Last updated on March 4th, 2023 at 01:17 pm
Any row variation, barring the upright row, is typically performed to target the muscles of the upper back, especially the lats.
So, if you’re feeling rows in your upper traps this points to a flaw in your form.
I shall cover each of these in more detail now.
You should feel rows in the middle and lower traps. The middle traps work when you retract the shoulder blades, whereas the lower traps are used when you depress the shoulder blades. That being said, you are more likely to feel rows in the upper traps (which you don’t want) if your stance is too upright, you’re rowing too much weight, or your elbows are flaring out the sides. When it comes to seated or cable rows you should maintain a neutral spine and ensure that your torso remains perpendicular to the floor.
Table of Contents
You Will Feel Rows in Your Traps (Middle & Lower)
Firstly, you should feel rows in your traps to some extent anyway.
Yes, rows are a great exercise for the upper back and lats, but there is some trap involvement too.
With that being said, you want to feel rows in the middle and lower traps.
You definitely don’t want to feel them in your upper traps.
Well, that isn’t strictly true, as upright rows are specifically an upper trap exercise.
However, I guess we’re talking about the numerous row variations that are more geared towards training the upper back.
These include, bent-over rows, one-arm dumbbell rows, underhand or Yates rows, seated or cable rows, T-bar rows, etc.
Make Sure You Retract & Depress the Shoulder Blades
What you do with your shoulder blades prior to and during rows is extremely important.
Firstly, you should retract the shoulder blades, so pull your shoulders back.
You actually use the middle traps to achieve this.
Next, you want to depress the shoulder blades, so pull your shoulders down, almost like an anti-shrug.
You will use your lower traps to achieve scapula depression.
However, this simple movement of pulling your shoulder blades back and down will activate the lats.
So, in effect, the target muscle for rows has been stimulated, which allows you to use the mind-muscle connection more effectively.
If you’re not “setting yourself up” correctly, and simply have your shoulders rolled forward, you’ll be unlikely to hit the lats during rows.
Your Stance is Too Upright
Something I see all too often is people rowing with too upright a stance.
In fact, it reminds me more of an upright row, which is a movement far more focused on working the upper traps.
Basically, their torso is almost completely upright.
Now, admittedly there are quite a few variations of rows, so I want to focus on the bent-over barbell row here.
With that being said, there are actually three main variations of bent-over barbell rows, all of which have differing torso position.
However, the clue is definitely in the name, i.e. bent over.
So, with each variation you should be “bent over” to some degree.
Firstly, the standard barbell row should see your torso at approximately a 30-45 degree angle to the floor.
Secondly, the Yates row or underhand grip row, requires more of an upright stance.
So, your torso will typically be at a 45-60 degree angle to the floor.
Finally, there is the barbell bent-over row from the floor, so you actually place the barbell back on the ground with each rep.
This requires your back to be parallel to the floor.
Regardless of which variation you use your torso is definitely never in a totally upright position.
You’re Using Too Much Weight
I would hazard a guess that the reason many trainees end up in too upright a position is because they’re trying to lift too much weight.
In fact, the main reason for any form flaws, irrespective of the exercise, is usually down to using more weight than you can handle.
Rows are definitely a fantastic strength-builder for the upper back and lats.
So, it makes sense that you should aim to lift as much weight as you can.
But, this should never come at the expense of good form.
You’ll often find that you’ll use momentum to get the weight up, so you’ll definitely feel your traps.
That being said, the use of momentum during rows can often also be felt in the hamstrings.
Personally, I will change up how I train rows, and I use all variations for strength, hypertrophy, and muscular endurance purposes.
However, if I really want to feel my lats (and not my traps) I much prefer higher reps and higher volume.
This usually involves reducing the weight significantly, even as much as 50%.
I will then pyramid through my sets and aim for 15, 18, 20, 15, 12 reps.
This way I can really concentrate on working my lats.
I also find that the lats react really well to the stretch at the bottom of the movement, as well as the contraction at the top.
So, if you’re using too much weight, you won’t hit either of these effectively.
Your Elbows Are Flaring Out to the Side
Your elbows also play an important role in all rowing movements.
Firstly, when it comes to any lat-focused movement you should always pull with your elbows, not with your hands.
I liken the movement to trying to elbow someone who is standing behind you in the gut.
When you pull with your hands you are more likely to use your forearms and biceps to row the weight.
However, you also want to keep your elbows tucked into your sides throughout the entire row.
I often see people allowing their elbows to flare out to the sides.
In effect, it’s almost like a bent-over high pull.
This will automatically stimulate the traps more than the lats.
So, you’ll want to ensure that your elbows remain tight to your body throughout the set.
A Quick Note on Seated Rows
What I’ve spoken of here so far specifically focuses on barbell and dumbbell rows.
However, seated or cable rows also happen to be a great exercise for the lats, if performed correctly.
If you get your technique wrong with seated rows you’ll once again end up using the traps.
When it comes to seated rows it’s just as important to retract and depress the shoulder blades.
You’ll also want to maintain a completely neutral spine, and your torso should remain perfectly perpendicular to the floor.
Once more, ensure that your elbows stay close to your sides.
This will place the tension of your lats, while removing activation of the traps.
Key Learning Points
- Your mid and lower traps will always be involved in rows, but your upper traps should ot be activated.
- If your stance is too upright you’ll feel rows in your upper traps. Essentially, you’re performing an upright row, which is more focused on deltoid and trap development.
- The best way to activate our lats during rows requires shoulder retraction and depression.
- If you still feel your traps then you should reduce the weight and concentrate more on higher reps and volume.
- Keep your elbows close to your sides, as allowing your elbows to flare will increase trap activation.
Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.