The machine high row is one of the most popular weight machines at the gym for building a bigger back. It’s a mixture of pulldown and row, giving you double value for your time.
Because it’s so good, many people need to know machine high row alternatives – what if your gym doesn’t have one? What if you can’t afford to fit one for your home gym?
Today, we’re discussing the best alternatives to the machine high row, so you can get bigger and stronger, no matter what equipment you have access to!
Why is the machine high row so good?
The high row machine is a great back exercise machine because it combines vertical and horizontal pulling movements. These are the 2 major functions of the upper back muscles – the lats, lower traps, and rhomboids especially.
This makes the machine high row a great ‘all in one’ exercise for developing the back. It has a great, long-range design that lets you completely lengthen and shorten the lats, while pulling the shoulder blades back and down.
This full range is great for back health while also building a ton of muscle mass. It’s got comparable movement to the pull-up, which is one of the best exercises to build the back. The advantage of the machine high row is that you can adjust the weight for your strength levels.
Best Machine High Row Alternatives
Pull-ups are the best upper back exercise if you can do them. They offer a huge range, excellent bodyweight control, and one of the best effects of any exercise.
This also gives you exercise in both the vertical and horizontal pull, making the high row so good. It’s harder to scale the pull-up, however, so you need to consider using either band-assisted or weighted versions to get the best results.
Banded pull-ups are an easier variation that beginners can use to start training their back muscles. More band resistance means less struggle and more reps – reduce band assistance over time.
Chin-ups are a slightly easier variation that also places more load on the biceps. This makes them a popular choice for beginners, or anyone who wants to mix more arms into their back exercises.
Weighted pull-ups – with a dip belt or weighted vest – help you get better results. Each kilo you add to a weighted pull-up is huge, improving full range upper back and arm strength.
How to perform a pull-up
- Take a shoulder-width grip (or slightly wider) on an overhead bar or handles
- Let your body hang, extending the arms completely
- Begin the movement by pulling with the arms and pulling the shoulder blades down simultaneously
- Continue pulling until your chest reaches the bar, squeezing the elbows back and down as far as possible
- Slowly lower yourself to the start position to complete the rep
2. Lat pulldown
The lat pulldown is a great way to build the upper back. It has the same long lat positioning at the top, which is a fantastic way to build muscle. Lat pulldown lacks the vertical movement of the high row, but all the other hallmarks are present to make it a great back exercise.
Most gyms have a lat pulldown, giving you the chance to build muscle more easily, even without a high-row machine.
Progression and Scaling
As with other cable exercises, your main progression is reps, sets, and weight. Some variations are useful but not direct progressions or scaling.
Kneeling lat pulldowns can be a great choice to get more horizontal pull, especially if you set up away from the machine. This is an excellent choice for advancing your lat pulldown.
How To Perform A Lat Pulldown
- Take a shoulder-width (or slightly wider) grip on the lat pulldown and sit down on the seat
- Keep your thumb over the top of the bar and keep weight on the outside of your hands
- Pull the bar down by retracting and lowering the shoulder blades and bending the elbows
- Pull the elbows as far down as possible, squeezing the lats and biceps as the bar reaches the chest
- Return the bar slowly by moving the elbows forward and up to the starting position
3. Pendlay row
Pendlay rows are a great way to develop your lats and rhomboids together, just like the high row, but it does require more effort. You have to focus on the ‘sweep’ of the motion, and the dumbbell variation is one of the best ways to emphasize this vertical and horizontal effort.
The added length and sweep of these rows is perfect for all-rounder upper back development, perfect for replacing the machine high row.
Progression and Scaling Options
Deficit Pendlay rows – both barbell and dumbbell – are a great way to add more range and improve the power of this exercise. Add 3” by standing on a bumper plate or similar.
Dumbbell Pendlay rows are excellent, with 3-dimensional stability around the shoulders required. It’s a great way to exaggerate that ‘forward’ movement and longer shoulder range. You can also use deficit dumbbell Pendlay rows, combining the two.
How To Perform The Pendlay Row
- Take a barbell or two dumbbells in hand at shoulder width
- Keep your torso flat and ease your hips back, keeping weight centered
- Start with the weight out front, as far as comfortable
- Row the weight towards the bottom of your chest, pull down and backward – exaggerate your shoulder extension and tuck your elbows
- Squeeze into the top position, before lowering the bar back to the original position
4. Seal row
The seal row is a great way to exaggerate all the best benefits of the Pendlay row to the extreme. It allows greater sweeping, and the chest-supported position is perfect for strict, long-range upper-back movement.
This lets you focus on working hard and getting it right, with less focus on posture and position. If you want a big, high rep, heavy upper back exercise, the seal row could be perfect for you.
Progression and scaling
The Dumbbell seal row is the best choice for most people because of the enormous range it allows for. It’s best done flat or decline to maximize length and horizontal pulling.
You can add a band to the seal row to emphasize this vertical pull, forcing you to get more length in the top position and a stronger contraction at the bottom. Perfect for lat strength and size.
How to perform the seal row
- Rest your torso on a bench or other elevated object with weights beneath
- Take a weight in either hand (or both hands on a barbell) and hold it at arm’s length with a shoulder-width grip
- Allow the bar to hang at shoulder height, before bending the elbows as well as retracting and depressing the shoulder blades simultaneously
- Pull the barbell or dumbbells to the lower chest/upper abdomen by bending the elbows and extending the shoulders as much as possible
- Squeeze into the end position in the upper back and arms, before slowly lowering the weight back to the starting position
5. Cable row
The cable row is one of the best ways to build the thickness of the back, with long-range and easy weight adjustments. This is a fantastic option because of the wide range of variations you can perform simply by changing the grip or setup position to change the angle of the pull.
Cable rows are also a constant tension exercise, resulting in the same weight throughout the movement. This can also be great for strengthening the stabilizers of the upper back.
The half-kneeling cable row is a great way to lengthen your pull, exaggerating the role of the lat in the movement, and helping build strength. It’s a great way to get more from each rep and ensure you’re working the whole range of the upper back muscles.
Progression and Scaling Options
One-arm cable rows can be used to overload each arm and build stronger lats. Building single-arm rowing strength is important for any well-rounded training program.
Wide grip cable rows can emulate the positions of a high row or pull up more closely, and emphasize the lower traps and rear delts.
Half kneeling single arm cable row is a great way to work the longest variation and helps you get the best benefits. This is even better from a higher cable pulley, making it one of the best alternatives.
How To Perform The Cable Row
- Sit at a cable machine with your handle in hand, legs straight, and leaning slightly forwards
- Relax your arms and shoulders, letting the handle move as far forward as possible without rounding the back
- Initiate the movement by tucking the elbows and pulling them backward, using the muscles of the upper back and arms together
- Pull the handle to your chest, pull your shoulders back, keep your elbows tucked, and pull them as far backward as possible
- Squeeze the handle into your chest for a moment, exaggerating the action of the biceps, lats, and lower traps to get the best effect
- Slowly return the cable to the start position to complete the rep
6. Kneeling cable high row
The kneeling cable high row is a 1-1 replacement that you can use to train the mixed vertical and horizontal pull of the high row. However, the angle of the cable does make this different, as the angles of resistance aren’t as good as the machine variation.
This is a great full upper back exercise, but it’s not as close to replacing the machine high row as you might think. However, it’s still a good choice for building the lats and lower traps.
Kneeling cable high row is a great lighter exercise for a finisher. This is different from the original exercise, but offers a great option for making your other back workouts more specific to the high row’s benefits.
Progression and Scaling
2-handle, separate cable high rows are great for active stability work in the shoulders. This helps coordinate the lats and can reduce strength asymmetries around your shoulders.
How to perform the kneeling cable high row
- Take a shoulder-width grip on any handle (rope, pulldown bar, or similar) and kneel so that you’re pulling at roughly a 45-degree angle
- Allow the arms to start far forwards and up, raising and protracting the shoulder blades
- Pull the bar down and towards yourself by pulling the shoulder blades down and back, while bending the arms and bringing the elbows backward
- Pull until the handle reaches your chest, holding in the end position to flex the lower traps, lats, and biceps actively
- Slowly return to the starting position
7. Face pull
Face pulls are a generally powerful upper back exercise that focus on pulls from around face height, using external rotation and lower trap function. It can be great for emphasizing this major benefit of the high row without using the machine.
Face pulls are one of the best ways to strengthen the varied, smaller muscles of the upper back. It can be a great superset with other heavier rowing exercises to recreate the effects of the machine high row.
Progression and Scaling options
The best way to progress the face pull is simply with more reps, sets, or weight. Cable exercises are typically best loaded by simply working your way down the stack!
Resistance band face pulls are fine if you don’t have access to a cable machine. These mostly train the very end range because of elastic resistance, making them good for posture but less useful for maximum muscle growth.
How to perform the face pull
- Set up a cable machine at any height above your chest height with a long rope handle attachment
- Take each end of the rope in either hand, and walk back until there’s light tension on the cable
- Let your shoulders drift forwards and up with the tension, set your torso neutral (not leaning back), and your stance solid
- Pull the handle by retracting and depressing your shoulder blades, bringing the elbows back and down
- Hold the end position of each rep, pulling your shoulders away from your ears, squeezing the elbows back, and externally rotating as hard as possible
- Slowly return to the start position under control
8. Reverse flys
A reverse flys with a forward lean is a great way to develop the upper back in a similar way to the machine high row. This requires some smart positioning but is an excellent finisher with a cable machine, making it versatile for gyms with different equipment.
You can also perform this exercise with a resistance band, but it’s quite a difficult setup. The free weight, chest-supported (or seal) variation can be beneficial, but the cable version is usually the best.
Progression and scaling
Cable reverse flys are a great, adjustable way to get a closer replication of your high row. Set up the pulley higher to focus more on the vertical pulling aspect of the high row.
Seal reverse flys are difficult in the best ways. They force you to build better control in the shoulders and upper back, as well as enhance your scapular retraction and external rotation – key skills for healthy shoulders.
How to perform the reverse fly
- Take a weight or handle in either hand
- Bend forwards or rest on a chest support or kneel (for a cable variation)
- Extend the weight as far from your midline as possible, letting your shoulder blades raise and protract around your body
- Keep your arms mostly straight, and begin the exercise by bringing your shoulder blades back and bringing your elbows behind your body
- Keep your chest large, and draw the largest possible arc with your hands and elbows, lengthening the movement and engaging your upper back
- Move the weight as far back as possible, focusing on bringing the elbows and shoulder blades back and down
- Squeeze the shoulder blades down and back in the end position, before slowly returning to the start position
Is a lat pulldown the same as a high row?
No. Lat pulldowns and high rows have different angles of pull, giving them different results. The pulldown is a more vertical pull, focusing on bringing the shoulder blades and elbows down, while the high row has more of a horizontal element.
This makes the high row a great single choice for rowing lots of weight into muscles like the lats, lower traps, and rhomboids at the same time.
What is the difference between high row machine and row machine?
A high row machine is at a higher angle than a normal row machine, making it more effective in targeting the lats. This makes it a better ‘all in one’ back exercise, while helping your vertical and horizontal pulling muscles work together.
The high row is a better choice for most people, while the ‘flat’ row machine is great for targeting specific muscles in the back like the lower trap, rhomboid, and even the rear delt.
How to train the machine high row at home?
You can train the high row movement at home with a cable machine, where you can perform a lat pulldown with more backward lean, and further from the cable itself. This produces a more horizontal pull, simulating the high row.
Alternatively, you can practice the seal row with a major focus on letting the weight move ‘forwards’ on the way down, and ‘sweeping in’ on the way up. This helps simulate the high row, even if it’s slightly different.
Face pulls can also help fill the gap.
What is the best machine high row substitute or alternative?
The best high row substitute is the pull-up, and it’s arguably a better exercise. However, if you can’t perform the pull-up, you can use banded pull-ups, seal rows, and lat pulldowns to get the same benefits as the high row.
Any one of these can cover most of the benefits, but combining them ensures you’re getting a fantastic upper back workout.
What’s best – high row machine vs lat pulldown
If you’re only performing one exercise, the high row machine is better. It hits more muscles and combines both vertical and horizontal pulls, giving you the most bang for your buck.
However, if you’re buying a kit for your home gym, the lat pulldown is better because it’s more versatile. A lat pulldown machine can be used for many exercises, while the high row machine is locked to a single ‘track’ for just one exercise.