Calisthenic exercises are hugely underrated for strength, hypertrophy, proprioception, and most of all, their ability to be performed nearly anywhere at any time. While you certainly remember the rush of triumph you felt after hitting your first pull-up (or maybe you’re still working on it), the exercise has a horizontal cousin that tends to go overlooked.
The inverted row, while not exactly the same, can be a potent tool in its own right. Even better, the inverted row can serve as a stepping stone for those that are still working towards their first pull-up.
Knowing how, when, and why these two seemingly similar lifts should be used can greatly improve your gains. In order to harness the muscle or strength-building potential of each movement, you need to know what separates them — and what makes them similar.
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Differences Between the Inverted Row and the Pull-Up
Although visually similar in many ways, the pull-up and inverted row have quite a few distinct differences. They do have some muscular overlap, but there are some obvious biases at play. Each lift also has a unique degree of difficulty and methods of progression.
The orientation of your body in combination with an overhand grip is going to somewhat differentiate what muscles you hit between these two exercises. While all muscles of the back will likely get some love in both of these exercises, there are clear workload biases.
Since you are performing the inverted row while facing the ceiling, your elbows should flare out to a greater degree than in the pull-up. This means that the muscles of the upper back (particularly the traps and rhomboids) may end up doing the majority of the work.
Starting from a dead hang position in the pull-up with gravity acting in line with your body means that the muscles of the rotator cuff will need to work first to secure your shoulder before the lats can then lift you up.
Degree of Difficulty
With the inverted row, part of your body weight will be supported by the ground at all times. This means that compared to the pull-up, less total load (regardless of progression or regression of each exercise) is placed on your lats.
A second difference is that the angle of the arm during each exercise makes the inverted row easier (and in some cases safer) for the shoulder to stabilize. The pull-up will have you start the lift with your arm fully extended over your head, meaning that the stabilizers of the rotator cuff are going to have to be strong enough to support your body weight at the very least.
In the inverted row, the arm stays more perpendicular to the body as you perform each repetition. This is a more inherently stable position and therefore will likely make it easier for you to execute the inverted row even if you have less training experience.
Progressing the difficulty of each exercise is also unique. The inverted row can be progressed by changing the angle of your body in the starting position or placing your point of ground contact further from the bar.
These changes will greatly increase the challenge of the exercise before you ever have to add any external resistance. Once you’re looking to progress even further, a weighted vest is likely one of your best options as it keeps the external load as stable and evenly distributed as possible.
For the pull-up, attaching a dip-belt with plates or holding a dumbbell between your ankles are the two main ways of progressing the challenge of the exercise.
Similarities Between the Inverted Row and the Pull-Up
While there are differences, there are also some aspects of the pull-up and inverted row that make them quite similar — if not outright synergistic.
Both the inverted row and pull-up are calisthenic exercises or bodyweight-based movements. They have significant overlap with regard to the full-body tension required to control your posture throughout each exercise.
Without proper leg, glute, core, and rigid upper back tension, you’re more likely to flop around like a fish out of water while trying to perform a proper inverted row or pull-up. The ability to neutralize any extraneous body movement during an inverted row or pull-up is essential.
Proprioception is your ability to sense where you physically are in space and make corrections based upon the kinesthetic feedback you receive. Feeling yourself falling out of position, especially in combination with your body traveling through the air in the pull-up or inverted row is a fantastic way to train your proprioception in both lifts.
Classically, both exercises are performed with a double-overhand grip, but their similarities don’t end there. Both the inverted row and pull-up can be very easily modified to challenge slightly different muscle groups by subtly changing your grip.
Using different bar types (for example, a Swiss bar) can help you find a neutral grip position for your inverted row in a similar way that a pull-up can be trained with a neutral grip. The same option is available by converting your pull-up to a chin-up and by swapping your hand position to double-underhand on the inverted row bar.
Inverted Row vs. Pull-Up Technique
The major considerations for each technique come down to the degree of stability required for a horizontal versus vertical style of pull. With that also comes some considerations for muscle engagement and cueing to perfect each exercise.
Horizontal vs. Vertical Pulling
The challenges of stability in the inverted row and the pull-up come down to how the exercise interacts with the line of pull from gravity. Gravity always pulls straight down. In the inverted row, a lack of core stability would lead to your hips sagging and compromising your ability to pull properly.
In the pull-up, however, gravity is working parallel to the direction in which you’re pulling. It won’t necessarily alter your technique so much as it creates a more challenging start to the lift. Shoulder stability at the initiation of the pull-up is often the most difficult aspect for most trainees.
Muscle Engagement & Cueing
The direction of your elbow path during the inverted row and pull-up will give you hints as to what muscles are being worked. The inverted row is constantly challenging your ability to engage your traps and rhomboids (with some assistance from the lats) to squeeze the shoulder blades together and raise your chest towards the bar.
The pull-up on the other hand is primarily a teres and lat exercise with some assistance from the upper back. As gravity attempts to pull you straight down (tractioning your shoulder joint in the process), the teres and rotator cuff muscles will attempt to secure your upper arm in place before the lats can kick some horsepower into the equation to pull you through the range of motion.
How to Do the Inverted Row
Lay on your back underneath a barbell resting in a squat rack or inside a Smith machine. You can rest your feet on a slightly-elevated surface that is roughly the same height as the bar. Grab the bar with your hands roughly shoulder-width apart or a bit wider. Pull your torso upward until your body is in a rigid, straight line, parallel to the floor.
Benefits of the Inverted Row
- Lower barrier to entry than the pull-up.
- Easily scalable for any fitness level.
- Builds full-body strength and stability.
- Build the musculature of the upper back.
Variations of the Inverted Row
The major variations of the inverted row come down to grip alterations and foot placement.
Changing your grip from overhand, to neutral or even underhand on the inverted row helps to bias the major muscles from the upper back to favor a bit more lat and arm engagement. This can help evenly distribute your hypertrophy training or help serve as a point of progression.
Differences in foot placement will have a huge impact on the degree of challenge for core engagement. Altering your base of support from a wide stance to a close stance, near the body to further away, or even suspending one foot makes the burden of full-body stability that much greater.
How to Do the Pull-Up
Stand underneath a fixed bar and either hop or step up to grab it at slightly wider than shoulder-width. Allow yourself to hang freely with your scapula elevated. Squeeze your legs together and clamp your abs down like you’re about to be punched in the gut.
Pull yourself upward by first depressing and retracting your shoulders and then bending your arms until your clavicles are roughly the same height as the bar. Lower yourself back down under control. For best results, pause for a beat at the bottom before beginning the next rep.
Benefits of the Pull-Up
- Trains full-body strength.
- Requires and creates strong, stable shoulders.
- Scalable for a progressively greater challenge.
- Can be performed anywhere you have access to a bar.
Variations of the Pull-Up
The major variations of the pull-up come from the different grip orientations or by adding or subtracting weight.
Similar to the inverted row, changing the orientation of your grip from overhand to neutral or underhand helps to bias certain muscle groups and ease a bit of the demand on the shoulder.
The two distinct load-related variations of the pull-up are the weighted pull-up (with a dip belt and plates) or the band-assisted pull-up. A band assisted pull-up can be performed with any grip orientation and will progressively underload your bodyweight in the harder positions (the bottom).
The Inverted Row vs. the Pull-Up — When to Use Each
For beginners, the choice comes down to baseline strength and shoulder stability. A major sticking point with the pull-up is the amount of rotator cuff strength you need in order to even initiate the lift. If your shoulder strength or mobility is lagging, lean into the inverted row.
The degree of skill overlap between the inverted row and the pull-up is extremely beneficial for a beginner, however. Use the inverted row to teach the bracing and coordination skills necessary for your first pull-up.
For Max Strength
If you want to build strength, the pull-up will offer you more room to grow and push your limits since it is more practical to load and you’re likely to fail due to back strength, not hip or trunk posture.
Weighted vests are great for both, but plates precariously balanced on your body can make loading the inverted row more trouble than it is worth. Adding external weight to the pull-up will feel more natural and you’re not liable to have your progress stymied by the weight trying to fold you in half.
For Muscle Growth
One factor that contributes toward a good muscle-building exercise is how much range of motion you can get your target muscle into. Given the uniqueness of each set-up, a pull-up would likely be a better tool for lengthening your lat whereas the inverted row is great for your traps and rhomboids.
For well-rounded back hypertrophy, you should probably make both exercises a part of your program.
For Shoulder Health
For overall shoulder health, the inverted row tends to be a bit more gentle when you’re just starting out. Overhead positions are much more difficult to stabilize and can be unforgiving once fatigue starts to set in.
For the majority of lifters, starting out with the inverted row to train scapular strength and control can be a great stepping stone to building towards a pull-up. The pull-up on the other hand is a fantastic tool to maintain and build shoulder integrity.
The inverted row and pull-up are two exercises cut from slightly different parts of the same cloth. Understanding their strengths, weaknesses, and how they can be synergistic within your program means that you won’t need to choose one — but that you will know how to determine when one is better for a specific goal.
Looking to build your upper back with a bit more forgiveness on the shoulders? Inverted row. Want to test your shoulder stability, build a great set of lats, or bang them out just because they’re awesome? Pull-ups. Choosing one doesn’t mean you have to ignore the other, however. Test them both and see how they best suit your goals.
Featured Image: MilanMarkovic78 / Shutterstock