Dorian Yates is a legend of modern bodybuilding. Not only was “The Shadow” enormously muscular, but he was also ripped to the bone. Yates won Mr. Olympia six times and is widely regarded as one of the best pro bodybuilders in history.
Yates retired from competition in 1997, mainly because of injury. He actually won his final Olympia just three weeks after badly tearing his triceps.
Training-wise, Dorian Yates favored high-intensity, short-duration workouts and described his approach as “blood and guts.” His training method was partly inspired by another bodybuilding legend, Mike Mentzer, and included elements of high-intensity training, known as HIT for short.
Dorian Yates’ physique had no obvious weakness, but his back was especially impressive. This, in part, was due to a special exercise he invented, which soon became known as the Yates row. In this article, we reveal how to do this famous back builder and provide you with a few alternatives you can use instead.
Yates Row Muscle Worked
Like all rowing exercises, the Yates row involves all of your major back muscles. However, the angle of your torso during this exercise tends to put more stress on your upper back and less on your lower back.
The main muscles worked during Yates rows are:
Latissimus dorsi – known as the lats for short, this is the largest muscle in your back. It’s located on the side of your torso, and its primary functions are adduction and extension of the shoulder joint.
Rhomboids and mid-traps – the rhomboids and mid traps are located between and across your scapulae or shoulder blades. They give your upper back its thickness and also play an important role in posture and shoulder stabilit
Posterior deltoids – like most compound upper body exercises, Yates rows involve all three deltoid muscles. However, as a shoulder extension exercise, the posterior or rear deltoids are especially active.
Upper traps – because Yates rows are done with a more upright posture, the upper traps are heavily involved in this exercise. The upper traps are responsible for the elevation of your shoulder girdle. Rows done in a more bent over position do not work the upper traps as much.
Biceps brachii – called the biceps for short, this is the muscle in the front of your upper arm. The biceps flex your elbow, supinate your forearm, and also flex your shoulder. Because they involve a supinated or underhand grip, Yates rows are a useful biceps builder.
Erector spinae – the collective name for the group of muscles that stabilize and extend your spine. Because you don’t bend over as far, Yates rows are less lower back dominant than regular bent-over rows, but these muscles are still involved when doing this exercise.
How to Do the Yates Rows
The Yates row is a variation of the barbell bent-over row. It’s done using a shoulder-width, underhand grip. However, the main difference between Yates rows and other rowing variations like Pendlay rows and T-bar rows is the angle of the torso.
Instead of bending over until your upper body is parallel to the floor, with Yates rows, you only lean forward about 45-degrees. This takes stress off your lower back and also allows you to lift more weight.
To do the Yates row:
- 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.
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Yates Rows Advantages and Benefits
What makes this such a good exercise? Good question! The main benefits and advantages of Yates rows are:
A total back exercise– Yates rows are a compound exercise, meaning they involve multiple joints and muscles working together. Done correctly, Yates rows work every muscle in your back, from the nape of your neck to the base of your spine. They also indirectly work your glutes and hamstrings, making them an excellent posterior chain exercise.
Less lower back stress– if bent over rows cause you back pain, you may find Yates rows more comfortable. Leaning over less shortens the distance between the weight and your base of support, taking stress off your lumbar spine and erector spinae muscles.
Lift more weight– the combination of leaning forward less and using an underhand grip means you should be able to use more weight for Yates rows than regular bent-over rows. This is useful if you want to build strength as well as muscle size, i.e., powerbuilding.
Great crossover to deadlifts– Yates rows are a good accessory exercise for powerlifters looking to increase their deadlift performance. Yates rows work many of the same muscles and may help fix the weak links undermining your deadlift performance, such as upper and mid-back strength, grip, and lower back and core strength.
Build bigger biceps– using an underhand grip means that the Yates rows share some movement similarities with barbell biceps curls. As such, they’re an effective biceps builder too. Providing you don’t use lifting straps, this is also a useful exercise for building bigger forearms and a stronger grip.
Yates Row Alternatives
Looking at Dorian Yates’ back development, it’s clear to see that Yates rows are an effective exercise. If you’ve never done them before, it may be time to add them to your workouts so you, too, can build a broad, thick, powerful back.
That said, this exercise isn’t for everyone and, even if you love it, if you do Yates rows too often, they’ll start to lose some of their potency. Use the following Yates row alternatives to keep your back workouts fresh, interesting, and productive.
1. Bent-Over Barbell Rows
As Yates rows are a variation of barbell bent-over rows, it only seems fair to include the original version in our list of alternatives. The main difference between Yates rows and bent-over rows is the angle of your torso.
Bent-over rows usually involve leaning over so that the upper body is around parallel to the floor. This angle increases lat activation but puts more stress on the erector spinae. However, it also makes it harder to maintain a neutral spine.
2. Pendlay Rows
Named after legendary Olympic weightlifting and powerlifting coach Glen Pendlay, Pendlay rows are also known as dead stop rows because each rep starts with the weight resting on the floor. This gives your lower back a brief rest between reps and also increases explosive strength. On the downside, you’ll need good flexibility to lean over far enough to rest the weight on the floor without rounding your lower back.
3. Kroc Rows
Kroc rows, like Yates and Pendlay rows, are named after the person how invented them. In this case, it’s champion powerlifter and bodybuilder Mathew Kroczaleski, who after gender reassignment is called Janae Marie Kroc.
Like Yates rows, Kroc rows involve a more forgiving torso angle, making them a little more lower-back friendly than regular bent-over rows. Also, as they are a unilateral dumbbell exercise, you’ve also got an arm free to support your lower back even more. Kroc rows are typically done with heavy weights for high reps – 20+ being quite common.
4. T-Bar Rows
T-bar rows are another hugely popular back exercise. They work many of the same muscles as Yates rows and can even be done using a similar torso angle to make them a little more lower-back friendly.
The main difference between Yates rows and T-bar rows is, with the latter, the weight moves in a fixed arc, so you are free to focus more on just pulling the bar up and into your body. With less coordination involved, T-bar rows are easier to learn and master than Yates rows.
5. Romanian Deadlift / Bent Over Row Combo
Like Yates rows, this is a total back exercise. However, as well as working your upper body, it works your lower body too. Do this combo exercise anytime you’re short on time but still want to train your entire posterior chain, from your heels to the nape of your neck.
How to do it:
- Hold a barbell with an overhand, wider than shoulder-width grip. Stand with your feet about hip-distance apart, knees slightly bent. Brace your core.
- Hinge forward from your hips and lower the bar down the front of your legs to about knee-height. Do not round your lower back.
- Row the bar up and into your midsection, and then lower it again.
- Stand up straight and repeat.
6. Chest Supported Yates Row
Despite the shallow angle, Yates rows still put stress on your lower back. You can avoid this issue by doing chest-supported Yates rows.
On the downside, this turns what is essentially a total posterior chain exercise into an upper-body-only exercise. However, if you’ve got a sore lower back, this could be a significant advantage.
How to do it:
- Set an adjustable bench to about 30-degrees. Lie face down on the bench with your chest against the backrest. Hold a barbell with an underhand, shoulder-width grip. Pull your shoulders down and back.
- Bend your arms and pull the bar up toward your upper abdomen/sternum. Keep your elbows tucked in to your sides.
- Extend your arms and repeat.
- Increase your range of motion by using dumbbells or a cambered bar with a curve in the middle.
Yates Row Exercise Guide – Wrapping Up
Bodybuilders often say, “if you want to grow, you’ve got to row.” Exercises like pulldowns and pull-ups give your back width, but if you want a thick upper back, rows are where it’s at! There are lots of different rowing exercises to choose from, and done correctly, they all work.
The Yates row is another proven back exercise and one that deserves to be part of your training toolbox. Follow in six-time Mr. Olympia winner Dorian Yates’ footsteps and try the Yates row for yourself.