Pull-Up Progressions: Weighted Rows and Lat Pulldowns

Jan 21, 2021

 by Karina Wait

In the previous article, I elaborated on ring rows. Ring rows are a great movement and can be modified in countless ways. But, what should you do when it's the third day in a row of pull-ups in class and you don't feel like doing more ring rows? This is where you may decide to choose a weighted row variation or a lat pulldown. Both movements are extremely beneficial in building pulling strength and can be modified in numerous ways via movement variation, using different weights, changing the speed of the movement, and modifying the rep scheme. Furthermore, a lat pulldown can also help with improving your kipping strength and making your toes to bar, kipping pull-ups, and other gymnastics movements much smoother. Below, I'll elaborate on each exercise and how you can modify them. 

Weighted Rows

Weighted rows can be done with a barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell, and even with your own bodyweight. Weighted rows can be modified further by type via bent over rows, single-arm rows, inverted rows, Pendley rows, meadow rows, chest supported rows, seated horizontal rows, upright rows, etc. The list can go on and on. Depending on desire, the rows can be done to improve back strength or build muscle; both are important and needed. Check out the video below for different row variations. 

  1. Single Arm DB?KB Row 
    • Strengthens the upper back muscles including the rhomboids, the mid-trapezius, the posterior shoulders, and the latissimus dorsi, as well as your grip and forearm muscles.
    • Helps improve a rounded shoulder position which results from poor posture.
    • Incorporates lower back due to hinging with no support (45-degree angle) 
      • Hinge further for higher lower back activation 
    • Row towards the back pocket. 
  2. Single Arm DB Row on Bench 
    • Strengthens the upper back muscles including the rhomboids, the mid-trapezius, the posterior shoulders, and the latissimus dorsi, as well as your grip and forearm muscles
    • Helps improve a rounded shoulder position which results from poor posture
    • Places less stress on the lower back then the barbell row since the exercise requires you to have an external base of support
    • Place opposite hand and knee on the bench from the weight. Have back angle in a neutral position. Knees under hips and hands under shoulders. Row towards the back pocket. 
  3. Double DB Bent Over Row
    • The two-arm bent over dumbbell row targets the trapezius, infraspinatus, rhomboids, latissimus dorsi, teres major, teres minor, and posterior deltoid. The pectoralis major of the chest and the brachialis of the upper arm also get worked. Your shoulder rotators are employed. This is a compound, functional exercise and you may use this same motion throughout the day when picking up things. Knowing how to properly position your back and brace your abs can protect you from lower back strain. Hinge at a 45-degree angle and pull the elbow towards your back pocket. 
  4. Seal Row (BB or DB) 
    • Targets the entire posterior chain
    • Make sure to press your chest into the bench during the entire movement. Drive elbows up and back 
  5. Barbell Bent Over Row 
    • Bending over until your upper body is at a 45-degree bend or lower, pull the bar up towards your lower chest. Keep your elbows as close to your sides as possible. At the top of the movement, you should feel like you are pinching your shoulder blades towards each other. 
    • They work your upper-back, lower back, hips, and arms. They build a stronger, muscular back and bigger biceps. Barbell Rows are one of the most effective assistance exercises you can do to increase your squat, bench press, and deadlift.
  6. Meadows Row 
    • Targets the latissimus dorsi, trapezius and rhomboids.
    • Hinge over and open hip closest to bar. Can support torso by placing an opposite hand on the knee 
    • Row elbows to back hip and feel stretch at the bottom when the arm is straight 
  7. Pendlay Row 
    • Grip bar with a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip. Hips a tad bit higher than a deadlift. 
    • Create tension and explosively pull the barbell to the base of the chest. Keep shoulders and hips back. 
    • Lower with control and reset for the next rep. 
    • Build bigger, stronger back by building the latissiumus dorsi 
    • Translate to Olympic lifting and powerlifting 
    • Targets the hamstrings 
  8. Gorilla Row
    • Get your feet shoulder-width apart with two kettlebells between them. Hinge at the hip until you're able to grab the handles of the kettlebells. This should put you in a deadlift position.
    • Keep your knees out and sit back a little in order to engage the glutes and hams.
    • Row one of the kettlebells up towards your hips with a slight rotation in order to allow your elbows to come back farther. Keep a tight grip on the other kettlebell that's still stationary on the ground.
    • Return the kettlebell back to the ground and repeat on the other side. Keep your back flat and head neutral.

    You can alternate sides or do all your reps on one side before the other, which makes it convenient if you only have one kettlebell.

    • These are perfect for building grip and back strength. By rowing from a static position, you recruit more motor units which will increase muscle tension and have your lats pumped with blood. It also just enforces a proper hip hinge position

  9. Seated Horizontal Row
    • Pull the handle and weight back toward the lower abdomen while trying not to use the momentum of the row too much by moving the torso backward with the arms.
    • Target the middle to upper back by keeping your back straight and squeezing your shoulder blades together as you row, chest out.
    • Return the handle forward under tension to full stretch, remembering to keep that back straight even though flexed at the hips. Repeat the exercise for the desired number of repetitions.
    • Works the latissimus dorsi, forearm muscles, and upper arm muscles. Other stabilizing muscles that come into play are the hamstrings and gluteus maximus. 

Lat Pulldowns

  1. Bent Arm Lat Pulldown
    • Keep your chest tall/bring your chest to the bar.
    • Keep your elbows pointed straight down.
    • Squeeze your lats/think of pulling from your armpits.
    • Lower to your chin or just below.
    • Grab just outside your shoulders or a little wider.
  2. Straight Arm Lat Pulldown
    • Better at lat activation if can't feel with bent arms.
    • Targets teres major and posterior deltoid
    • With a slight torso lean and keeping shoulders internally rotated, bring the bar to hips with straight arms to target the upper back. Hinge over further to target lower lats. If you feel it in the triceps, decrease weight and try with a slight arm bend. 

Final Remarks

In any bodybuilding/exercising split, you should always be doing more pulling movements than pushing movements. This helps correct anterior shoulder pain and rounded shoulders. If you're looking to build strength, keep repetitions between the 3-6 range and weights heavier otherwise to build size higher volume with lower weights (8-15 rep range). But regarding the desired stimulus, don't overload any pulling movement if you cannot maintain control throughout the entire exercise and isolate the back. If you find that your shoulders are continually rounding forward and you need to incorporate momentum to lift the weight, it's too heavy. The mind-muscle connection is very important and should be utilized so you're targeting the muscles that you'd like to target. This is especially important for the smaller, weaker back muscles. They can get overpowered by the lats and traps during many pulling movements so, make sure you're really focusing on the muscles that you want to target. Finally, figure out what works for you when doing these movements. Everyone feels things differently therefore, what may work for someone else may not work for you, and that's okay.