Vertical vs Horizontal Back Exercises (8 Key Differences)

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Horizontal bent-over row compared to a vertical upright row for the back

A lot of fitness professionals broadly state that vertical back exercises target the lats, while horizontals mainly work the upper back. This falls short since it doesn’t take into account the biomechanics of each specific exercise within these categories.

Vertical back exercises involve pulling the weight parallel, toward the body from overhead or the floor; during horizontal back exercises the weight is pulled perpendicularly from in front, toward the body. Both types can target the latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, and trapezius.

Factors such as grip and elbow placement, and body angle control which muscles are accentuated. These variables can be adjusted for each exercise under these two categories. A deeper comparison awaits you.

1. The Torso Is Perpendicular During Horizontals

Horizontal back exercises start with the arms extended in front of the body while holding the weight. This can be performed with the torso upright or bent-over, like in the seated cable row or bent-over barbell row, respectively.

If you want to emphasize the traps, rear delts, and rhomboids, flare the elbows out to the sides and pull towards your chest. Pulling towards your abdomen with the elbows tucked close to your waist recruits the lats more.

2. The Torso Is Parallel During Verticals

During a vertical back exercise, you initiate each rep from overhead or the floor. Cable and bodyweight movements like the lat pulldown and pull-up are initiated with the arms overhead. You then pull the handles toward your chest.

Movements that start with the weight on the ground, or below the waistline are commonly performed using free weights. This includes rack pulls, upright rows, and shrugs. However, these can be performed utilizing cables or resistance bands too.

Furthermore, to emphasize the lats during an exercise like the pulldown use an overhand grip slightly wider than shoulder width. This finding is based on EMG data testing multiple hand placements.

3. They Each Emphasize Different Scapular Motions

The most notable shoulder motions during horizontal back exercises are shoulder retraction and protraction.

Retraction is speculated to put the shoulders in a more stable position while pulling. Slightly protracting the shoulder blades forward at the bottom of each rep during rows elicits a greater stretch.

Conversely, vertical movements such as the lat pulldown use scapular depression and elevation. Depression occurs during the pulling phase, which recruits the lats and upper back. Elevation is the antagonistic motion that occurs on the negatives and stretches these muscles.

4. Horizontals Tend To Have “Row” in Their Name

This isn’t a hard set rule, but exercises that have row or rowing in their name are usually performed in the horizontal plane.

Here are some examples:

  • Bent-over row
  • Rowing machine (the cardio kind)
  • Inverted row
  • Seated cable row
  • Hammer strength machine row (the strength training kind)
  • Renegade row

An exercise like the face pull is also performed horizontally. You’ll learn why this can be confusing below.

5. Verticals Tend To Have “Pull” in Their Name

Verticals also have their unique, identifiable names as many of them contain the words pull or up.

For example:

  • Pull-up
  • Chin-up
  • Lat Pulldown
  • Lat Pullover
  • Straight arm pulldown

Again, certain ones like the reacher row are an exception, as this is a vertical bodyweight exercise that replicates the lat pulldown.

6. Horizontals Work the Spinal Erectors More

Many horizontal row variations require your torso to be leaned forward and held in a static position. This isometrically contracts your spinal erectors throughout the movement. Without these muscles, the spine would be highly compromised in this position.

7. Verticals Put Less Pressure on the Low Back

Except for deadlifts and rack pulls, most of the popular vertical back movements are performed with the torso always upright. This lessens the degree of spinal erector engagement since there’s less gravitational pressure on the lower back.

8. They Have Distinguishable Learning Curves

From my experience training clients, I’ve found them to be naturally more proficient at performing horizontal exercises. Specifically supported variations like the cable or machine row.

I believe this is because most people are used to picking objects up from in front of them and pulling them toward their bodies. For example, pulling a coffee cup toward them occurs more frequently than pulling an object toward them from a high overhead shelf.

Also as I mentioned earlier, scapular retraction occurs during rows and is a more stable position than depression during pulldowns. Trainees struggle to properly pulldown without their rotator cuffs rounding at the bottom.

Are Vertical or Horizontal Pulls Better?

When developing the back and rear delt muscles vertical and horizontal pulls are effective in their own right. They play a congruent role in developing a well-rounded upper posterior chain and arms.

As a general rule, vertical pulls are better for people with lower back issues as they don’t require holding the torso in a static bent-over position; horizontal pulls are typically better for strengthening the back using heavy free weights and isolating the rear delts.

The decision to focus on one over the other comes down to personal factors such as equipment availability, injury history, and training goals.

Most trainees who have injured their rotator cuff may find overhead vertical pulling exercises to be more restricted. Conversely, individuals with lower back pain will find some bent-over horizontal pulls to be overly fatiguing and painful.

However, this doesn’t mean you can’t use heavy free weights for vertical pulls or cable machines for horizontals. For example, barbell rack pulls are considered a vertical pulling movement while cable face pulls are horizontal.

Do You Need To Do a Vertical and Horizontal Pull?

The claims that vertical pulls are bad for your shoulders and horizontal are bad for your spine are a myth. If you’re performing the right exercises, using proper form, and don’t have any underlying injuries, you should practice both.

You must do at least one vertical and horizontal pull exercise each week. This ensures your shoulder joints are mobile through various planes of motion. On top of that, some muscles in the back and rotator cuff are easier to stimulate with one over the other.

Here’s how you could structure your weekly workout routine to include vertical and horizontal pulls:

  • Day 1: Push
  • Day 2: Pull
    1. Barbell Bent-Over Rows (Horizontal): 4 sets x 8 reps
    2. Lat Pulldowns (Vertical): 4 sets x 12 reps
    3. Face Pulls (Horizontal): 2 sets x 20 reps
    4. Dumbbell Bicep Curls (Vertical): 2 sets x 15 reps
  • Day 3: Legs
  • Days 4-5: Rest
  • Day 6: Full-Body
    1. Leg Extensions: 3 sets x 15 reps
    2. Leg Curls: 3 sets x 15 reps
    3. Dumbbell Chest Press: 3 sets x 10 reps
    4. Single Arm Dumbbell Row (Horizontal): 3 sets x 10 reps
  • Day 7: Rest
Eric De Cremer
Eric De Cremer

Eric is an NCCA-accredited Certified Personal Trainer and competitively trained powerlifter. Feel free to contact him anytime at!