The high row machine exercise is great, but what if you want to switch things up?

We've all been there: doing the same workout over and over again, wondering if our back gains have hit a plateau.

That's where the power of variety comes into play. Sometimes, we need to step out of our comfort zone and embrace a whole new world of exercises that can improve our results.

So today, I'm here to share with you my absolute favorite high row machine alternative exercises.

The following 10 alternatives for high row machine alternative exercises are proven to be the most effective.

And what I especially like about them is that they are suitable for different fitness levels. So, you will experience progress once you include them in your routine, whether you started your fitness journey recently or are an experienced gym goer.

1. Kneeling High Cable Row

Man Doing Half-Kneeling Cable Rows In The Gym

The kneeling cable high row is the alternative that probably resembles the high row machine mostly, but I feel a considerable difference in muscle activation.

Unlike high row machines, where you'll feel the significant engagement of arms, the kneeling high cable row allows me remarkable precision in targeting the upper back muscles and other same muscle groups as regular machine high row.

Once you develop a mind-muscle connection, this exercise will become even more effective because the mind-muscle connection will let you work through the entire range of motion. Trying resistance band high row is beneficial for many as well.

Go to a full stretch at the top of the movement, then squeeze the back muscles forcefully when you pull down the weight to take full advantage of it. Overall, this exercise should definitely be part of your workout routine and not only as a replacement for the high row machine but as a back exercise that you do regularly.


  • Reduced lower back engagement
  • Upper back isolation
  • Great exercise for improving rounded shoulders

How To Do It

  1. Set up a cable machine to the highest pulley position and attach a rope attachment.
  2. Kneel in front of the cable machine and grasp the handles with an overhand grip (you can try an underhand grip, but it's not very comfortable).
  3. Brace your core to maintain a neutral spine.
  4. Pull the handles toward your sternum, retracting your shoulder blades as you squeeze your back muscles.
  5. Squeeze your muscles briefly and slowly release the handles back to the starting position.

Tips From A Trainer!

Avoid using momentum in the kneeling position, as this diminishes the movement's effectiveness. Instead, prioritize the quality of your repetitions over the quantity. 

2. Face Pulls

Man Doing Cable/Rope Face Pulls

Face pull is one of my favorite overall exercises, and I never finish back day before doing a few sets of it.

It all started over five years ago when I watched a video by Jeff Cavaliere, aka ATHLEAN-X, about face pulls. His advice made me do that exercise more often, and since then, my back has transformed.

No, I didn't become the new Kai Greene, but I significantly improved my posture and solved the problem with rounded shoulders that dates back to my basketball days.

It is of utmost importance that your back muscles (including rear delts) do all the work and that your arms only serve as hooks. To achieve this, you need to reduce the weight.

Forget ego lifting - 15 lbs with good form is much more effective than 50 lbs pulling your arms. This is not a rack pull to chase PRs, but an isolation exercise.

If you pull from your elbows, the exercise will be practically useless, and you will strain your elbows.

If you don't have a cable machine, you can try face pull alternative exercises.


  • Rotator cuff strengthening
  • Posture improvement
  • Great finishing exercise

How To Do It

  1. Attach a rope handle to a cable machine at approximately face height.
  2. Stand facing the machine and hold the rope ends with an overhand grip.
  3. Take a few steps away from the machine with your arms stretched forward.
  4. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  5. Engage your core
  6. Pull the rope towards your face while keeping your elbows high and out to the sides.
  7. As you pull, focus on squeezing your rear deltoids and upper back muscles.
  8. Bring the rope until your hands are alongside your ears.
  9. Hold the contracted position briefly and then extend your arms back to the starting position.

Tips From A Trainer!

To ensure you are engaging the rear deltoids and upper back sufficiently, visualize pulling the rope apart as you bring it toward your face, not only backward. 

3. Chest-Supported Rows

Man Doing Chest-Supported Dumbbell Rows In The Gym

At first glance, the chest-supported row machine looks very similar to the high row machine, only with a slightly different position.

However, the difference is more significant because the elbows are close to the body throughout the movement, which changes the activation of the upper back muscles.

Instead of a machine, you can use an incline bench and free weight or even cables.

Utilizing a bench for support ensures that the emphasis remains on the targeted muscles, allowing for controlled and deliberate movements that optimize muscle activation and growth.

You can do chest-supported rows for strength, power, and muscle hypertrophy equally successfully because the position (chest support) is suitable for pulling different weights.

I sometimes struggle to breathe adequately during the exercise because of the pressure on my chest, so I avoid using heavier weights. If you don’t have that problem, feel free to load it as long as the form remains good.

I’ll explain how to do chest-supported rows without a machine since the chest-supported row machine is very simple, and all you have to do is load weight plates and set the seat height.


  • Convenient both for lifting weights and higher rep range
  • Lower injury risk
  • Bicep activation

How To Do It

  1. Set an incline bench at approximately a 30-degree angle (same angle as for an incline dumbbell press) and place a dumbbell on each side (you can use a shorter barbell or EZ bar too.)
  2. Lie face down on the bench with your torso supported.
  3. Hold the dumbbells with a neutral grip (or overhand grip).
  4. Your arms should hang down naturally.
  5. Initiate the movement by retracting your shoulder blades and pulling the dumbbells toward the lower part of your rib cage.
  6. Focus on squeezing your upper back muscles at the peak of the contraction.
  7. Lower the dumbbells back down in a controlled motion.

Tips From A Trainer!

You must take care of your wrists when doing this exercise, especially if using heavier weights. A neutral wrist position is a must. Otherwise, the risk of injury is real. 

Related Article - Best Chest Press Machines

4. Reverse Pec Deck

Man Doing Reverse Pec Deck Exercise

The pec deck is a machine made to develop the pectoral muscles. You can also use it for your shoulders/back if you sit in reverse.

The reverse pec deck is primarily an exercise for the rear delts, rhomboids, teres major, and middle traps. Since the rear delts are in focus, it doesn't engage the back muscles to the same extent as most of the other machine high-row alternatives on this list.

Rear deltoids are a muscle group that frequently receives less attention compared to its front and lateral counterparts. So, exercises focusing on rear delts must be part of your routine.

By engaging the rear deltoids with the precision this exercise offers, the reverse pec deck is crucial in creating a shoulder structure that boasts symmetry and aesthetic appeal.

If you don't have a pec deck machine available - give reverse pec deck alternatives a try.


  • Rear deltoid activation
  • Stability
  • Simple to perform

How To Do It

  1. Set up the reverse pec deck machine with the appropriate weight and seat height (and levers position, if possible.)
  2. Sit on the machine, ensuring your chest is flat against the backrest and shoulders down.
  3. Take the padded part with your hands.
  4. Start the movement by contracting your rear deltoids to separate the levers.
  5. Squeeze your back muscles once your arms have just passed your body.
  6. Return to the starting position and initiate a new rep before the levers touch.

Tips From A Trainer!

Don't make pauses between reps, but try to initiate movement even before completing one rep completely. I'm not saying you should use momentum too much, but maintaining constant tension is key. 

5. Bent-Over Rows

man doing bent over barbell rows

The bent-over row is an old-school bodybuilding exercise that requires strength, stability, and control in order to help you build a powerful back.

It engages a significant part of the upper body and also the lower body. After a few sets of bent-over rows, you will feel fatigue not only in your back but also in your biceps, delts, core, lower back, glutes, and hamstrings.

If you recently had a lower back injury, be careful because this exercise strains that part of the body, even if you use lighter weights. The Smith machine can help you do bent-over rows safely.

Feel free to add weight plates over time because this is a compound exercise, and it makes sense to row heavier weights. Still, the form must be perfect to avoid injuries, so gradually increase the weight to expose muscle fibers to more stress without breaking the form.


  • Improved functional strength
  • Better posture
  • Extensive muscle engagement

How To Do It

  1. Take two dumbbells or load a barbell.
  2. Stand with your feet hip-width apart.
  3. Hold dumbbells or a barbell (shoulder-width grip) with either an overhand or underhand grip, depending on whether you want to involve the biceps more or less.
  4. Brace your core.
  5. Hinge at your hips while keeping your back straight.
  6. The weight should hang in front of you, arms fully extended.
  7. Start the exercise by pulling the weight towards your lower ribcage.
  8. Keep the weight close to your thighs.
  9. Focus on connecting the shoulder blades at the top of the movement.
  10. Return to a starting position.

Tips From A Trainer!

Once you master bent-over rows and start lifting considerable weight, try the Pendlay row, with the lower or same weight. It is a similar movement pattern but more challenging. 

Related Article - Pendlay Row Vs Bent Over Row

6. Lat Pulldown

Man Doing Lat Pulldowns

Lat pulldown is one of the 101 gym exercises, so it is almost certain that you have done it many times.

There's a good reason why this machine-based exercise is so popular - almost no other movement engages the lats as well as the lat pulldown.

The latissimus dorsi muscles extend across the back and contribute to the desired "V" shape. Additionally, activating the trapezius and rhomboids contributes not only to aesthetics but also to improved posture and overall functionality.

If you notice an imbalance, use a dual pulley to make each lat work independently. Also, you can change different attachments and your high row pulling angle to prevent your muscles from getting used to a specific movement.


  • Lats growth
  • Low injury risk
  • Different variations

Read More About - Lat Pulldown Benefits

How To Do It

  1. Sit and adjust the thigh pads to ensure stability throughout the exercise.
  2. Grasp the bar with an overhand grip, hands positioned wider than shoulder-width apart.
  3. Pull the bar down towards your chest, focusing on engaging your lats.
  4. Keep your chest up and back straight as you pull the bar down, allowing your elbows to move toward your sides.
  5. Maintain a controlled pace.
  6. Pause at the bottom of the movement.
  7. Release the bar back to the starting position.

Tips From A Trainer!

Use a double-D handle cable attachment for pulldown to emphasize erector spinae and take some of the load from the lats. 

Related Article - Lat Pulldown Vs Pull Up

7. T-Bar Row

man doing t-bar rows in the gym

The T-bar row is a powerhouse exercise, perfect for back-focused workouts.

It is not only an alternative to machine high row movement but a more effective exercise, in my opinion. It directly targets the upper back muscles, including the latissimus dorsi, trapezius, and rhomboids.

If you have a weak lower back, use a chest-supported T-bar row machine to reduce the strain on your lower back. However, try switching to regular T-bar rows as soon as possible to increase muscle growth.

There is one more huge benefit of T-bar rows. This exercise is somewhere between free weights and machines because using a T-bar emphasizes precision and control while still allowing you to lift heavy weights.

Another reason why I like the T-bar row so much is the ease of loading and unloading compared to the barbell.


  • Safety
  • Different hand placement
  • Good for both strength and hypertrophy

How To Do It

  1. Load a T-bar with an appropriate weight.
  2. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, positioning yourself over the T-bar handle.
  3. Hinge at your hips; legs must not be straight.
  4. Grasp the handles with the desired grip (overhand, underhand, neutral) and width (wide, narrow, shoulder-width).
  5. Engage your core to maintain a straight back.
  6. Pull the handles towards your torso, focusing on squeezing your back muscles.
  7. Keep your elbows close to your body as you pull.
  8. Pause at the peak of the contraction, then slowly return it to the starting position.

Tips From A Trainer!

Avoid initiating pulling motion with your biceps instead of your back. This is not an exercise for arms, and if you feel you can’t pull the bar without significant biceps involvement, reduce the weight. 

Related Article - T-Bar Row Vs Barbell Row

8. Dumbbell Rows

Man Doing Dumbbell Rows

The dumbbell row is an exercise that is an indispensable part of every bodybuilder's workout routine for a good reason.

Dumbbells enhance the ability to focus on each side of the body independently, which is a major advantage.

Some exercisers prefer a barbell row instead of dumbbell rows. I belong to team dumbbells, although, of course, you have to use both types of free weights during strength training. Still, the ability to easily change body position and angles makes dumbbells my preferred choice, especially for rows.

No other exercise can so successfully hit the lower part of the lats (origin of the latissimus dorsi.) You may not feel it right away until you develop a mind-muscle connection, but after that, it will become your favorite exercise for building wings.


  • Full range of motion
  • Strengthen muscle imbalances
  • Grip strengthening

How To Do It

  1. Take a dumbbell in each hand, a neutral grip.
  2. Stand in the start position with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  3. Bend your knees, hinge, and keep your back straight.
  4. Let the dumbbells hang in front of you, arms extended.
  5. Pull dumbbells towards your hips, retracting your shoulder blades.
  6. Exclude momentum.
  7. Squeeze your back muscles additionally once the elbows are past the body.

Tips From A Trainer!

You should try at least a few variations of dumbbell rows in order to target the muscles from different angles. Dumbbell renegade row and single-arm dumbbell row are my two favorite variations. 

9. Pull-ups

Two young man and woman in sportswear doing pull-ups in gym

The pull-up is one of the few exercises equally popular among bodybuilders, cross-fitters, and street workout exercisers. Even Sylvester Stallone did a Rocky pull-up exercise in a famous movie. That speaks volumes about its effectiveness and versatility.

Pull-ups are iconic bodyweight exercises embodying the essence of functional strength and muscle engagement. As you explore the mechanics of pull-ups, you will feel numerous benefits - not only muscle development but also posture improvement and functional strength.

Doing pull-ups correctly without swinging and engaging the biceps (and the whole upper arm) too much is imperative. If you want to focus on the biceps, do chin-ups - one of the most underrated bicep exercises.

You can take advantage of resistance bands to progress faster because pull-up progress is known to be notoriously slow.

If you don't have access to a pull up bar, you can give pull up alternatives a try.


  • Upper body strength
  • No gym equipment needed
  • Core activation

How To Do It

  1. Grab a pull-up bar with an overhand grip (or underhand grip for more external rotation.)
  2. Hang from the bar with your arms fully extended and your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart (you can go wider if you want.)
  3. Engage your back muscles and pull your body upwards.
  4. Focus on pulling your chest towards the bar and squeezing your shoulder blades together.
  5. Lower your body back down slowly, fully extending your arms.

Tips From A Trainer!

If you can't do at least several pull-ups per set, start with negative pull-ups. The negative pull-up is the lowering portion of the pull-up, and by doing only that part of the exercise, you can significantly improve your strength. 

10. Seal Row

Man Doing Lying Bench Seal Rows

Seal row is an advanced row variation and machine high row alternative exercise. It is certainly not an exercise I, as a personal trainer, would include in a beginner's training program.

This exercise explicitly targets the muscles of the upper back, plus the arms. Once you build foundational strength, it makes sense to start doing seal rows and further increase strength, muscle mass, and appearance of the upper back (lats in particular).

Since practically your whole body is stable, seal row is an excellent way to hit your upper back muscles while nursing a lower back or glute injury.

If you wonder where the name comes from - you will understand when you see someone performing this exercise: it resembles the position of a seal.


  • Upper back isolation
  • Not demanding for core and lower back
  • Safety

How To Do It

  1. Place the loaded bar on the floor under the bench.
  2. Lie face down on the bench, positioning yourself so that your chest and upper abdomen are on the bench (body straight), allowing your arms to hang freely.
  3. Grasp the barbell with an overhand grip, hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
  4. Retract your shoulder blades to pull the barbell.
  5. Keep your elbows close to your body as you pull.
  6. Pause at the top of the contraction, then return the weight to the starting position.
  7. Do as many reps as possible.

Tips From A Trainer!

Don't have access to a high bench or cambered bar? No problem, you can elevate a regular flat bench and use barbells/dumbbells to target lats in almost the same way. 

Benefits Of Doing High Row Machine And Similar Exercises

Doing high row machine exercises and similar movements offers numerous benefits contributing to your overall fitness level.

  • Back Muscle Development
    High row machine workout is tailored to target your upper back muscles, including the trapezius and rear deltoids. This focused engagement promotes muscle growth, helping you achieve a well-defined back.
  • Improved Posture
    Strengthening the muscles in your upper back helps counteract the effects of modern sedentary lifestyles. These exercises help pull your shoulders back, open up your chest, and promote better posture.
  • Enhanced Functional Strength
    The upper back muscles play a pivotal role in various everyday movements, such as lifting, carrying, and reaching. Developing these same muscles through high-row exercises can translate into improved functional strength.
  • Versatility
    While most high row machines are a valuable tool, various alternatives mimic the movement pattern, such as seated cable high row, standing cable row, kneeling cable row, inverted row, horizontal row, single arm cable row, dumbbell rows, and bodyweight exercises.

    This versatility allows you to adapt your training routine based on equipment availability since not every gym is full of different machines, free weights, and other fitness equipment.
  • Mind-Muscle Connection
    High row exercises require conscious muscle engagement, fostering a stronger mind-muscle connection. This heightened awareness enhances the effectiveness of your workouts, ensuring maximum muscle activation.[1]

Apart from these primary benefits, there are more. I must mention injury prevention since a strong upper back stabilizes your shoulder joints, reducing the risk of common injuries like rotator cuff strains.

Also, a well-developed upper back enhances your look and complements the aesthetics of other upper body muscle groups, such as the chest, arms, and shoulders.

Muscles Worked When Performing High Row Machine

The coordinated effort of these primary muscles is essential for executing the high row machine exercise effectively.

Each muscle group plays a distinct role, contributing to the strength and stability required for a successful high row.

Latissimus Dorsi

Positioned on both sides of the back, the latissimus dorsi muscles are the primary movers during the high-row exercise.

They perform the essential function of pulling the handles towards your body (if you perform the exercise properly instead of pulling with your arms). This engagement of the lats contributes to the powerful contraction that characterizes the high row machine exercise.


The trapezius muscles are divided into three distinct regions: upper, middle, and lower.[2] The middle and lower trapezius fibers come into play during the high row. These muscles stabilize the shoulder blades and facilitate controlled movement of the upper arms during the rowing motion.


The rhomboids are located beneath the trapezius. They retract and stabilize the scapulae (shoulder blades). Their activation aids in maintaining proper posture and positioning, ensuring the movement is executed precisely and safely.

Rear Deltoids

The rear deltoids, located at the back of the shoulders, are engaged as you bring the handles toward your upper chest.

This activation provides the desired tension and contraction in the posterior deltoids, fostering balanced shoulder development, which is often a problem since front delts are overworked. In contrast, the medial and posterior are underworked.

Erector Spinae

The erector spinae muscles, stretched along the length of the spine, work to stabilize the spine and maintain an upright posture throughout the exercise (hence the name). This engagement is essential for securing a controlled movement, preventing rounding of the back, and potential injuries.


While the primary focus of the high row is the back, the biceps brachii also contribute to the movement as a secondary (auxiliary) muscle. As you pull the handles (or barbell during barbell row and barbell high row) towards your body, the bicep muscles assist in elbow flexion.

Man Showing His Biceps

Common Questions About Alternative High Row Machine Exercises

Who should not be doing high row machine exercises?

Individuals with existing shoulder joint issues or limited mobility in the upper body should not be using the high row machine. If you're dealing with chest muscle strain, shoulder pain, or impingement, avoiding high row movements is best to prevent worsening the condition. Always prioritize your safety and consult a fitness professional or medical expert before attempting exercises that could potentially strain your shoulders.

What is the difference between a high row machine and a low row machine?

The key difference between a high row machine and a low row machine lies in the targeted muscles and the range of motion. While both work on the back muscles, they do not offer the same benefits. The high row primarily engages the upper back and rear deltoids, while the low row targets the middle and lower back muscles.

Is a lat pulldown the same as a high row?

Lat pulldown and a high row are not the same, even though both exercises engage the back muscles. A lat pulldown predominantly targets the latissimus dorsi muscles, responsible for the "V" shape of the back. On the other hand, a high row focuses on the upper back muscles, particularly the trapezius and rear deltoids.

Are machine high rows effective?

Yes, machine high rows (as well as hammer strength high row movements) can effectively build upper back strength and muscle endurance. They provide controlled resistance throughout the movement, letting you focus on proper form and muscle engagement. However, like any exercise, effectiveness depends on how well machine high rows are integrated into your fitness routine.

Summary – Change It Up!

In life, change isn't just inevitable; it's invigorating - the same applies to fitness.

While the high row machine has its place, diversifying exercises will bring a major upgrade.

These high-row machine alternatives are not only for the fitness elite but for all of us - from beginners seeking a starting point to seasoned pros pushing for the next level.

Now go to the gym, do at least one suitable alternative, and watch how your back muscles respond to the new spark.


Lee Kirwin

Lee Kirwin

Lee has worked in the fitness industry for over 15 years. He's trained hundreds of clients and knows his way around the gym, including what you need for your garage gym. When he's not testing products, he loves weightlifting, Ju Jitsu, writing, and gaming.