle activation levels during traditional latissimus dorsi weight training exercises: An experimental study. Dyn Med. 2004 Jun 30;3(1):4. doi: 10.1186/1476-5918-3-4. PMID: 15228624; PMCID: PMC449729.

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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