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Onnit coach Eric Leija demonstrates the gorilla row kettlebell exercise.

Build Muscle With The Gorilla Row Exercise

Written by
September 5, 2023
Updated May 16, 2024

If you want to build a thick, strong back, you have to train like an animal—and what better way to do that than with an exercise that actually makes you look like a silverback gorilla when you’re performing it? Let’s look at the gorilla row kettlebell exercise and how you can use it to build strength and size.

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What Is The Gorilla Row?

(See 00:27 in the video above.)

The gorilla row is a variation on the bent-over row you’re probably already aware of and usually see done with a barbell. You hinge at the hips and row the weight from the floor until your elbows are at your sides. The key difference with the gorilla row vs. a barbell bent-over row is that the kettlebells allow you to work one side at a time.

You’ll actively push one kettlebell into the floor while you row the other one, all while staying in that bent-over position. The movement can’t help but make you look something like a gorilla foraging for food, but it will also give you the back muscle strength to be king of your own (iron) jungle.

Gorilla Row Exercise Benefits

Any type of bent-over row is a good idea for stimulating total-body strength gains. Your lats and upper back work when you row the weight, but your lower back, hips, and core must also engage just to keep you in position and support your torso. Lifting the weight from the floor on each rep, as opposed to letting the weight hang just slightly above, as you do in some rowing variations, offers the added benefit of keeping the movement more strict, as well as training explosiveness. You can’t let your muscles’ stretch reflex bounce the weight up for you—you’ll have to pull the bell up with muscle power alone.

The gorilla row takes all of this to the next level by having you work unilaterally—one side at a time—which means you’ll be able to train your back through a greater range of motion, and you’ll have to resist any twisting or bending on one side while you row on the other, further heightening the core stability component. Of course, maintaining a deep hip hinge through it all is an important posture to master for lower back health and overall power and explosiveness (nearly all explosive movements involve hip extension, so you might as well master the setup for it).

How To Do the Gorilla Row Exercise Properly

(See 01:04 in the video.)

Step 1. Place two kettlebells on the floor and straddle them with your feet between hip and shoulder width. Hinge your hips back, keeping a long spine from your head to your tailbone. Allow your knees to bend as needed, but keep your lower back flat, not rounded. Grasp the kettlebell handles.

Step 2. Press one bell into the floor and brace your abs. Now row the opposite bell till your elbow is at your ribs. Lower it to the floor again, and repeat the row on the other side while you press the opposite bell into the floor.

The gorilla row is typically done by alternating sides, but you may choose to do all your reps on one side and then the other if you want to better isolate your back one side at a time.

For the best muscle gains, you should keep your shoulders square to the floor throughout the set. However, “You can also rotate your thoracic spine to get a little more mobility out of this exercise,” says Eric Leija, an Onnit-certified coach (@primal.swoledier) and the model in our video. “But you’ll get less lat activation, because the lat won’t be able to fully shorten.” So, if you’re an athlete like a fighter or baseball player who throws or twists a lot in their sport, you may want to allow your torso to turn a few degrees as you row. “But if you’re looking to put on a nice, thick back,” says Leija, “try to minimize that rotation.”

What Muscles Do Gorilla Rows Work?

(See 03:18 in the video.)

The gorilla row gives the following muscles a good drubbing:

–   Lats (the big muscles on the sides of your back)

–   Rhomboids (middle back)

–   Trapezius (upper back)

–   Rear delts (back of the shoulders)

–   Deep core muscles

–   Obliques (the ab muscles on your sides)

–   Rectus abdominis (your six-pack muscle)

–   Biceps

–   Forearms

–   Glutes

–   Hamstrings 

Dumbbell Vs. Kettlebell Gorilla Rows

(See 03:25 in the video.)

Due to kettlebells having handles that reach a few inches above their center of mass, they’re easier to grab a hold of than dumbbells when rowing weight from the floor. Unless you have a contortionist’s hip mobility, trying to grip dumbbells on the floor for gorilla rows will cause you to round your lower back, which you never want to do on a bent-over rowing movement for the sake of avoiding injury.

But, if dumbbells are all you have, you can still do the basic gorilla row movement and get plenty out of it. Simply elevate the dumbbells on a box, bench, or mats in order to raise them to mid-shin level. Now you’ll be able to bend over safely to grasp the handles.

How To Stretch Before Exercising

Warm up your upper back, lats, and core muscles with the sky reach to arm thread. Do this move as part of your warmup/stretching routine before any session that includes the gorilla row.

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Step 1. Get on all fours with your hands under your shoulders and your knees directly beneath your hips. Brace your core.

Step 2. Draw your right arm up and across your chest as you twist your right shoulder toward the ceiling and reach overhead. Be careful to keep your hips facing the floor.

Step 3. Reverse the motion, reaching your arm across your body and behind the support arm. Twist as far as you can, ideally until the back of your right shoulder touches the floor. Complete 6–10 reps on that side, and then switch sides and repeat. Do 2–3 sets total.

Gorilla Row Alternatives

If the gorilla row feels too advanced, or you can’t seem to perform it with a safe lower-back position, try these two alternatives that will train the back and core in a similar way.

One-Arm, Split-Stance Row

(See 04:54 in the Build Muscle With The Gorilla Row video.)

Step 1. Step forward with your right leg, as if getting into a lunge position, and extend your left leg straight behind you. Your front knee should be bent about 90 degrees and your back heel may be raised off the floor. Bend at the hips and brace your right forearm against your right knee. Press it into your leg—this will help create stability. Your body should form a long straight line from your head to your heel. Reach with your left hand to grasp a kettlebell on the floor.

Step 2. Row the kettlebell to your side while keeping your shoulders square to the floor. Complete your reps on that side, and then switch sides and repeat.

Renegade Row

(See 06:10 in the Build Muscle With The Gorilla Row video.)

Step 1. Get into a pushup position, resting your hands on a pair of kettlebells (or dumbbells). Turn the handles so they make an A-shape, which will help you balance on them better. Place your feet as wide apart as is comfortable. A narrower stance will make the exercise harder; a wider foot placement will make it easier. Take a deep breath into your belly and brace your core.

Step 2. Lean your weight to your right side, pushing that hand into the floor. Your left side will feel lighter. Now row the left-hand weight to your side, but avoid twisting your hips or shoulders. Lower the weight and repeat on the other side.

Discover other great lat and back exercises in our guide, How To Lat Spread Like A Bodybuilder.

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