Variety, they say, is the spice of life. That expression holds true when talking about the food you eat, your circle of friends, your job, and, of course, your workout.
In the same way that you’d get bored of eating the same meal over and over, your muscles get bored of doing the same old workout routine and will stop getting bigger and stronger as a result.
For that reason, smart bodybuilders make small changes to their workouts more or less weekly and bigger changes every 4-8 weeks or so.
This ensures that your muscles never becomes completely accustomed to any workout or exercise and continue to get bigger and stronger over time.
For that reason, it’s imperative that you keep on adding new exercises to your workout library. That way, as one exercise starts to lose its potency, you can simply slot another exercise into your program to maintain your progress.
So, if you’ve been doing pulldowns and bent-over rows for as long as you can remember, it’s definitely time to upgrade your back workout with a new exercise. In this article, we reveal why and how to do the incline bench cable row.
Incline Bench Cable Row – Muscles Worked
The incline bench cable row is a compound or multijoint exercise for your upper back. As such, it involves movement at multiple joints and uses several muscles.
The main muscles trained during incline bench cable rows are:
Latissimus dorsi – located on the side of your upper back, the lats give your back most of its width. In fact, when fully developed, the lats look a little like wings. The lats have two main functions: shoulder extension and shoulder adduction. They’re also involved in the medial or inward rotation of the shoulder joint.
Trapezius – the traps are a large diamond-shaped muscle that covers much of your upper back. It’s made up of three sets of fibers: upper, middle, and lower. While all three sets of fibers work during incline bench cable rows, the middle and lower traps are most active.
Deltoids – the deltoids are your shoulder muscles. There are three deltoid regions or heads: anterior (front), medial (middle), and posterior (rear). All three are involved in incline bench cable rows, but the rear delts are the most active.
Biceps – located on the front of your upper arm, the biceps are responsible for flexing your elbows during incline bench cable rows. In this exercise, the biceps are classed as synergists or helpers because they are NOT the primary target muscle.
How to Do Incline Bench Cable Rows
Get more from incline bench cable rows while keeping your risk of injury to a minimum by following these guidelines:
- Attach a rope handle to a low cable. Alternatively, you can use D-shaped handles on an extended strap.
- Adjust an incline bench to between 30-45 degrees and place it in front of the cable machine with the back of the bench facing the pulley.
- Sit on the bench with your chest against the backrest. Grip the handles and extend your arms.
- Pull your shoulders down and back and brace your core.
- Bend your arms and pull the handles in toward your lower ribs. Lead with your elbows, keep your wrists straight, and squeeze your shoulders together to maximize upper back engagement.
- Smoothly extend your arms, let your shoulders shrug forward to stretch your upper back, retract your shoulders again, and repeat.
This exercise works best with light to medium weights and low to moderate reps. Focus on smooth, controlled movements and keeping constant tension on your upper back. Using heavy weights will invariably lead to cheating and take work away from the target muscles.
Incline Bench Cable Row Benefits and Drawbacks
Not sure if incline bench cable rows are worth your time and energy? Consider these benefits and then decide!
- Very lower back friendly – unlike most rowing exercises, incline bench rows put very little stress on your lower back. As such, they’re ideal for anyone with a tired lower back, e.g., after deadlifts, or who suffers from low back pain.
- No tricky techniques to master – incline bench cable rows are a very straightforward exercise, so they’re ideal for beginners and anyone who prefers a less technical back workout. In contrast, exercises like barbell bent over rows and Pendlay rows are much harder to learn.
- Good workout variety – this exercise hits your back in a whole new way. The unusual angle means your muscles will have to overcome a new challenge, which could be just what you need to trigger renewed muscle growth.
- Readily accessible – most gyms have a low pulley machine and an adjustable bench. As such, most lifters should have no problem adding this exercise to their workouts.
- Versatility – you can use this exercise to preferentially engage your lats by pulling your hands down to your lower ribs or hit your mid/upper back more by raising your hands and pulling more toward your chest.
While incline bench cable rows are a mostly beneficial exercise, there is also a drawback to consider:
- Equipment hogging – to do this exercise, you’ll need to monopolize an adjustable bench and a pulley machine, essentially hogging two separate pieces of training equipment. This could be a problem if you work out in a busy gym.
8 Incline Bench Cable Row Variations and Alternatives
Incline bench cable rows are a highly effective upper back and lat exercise, but that doesn’t mean you need to do them all the time. There are several variations and alternatives you can use to keep your workouts productive and interesting:
1. Seated cable row
Seated cable rows are very similar to incline bench rows. Still, instead of a bench supporting your upper body, you must use your lower back to hold you in position. Most gyms have a seated cable row machine, and this exercise is a very popular back builder.
How to do it:
- Sit on the bench with your legs extended, and your knees slightly bent. Grip the handle and straighten your arms. Pull your shoulders down and back and brace your core. Your torso should be upright.
- Without leaning forward or backward, bend your arms and pull the handle into your abdomen.
- Extend your arms and repeat.
- You can do this exercise with a narrow, medium, or wide grip as preferred.
2. Face pulls
Face pulls are another cable upper back exercise. However, where incline bench cable rows are mostly a lat exercise, face pulls emphasize your trapezius and rhomboids. Face pulls are an excellent exercise for improving your posture and the perfect antidote to prolonged sitting and slouching.
How to do it:
- Attach a two-sided rope handle to a cable pulley set to around chest level.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart so that you’re in an upright posture.
- Grab both sides of the handle with a neutral grip. Place one foot in front of the other for balance.
- Lower your elbows slightly but keep hands at head level.
- Pull the rope toward your face as far as possible while pulling both handles apart.
- Extend your arms and repeat for the desired number of reps.
3. Inverted rows
Inverted rows, also known as Australian pull-ups, train the same muscles as incline bench rows. However, this is a bodyweight exercise, so it may be more convenient for some people. All you need for inverted rows is a waist-high bar to hang from, a suspension trainer, or a set of gymnastic rings.
How to do it:
- Set a bar to about waist height. Make sure the bar will not move. You can use a barbell in a squat rack or a Smith machine.
- Sit on the floor beneath the bar and hold it with an overhand, slightly wider than shoulder-width grip.
- Lean back, so your arms are straight, brace your core, and pull your shoulders down and back.
- Lift your hips so your weight is supported on your heels and hands only. Make sure your body is straight – from your heels to your shoulders.
- Keeping your body properly aligned, bend your arms and pull your chest up to the bar. Keep your wrists straight and focus on leading with your elbows. Squeeze your shoulders together at the top of the rep.
- Slowly and smoothly extend your elbows and return to the starting position, keeping your body straight the whole time.
- That’s one rep; keep going!
4. Seal row
Seal row have nothing to do with Navy Special Forces and even less to do with the animal. In fact, it’s hard to see why seal rows are called seal rows! Regardless, this freeweight back exercise is similar to incline bench cable rows and ideal for anyone who prefers lifting barbells and dumbbells to training with cables.
How to do it:
- Place a flat bench on blocks or stacks to bumper plates so that your hands are a few inches away from the floor when you lie face down on it.
- Lie face down on the bench and grip a barbell or dumbbells. Pull your shoulders down and back.
- Leading with your elbows and with straight wrists, bend your arms and pull the bar up and into the bench level with your abdomen.
- Extend your arms, lower the weight, and repeat.
- You can also do this exercise on a slightly angled bench to hit your lower lats a little more, i.e., incline seal rows.
5. Chest-supported T-bar row
The chest-supported T-bar row is almost identical to the incline bench cable row. The only difference is that the cable variation tends to keep your muscles under constant tension.
In fact, it appears that incline bench cable rows were invented as a way of doing chest-supported T-bar rows when no such machine was available.
How to do it:
- Adjust the height of the chest pad so you can only just reach your chosen handle.
- Lean your chest against the pad and grab the narrow neutral handle or wider, overhand grip as preferred. Pull your shoulders down and back.
- Bend your arms and pull the weight up toward your abdomen. Keep your elbows back and your wrists straight.
- Extend your arms and repeat.
6. Single-arm dumbbell row
Single-arm dumbbell rows might not look much like incline bench cable rows. Still, they share a very important characteristic – both provide your lower back with extra support. When you do single-arm dumbbell rows, you can use your free hand to hold your body in optimal alignment, making them more back-friendly than regular bent-over rows.
How to do it:
- Begin with the dumbbell on the floor.
- Place your lower leg on the end of the bench and keep your back straight while in a bent-over position. Support your weight with the opposite arm.
- Grip the dumbbell with one hand and lift it off the ground.
- Leading with your elbow, pull the dumbbell up towards and past your ribs.
- Lower the dumbbell to starting position and perform the required number of reps.
- Repeat with your other arm.
You can also do this exercise with very heavy weights and a little more body English, which is an exercise called Kroc rows.
7. Pendlay row
You don’t have to lean your chest against a bench to take the stress off your lower back during rows. The Pendlay row, invented by US weightlifting and powerlifting coach Glen Pendlay, starts and finishes with the barbell resting on the floor, which gives your back a brief rest between reps.
This back and grip-friendly rowing exercise should allow you to lift heavy weights with relative safety.
How to do it:
- Start with your barbell on the floor. Stand with your feet about hip to shoulder-width apart, toes under the bar.
- Bend your knees slightly, hinge forward from the hips, and bend over until your upper body is parallel to the floor.
- Grab the barbell with an overhand, slightly wider than shoulder-width grip. Tuck your chin in and lengthen your neck; do not lift your head and look forward or allow your lower back to round.
- Brace your core, draw your shoulders down and back, and pull the bar up into your abdomen. Keep your upper arms tucked in close to your sides. Your upper body should remain stationary throughout.
- Lower the barbell back down the floor and let it settle, reset your core, and repeat.
8. Yates row
The Yates row is another lower back-friendly bent-over rowing exercise. It was invented by multi-Olympia winner Dorian Yates. The Yates row involves less forward lean than traditional bent-over rows, which, according to Yates, means not just less low back stress but a better workout for your lats and upper back.
How to do it:
- Hold a barbell with a supinated (underhand) shoulder-width grip. Use lifting straps if you are going really heavy. You can deadlift the bar from the floor to get into position or, a better choice, place the bar in a power rack or on blocks and lift it from mid-thigh height.
- Pull your shoulders down and back, brace your core, stand with your feet roughly hip-width apart, and bend your knees slightly.
- Without rounding your lower back, hinge forward from the hips. Lean forward until your torso is angled to around 45 degrees. The bar should be just above knee height.
- Bend your arms and pull the bar up and into your upper abdomen/sternum. Tuck your elbows in as you pull.
- Squeeze your shoulders back and together briefly, and then lower the bar, maintaining your core tension and neutral spine.
- Pause at the bottom of the rep to briefly stretch your upper back and then repeat.
Incline Bench Cable Row Guide – Wrapping Up
While there is nothing wrong with building your back workouts around staples like pulldowns and regular rows, you can have too much of a good thing. Doing the same exercises over and over can soon become boring, and that means less productive workouts.
The good news is that there are plenty of other exercises you can use to build the back of your dreams, and now you have a new one to add to your workout library – incline bench cable rows.
Try it; we think you’re going to like it!