Rows and pull ups are frequently used to train the back and biceps, but are they enough on their own?
In this article, I will cover…
- If rows and pull-ups provide enough stimulus for your back and biceps
- How to get the most out of rows and pull-ups if you don’t have time to do other exercises for your back and biceps
- Workout examples for your back and biceps using only rows and pull-ups
Let’s start by answering the question “are rows and pull-ups enough for your back training”, and then I’ll discuss whether those same exercises are enough for your bicep training.
Are Rows & Pull-Ups Enough For Back?
Rows and pull ups are enough for your mid and upper back, however, your lower back will be neglected. Performing exercises with varying grips and angles will get the most out of your back training, and back extensions or deadlifts should be included to target the erectors (low back).
Why Rows & Pull-Ups Are Enough For Back?
Between rows and pull ups you can train various muscle groups across your back.
Performing rows and pull ups will train the latissimus dorsi, rhomboids and triceps, with the biceps acting as a secondary muscle and contributions from the shoulder musculature as stabilisers.
- Rowing movements are most primarily used to target the rhomboids and trapezius – think pulling your arms back and squeezing your shoulder blades together.
- Pull up movements are best for targeting your latissimus dorsi – think pulling your arm down by your side vertically.
As well, different row and pull up variations will target different muscles within your back.
Manipulating grip width, angle of the arm during the pull and how far you are pulling can help target different muscles as well.
Therefore, choosing the right exercises and technique are so important to get the most out of your rows and pull ups if you want to target your back.
How To Make Rows & Pull-Ups Target Your Back More?
Rows and pull ups are fundamental back exercises.
But with this comes endless variations, machines and methods of execution.
To ensure you are targeting your back as fully as possible there are a few things you should be doing.
1. Manipulating Your Grip Will Vary the Muscles Biased by the Movement You Are Doing
For rows you should look to include both wider grip and narrow grip pulls. Utilising a neutral or pronated (palms facing down) grip will load the back musculature most.
Wider grip pull ups will bias the lats most by allowing you to pull more vertically.
2. The Angle of Pull Will Also Affect the Muscles Targeted in Your Rowing Exercises
By rowing with a wider grip and pulling your elbows out wider and higher and beyond the mid-line of the body, you will target the rhomboids and trapezius.
Using a narrower grip and rowing with your arms close to your side and not beyond the mid-line you can target the lats more. Think of pulling your elbow down and back rather than actively rowing the bar.
Similar should be done to bias the lats in the pull up; aim to drive the elbows down as vertically as possible. This is why I recommend a wider grip pull up too as it allows the room for the elbow to drive more vertically downwards.
For more rhomboids and trapezius in the pull up, think of pulling your chest to the bar. This will cause you to lean back slightly and drive the elbows back and down rather than just down. This can be done with both a wide or narrow grip.
Beyond pull ups, you should also look to incorporate other kinds of vertical pulling, such as pulldowns. This will allow many people to reach those higher rep ranges (10+) which are not attainable for everyone with pull ups alone.
Read our article Do Pull Ups Help Deadlifts? (Yes, Here’s How) to find out even more benefits to performing pull ups.
Example Row & Pull-Up Routine For Back Training
- Wide Grip Pull Up – 3 Sets of 8 Reps – Pulling the elbows down as vertically as possible.
- Pronated Chest Supported Row – 4 Sets of 8 Reps – Drive the elbows back high and wide, squeezing the shoulder blades together at the top.
- Narrow Grip Cable Row – 4 Sets of 10 Reps – Pull the elbows back and down, keeping your arms close to the body. Allow a full stretch forward between each rep.
- Narrow Grip Pulldown Machine – 3 Sets of 12-15 – Lean back slightly and pull handles into your upper chest. Stretch fully at the top and squeeze your shoulder blades back and down at the bottom of each rep.
If you’re a powerlifter, check out my article on How Do Powerlifters Train Back.
Limitations For Just Doing Rows & Pull-Ups For Back
The main limitation of just doing rows and pull ups for back is that you are neglecting your low back.
While rows and pull ups are great for the mid and upper back muscle groups, you will not be sufficiently loading the lower back, primarily the erectors.
If your goal is to develop your entire back, you should look to include exercises that target the erectors.
I recommend back extensions, hinge dominant deadlift variations, such as the Romanian deadlift or good mornings.
Related Article: The Most Effective Pull-Up Warm Up (Science Backed)
Are Rows & Pull-Ups Enough For Biceps?
Rows and pull ups are unlikely to be enough stimulus to train your biceps. Lifters may be able to maintain their biceps size with rows and pull-ups. However, those with goals to develop their biceps size and strength should look to include direct biceps training, utilizing various curl exercises.
Why Rows & Pull-Ups Are Not Enough For Biceps?
Rows and pull ups are primarily a back exercise, they are used to target the latissimus dorsi, rhomboids and trapezius, with the biceps as a secondary muscle.
Most rowing and pull up variations will not take the biceps through the full range of motion; full elbow extension to full elbow flexion, this flexion component is largely missing from many exercises.
Since the back is the primary muscle targeted by these exercises, this also becomes the limiting factor in the exercise.
The execution of most row and pull up exercises will typically bias the back musculature. However, you can manipulate this to shift extra focus to the biceps.
Check out my related article Is It Better To Do Bicep Curls Fast or Slow?
How To Make Rows & Pull-Ups Target Your Biceps More?
The biceps’ primary function is that of elbow flexion.
So, you need to pick exercises that focus on more elbow flexion and those that load this movement too.
Performing rows and pull ups with narrower (shoulder width apart) and supinated (palms facing upwards) grips will help target the biceps more. Pulling to the range of motion that causes peak elbow flexion and allowing full extension of the elbow at the end range of each rep.
Most back training advice will teach you how to target the back and reduce load from the biceps.
Instead, here you should be actively thinking about pulling through the biceps and causing the elbow flexion rather than it just being as a function of the rowing/pulling movement.
With rowing movements, you can aim to practically ‘curl’ the bar into your body at the top of the movement.
When performing pull ups, as recommended with the narrow underhand grip, aim to keep your elbows further forward rather than pulling them back towards you. This forces you to use your biceps more to complete the movement.
The biceps will typically take over more during latter stages of the sets when the back is more fatigue. Due to this, pushing sets close to failure and higher rep sets can help target the biceps more.
If you’re a powerlifter, check out my article on How Do Powerlifters Train Arms.
Example Row & Pull-Up Routine For Bicep Training
- Single Arm Dumbbell Row – 3 Sets of 8 Reps – Keeping the arm close to the body and forcing full elbow flexion at the top of the movement.
- Supinated Narrow Grip Pull Ups – 3 Sets of As Many Reps As Possible – Keeping the elbows forward and pulling up until full elbow flexion. Performing as many reps as possible will also cause more load to be shifted to the biceps towards the end of the sets as the back fatigues.
- Supinated Narrow Grip Cable Row – 3 Sets of 12-15 Reps – Pulling the bar into your lower chest will force you to curl the bar upwards towards the end of each rep which will cause more elbow flexion and load the biceps more.
- Supinated Single Arm Pulldowns – 2 Sets of 15-20 – Pull close to your side and down until you reach peak elbow flexion. These higher rep sets should also help shift more load to the biceps throughout the set.
Related Article: 9 Lat Exercises With Dumbbells (With Pictures)
Limitations For Just Doing Rows & Pull-Ups For Biceps
The main limitation is that rows and pulls are primarily a back exercise and the biceps act as a secondary muscle.
These exercises are not typically performed as a biceps focused exercise and thus the limiting factor within them is the back rather than the biceps.
Most rowing and pull up variations will not take the bicep through its full range of motion; full elbow extension to full elbow flexion. This peak flexion is what is neglected when only training the biceps with rows and pull ups.
Most lifters will be able to maintain their biceps progress with these alone, however I would recommend lifters include at least one direct bicep exercise within their training sessions if they wish to increase their size and strength.
Want to know more about isolation exercises and how to incorporate them as a powerlifter? Read out article Do Powerlifters Do Isolation Exercises (Yes, Here’s How) to find out more.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are Bicep Workouts Necessary If You Do Heavy Back?
Bicep workouts are not necessary if you do heavy back training, however, including 3-6 sets of direct biceps training during your back workouts will help develop further biceps size and strength.
Will Doing Pull-Ups Make My Biceps Grow?
The biceps are a secondary muscle in the pull up so with sufficient volume the biceps will grow. Performing narrow grip pull ups with a supinated (palms facing upwards) grip will help target the biceps more.
Do Pull-Ups Work Biceps or Back More?
Pull ups will work the back more, however, this can be manipulated either way. Wider and pronated (palms facing down) grip pull ups will target your back the most whereas narrow and supinated (palms facing up) grip pull ups will shift more load to the biceps.
Can’t feel your lats in the pull-up? Check out my article on How To Activate Your Lats More In The Pull-Up.
Can Biceps Grow From Rows?
The biceps can grow from rows, however this is unlikely to be enough in more advanced lifters. Narrow and supinated (palms facing up) grip rows will bias the biceps most. I recommend incorporating some direct bicep training to maximise growth.
Is Pull-Ups Enough For Back?
Pull ups are a great back exercise, and by varying how you execute them they can target most of your mid and upper back. However, they leave your low back neglected and rows are better for targeting the rhomboids and trapezius.
Check Out Our Other Training Resources
- Is Bench Press Good Enough For Triceps?
- Is Bench Press Good Enough For Chest?
- Is It Better To Do Bicep Curls One At A Time?
- How To Even Out Biceps If One Is Bigger Than The Other
- 9 Best Preacher Curl Alternatives (With Pictures)
- Is It Better To Do Pull-Ups Fast Or Slow?
- Is Arm Day A Waste Of Time? Pros & Cons (Science-Backed)
- Close vs Wide Grip Lat Pulldown: Which Is Better?
- 15 Best Seated Row Alternatives (With Pictures)
- What Attachment To Use For Cable Rows?
- Lat Pulldown vs Pull-Up: Differences, Pros, Cons
About The Author
Jacob Wymer is a powerlifting coach and PhD Candidate in Biomechanics and Strength and Conditioning, researching the application of barbell velocity measurements to powerlifting. He is involved in powerlifting across the board, from athlete to meet director. Jacob runs his coaching services at EST Barbell. You can also connect with him on Instagram.