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Barbell rows for a bigger, stronger back

If you are looking to make the quickest and most noticeable gains in upper body strength, there’s no doubt that compound exercises are the most effective way to do this. While the deadlift may be the best known back builder, another great exercise is the barbell row.

Essentially this is an exercise where a barbell moves in a vertical, or nearly vertical plane of motion depending on the specific area of your back you want to strengthen and build up.

Although you can’t use as much weight as in the deadlift, the amount of weight you lift and the general simplicity of the exercise mean this has retained its place as one of the top back building exercises, even with developments in various pulley and cable systems.

This article has been put together to provide a bit more detail on how to perform the four main variations of barbell row; underhand grip, overhand grip, upright wide grip, and upright narrow grip.

Bent over barbell rows

If you are thinking about adding barbell rows to your workouts, the chances are you may have seen someone in your local gym performing the exercise, or maybe even in a bodybuilding video. Although this may seem like a relatively simple exercise, there are actually far more variations than just picking up a barbell and pulling it up to your torso.

Barbell rows performed parallel to the floor, resting the bar on the floor between each rep is extremely effective

Bent over barbell row variations

As with any exercise, it’s important to make sure that you get the most muscle activation from every rep. To make sure this happens there are a few basic areas that need to be kept strict.

The grip

Bent over barbell rows can be performed either with an overhand or underhand grip, depending on which section of your back you want to focus on. For more of a focus on your traps and rear delts, an overhand grip is usually best, while an underhand grip will place more emphasis on your lats and middle back.

Similar to other back exercises such as the lat pulldown and seated cable rows, if your goal is to work your back muscles and grow your back then you should focus on pulling the weight with your elbows rather than your biceps.

The easiest way to get a feel for this is either by using a grip without wrapping your thumb around the bar, or by using a set of lifting straps with hooks. The only real negative about using this style of lifting strap is they don’t improve your grip strength as much as a grip on the barbell will.

In terms of hand positioning, it’s generally recommended to grip the bar with your hands a bit more than shoulder width apart.

The body position

The upper body position is perhaps the most crucial part to get right, and also the most common area for bad form. While some people will report having success with the upper body at a 45 degree angle and bringing the bar up to their lower abs each rep, others will have more success with a flat back parallel to the floor. It all depends on if you have tight hamstrings and how flat you can keep your lower back.

The goal of most back exercises is to exhaust your back muscles without putting too much stress on your biceps.

With such a large muscle group as the back, you will inevitably be able to lift much more weight than with your biceps, which when lifted incorrectly can cause injuries such as bicep tears.

With your upper body at a 90 degree angle, so parallel to the floor, the bar will be moving in a vertical motion which will help recruit more of your back muscles and place less emphasis on the biceps.

This particular variation is also known as Pendlay Rows, after Glenn Pendlay, and will help to strengthen your flat bench press due to the bar moving through the same range of motion.

When performing the bent over barbell row, always try to bring the bar up to touch your lower chest or abs to get full contraction in your back muscles

While keeping your upper body parallel to the ground will also take more pressure off your knee joints, barbell rows at a 45 degree angle can still be effective, so long as you keep your back flat and don’t use your knees or momentum to add bounce into the exercise.

Keeping your upper body at an angle, such as with Yates Rows, will also allow you to use a lot more weight and take more stress off your lower back.

Bar movement

Although the exact plane of motion the bar moves through will differ from person to person, you should generally aim to bring the bar up to your abs or lower chest.

If you think about what is generally considered the most effective back exercise, the deadlift, an important part of the movement is returning the bar to the floor. This should be the same for bent over barbell rows, whether performed with an overhand or overhand grip. Each repetition should be a pull from the ground up to your abs, then return the bar to the floor.

Each time you bring the bar up it should touch your lower chest / upper abs. If it doesn’t then try lowering the weight or pushing out your chest and pulling your shoulders back more and compare the difference in the contraction of your back muscles when you pull the bar all the way to your body.

Free weight or smith machine

One of the easiest ways of making sure the barbell moves through a fixed plane of motion is to take out the sideways movement. This is possible by using a smith machine, and can still be an effective alternative to performing the exercise with free weights.

That being said, as with any exercise performed in a smith machine, this does limit the activation of stabilizer muscle groups such as your obliques and abs.

How to perform bent over barbell rows

  1. Holding a barbell with your choice of either overhand or underhand grip. Just ensure both hands are using the same grip type.
  2. To place more emphasis on your back doing the work, make sure your thumb isn’t wrapped around the bar.
  3. Bend your knees slightly and bring your torso forward, by bending at the waist, while keeping the back straight until it is almost parallel to the floor.
  4. Keeping your head up and torso stationary, breathe out and pull the barbell to you.
  5. Keep the elbows close to the body and only use the forearms to hold the weight.
  6. At the top contracted position, squeeze the back muscles and hold for a brief pause.
  7. Inhale and slowly lower the barbell back to the starting position.
  8. Repeat for the required repetitions until you finish your set.

Muscles worked by bent over barbell rows

Target
  • Back, General
  • Synergists

  • Trapezius, Middle
  • Trapezius, Lower
  • Rhomboids
  • Latissimus Dorsi
  • Teres Major
  • Deltoid, Posterior
  • Infraspinatus
  • Teres Minor
  • Brachialis
  • Brachioradialis
  • Pectoralis Major, Sternal
  • Dynamic Stabilizers
  • Biceps Brachii
  • Triceps, Long Head
  • Stabilizers

  • Erector Spinae
  • Hamstrings
  • Gluteus Maximus
  • Adductor Magnus
  • Antagonist Stabilizers

  • Rectus Abdominis
  • Obliques
  • Performing bent over barbell rows safely

  • It’s important to keeping your abs tense to support the lower back. This will keep your upper body more stable to prevent any bouncing of the bar, but also prevent rounding of the lower back.
  • Lift with a slight bend in the knees. By lowering the center of gravity, this keeps your body stable but also makes it easier to rest the bar on the floor between repetitions if needed.
  • Try to maintain a slight arch in your back in more of a concave shape with your shoulders back to take some of the pressure off your lower back.
  • Don’t start off too heavy with the weight and sacrifice good form. Upper back muscles often have a lot of slow-twitch fibers so bent-over rows can respond better than some exercises that use muscles with a higher ratio of fast-twitch fibers.
  • Perform the entire exercise with a steady tempo, feeling the muscles in your back contract as you pull the bar towards you, as well as when you lower the bar back to the floor and stretch your lats. This will also prevent momentum from creating momentary weightlessness or slack in the muscles during the ascent, or from creating a jerking catch on the bottom of the lift if it is dropped quickly.
  • Sample back workout with bent over barbell rows

    With bent over barbell rows involving such a range of different muscles it’s important to perform the exercise first in your workout, unless you are performing deadlifts beforehand.

    In terms of the number of sets and reps it really comes down to your own personal reason for performing the exercise.

    In most cases including such an effective mass building exercise will mean you are aiming for size and strength so try to keep the reps between 8 and 10, with 4 heavy work sets.

    Exercise
    Bent over barbell rows
    Wide grip pull ups
    Close grip pulldowns
    Seated rows
    Barbell shrugs
    Sets
    4
    4
    3
    3
    4
    Reps
    8 – 10
    8 – 10
    8 – 10
    10 – 12
    20

    Upright barbell rows

    As well as the bent over barbell rows, there is a completely separate but not overly different exercise that focuses on rowing the bar from a completely vertical standing position. This exercise is called ‘upright rows’ and in a similar way to bent over rows can be performed with dumbbells, a barbell or a cable machine.

    In our next article we will take a look at this exercise in more detail, including how to perform the movement safely and the different possibilities for grip positions.

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