Peak Performance | Bag Rows for Upper Body Strength

In this piece from Mountaineer magazine, we learn how to use an item that most of us already have in our homes to strengthen our upper-bodies - a loaded backpack!
Courtenay Schurman Courtenay Schurman
February 23, 2021
Peak Performance | Bag Rows for Upper Body Strength

When training your upper body at home, it’s easy to train your pushing muscles (chest, shoulders, triceps) with pushups, and your core (abdominals, lower back, obliques) with various ab exercises such as planks. For your pulling muscles, however, more creativity is required. If you have a simple pull-up bar and you have the strength for pull-ups, great. If not, here are great pulling exercises you can do with items at home.

Before You Start

Prepare your area. Load a small backpack or sturdy book bag (like what you carry groceries in) with suitable weighty objects. These can be heavy books, canned goods, rice, kitty litter, rocks, or bottles of water. A liter of liquid weighs 2.2 pounds, so if you have eight full one-liter bottles, you can set up a pair of bags ranging from 2-10 pounds. Gallon jugs weigh 8.3 pounds; two of them in a sturdy bag will give you the equivalent of a 16-pound dumbbell.

Set Up

Place your bag on the floor in front of you, and stagger your stance with most of your weight on your front (right) leg. Lean forward until your torso is at 45 degrees. Place your right palm on your right thigh for torso stability and support.

Row.jpg1-arm Bag Row, demonstrated by Courtenay Schurman. Photo by Doug Schurman.


With your left hand grip the bag handle, and as you exhale, draw your hand along a slight diagonal until it reaches the ribcage (think of starting an old-fashioned lawn mower). Inhale and lower to the floor. Complete anywhere from one to three sets of 8-12 repetitions for each arm, with a minute rest between sets.

Watch For

Keep your core engaged to avoid twisting or sagging through your torso. Your trunk should remain still and strong throughout the movement. Start with your weaker arm first, and only perform as many reps on your stronger side as you can complete on your weaker side.

Backpack Row Variation

When you master the one-arm row and both arms are doing equal work (i.e. there is no difference in sets and repetitions between arms), try adding more weight (twenty or more pounds) in a backpack.


Hold onto your large pack vertically using both shoulder straps, or horizontally using the storage loop and an axe loop or buckled hip strap. To allow full range of motion, consider standing on a stair or box if the pack reaches the floor before your arms are straight. Lean forward and position yourself with slightly bent, stiff knees, torso leaning at 45 degrees, and core braced to support the lower back. Keep your weight in your heels. As you exhale, draw your hands to your waist, inhale to lower. Repeat for three sets of 8-12 repetitions with a minute rest in between.

Working out at home may be challenging, but with some out of-the-box thinking, you can be ready for the trails next spring. Good luck and remember, we’re all in this together.

Courtenay Schurman is an NSCA-CSCS certified personal trainer, Precision Nutrition Level 2 Certified Nutrition Supercoach, and coowner of Body Results. She specializes in training outdoor athletes. For more how-to exercises or health and wellness tips, visit her website at or send a question to

This article originally appeared in our Winter 2021 issue of Mountaineer Magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, visit our magazine archive.

LEAD IMAGE OF Backpack Row with heavy weighted bag, demonstrated by Courtenay Schurman. PHOTO BY Doug Schurman.

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