Perform the Bent-Over Barbell Row to Develop a More Powerful Back

When it comes to barbell rows, the exercise may appear deceptively easy; however, incorrect execution may impede progress and development.

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They say, “you gotta row to grow.” And what they’re (almost always) referring to is the big, basic, bent-over barbell row. The barbell row is one of the most challenging exercises you can implement into your back workouts.

The barbell row is often considered one of the most fundamental exercises, right up there with the Big Three power lifts — squat, bench press, and deadlift because it’s a comprehensive movement for building a base of size and strength. It helps you build a thicker, wider, more muscular back while developing a bigger, stronger set of arms. Here’s how to get the most from this back-training staple.

How to Do the Barbell Row

  1.  Stand directly over the bar.
  2. Position your feet about 6 to 12 inches apart.
  3. Take a deep breath, bend over, and grip the bar with both your hands 3 to 6 inches outside your shins and your palms facing down.
  4. Stare at a point about 6 to 10 feet in front of you, and straighten your back so that it’s more or less parallel with the floor, raising your hips as needed.
  5. Still holding your breath and keeping your arms straight, raise your hips to get the bar moving upward.
  6. With your back remaining in its neutral, flat position, pull your elbows toward the ceiling until the bar touches the bottom of your ribcage.
  7. Return the bar to the floor by reversing the movement.

Form Tips

  • Keep your eyes fixed on a spot roughly one to two meters (three to six feet) in front of you. This will help you maintain a stable body position, encourage consistent bar position between each rep, and reduce the risk of injury due to technical failure.
  • It is essential to recognize when you begin sacrificing technique for heavier weight. Key indicators that you’ve gone too heavy include: your elbows flaring out to the sides, the bar no longer reaching your belly button, or feeling extra pressure through your lower back which prevents you from holding a strong, stable torso position.
  • Some lifters will lower the barbell too quickly and not pay attention to the bar path or muscular control. Focus on lowering the barbell in the exact same bar path as you did when lifting it. This will ensure each rep is the same and allow you to maintain tension on the back muscles while reducing the risk of injury.

Barbell Row Mistakes to Avoid

Lifting with Your Arms

Many beginner lifters quickly form the habit of pulling the barbell up using their arms more than their back muscles. Sure, you can’t perform a row without using your arms. Still, proper muscle contractions should significantly emphasize the larger back muscles more than the relatively smaller arms muscles.

Continue activating your arms first as the weight increases. Your arms will take over the movement, and your back will be under-recruited simply because you will not have spent time focusing on feeling the back muscles contracting.

It is essential to focus on feeling your back muscles stretch and contract. This can boost the mind-muscle connection, which has been shown to improve results. If you actively drive your elbows into your hips, you can emphasize the lats instead of focusing on your hands, pulling the weight up.

Standing Too Upright

The barbell row requires you to be set in a bent-over position, or what is referred to as a “hinged position.” While your body doesn’t need to form a strict 90-degree angle, you must maintain some stable and predominantly horizontal angle to perform the barbell row effectively.

On top of this, some trainees will use a weight far exceeding their good-form lifting capabilities. This can lead to remaining too upright to counterbalance the weight, and the movement becomes more of a shrug than a row. These two factors often work hand in hand since excessive weight and a lack of hinge stability will lead to being too upright.

If you have trouble maintaining a hinged position, perform the exercise near a wall and get into a hinged position with your glutes firmly against it. This will allow you to leverage yourself as you improve your coordination and strengthen hinged while better contracting your back musculature. 

Benefits of the Barbell Row

The bent-over barbell row is considered a foundational exercise because it delivers several benefits for multiple upper and lower body muscles.

Improved Spinal Stability and Posture 

A common weakness for lifters is maintaining a neutral spine (flat back) during many movements. The barbell row helps to improve postural control in basic positions, which can carry over to strength and stability in other movements. It also strengthens postural muscles like the spinal erectors and key muscle groups for lower back health and stability.

Building a Stronger Back 

As your back gets stronger, your ability to brace your upper body will improve. This allows greater stability during movements like the overhead press, bench press, and squat.

The barbell row is one of the most efficient ways to build upper-body strength because it coordinates strength through the lats, upper back, lower back, shoulders, arms, and grip.

Compared to other variations of rowing exercises, the barbell row allows you to potentially use more weight, making it a more effective strength-builder.

Increased Back Size

Building a wider, thicker back is one of the most efficient ways to improve your physique. The lats are one of the largest muscles on the body, and a well-developed upper back can’t often be hidden under clothes, unlike well-developed arms or legs. Making the barbell row a mainstay in your back workout is a time-tested way to pack on size.

What muscles does the bent-over row work? 

Most people think the bent-over row only trains your back muscles.

While it’s primarily a back exercise (that’s what you want to consider it when planning your workouts), it also trains your arms, shoulders, and even legs to a slight degree.

Specifically, the bent-over row helps develop your back muscles including:

  • Latissimus dorsi
  • Trapezius (traps)
  • Rhomboids
  • Teres major and minor
  • Infraspinatus
  • Erector spinae

As well as arm and shoulder muscles such as the:

  • Biceps brachii
  • Biceps brachialis
  • Forearms
  • Posterior deltoids

And to a lesser extent, the bent-over row also trains the . . .

  • Hamstrings
  • Glutes
  • Quadriceps

As with most compound exercises, the stronger you get on the bent-over row, the more you’ll need to recruit other muscle groups to help stabilize your body throughout the movement, turning it into more and more of a full-body exercise.

Three Bent-Over Row Variations You Should Know

You just learned the conventional bent-over barbell row, one of the best exercises you can do for your “pull” muscles.

You probably don’t need other forms of bent-over rowing to achieve your ideal back. Still, there are three variations in particular that I think are worth learning and doing in addition to, and sometimes in place of, the barbell row.

For some people, it’s a matter of their anatomy and mobility (barbell rowing is very uncomfortable); for others, it’s equipment availability or preferences.

I like to slot the barbell row in as the second exercise in my pull workouts (after deadlifting) and often follow it up with one of the following exercises. And then, every couple of months or so, I swap the barbell row for one of the following exercises and follow it with another of the three or with wide- or close-grip pull-ups.

Dumbbell Bent-Over Row

The dumbbell bent-over row is similar to the regular barbell row but involves using dumbbells, usually one arm at a time.

With the one-arm variation, you place a dumbbell next to a bench. Then, choose an arm to start with and put the other hand, knee, and foot on the bench to support your upper body. Plant your other foot solidly on the floor a few feet away from the bench to provide maximum stability.

Then, lean over, grab the dumbbell with your free hand, and straighten your back so it’s parallel to the floor.

Pull your shoulder blades back and down (“into your back pocket,” as some people say), and pull the dumbbell straight toward your torso until it touches your stomach. Then lower the weight to the ground.

Try not to cheat by twisting your torso to jerk the weight up, as this reduces the movement’s effectiveness and may increase your risk of injury.

This version requires more balance, forces you to lift the weight further from the floor on the first rep, and makes it harder to keep your back straight when the weights get heavier.

Yates Row (Underhand Bent-Over Row) 

The Yates row is a bent-over barbell row that involves an underhand grip (palms up) and a more upright posture.

The Yates row was popularized by 6-time Olympia winner Dorian Yates, who frequently used this variation of the bent-over row in his training.

The point of the Yates row is to train the biceps, traps, and upper back more than the conventional bent-over barbell row. By flipping your grip, you can force these muscles to work harder than they would with the regular bent-over row.

How well this works is debatable, but many bodybuilders swear by its effectiveness. If nothing else, it gives you an alternative to the conventional barbell row for when you stop progressing or are starting to feel like your shoulders or elbows are taking a beating after months of the same movement patterns.

T-Bar Bent-Over Row

The T-bar bent-over row is an exercise that involves taking the close-grip handle from a cable row machine and pulling it against the end of a loaded barbell.

The T-bar bent-over row isn’t as technically demanding as the conventional bent-over barbell row, which makes it a good later-in-your-workout exercise when you’re feeling the fatigue start to set in from your heavier, harder lifts.

You can also do the machine version of this exercise if you can’t or don’t want to jerry-rig the setup.

Who should do the barbell row?

Whether you are training for strength, power, or aesthetics, the barbell row can benefit your training goals. Here are more convincing reasons to include the barbell row in your back workout.

Physique-Focused Lifters 

Bodybuilders, physique athletes, and any lifter wanting to look more muscular can benefit from the barbell row. It applies muscular tension to all muscles of the back and has the potential for moving heavy loads, which can be an effective way of triggering muscle growth. The barbell row has been an essential back exercise for some of the best-built physiques.

Strength Athletes 

Strength athletes can benefit from using the barbell row to build pulling strength and total-body stability. The barbell row builds strength that supports upper body pressing and pulling. The lower back and postural stability can also help to improve strength during squats and deadlifts.

Frequently Asked Questions

I feel my upper back working more than any other muscle; what am I doing wrong?

There are two possibilities. First, you may be using too much weight, causing you to stand more upright and shift muscular stress away from your lats and onto your upper back and traps. The second potential issue is that you are not set correctly in a solid and stable hinged position.

Reduce the weight and focus on feeling your lats contract during the exercise. Also, spend some time focusing on getting into a good hinge position — push your hips back and maintain a more horizontal upper body position for the duration of the set. Slowly increase the weight once you are strong enough to maintain a stable torso in a hinged position.

Can beginners perform the barbell row?

Absolutely. Beginners can benefit greatly by including the barbell row in their programming. However, it is essential to note that if you are a beginner, remember to prioritize technique over added weight and do not hesitate to seek assistance with your technique from a qualified staff member in your local gym.

Final Thoughts

Many all-time great bodybuilders, powerlifters, and strength athletes have built admirable backs by prioritizing the barbell row. It trains every muscle in your back and builds strength and stability, which carries over to other big lifts. It can also be a satisfying exercise to master once you’re able to walk up to an imposing barbell and pull it off the ground.