Many great barbell back exercises build mass and strength in your lats, upper back, and posterior shoulder. Whether you’re a bodybuilder trying to beef up your v-taper or a powerlifter on the prowl for a new accessory movement, rows are a staple for a reason.
That said, one variation that often gets pushed aside is the seal row. The seal row has you lying parallel to the ground on a weight bench, taking your lower back (and any potential momentum) out of the equation to help you really focus on building and strengthening your upper back.
This article will explain all things seal row so you will get the most out of this fantastic lift and crush your training goals.
- How to Do the Seal Row
- Seal Row Sets and Reps
- Common Seal Row Mistakes
- Seal Row Variations
- Seal Row Alternatives
- Muscles Worked by the Seal Row
- How to Warm Up for the Seal Row
- Benefits of the Seal Row
- Who Should Do the Seal Row
- Frequently Asked Questions
How to Do the Seal Row
The trick with the seal row lies in the setup. The goal is to get the weight bench parallel to the floor and to have it high enough off the ground so you can extend your arms. If you don’t have a bench specifically made for the seal row, stacking 45-pound plates underneath each leg will work.
Step 1 — Set Up
Lie face down on the weight bench. Engage your glutes to flatten your lower back. The barbell should ideally rest off the ground so you have sufficient range of motion to pull.
Coach’s Tip: Engaging your quads and glutes will give you a better base to pull from.
Step 2 — Pull Hard
With your shoulders down, head, and chest on the bench, row the barbell towards the bench until your shoulder blades are together or the barbell touches the weight bench. Keep those elbows flared out.
Coach’s Tip: Briefly pause at the top with the barbell against the underside of the bench to get some bonus isometric stimulation.
Seal Row Sets and Reps
The seal row is a great exercise for almost everybody. If you can lie your body face-down comfortably without any compensation, then you can do the seal row. Since you’re lying down, it’s difficult to generate momentum, so lighten your usual barbell row weight until you nail down good technique.
- For Muscle Mass: Perform 3 to 5 sets of 8-15 reps, leaving 1-2 reps in the tank each set.
- For Strength: Do 3 to 5 sets of 4 to 6 reps, using extra weight.
- For Endurance: Perform 2 to 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps.
Common Seal Row Mistakes
To get the best out of this exercise, avoid these common mistakes which may take away the effectiveness of the seal row.
Setup and Safety First
The weight bench being parallel and high enough to extend your elbows is key. If you need to use weight plates, make sure the bench is properly secured and stabilized. Make sure there is no side-to-side wobble, because falling off the bench is a blooper video waiting to happen.
Correct Elbow Position
For most row variations, having a 45-degree angle between your elbow and torso is advisable. That said, it’s important in the seal row to have your elbows flared out, parallel to the shoulders, to focus on the upper back.
Stay Glued to the Bench
The whole purpose of the seal row is to remove any torso, hip, or leg movement from the equation. If you flop around too much, you’re not getting maximum value from the exercise and may even be putting your low back at risk. Make sure you keep as much of your body still and static during your set.
Seal Row Variations
Below are two seal row variations you can do to get all the benefits of the seal row and train the upper back hard and heavy.
Dumbbell Seal Row
Performed the same way as the barbell version in terms of technique, the dumbbell seal row affords you more freedom of movement for your arms. This is great if you have any wrist, elbow, or shoulder issues. Plus, if you have any strength imbalances between sides, the dumbbells will expose them.
Unilateral Chest-Supported Row
It’s not exactly a seal row because of the position of your legs and the incline of the bench, but this variant is close enough to simulate a seal row. This variation will strengthen imbalances between sides and give your core some anti-rotation benefits to boot.
Seal Row Alternatives
If you don’t have access to a seal row bench or the lifters in your gym get angry because you took all the plates — or if you just want to mix things up — these seal row alternatives provide other great ways to train your upper back and lats.
Here, you have the option of using a weight bench and dumbbells or even a machine. Like the seal row, no matter which variation you use, your chest stays glued to the pad as you pull.
Limiting assistance and momentum allows you to focus on your upper back muscles for more size and strength. The advantage of the adjustable weight bench variation is you have the potential to train the back from a variety of angles.
The brain child of renowned strength coach Dan John, batwing rows are essentially a partial range of motion seal row. While you can’t lower the weights as far, this variation does give you some extra shoulder extension movement and is also way more convenient to set up.
TRX Inverted Row
What you sacrifice with load, you make up with an increase in the engagement stabilizer muscles including the core. With the TRX inverted row you can go underhand, overhand, neutral, or anything in between. The flexible execution can be advantageous if you have any wrist, elbow, or shoulder issues.
Muscles Worked by the Seal Row
The unique setup of the seal row makes it a compound exercise that feels like an isolation movement — which is one of its biggest selling points. By suspending your torso on the bench, you change a great deal about how your body bears the load you’re working with. You’ll find close to zero tension on your lower back and hamstrings by design.
Your latissimus dorsi, or lats, are the prime mover in almost every single row variation out there. Since your lats primarily retract and extend the shoulder, they do a lion’s share of the work in the seal row from start to finish.
Traps & Upper Back
You can bias different areas of your back depending on your grip width of choice. A wider, overhand grip may help you engage more of your middle trapezius, rear delts, rhomboids, and various other smaller tissues that articulate the shoulder blade.
Biceps & Brachialis
Much like with grip width, your hand placement will affect how much work your biceps do in the seal row. If you row with an underhand grip, expect to feel more of the load in your biceps. Row overhand, and you’ll attack your brachialis and brachioradialis, which contribute to upper arm and forearm thickness.
How to Warm Up for the Seal Row
When going hard and heavy on the seal row, it pays to get your joints of the elbows and shoulders ready for action. Inserting a set or two of face pulls, band pull-aparts or TRX pull-aparts into your warm-up for 10 to 15 reps will get your shoulders and upper back ready to play.
Plus, some ramp-up work will serve to refine your technique and help you determine what RPE you should use on the day. Here’s an example of how to build up the seal row if your working weight is roughly 185 pounds:
- 95 pounds for 10 reps
- 115 pounds for 8 reps
- 135 pounds for 6 reps
- 155 pounds for 3 reps
Benefits of the Seal Row
Besides having a strong upper back, there are other important benefits on offer if you plug the seal row into your back day.
Improved Overall Strength
A strong and muscular upper back plays an important role in keeping the spine neutral when squatting and deadlifting. It keeps the squat from turning into a good morning, and also helps keep the barbell close to you when you pull.
Plus, when you engage your upper back during a bench press, it ensures a better bar path.
It’s Lower-Back Friendly
When you perform them properly, seal rows take your lower back out of the equation entirely and allow you to simply focus on blasting your upper back. If you’re working around a spine injury or are recovering from a heavy deadlift workout, the seal row can be extremely clutch.
A Bigger Back
The physical setup of the seal row allows you to have an ideal line of pull. You should find the movement very effective for targeting your lats or upper back while still allowing you to load up on weight and hit each set hard and heavy.
Neglecting your posterior chain (from head to toe) can negatively impact your posture. This can cause a forward head and rounded shoulder position, which isn’t ideal for any athlete. The seal row is a great option for training many of the muscles responsible for helping you sit, stand, or walk upright with good posture.
Who Should Do the Seal Row
Regardless of your training goals or experience level, you should be able to find a place for the seal rows in your program.
Strength athletes like powerlifters and weightlifters can train seal rows for muscle hypertrophy, and to maintain proper upper posture or lifting technique. If you pursue strength, you’ll want to emphasize performing the seal row with impeccable technique as an accessory.
Wouldn’t it look silly to have a big chest and shoulders but no upper back to speak of? The seal row is a tried and true isolation exercise for the upper back and lats. Since you have the bench to stabilize your torso, as a bodybuilder you can train your upper back hard and heavy with increased volume for better hypertrophy.
Beginners and Recreational Trainees
A lot of beginners and recreational lifters stand to benefit from more upper back strength and muscle — from those who sit with a hunched posture to the weekend warriors who need good shoulder mobility and a dash of injury prevention from a comprehensive back movement.
Beyond that, the seal row isn’t particularly technique-intensive. As long as you can wrangle the setup, the actual movement should come naturally to you.
Seal the Deal
No exercise under the sun does everything. The seal row is an impeccably-designed movement for honing in on your lats and traps. That said, it does take your lumbar spine, hips, and legs out of the equation entirely.
This can be an asset for most athletes in the right context — but it may not necessarily be what you’re looking for in a back exercise. If you want more head-to-toe stimulus, you might consider looking elsewhere. But if you’re after a row variation that absolutely annihilates your upper back, the seal row is second to none.
The seal row may feel self-explanatory, but there’s still a lot going on under the hood. Here are a couple of common questions and concerns, thoroughly answered for your benefit.
What if a wide grip is uncomfortable?
There is no need to force-feed a lift it hurts you. The seal row is best performed with a wide grip but if this hurts you, tucking your elbows in or performing this with dumbbells will help. It is not a deal-breaker to do either.
What if I don't have access to a specialty bench?
In lieu of a seal row bench, you can take a standard free bench and elevate it on several bumper plates, a plyo box, or even a pair of large dumbbells. As long as it is stable, you’re ready to rock.
What if the seal row is uncomfortable on my chest?
If the pressure on your chest is too much, put the bench on a slight incline of around 30 degrees with the bottom of your ribs in contact with the top of the bench and your feet on the floor. This still supports your lower back and you’re almost parallel to the floor.
You might also find that working with dumbbells alleviates some of the pressure due to a lighter total load.
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