Lo and behold, I am really starting to like them. For one, they are very easy on the lower back, but beyond that, I think they are actually great for strengthening the upper back and promoting good shoulder health. Being a horizontal pull, they differ in feel quite a bit from pullups, and they are much more shoulder friendly in my opinion. I like to do them using blast straps (though a TRX or rings would work well too), which allows your shoulders to rotate in a more natural path. Plus, for people that struggle to do enough reps with pullups, this is a great way to work on your strength while still getting in enough reps to work the muscles. For those that are skeptical, I suggest you try them first and foremost, but you might also want to check out Bret Contreras’ article Inside the Muscles: Best Back and Biceps Exercises which uses carefully performed EMG studies to show that inverted rows actually activate the lats to essentially the same degree as barbell rows (there are slight differences based on the variation you use, but the numbers are close for all variations).
Another thing I like about them is that you can progress and regress them very easily depending on strength levels. In general:
1) The higher the bar or the straps are off the ground, the easier it will be.
2) Having your feet on the floor will be easier than elevating them.
3) Bent knees are easier than straight legs.
This means that you could start with bent knees with a higher bar and progress to a lower back (just enough to get a full ROM at the bottom of the rep) with legs straight elevated on a bench. From there, you can add resistance via plates or a weighted vest.
Here is a great video from Dewey Nielsen of Impact PT in Oregon (http://www.impact-pt.com/) that shows a great list of progressions to get started. For people starting out with this exercise, this is the way to start.
More experienced athletes, however, may find that these variations are not challenging enough. This was my big qualm at first, so I started thinking of so more advanced variations. I am really loving them right now, my low back feels great, my shoulder feels great, and I am getting stronger. I recommend you guys try these out.
Here are the variations
Towel Rows- These will fry your grip, and also allow for an AWESOME contraction when you pull the towel apart at the top.
Fingertip Rows- This is just a little harder variation using a loading pin that will also REALLY work the grip. The grip is so vital for many athletes so these variations can kill two birds with one stone.
Unstable rows- I am not a big stability ball guy, but in this situation, I think it is a nice change to add some difficulty and force you to stay tight so you don’t shift around. It also forces you to control the reps because if you jerk, the ball with roll (especially important when using straps).
1 arm rows- Here I saved the best for last. This is the hardest version of all, but probably my favorite. This will fry your back, grip, and core. You can start these will your feet on the ground to get used to it.
I have been surprised how much I have gotten from this exercise, and I think it would be a good addition for anyone, especially for those with low back pain or those that struggle with chin-ups.