Seal Rows: The Most Underrated Back Isolation Exercise

In this post, we get to the bottom of why seal rows are perhaps the most underrated back isolation exercise in existence. In the contemporary art of bodybuilding, the back is often left out of focus. Most gym bros are notorious for having an unhealthy bias towards training their chest and arm muscles. But little do they know that the easiest way to achieve that coveted V-shaped upper body is by building a big and strong upper back that screams strength and manliness.

As far as back isolation exercises are concerned, training programs are often limited to lat pull-downs, barbell rows, and seated cable rows. In the realm of compound exercises, you have the likes of deadlifts and pull-ups. While these exercises are highly effective, you can take your back muscle development to the next level by incorporating seal rows. For example, if you’re someone with a strong back but lack the deep muscle separation that gives the back its sexiness, the hammering isolation that seal rows provide will give you exactly that.

What are Seal rows?

Enough praise, let’s get into the exercise itself. Seal rows are performed by laying on a flat bench with your body facing the ground and your suspended arms lifting the weight up. 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.

The exercise is similar to the inverted row and chest supported dumbbell row but is arguably better than both in terms of muscle activation. When performed correctly, this move sets your lats on fire and provides an unmatched burn in your back muscles. The video below from 3DMJ on Youtube shows a great demonstration of the exercise performed in proper form:

It may look a bit eccentric at first, but it’s precisely why the exercise is so beneficial. Before performing the exercise, you must ensure to set it up properly in order to avoid potential mishaps and injuries. To set up, you can elevate the standard bench by placing it on two equally tall objects. You can be creative and use other ways to set up, as long as your body is parallel to the ground and there’s room for your arms to be fully extended.

The exercise has two variations – you can either use barbells or dumbells. Dumbells provide for a longer range of motion and increased isolation whereas barbells ensure balanced position and enable heavier weights to be lifted.

The video below from Tony Gentilcore shows how the barbell variation is performed:

Seal Rows Proper Form

It’s generally hard to screw up on this exercise. After all, one of the main advantages of seal rows is the reduced risk of injury as a result of the support. However, there are still some key points to keep in mind.

  • Full Range of Motion – In this exercise, the weight is not as important as the range of motion. To get full benefits of the exercise, make sure your arms are fully stretched at the bottom and your upper back is fully squeezed when you lift the weight up. A useful cue is to imagine throwing your elbows up towards the ceiling and squeezing as hard as possible. Remember to have a split second of a pause at the top.
  • Retract shoulder blades, squeeze glutes, brace abs – Seal rows are automatically more gentle on your lower back as there is support provided by the bench. However, to fully rule out the back, it helps to squeeze the glutes and brace the ab muscles. This will prevent any undue extension in the spine. Also, retract your shoulder blades to make sure the body is stable and the right muscles are targeted.
  • Volume – Remember that this is an isolation exercise intended for hypertrophy and building thickness in the back. Accordingly, your sets should comprise of at least 8-12 repetitions. A sample workout is doing 3 sets of 12 reps of 4 sets of 8 reps. When choosing the weight, put your ego aside and focus on proper form and tempo. Your back and V-taper will later thank you.
  • Grip width – A great aspect of seal rows is the flexibility it offers in terms of grip width and the corresponding muscles targeted. For example, if you want to focus on upper back and rear deltoids, you should use a wider grip and pull the bar high up to your chest. On the other hand, if you want to target your lats, opt for a narrower grip and pull towards the waist area.

Seal Rows Benefits

So what is that “seal row” factor anyway? Why bother with seal rows? Seal rows have so many benefits that make it stand out amongst back isolation exercises.

  • Completely safe for lower back – A common complaint with the other common back exercises such as bent-over rows is that the lower back is very prone to injury when the weight gets heavy. Several lifters can relate to this. Thanks to the chest support, seal rows do not have this problem. So if you suffer from lower back pain and discomfort, seal rows will be ideal for you. This makes progressions easier as well. You can progress to heavier weights without worrying about your back, and thus, higher levels of back development can be enjoyed.
  • No room for momentum and cheating – Unless you have very low levels of body proprioception, it is virtually impossible to cheat, swing, or get the form messed up in this exercise. Because your body is glued to the bench with the weight pulling it towards the bench, you cannot jerk or heave the weight up using hip momentum like you would on other moves like the barbell rows. An added benefit of this is a reduced risk of injury as the right muscles will be targeted.
  • Neutral neck alignment and position – In any back exercise, the neck should always be aligned with the spine to prevent injuries. When set up correctly, seal rows make for a movement that is completely safe for the spine and neck discs since the chin is automatically pressed against the bar, ensuring a neutral neck position.
  • Increased time under tension – This is probably the best benefit of seal rows. A longer range of motion paves the way for higher potential muscle gains. This is evidenced by the fact that you can pull deep past the bench providing a full stretch to the back muscles, especially when using dumbbells. More so, all of this is done in a controlled motion which increases the time under tension and leads to higher muscular damage. Indeed, a great way to build that thickness in the back and experience an upper body pump like never before.

Final Thoughts

Seal rows definitely deserve a place in your back workout regime, so do give them a try. You’ll surely love the hammering isolation in the back and your back muscles will be the chief beneficiaries. Yes, 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.

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