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How to Build Biceps From Rows (Guide to Horizontal Pulls)

Rows are a non-negotiable staple in any proper training plan. While both horizontal and vertical pulls are important, in most programs, horizontal pulls usually take importance over vertical pulls since they counteract the bench press or main horizontal push. While some people might structure their program in a way that places an overhead or vertical push first, I find it more optimal to train bench first twice a week in an upper/lower format, since you're more primed to move heavier weight.

Since rows counteract the horizontal push, they use opposite muscle groups that stabilize the push, like the lats, rhomboids, rear deltoids and biceps. This makes rows fantastic for indirect bicep work, as they move more weight than isolation exercises. Although, there are some rows that will place more stress on the bicep relative to the average row. Exercises like the supinated inverted row, supinated grip kettlebell row, and the supinated bent over row.

What Muscles do Rows Work?

Just note I use row and horizontal pull interchangeably. They're the same thing. Horizontal pulls are rows, whether bodyweight, barbell, cable, dumbbell or kettlebell. 

They all work about the same muscles, but don't let that mislead you; you can manipulate angles and grips to place more emphasis on certain muscles. But, roughly, all rows use the same muscle groups at varying stages:
  • The biceps- through contraction and a forceful pull to the hip.
  • The rear deltoids- near the isometric when the shoulder blades retract.
  • The lats and nearby synergists- throughout the whole movement.
  • Rhomboids- near full contraction and throughout movement.
  • Lower traps- during bottom and top isometric.
Muscles Used In Horizontal Pull

The Difference Between Horizontal and Vertical Pulls

There is no major difference in muscle stress in the horizontal and vertical axes, but mainly in movement. In most vertical pulls you pull towards your chest, while in horizontal pulls you pull towards your ribs, face or hip. This means you get more lat and rear delt activation (if only slightly) from a deep horizontal pull, and more bicep and upper back development from a vertical pull, because of the contraction and angle.

You need both vertical and horizontal pulls, not only for full muscle development, but for balance and functionality. The way I structure my program is by supersetting upper body push and pulls on the same day and placing accessories afterwards for the corresponding major movements.

Typically, the most effective vertical pulls are bodyweight, like chin ups and pull ups, and for the horizontal pulls, either dumbbell or cables. I find both work best in the 6-15 rep range, because they should be hard enough to get a stimulus, but not taxing enough to work for pure strength.

Best Rows for Biceps

Any row will work the biceps to an extent. Even so, it's not enough for the biceps. You need to program in isolations, ideally one bicep isolation supersetted with triceps at the end of upper days. But you can emphasize biceps more in horizontal pulls by using a supinated grip (palms facing you). For horizontal pulls, it makes the movement more isolation oriented and may make it more taxing since it uses more biceps, and the brachialis (the "elbow flexor"). 

It may be more anatomically awkward, though, to use a supinated grip, since it's usually better suited for a vertical pull like chin ups. But, used wisely, these exercises will add major mass to your biceps. I recommend programming them near the end of the week, during a medium stress, hypertrophy day, and replacing your typical row after, say, a bench press or horizontal push, with a supinated or at least neutral grip row. Here are some of the best exercises for that purpose:

Supinated Inverted Row

Muscles Worked

  • Rear Delt
  • Biceps- especially brachialis
  • Lats
  • Rhomboids
  • Lower traps

How to

Start by racking a barbell or another attachment to where you can row your chest to it. There are different progressions to this. But for the feet on floor one, first keep your feet on the floor (obviously) while hanging onto the bar your palms facing toward you. Take about a slightly wider than shoulder width grip. Then brace your core, glutes and hamstrings, and pull to your ribs until your chest is close to the bar.

Supinated Kettlebell Row

Muscles Worked

  • Lats
  • Rhomboids
  • Biceps

How to

Grab kettlebells with your palms facing you, and hinge back to where your back is neutral and fairly parallel or at 15 degrees to the floor. Keep your core tight. Exhale as you row the kettlebells to your hips and then inhale on the way down. If you're doing a unilateral variation support your other hand on a bench.

Supinated Bent Over Row

Muscles Worked 

  • Lower back
  • Lats
  • Rhomboids
  • Lower traps
  • Biceps

How to

Set up a barbell on a power rack or on the floor. Deadlift with a grip palms facing you to knee level. Keep your back neutral and core tight. Row to your hips or ribs and exhale. Hold for a count, then return to knee level. Keep your neck neutral with your spine.

Neutral Grip Cable Row

Muscles Worked

  • Forearms
  • Biceps- along with brachioradialis
  • Lats

How to

Set up a Double D handle attachment on a cable with the desired weight. Then, either by sitting on a bench or on the floor, grab a hold of the attachment where your palms face each other, and row to your ribs. Exhale, then inhale on the way back. Be sure to let your lats stretch as far as they can before pulling back. Keep your core tight.

Neutral Grip Chest Supported Row

Muscles Worked

  • Lats
  • Rhomboids
  • Biceps- with brachioradialis
  • Rear delts

How to

Lie down on an incline bench with a pair of dumbbells or kettlebells. Let your lats stretch down. Exhale as you pull to your hips. Inhale on the way down.

Are Rows Enough For Biceps?

While these exercises will increase the stimulus and tension placed on the bicep, they are certainly not enough for the bicep. To get full development, you should also include at least one isolation at the end of your upper days. Check out the chart in this article. I explain that you need some indirect work for the arms to increase strength, but you also need direct work to increase strength capacity (building muscle size through progression). 

While they are not mutually exclusive, we know for sure, if you want to grow a muscle, you need to increase high-quality volume (near failure). The best way to do this is by using a rep range, not a solid number: for example, by using 8-12 for isolation, and doing as much reps as you can within those numbers.

This is called double progression. In this example, you're doing a bicep curl for 3 sets of 8-12 at 25 lbs. per arm. You get 12 reps on the first set, 11 reps on your second, and 11 on your third. You wouldn't increase the weight until you reached 12 for all sets. 

There are two variables to manipulate; the reps and the weight. Hence the term double progression. There are increasingly more advanced ways to progress, like triple progression (also manipulating sets). But that's not even it. I'll probably make an article about all the ways to progress. But, if you're a beginner, or even intermediate, you should probably stick to double progression for all your accessory exercises and wave loading for your compounds.

How to Program Rows (Horizontal Pulls)

The way I program rows, and the way I believe is closest to optimal, for both time and growth, is with the superset model. I recognize this may not be workable for some people with a gym membership due to lack of space, but it's possible if you're creative. Dumbbells or kettlebells are key to making this work. For example, say it's your upper day and you have a bench press placed for your major movement. You should superset this with a row and have the same number of sets for both movements.

There are many ways to make this work, and many people use different splits. I'll say, I have a bias for the 4 days lower/upper model. My philosophy is that you should start a day with the hardest movement, start a week with strength movements, and as you move down the days, go to more medium stress, hypertrophy oriented days. Not that I support "volume" and "strength" days, but I prefer flexible programs with volumes around 14-20 sets weekly for each muscle group, and a sort of daily structure with supersets and a few giant sets. This allows for less time and more autoregulation of exercises (I can remove some isolation exercises if I'm too tired.)

In sum, whatever split you have, try to balance push and pulls, whether with supersets or by just placing them back to back in the exercise order.

Conclusion

I hope you took something from this short guide on horizontal pulls, and how to add supinated rows to your program; near the end of the week during medium stress hypertrophy upper/pull day/s. Also, that you need bicep and, more broadly, arm isolation exercises to get full arm development. You can do this by adding more supination pull exercises and adding at 1-2 bicep and tricep isolation movements at or near the end of an upper day. Don't neglect vertical pulls either!