Seal Row Exercise Guide: How To, Muscles Worked, and Variations

Seal Row Guide

If you have been doing dumbbell rows or lat pulldowns for years but still have no results to show for it, you should add seal row to your exercise arsenal.

Seal row is an isolation variation of the old-school barbell row. The exercise reduces the number of moving parts compared to the orthodox lift and helps you focus on your posterior chain. 

It is not entirely clear how the exercise got its name, but we can think of two reasons:

  1. You look like a cute little seal while performing the exercise. 
  2. The lift involves following a Navy SEAL grade strict form. You need to rely on your brute strength, grit, and conviction to get through the exercise.

Although we cannot be 100% sure, our gut feeling tells us Navy SEALs should be thanked for the exercise.

Let’s begin the article with a little exercise. Do not worry. We are not going to put you through a ‘SEAL Hell Week.’ 

Instead, we want you to put your fingers to work. (Not the kind you are thinking about, pervert.) 

Head over to google and lookup ‘back workouts.’ We are sure most of the workouts you find will feature bent-over barbell or dumbbells rows.

Now, do not get us wrong. We have nothing against the exercises. In fact, we think they are great lifts to build thickness in your back. 

However, these compound exercises are not necessarily the best choices for beginners since you need to nail down your form to make the most of them. 

Besides, lifters who have hit a plateau will also not see much benefit from performing the same rowing exercises over and over again. 

Seal Row Muscles Worked

Due to the strict range of motion, the seal row targets your muscles differently as compared to the other rowing movements. The muscles targeted while performing the exercise include:

Primary Muscles 

1. Lats

Latissimus dorsi aka lats are the primary target muscles while performing the seal row. The rowing movement will help you build thickness in your back. It will also add depth to your back and aid in carving a Christmas tree.

2. Trapezius and Rear Deltoids

You could put a greater emphasis on your trapezius and rear deltoids by changing a couple of factors; first – grab the barbell with a wider than shoulder-width grip. Second, pull the barbell towards your chest and flare out your elbows. 

Secondary Muscles: Biceps, Forearm Flexors, and Rotator Cuffs

You will experience a greater bicep, forearm, and rotator cuff involvement while performing the seal row as compared to the other rowing exercises because of the isolation element involved. 

Check Out: Arnold Schwarzenegger Shares One Of His Favorite Back Exercises

Benefits and Drawbacks

Here are the benefits and disadvantages of the seal row:

Benefits

1. Low Risk of Injury

Most bros engage in ego-lifting while performing the barbell bent-over row. People with more weight on the bar than they can handle while doing the bent-over rows appear to be doing a ‘squat-row-shrug’ hybrid.

Letting your ego get the better of you in a compound exercise can put your lower back in jeopardy. Seal row eliminates the risk to your lower back and directs all the tension to your upper and middle back. 

Back Pain

2. Optimal Muscle Activation

The strict full range of motion while performing the seal row can result in optimal muscle fiber recruitment. Lying down on a horizontal bench while performing the seal row prevents excessive use of momentum or a jerking movement. 

Many lifters tend to cheat by moving their torsos up and down while performing the orthodox bent-over rows, leaving gains on the table in the process. 

3. Perfect for Beginners

While performing the bent-over rows, most lifters assume an incorrect body posture. If you are looking at yourself in the mirror while performing the bent-over row, you are putting unnecessary tension on your neck. 

Keeping your chin pinned against the bench while performing the seal row helps you keep your spine in a neutral position, taking off any unnecessary stress on your neck or lower back. 

The exercise is also a great way of teaching newbies the correct spine positioning while performing compound exercises. 

4. Godsend for Pros

Powerlifters use the seal row in their training to pack on upper back strength while minimizing stress on their lower back. The seal row can add to a powerlifter’s deadlift.

Related: The 7 Best Lower Back Exercises + Workout

5. Target Different Muscles

Using different grips and paths of motion while doing the seal row can help target different parts of your back. Lifting with a shoulder-wide pronated grip towards the lower end of the rib cage primarily targets the lats. However rowing with a wider-than-shoulder width towards your middle chest emphasizes your upper back, traps, and rear delts. 

Limitations

1. Requires Speciality Equipment

To make the most of the exercise, you would need a high horizontal bench. The specialized seal row benches have enough height so the weight plates do not hit the floor even when your arms are fully extended.

Some seal row tables even have special pads for your lower legs. It reduces unnecessary stress from your glutes and hamstrings and can help you generate more power.

As you might have guessed, these benches are not common, and chances are you do not have access to one at your gym. 

You could perform the seal row on a makeshift high bench, but putting together the setup and taking it apart after the fact can eat up precious time. 

The time factor involved in putting together the high bench setup could be one of the reasons why only a few people incorporate the exercise in their workouts. 

But on the bright side, the advantages of the seal row far outweigh the drawbacks, and you should make the exercise a constant in your back training routine. 

How To Perform Seal Row

To make the most of the seal row, you need to ensure you are performing the lift with a perfect form.

Here is how to perform the seal row:

  1. Lie face down on an elevated bench. Adjust your upper body in such a way that your knees are placed on the bench. Set your chin on the bench as well.
  2. If you do not have access to a high horizontal bench, stack either side of a flat bench on a couple of plyo boxes, weight plates, or aerobic steps.
  3. You have a few options for what to do with your legs:
    1. Keep your entire body in a straight line throughout the exercise. 
    2. Place one ankle on top of the other and bend your legs so that your lower legs are perpendicular to your upper legs.
    3. Lower your legs until they are a few inches off the floor. 
  4. The jury is out on the best lower body position while performing the seal row. Meanwhile, feel free to use the position you feel most comfortable with. 
  5. Place a barbell in line with your face stacked on a couple of weight plates. This will help you grab the bar comfortably in the starting position while ensuring that the weight plates do not hit the floor while performing the exercise.
  6. Grab the bar with a pronated (overhand) shoulder-width grip.
  7. Slowly unrack the barbell and extend your arms straight so that your arms are perpendicular to the floor.
  8. Pull the bar towards your lower ribs.
  9. Focus on pulling with your elbows and not with your biceps.
  10. Keep your elbows close to your body throughout the exercise.
  11. Pause and contract your lats at the top of the movement.
  12. Slowly return to the starting position with your arms fully extended.
  13. Repeat for reps.

Seal Row Tips 

Here are a few tips for making the most of the exercise:

  1. If you are a beginner, you could place one end of the bench a few feet away from a wall and place your feet flat against the wall. Doing this will help you stabilize your body, generate more power, and lift heavier.
  2. A regular barbell is great, but a cambered bar lets you follow a greater range of motion by giving you more control of the lift.
  3. Squeeze your glutes and brace your abs. It will help prevent any hyper-extension of the lumbar spine.
  4. The barbell should touch the bench with every rep at the top of the motion. 
  5. Using lifting accessories like a weightlifting belt and lifting straps can help take your gains to the next level.

Seal Row Variations and Alternatives 

Performing the same exercise in every workout can get a little boring. Here are a few seal row alternatives and variations to spice up your training regimen:

1. Meadows Row

Meadows row was popularized by the late bodybuilder John Meadows. It is a unilateral landmine exercise that trains your upper back and traps.

How to perform Meadows row:

  1. Position a barbell in a landmine attachment. 
  2. Hinge forward with a staggered stance and grasp the barbell with a pronated (overhand) grip.
  3. Begin the movement by pulling your elbow behind your body while retracing the shoulder blade. 
  4. Pull the bar until it is close to your side. 
  5. Return to the starting position with a slow and controlled motion. 
  6. Repeat for recommended reps. 

2. Incline Bench Barbell Row

The incline bench barbell row is a great seal row alternative for days when you are running short of time and do not have time to set up the high bench. 

How to perform incline bench barbell row:

  1. Set an incline bench at a 60-degree angle with the floor. 
  2. Lie face down on the bench and grab a cambered barbell with a shoulder-width pronated grip.
  3. Pull the bar towards your lower ribs while driving through your elbows. Keep your elbows close to your body throughout the movement. 
  4. The bar should hit the bench at the top. Pause and contract your lats.
  5. Return to the starting position and repeat for reps.

3. Pendlay Row

Pendlay Rows

Pendlay Row developed by Olympic weightlifting coach Glenn Pendlay, the exercise activates your lats, rhomboids, biceps, glutes, hamstrings, and rear deltoids. 

How to perform Pendlay row:

  1. Stand with a shoulder-wide stance in front of a barbell. 
  2. Bend at your hips and grab the bar with an overhand grip. Your chest should remain parallel to the floor throughout the exercise.
  3. Initiate the upward movement by squeezing your lats and pulling the barbell towards your lower chest while driving through your elbows.
  4. Allow the barbell to travel back towards the floor until the weight plates touch the ground.
  5. Repeat for reps.

4. Underhand Seal Row

The underhand seal row allows you to lift heavier weights compared to the pronated version. It also helps in getting a better back contraction, resulting in greater muscle activation.

How to perform underhand seal row:

  1. Lie face down on a high bench. 
  2. Grab a cambered bar with a supinated (underhand) grip.
  3. Lift the bar towards your lower ribs while pulling through your elbows.
  4. Pause and contract your lats at the top.
  5. Slowly return to the starting position and repeat for reps.

5. Dumbbell Seal Row

The next two exercises on the list are barbell seal row variations that allow you greater flexibility and range of motion. The dumbbell seal row is great for lifters dealing with shoulder or bicep issues as it puts less stress on your bicep tendons and rotator cuffs. 

How to perform dumbbell seal row:

  1. Lie face down on a high bench. 
  2. Grab a dumbbell in each hand with an overhand (palms facing downwards) grip.
  3. Lift the dumbbells towards your sides while pulling through your elbows.
  4. As you lift the dumbbells, rotate your wrists so that your palms are facing each other at the top.
  5. Pause and contract your lats.
  6. Return to the starting position and repeat for repetitions. 

Seal Row Workout

An ideal back workout consists of a mix of rowing and overhead pulling movements. While the horizontal pulls help build thickness in your back, vertical pulling exercises are great for building back width. 

Here is how to incorporate seal rows into your back workouts:

  1. Pull-up: 3 sets of 15 reps, 30-sec rest
  2. Deadlift: 3 sets of 12, 10, 8 reps, 1-minute rest
  3. Seal Row: 3 sets of 12, 10, 8 reps, 1-minute rest
  4. Wide-grip Lat Pull-down: 3 sets of 12, 10, 8 reps, 1-minute rest
  5. Seated Cable Row: 3 sets of 12, 10, 8 reps, 1-minute rest
  6. Weighted Hyperextension3 sets of 12, 10, 8 reps, 1-minute rest 

Next Read: 10 Best Upper Back Exercises For Maximum Mass and Strength Gains

Wrapping Up

Seal row is a great exercise to build thickness in your back. You could add variety to your back workouts by constantly changing your grips, hand placements, and bars.

Remember: Do not overlook the exercise if you do not have access to a high bench at your gym. Also, do not go through the motions for the sake of it. You will get the best bang for your buck by focusing on building a mind-muscle connection and squeezing your lats and shoulder blades with every rep.

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