Build Your Back Like Never Before

Build Your Back Like Never Before

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Seal Row Variations for a Freaky Upper Back

The seal row challenges you with a full range of motion and prevents cheating. Get horizontal and your upper back and lats will explode.

Get Horizontal to Build Your Back
Do the seal row to build your upper back and lats like never before. This lift will minimize lower back strain and prevent you from using momentum to cheat.
You get a pure horizontal angle to blast your mid back and lats. This is rare. Most of the time, lifters do bent-over rows with varying degrees of an upright torso. This is fine, but it shortens the distance a weight must travel. Good for the ego but not so much for upper-back development. While it’s not bad to use a slightly angled torso, if that’s the only position you’re in while rowing, you’re missing out on some upper-back gains.
Here are some primary and accessory variations of the seal row and a few other bonuses that take advantage of the same high-bench prone position.
Primary Seal Row Variations
1. Barbell
Grab the bar with a shoulder-width, overhand grip and pull towards your high abdomen. Keep your neck neutral and lower body tensed. Pull with your shoulders first, then drive your elbows behind you. Pull the bar against the bench for an extra isometric advantage and contract your upper back and lats hard.
2. Snatch Grip
Use a wide grip and pull the bar to your sternum or mid-chest. This will be a huge challenge for your upper back. If you need lifting straps, use them.
3. Underhand
Use a supinated, palms-up grip and pull the bar to your mid or lower abdomen. You’ll feel this more so in your lats and biceps.
4. Dumbbell
Use a neutral grip on the dumbbells and visualize driving your elbows to the ceiling. Dumbbells allow for a greater range of motion and contraction at the top since you can pull the weights without getting stopped by the bench. You can also use kettlebells, trap bars, and Swiss bars.
Accessory Seal Row Variations
5. Dumbbell Face-Pull
Use an overhand grip and pull the weights high to the chest or neck level. This will hammer your upper back. Lighten up the weight for higher reps. This is a great option if you don’t have access to a cable stack. If you can’t hold the contraction for at least a second, the weight’s probably too heavy.
6. Dumbbell to Hip
Instead of driving your elbows behind you, think about pulling your fists to your hips. These are like a hybrid between a row and a straight-arm pulldown. They’ll give you an intense contraction in the lats.
7. Barbell to Hip
Think of these as the extreme finished position of a pullover. Focus on pulling toward your beltline. In the finished position, your arms should not be fully straight or bent. If possible, drive the bar hard against the bench to intensify the contraction in your lats.
8. Dumbbell Accentuated Negative
Using a neutral grip, drive your elbows back so that your forearms are perpendicular to the floor in the finished position. From here, visualize pushing the weights towards your feet and straightening your arms as you slowly lower back to the starting position. The extended lever and increased time under tension during the negative portion is a potent stimulus for back development.
Bonus Variations
9. Prone Dumbbell Shoulder Extension
One of the functions of the lats is to extend your shoulder or bring your arm behind your torso. For upper-body mobility, it’s important to maintain this range of motion. With your arms straight and hands neutral, raise the dumbbells behind you in a sweeping semi-circular fashion and flex your lats hard. You’ll feel this in your triceps as well.
10. Prone Dumbbell Rear Delt Raise
It’s common for lifters to do rear delt raises either chest-supported against an inclined bench or leaned forward at the hips while sitting at the end of a bench. Doing shoulder raises with your torso parallel to the floor will hammer your rear delts.
Sets and Reps
You can load the primary seal row variations heavier with as low as 5 reps or decrease the weight and do them for moderate and higher reps.
Accessory seal row variations are best used with moderate weights in medium-high rep brackets, like 12 to 25.
“Wait, This Lift Isn’t New!”
Correct. Although it’s existed for some time, the seal row is becoming more commonplace. Specific benches for them now exist, and some physical testing protocols for the Norwegian military even use them.
The move itself has gone by a few names, including bench pulls and bench rows. In Bill Pearl’s classic glossary of strength, Keys to the Inner Universe, they were known as lying high-bench lat pull-ups.
Naming confusion aside, if you can access or set up a tall bench, they should be a staple in your upper-body training.
Kinakin K. (2009). Optimal muscle training. Human Kinetics.
Kirknes J. & Aandstad A. (2016). New physical fitness tests and employment standards in the Norwegian Armed Forces.
Pearl B (1982). Keys to the inner universe. L.R. Perry Jr. (Ed.). Bill Pearl Enterprises Incorporated.

Always see the England rugby players do these but never been able to do them at a gym as there is no bench that’s raised enough (also I have long arms which makes that worse).
Would love one of those raised benches at the gym though, but bet it would be too short for me still.

I love seal rows and will be buying a specialty bench soon!

Seated Hammer Strength horizontal row would be a good alternative to some of these. Torso is straight and the low back is out of the equation.

I prop my flat bench on DIY pulling blocks to get the additional height for Seal Rows. I have short arms so that helps here.

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