3 Highly Effective Inverted Row Alternatives (With Pictures)

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
July 30, 2022

The inverted row is a classic back exercise that makes use of the exerciser’s own bodyweight to instill muscular hypertrophy and conditioning in the majority of the upper body’s kinetic pull type muscles and stabilizers.

However, due to certain injury risks or the need for an altered form of training stimulus, many exercisers may find themselves in need of a potential alternative exercise in order to replace the inverted row in their training routine.

This is not as large an issue as it may seem, as quite a few exercises may more than fulfill the role of the inverted row in a workout regime - with each being capable of conforming to a unique set of conditions that the exerciser may require.

Reasons for Substitution of the Inverted Row

Primarily, the reason why inverted rows are substituted out by exercisers is due to the lower intensity it is capable of inducing in comparison to other upper back compound exercises such as the barbell row or deadlift, both of which surpass the inverted row in terms of muscle group activation set, muscle fiber recruitment and intensity of muscle contraction.

inverted row

This comparably lower level of intensity is due to the lower amount of resistance imparted by the exerciser’s own bodyweight, as well as the relative angle of resistance throughout the repetition, resulting in less training stimulus to a certain extent.

Other reasons why the inverted row may require substitution is the fact that it may aggravate shoulder and elbow injuries, or indirectly cause said injuries - as well as result in scapula retraction conditions if performed with improper form or excess resistance.

How to Alternate Out the Inverted Row

The inverted row either acts as a substitute for the barbell row in a workout program, or as a secondary compound exercise meant to train the various muscles of the upper back without directly involving the erector spinae and other lower back stabilizing muscle groups.

This generally means that the inverted row is performed after heavier and more intense compound exercises such as the deadlift or rack pull have already been completed - except in the case of a full bodyweight program, wherein the inverted row is either performed as preparatory work prior to the pull up or after the pull up in order to maximize any training stimulus accrued.

As such, the best way to program a training routine for the subsequent alternating out of the inverted row is to utilize an exercise that is most similar in intensity, muscle group activation and complexity as the inverted row itself.

If this is otherwise not possible, the exerciser may require some reduction or addition in the total volume of any exercises targeting the same muscle groups as the alternative exercise in order to prevent overtraining or other untoward incidents.

What to Look For in an Inverted Row Alternative

The most important of any inverted row alternative is in its muscular activation pattern, as utilizing an exercise that does not train the same muscle groups as the inverted row will entirely defeat the purpose of substituting it out in the first place.

Primarily, the inverted row utilizes the latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, biceps brachii, trapezius and posterior deltoids as the main mover muscles throughout the repetition - and as such, any potential alternative exercise must also activate the majority of these muscle groups in order to be considered an alternative exercise at all.

inverted row movement

Depending on the particular circumstances that lead to the substitution of the inverted row, the exerciser must also take into consideration the potential complexity, intensity of muscular activation, type of training stimulus as well as the equipment needed for any potential alternative exercise.

Generally, one should strive to utilize an alternative exercise as close as possible in terms of training stimulus and mechanics to the inverted row - save for the case where these particular factors are the very reason why the inverted row is being alternated out in the first place.

Best Bodyweight Alternative to the Inverted Row

When searching for a potential alternative exercise with a similar training stimulus and level of resistance, it is best for the exerciser to stick with bodyweight or calisthenic based exercises that do not require any excess equipment - making such types of alternatives not only the best candidates in terms of training, but also in terms of convenience.

One such candidate is that of the pull up, which is the one bodyweight back exercise that shares the majority of its mechanics and characteristics with the inverted row - all with few of the usual issues associated with the inverted row itself.

1. Pull Ups

Though usually performed either alongside the inverted row or used as a direct progression once the exerciser is capable of performing it safely, the pull up is nonetheless one of the best possible alternatives to the inverted row.

pull up

This is because of the large similarity in muscle group activation sets, exercise complexity and form mechanics shared between the two exercises - allowing the exerciser to alternate out the inverted row while retaining many of its advantages.

Benefits of Substituting with Pull Ups

The largest benefit to substituting the inverted row with pull ups is in the intensity of muscle fiber recruitment in the latissimus dorsi and biceps brachii, both of which are activated to a more significant degree due to the angle of resistance involved in the exercise.

This may be even further exemplified by the exerciser instead substituting the inverted row with an exercise known as the chin up, of which is a variation of the standard pull up except with an internally facing grip, thereby increasing the activation of the biceps brachii even further.

In addition to this particular benefit, substituting inverted rows with pull ups requires even less equipment, with the standard inverted row requiring a power cage and barbell or a smith machine from which the exerciser will row their own bodyweight with.

This is not the case with the pull up, which only requires a sufficiently high enough bar or similar apparatus in order for the exerciser to raise themselves to chin level at - allowing it to be performed practically anywhere with such an object in place.

Drawbacks of Substituting with Pull Ups

The pull up presents a variety of advantages as a potential alternative to the inverted row - but comes with its own set of drawbacks that may make it an otherwise unsuitable exercise to replace the inverted row.

The first and most significant of these drawbacks is the fact that a large majority of novice level exercisers do not possess the prerequisite physical strength to complete a set of pull ups (or even a single repetition) with correct form.

This may easily be remedied through the use of an assisted pull up machine, or by making use of a different alternative exercise.

Apart from its physical strength requirements, the pull up is also an unsuitable alternative to the inverted row for exercisers with a history of elbow or shoulder issues, as it places an even more significant amount of pressure on these particular joints than the inverted row itself.

Best Free Weight Alternative to the Inverted Row

As there are few actual body weight type alternative exercises to the inverted row, the majority of individuals seeking to substitute the inverted row may best do so with certain free weight exercises instead.

This, of course, will alter the training stimulus involved, as well as obviously require free weight exercise implements such as a barbell and weight plates, or set of dumbbells - presenting a different set of challenges not normally associated with the inverted row.

It is up to the exerciser to decide whether these new issues are worth the potential benefits of utilizing a free weight alternative, with the barbell row being among one of the best possible choices of such alternatives due to a variety of factors and similarities that equate to no extra workout reprogramming required.

2. Barbell Rows

Perhaps the best possible free weight alternative to the inverted row due to its similar muscle activation pattern, form mechanics and exercise complexity; the barbell row is a intermediate level compound exercise that makes use of a low volume of repetitions and high levels of resistance in order to induce a significant back-wide training stimulus.

bent over row

This is most noticeable when it is compared to the inverted row, whose limitations as a bodyweight exercise are easily surpassed by the variability of free weight barbell movements, and the fact that the barbell row not only trains much the same muscle groups, but also adds in the erector spinae and other lower back muscles.

Benefits of Substituting with Barbell Rows

The largest and most significant benefit of the barbell row lies in its very nature as a free weight compound exercise - surpassing the inverted row in terms of intensity and thus in terms of training results, with a significantly increased rate of muscular hypertrophic gains and a greater rate of perceived exertion per repetition.

This will not only result in the muscles of the exerciser growing stronger and larger at a faster pace, but also a distinctly better level of strength conditioning and connective tissue reinforcement as a direct response of the stressors involved.

In particular, the barbell row is known for inducing an especially intense level of training stimulus to the latissimus dorsi and trapezius muscle groups, sharing much the same primary mover muscle groups as the inverted row - though in a more significant manner.

Apart from a more intense and wide reaching muscular activation set, the barbell row also strengthens the form of other compound exercises by teaching the exerciser proper form cues, such as proper scapular retraction and how to maintain a neutral spine arch during significant exertion.

Drawbacks of Substituting with Barbell Rows

The largest and most often mentioned drawback of substituting the inverted row with barbell rows is in the increased risk of elbow, shoulder and lower back injury due to the angle of resistance and weight of the barbell row itself.

This is significantly reduced in the inverted row (especially in regards to the lower back, which receives little to no mechanical stress during the exercise) and as such makes the barbell row a poor alternative exercise for individuals of novice training experience, individuals with a susceptibility to such injuries, or individuals with a history of issues related to said injuries.

Best Machine Based Alternative to the Inverted Row

With both free weight and bodyweight exercises sharing their own share of potential issues, it is in machine based exercises that an exerciser may find the best potential alternative to the inverted row.

As such characteristics of many machine based exercises like reduced stabilizer muscle recruitment, built in safety features and a constant time under tension fulfill many of the requirements needed of an inverted row substitute exercise - it is the cable row that surfaces as one of the prime candidates for supplanting the inverted row in a training program.

3. Cable Rows

A closed kinetic chain compound exercise that makes use of a cable pulley machine and a variety of different handles to either place the exerciser’s hands in a specific grip stance or turn the exercise to a bilateral one, the cable row is the machine based alternative to the barbell row - with all the benefits that come with such a switch.

cable standing row

As an inverted row alternative, the cable row presents certain benefits that cannot be found in other types of exercises, allowing for it to fulfill even niche circumstances that necessitate the inverted row be substituted out in the exerciser’s training program.

Benefits of Substituting with Cable Rows

The cable row presents a significantly lower risk of injury because of the fact that it braces the exerciser in a seated position, thereby removing the lower back from the exercise’s activation pattern and preventing any mechanical tension from being placed on the lumbar and thoracic portions of the spinal column.

This is in combination with the modifiable nature and angle of resistance of the cable row, with the exerciser’s grip type, width and even whether one or two hands are used all being easily changed so as to fit the exerciser’s own biomechanics and preferences.

Apart from the safety advantages of the cable row, there is also the matter of the cable row’s machine nature presenting a different type of training stimulus than the inverted row or other alternatives listed in this article.

Contracting the latissimus dorsi, biceps brachii, brachioradialis, trapezius, posterior deltoids and rhomboids both dynamically and isometrically - the cable row is an excellent alternative for athletes searching for a constant time under tension alternative to the inverted row, so as to better stimulate their slow twitch muscle fibers.

Drawbacks of Substituting with Cable Rows

The most significant drawback of substituting inverted rows with cable rows is the size and cost of the equipment involved, requiring that the exerciser either purchase an expensive and bulky cable pulley machine, or visit a gymnasium - both of which present a distinct inconvenience not found in the inverted row.

This is also in direct connection with the fact that the cable row and similar machine based exercises are self-stabilizing, meaning that despite the constant time under tension involved, stabilizer muscle groups normally trained to a small degree by the inverted row are otherwise ignored during such exercises.

References

1. Youdas, James W., et al. “Recruitment of Shoulder Complex and Torso Stabilizer Muscles With Rowing Exercises Using a Suspension Strap Training System.” Sports Health, vol. 13, no. 1, Jan. 2021, pp. 85–90, doi:10.1177/1941738120945986.

2. Fenwick CM, Brown SH, McGill SM. Comparison of different rowing exercises: trunk muscle activation and lumbar spine motion, load, and stiffness. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Mar;23(2):350-8. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181942019. PMID: 19197209.

3. Aerenhouts D, D'Hondt E. Using Machines or Free Weights for Resistance Training in Novice Males? A Randomized Parallel Trial. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020 Oct 26;17(21):7848. doi: 10.3390/ijerph17217848. PMID: 33114782; PMCID: PMC7662789.

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.
Inspire US serves as an informational hub for people looking to start their fitness journey.
The information on this website has not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The information being shared is for educational purposes only. You must consult with a medical professional before acting on any content on this website.
Copyright © Inspire US 2022