When it comes to free-weight rowing exercises for the back, standard bent-over barbell rows and dumbbell rows are the typical “go-to” movements for most lifters. Barbell seal rows are horizontal, chest-supported rows traditionally performed using a barbell or cambered bar and a pronated (palms down) grip, but dumbbells can be used as well. They’re called “seal” rows because of how the legs tend to flap up and down as you pull the weight up, especially when it gets heavy. This exercise is not very popular because commercial gyms don’t bother investing in equipment for it. It is a shame because seal rows are great: arguably one of the best exercises for your back for many reasons. When performed correctly, this move sets your lats on fire and provides an unmatched burn in your back muscles.
Barbell seal rows exercise instructions – proper form
Follow these steps to perform barbell seal rows safely and effectively.
Whether you’re performing seal rows to train your upper back or lats, the initial set-up is the same.
- Place a barbell on a couple of weight plates just below the upper part of an exercise bench.
- Lie face down on an elevated bench (high horizontal bench) or stack either side of a normal flat bench on a couple of plyo boxes, weight plates, or aerobic steps so that you can fully extend your arms while the weights are in your hands. There are seal-row benches, but not every gym has this type of bench.
- Make sure your entire body (chin, chest, abs, front legs) is in a straight line and in contact with the bench.
- Grab the bar with a pronated (overhand) shoulder-width grip.
- Slowly unrack the barbell and extend your arms straight so that your arms are perpendicular to the floor.
- Pull the barbell towards the bench (using only your shoulders, arms, and your back muscles) until your shoulder blades are together or the barbell touches the weight bench.
- Slowly and with control, lower the bar back to the starting position.
Additional tips & performance pointers for barbell seal rows
Here are some useful tips you should pay attention to while doing seal rows using the barbell.
- Be sure you use a set-up that allows you to fully extend (straighten out) your arms. The higher the bench, the greater the range of motion and stretch at the bottom of the movement.
- Make sure enough room for the shoulder blades to move around the thorax/rib cage
- Chin must be touching the bench to avoid any neck strain.
- Try to squeeze your glutes and brace your abs to help prevent any hyper-extension of the lumbar spine.
- Keeping your chin pinned against the bench also helps you keep your spine in a neutral position
- The whole purpose of the seal row is to remove any torso, hip, or leg movement from the equation.
- Pull the barbell all the way up until it touches the bench.
- Primary muscles: Latissimus dorsi (lats), trapezius, and rear (posterior) deltoids
- Secondary muscles: biceps, forearm flexors, and rotator cuffs
Benefits of doing barbell seal rows
- Lying parallel to the ground on a flat exercise bench takes your lower back (and any potential momentum) almost completely out of the equation to help you really focus on building your lats and mid-back muscles.
- Lying parallel to the ground on a flat exercise bench removes any torso, hip, or leg movement from the equation (this is not so easy to achieve when doing bent-over barbell rows). That way the seal rows prevent the use of excessive momentum and cheating. If you can’t cheat then you can’t use momentum or other muscle groups to do the work.
- Having your chin pressed against the bench ensures that you maintain a neutral neck position throughout the exercise.
- Using narrow overhand grip shifts the emphasis onto the lats.
- A wider overhand grip shifts the emphasis onto the upper back and rear delts.
- Pulling the weight toward your waist/mid-section shifts the emphasis onto the lats.
- Pulling the weight toward your chest shifts the emphasis onto the upper back and rear delts.
- Seal rows are very similar to the incline chest-supported row that we covered a long time ago, except that you’ll be laying across a flat bench parallel to the floor with your legs straight behind you.
Replacement exercises for the barbell seal rows
Any back exercise that mimics rowing motion will do the job. Here are a few examples:
- Bodyweight row
- Two-arm dumbbell row
- TRX inverted rows
- One-arm dumbbell row
- Seated cable row
- Chest-supported dumbbell rows
- Bent over barbell row
- Machine row
- Supported T-bar row
- Freestanding T-Bar Row
- One-arm cable row
Closing thoughts about seal rows
Barbell seal rows definitely deserve a place in your back workout regime, so do give them a try. The seal rows are a variation of the barbell row, where you isolate the work to the rowing muscles in the arms and the back. This is done by lying on a bench and thus off-loading the legs and the core. By isolating the work in this way, it can be easier to focus on and exhaust the trained muscles. They may be a bit tough to set up and slightly odd-looking, but the aforementioned benefits considerably outweigh these petty downsides. It would not be an overstatement to say that seal rows are among the most underrated back isolation exercises out there.