Are pull-ups or rows better for back development? Which exercise should you focus on?
Everyone involved in fitness should be performing some kind of upper body pulling exercises. Pull-ups and rows are two of the staples in this category. And for most people, doing a combination of pull-up exercises and rowing exercises is better than specializing in just one or the other.
The pull-up (and it’s many variations like chin-ups, neutral-grip pull-ups, etc.) is a vertical pulling exercise. And the row (e.g. inverted row, barbell row, dumbbell row) is a horizontal pulling exercise. Both are natural, functional movement patterns, making them both great exercises with unique benefits. Most people would be best served by training both regularly because they train the same musculature in different ways (i.e. positions, angles, movements, etc.). This will produce the most well-rounded and balanced strength and muscle development. Both are compound exercises that strengthen your back (especially the lats), arms (especially the biceps), and core musculature (especially the abs), and some other muscle groups to varying degrees.
Plus, having a well-rounded back will usually improve your posture, help prevent aches and pains, and also improve your performance in other exercises (e.g. bench press, squat, deadlift) and physical activities.
Now, bodybuilders will tell you that pull-ups (and other vertical pulling exercise) will improve your back width and rows will improve your back thickness. There’s some truth to this. However, the key factor is that you’re able to activate the proper musculature for each exercise.
So, beginners should start with inverted rows and skill-appropriate pull-up exercise progressions (e.g. flexed arm hang, negative reps, assisted pull-ups, etc.). I might also recommend supplementing with single-arm dumbbell rows, depending on the client. But the main focus should be on pull-ups and inverted rows, which are two of the best exercises for targeting most of the back musculature.
Here’s a discussion on the similarities and differences between pull-ups and inverted rows, which will help you figure out which exercise would be best for you…
Now, intermediate trainees should focus on pull-ups & chin-ups and more difficult inverted rows. You can increase the difficulty of the inverted row by either elevating your feet onto a box or bench, wearing a weight vest, or doing one-arm inverted rows. And there are many other inverted row exercise variations to choose from. The key is that you keep challenging yourself at an appropriate level instead of just doing more and more reps of standard inverted rows.
As you get more advanced, you can start experimenting with weighted pull-ups and even one-arm pull-ups. Advanced trainees and budding strength athletes may also want to include some barbell rows in their program based on their unique training needs and goals. I see bent-over barbell rows as a useful supplementary exercise for weight lifters and other strength athletes, but not not an essential for your average fitness enthusiast. I also consider barbell rows a little riskier than some of these other options. So, it’s important to lay a proper foundation of strength, and in particular, ensure your ability to stabilize your spine, before using this exercise. And always maintain good technique throughout each set, which should be a given for every exercise you use.
The Bottom Line: You’ll get the best results if you use a variety of exercises that are appropriate for your skill and conditioning level. So, do pull-ups and rows. Try to keep getting better at each of them. And balance out all of that pulling with a healthy dose of upper body pressing exercises, too – like pushups and dips. You’ll build a stronger, healthier, more functional body.
Having said all of that, I still think that pull-ups are the best all-around back exercise, for many reasons. So, every serious fitness enthusiast should seek to master them, especially since they’re very difficult for most people. You can learn how at the links below.
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About The Author
John Sifferman is a health-first fitness coach who has been teaching, coaching, and training people in various capacities since 2006. John is the author of The Pull-up Solution, the complete pull-up and chin-up training system that helps people rapidly increase their pull-up numbers in three months or less.
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