You don’t often get to see your own back muscles. But that doesn’t discount the fact that your back is one of the most important parts of your body for performance in the gym and on the bodybuilding stage.
Whether you are trying to lift a one-rep max or show off a thick lat spread to the chalk-covered mirror, you certainly do not want to neglect training your back. To fully develop these muscles, you’ll want to add plenty of rows to your training program.
The single-arm cable row is a staple when it comes to fleshing out your back muscles. This is a particularly handy move when you’re trying to iron out any strength or muscular imbalances between the sides of your body. Here’s everything you need to know about how to do the single-arm cable row — and why you should.
- How to Do Single-Arm Cable Row
- Single-Arm Cable Row Sets and Reps
- Common Single-Arm Cable Row Mistakes
- Single-Arm Cable Row Variations
- Single-Arm Cable Row Alternatives
- Muscles Worked by the Single-Arm Cable Row
- Benefits of the Single-Arm Cable Row
- Who Should Do the Single-Arm Cable Row
- Frequently Asked Questions
Editor’s Note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. When starting a new training regimen and/or diet, it is always a good idea to consult with a trusted medical professional. We are not a medical resource. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. They are not substitutes for consulting a qualified medical professional.
The single-arm cable row is exactly what it sounds like — a cable row that you’ll be doing with just one side. For this exercise, you will be training one arm at a time using a cable machine. When doing a row, you are essentially moving your arm closer to your body, almost like rowing a boat. Here’s exactly how to do this row variation.
Step 1 — Set Up Your Machine
Make sure your machine of choice suits your needs. Most machines are adjustable, so find a position that is comfortable for you.
Plant your feet firmly on the floor in an athletic stance — your feet hip-to-shoulder-width apart and your knees slightly bent. Set the pulley at chest height. Hold a D-handle in one hand and back straight away from the anchor point. Your arms should be fully extended (straight) so that there is just a bit of tension from the cable once you reach your starting position.
Square your shoulders and point your feet toward the machine.
Coach’s Tip: If you’re performing a seated version of this exercise, note that some machines will have a footrest for you to rest your feet while others will have you rest your feet on the floor.
Step 2 — Initiate The Row
Pull your shoulder blades down and back to “load” your back. Aim to feel some tension around your armpit. From there, firmly grasp the handle and start pulling it towards your body.
Keep your elbow nice and close. It may almost graze the side of your ribs as you row. This is the concentric portion of the lift.
Coach’s Tip: If you’re having trouble getting the full range of motion, try to change the angle of your grip. This can feel more natural for your body and allow you to move further.
Step 3 — Squeeze
When your elbow cannot go back further without losing tension in your back or rotating your torso, you’ve reached your end range of motion. When you reach this point, squeeze your shoulder blade and maximally contract your back muscles.
Coach’s Tip: Make sure your hips and shoulders stay squared and level throughout the lift. Don’t let the weight yank your arm forward or shift your body’s position. Avoid twisting to the side to artificially extend your range of motion.
Step 4 — Release and Guide
This is the eccentric portion of the lift. Moving slowly and with control, reverse the movement so that your arm assumes the starting position of the movement. Slowly unravel your shoulder blades and arm back to resting position. Once again, your elbow may graze the side of your ribs.
Coach’s Tip: Don’t just let go of the weight — the rep is not over. If you hear the weights clanking loudly during this step, it is a telltale sign you are not controlling the eccentric portion of the row. Move slowly and with control.
Now you know how to row — but how much do you row? This largely depends on your goals. Manipulating the reps and sets of an exercise can influence the type of performance adaptations you reap from your hard efforts.
You can easily add or remove weight from this exercise. Here are some general tips for sets and reps based on your goals.
- For Muscle Mass: To build muscle mass you want to push volume. You won’t be using as much weight as you will for building maximal strength, but it should still be challenging when you reach the final reps of your set. Aim to feel your muscles firing on every rep. Perform four sets of 10 reps, leaving two or three reps in the tank each set.
- For Strength: To pursue strength, the focus is on maximizing your load. You want to use more weight for this and do fewer reps. Aim to lift the most amount of weight possible with good technique. Do five sets of three reps, with one or no reps left in the tank.
- For Endurance: When training for endurance, your focus is on reps. You will be using lighter weights but will be performing significantly higher repetitions. Set a timer for 10 minutes with a weight you can easily do for 20 reps. Perform 10 to 15 reps at the start of each minute. Rest for the remainder of the minute. Repeat this cycle for the entire set.
Although the single-arm cable row is pretty straightforward, you will want to avoid these common mistakes. Even if you have been doing rows for a while, it’s still important to reflect on your technique and see if there is anything you can improve upon.
Going Too Heavy
If you find you can’t perform the entire rep — including the eccentric portion — with strict control, you’re likely going too heavy. When the weight is enough to tug your working side forward or you feel like you have to yank your working side back to complete your reps, the weight is probably too heavy.
Fear not — the fix is simple. Start with a lower weight and work your way up. You don’t need the heaviest weight to make progress.
Moving Too Fast
Another common mistake is going too fast. It might be tempting to speed through your sets, but you are trying to build muscle, which takes time. To start, you can count to three on both the concentric and eccentric portions of the lift to slow down the tempo of the exercise.
Slowing down will help you feel the individual back muscles working as you perform the lift. The increased time under tension will help spur more muscle growth and also help you cultivate the discipline and mind-muscle connection you need to maximize your performance.
Using Too Much Arm
So many gymgoers want big arms — but this isn’t the exercise to get them. It’s common for beginners with lesser proprioception (feeling) of their back muscles to primarily use their arms to row instead of their back. But you want to be initiating and controlling the rep with your back, not your biceps.
An easy fix for this is to think about squeezing a pencil between your shoulder blades as you row. This and similar cues will help you develop that connection with your back. Remember to pull your shoulders back and down as you row.
Using Too Much Body
If your torso is rapidly whipping around while doing the single-arm cable row, it’s likely not a row anymore. This can happen when you use too much weight and when you go too fast, so try adjusting some of those things first.
Otherwise, ensure that you are stable and properly grounded when performing the row. You’ll find that you can’t help but use your body if you don’t have a solid foundation to pull from. Plant your feet firmly facing the line of pull (where the cable is attached at its anchor point). Keep your knees slightly bent and your core braced. Aim to keep your shoulders and hips squarely facing the machine.
The great thing about the single-arm cable row is that it is widely accessible to so many lifters. Based on your skill level and equipment access, you can decide what variation works best for you.
Seated Single-Arm Cable Row
If you are just starting out, try this variation. Most commercial gyms will have a simple seated cable row machine for you to use. The only variable here is that you will be training one arm at a time.
Place your other arm wherever is comfortable for stability. You may like resting it on the seat or holding another cable isometrically if it is a dual pulley system. You can even perform alternating reps if you choose the latter option.
Half-Kneeling Single-Arm Cable Row
This variation allows freedom and flexibility in your training, but it does require more stability and balance. Set the cable machine at about shoulder height and grab a mat or a pad for your knee. You will want to be in a lunge position with the same side leg behind you. This means if you are rowing with your right hand, your right knee should be bent behind you.
You’ll notice you have to use your core much more here to prevent yourself from falling over. Add those anti-rotational core gains to the list of reasons that this variation is worth your time.
Standing High Cable Row
The standing high cable row is similar in setup to the lunge variation, except the cable apparatus is set above your head and you are standing. Use a staggered stance to help with your balance.
Once again, the same side leg should be behind you. The high row will change the angle of the movement and make it more like a lat pulldown. This shifts the focus onto your lats and recruits more engagement of your upper back.
Looking for some alternatives to the single-cable row? You might want to use a different piece of equipment, or you might be looking for something involving both hands. Here are some options for you.
Two-Handed Cable Row
The two-handed cable row is very similar to the single-arm cable row, except (you guessed it) you use both hands at the same time. Start with this one if you are new, as it is much easier and more natural to perform.
Even if you are experienced, the two-handed cable row allows you to use different attachments — such as a straight bar — for a wider grip that you would not normally be able to use with the single-arm cable row.
With all the (justifiable) buzz around free weights, you might not think using machines is worthwhile. But a machine row is a great alternative to the single-arm cable row.
Every machine is a little different, but generally speaking, you’ll be able to perform a wide range of rows whether you choose to use one hand or both. The machine will lock in the path of your movement for you, so you don’t have to worry about stabilizing the weight.
Although the dumbbell row does not have as much built-in variation as the other alternatives, it is an incredible exercise to build your back. Simply grab a dumbbell, perfect your hinge, and get rowing.
You can use a bench to support this move, as well. If need be, place your opposite leg and free arm on it for stability. You may find your grip limiting you as you get stronger, so be sure to pack some lifting straps if you’re going heavy.
Understanding the anatomy behind the muscles that power the single-arm cable row can help you elevate your performance. Here is a list of the main muscles utilized when you row.
Rhomboid Major and Minor
The rhomboids are the primary muscle responsible for retracting your shoulder blades — which is what you are doing when you row. These muscles collectively originate from C7 to T5 on your spine and attach to the medial border of the scapula.
Like the name suggests, the trapezius is a large trapezoid-shaped muscle on your back. The muscle starts all the way from the base of your neck at a place called the external occipital protuberance. It attaches to the spinous processes of C7 to T12.
Due to the orientation of the muscle fibers, your traps are responsible for a few actions — all pertaining to the scapula. The trapezius is responsible for rotation, retraction, elevation, and depression. You may remember keeping your shoulders down in the row — this is what depression is.
This is the largest muscle in the back, commonly referred to as the “lats.” From the spinous processes of T7 to L5, thoracolumbar fascia, iliac crest, and even ribs three and four, the muscle attaches to the inferior angle of the scapula.
As a result, it is responsible for internally rotating and adducting your arm. In a single-arm cable row, keeping your arm close to your body is adduction.
You probably already know about the biceps. As the name suggests, it has two heads — the long and short head. The biceps originate from parts of your scapula called the coracoid process and supraglenoid tubercle and attach to the radial tuberosity of the arm.
This muscle flexes and supinates your arm. Although it’s not the primary mover in the row, you may notice a biceps pump, as this move still involves significant amounts of arm flexion.
The single-arm cable row is an easily accessible movement that can improve your strength, physique, and performance. It can also help you identify potential weaknesses and be the difference maker whether you are on stage or crushing a circuit.
Building a More Defined Back
Using one arm at a time is your best shot at building more symmetrical definition. Unilateral training — especially with cables — allows you to focus more on individual muscles of the back to really polish your physique. The multiple angles that the single-arm cable row provides are pivotal for you to shift the focus onto muscles that you find lacking in development.
Improving Muscular Imbalances
Imbalances and asymmetries are a normal part of having side dominance (whether you’re left or right-handed). But if you only train with both hands all the time — such as with a barbell — you may not notice that one arm is potentially weaker than the other.
The single-arm cable row can help identify any weaknesses in your body and help you address them. They say you are only as strong as your weakest link, and they’re not wrong. Spend some time building those areas to help with your performance.
Improving Back Strength
You have to include rows in your program if you want to build your back. The single-arm cable row may not be the best option for creating maximal strength. You’ll want to opt for bigger compound lifts like barbell rows and deadlifts for that kind of absolute strength.
But still, the single-arm cable row should not be overlooked. This unilateral accessory exercise allows you to develop strength in ranges of motion that a traditional row does not. It also allows you to spend a lot of extra time under tension, which is key to building the muscles that support all that strength.
Enhancing Proprioception and Stability
You may have heard of something called the mind-muscle connection, and the single-arm cable row helps to deliver that experience. By focusing on one arm at a time, you can really hone in on what muscles are contracting and being utilized. At an advanced level, you can consciously recruit the muscles you want to focus on.
The single-arm cable row also teaches you scapular stability and control. This can be hugely important in many sports and can play a small role when it comes to injury and rehab. Having a more robust and resilient shoulder can improve your longevity in both training and day-to-day activities.
As long as you can use a cable machine, you should probably be doing the single-arm cable row. Here are the populations that might benefit most from this versatile exercise.
As a beginner, you want a well-rounded program, and this exercise is a solid option to build your back. It has a low entry point since it doesn’t require that much technical skill — especially the seated version — and is generally safe to perform. Combined with the various progressions and modifications to adjust to your skill level, you can be sure you’ll be able to perform this movement on day one.
The single-arm cable row is a staple for bodybuilders, as building a defined back is at the top of their list. You don’t want to end up on a bodybuilding show being criticized for an underdeveloped back. This exercise will help you address any deficiencies in muscle development and make you ready for the stage.
CrossFitters do all sorts of exercises — from kipping pull-ups to overhead lunges — and many of these movements require them to be in control of their scapula. A single-arm cable row can help build a more robust and resilient scapula to handle all the tasks you may throw at it.
Row, Row, Row (Your Single Arm)
So there you have it. If you’re looking to train your back, you know you have to row, and knowing how to do the single-arm cable row is one of the most versatile ways to get it done. Don’t be afraid to try out different variations, but remember to select the appropriate load. You want to train your back, after all, not your arms or torso rotation. Start slow, take your time, and your back will thank you with some sweet, sweet gains.
Sure, you’ve learned a lot about the single-arm cable row. But you might have some lingering queries. And we have lingering answers.
How often should I do the single-arm cable row?
Most programs will have you performing the exercise one to two times a week depending on your goals. If your primary plan is to build your back, you might add this in as an accessory multiple times a week.
Just make sure you’re not fatiguing your back so much that it takes away emphasis from your bigger compound lifts like barbell rows and deadlifts.
What attachment/grip should I use when performing the single-arm cable row?
In general, choose whatever attachment/grip is most comfortable for you. Most lifters will use a D-handle since these are designed for use with one hand and are commonly available in commercial gyms with cable machines.
Which arm should I start with when I do single-arm cable rows?
Start with your weaker or non-dominant arm. This way, you’ll be able to really focus all your energy on developing the side that needs the most attention. You’ll also avoid the problem of letting your dominant side dictate the rep scheme, which might encourage “cheating” with your weaker side (and less optimal muscle growth).
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