Today, I want to show you some highly effective barbell row alternatives you can use to build a bigger, more muscular back.
Some say that the barbell row, also known as the bent over row, should be a staple in nearly every program.
Personally, I take the opposite view, which is why I rarely include the barbell row in any of my training programs.
That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with it.
But if you want a bigger, more muscular back, there are plenty of barbell row alternatives that do the job just as well.
More about that in a moment. First, I want to take a closer look at what the barbell row is, what muscles it works, as well as show you how it’s done.
What is the Bent Over Barbell Row?
For the sake of clarity, when I talk about the bent over barbell row, this is the type of thing I mean:
However, this isn’t the only way to do the exercise, and the term “barbell row” can mean different things depending on who you’re talking to.
Probably the two most popular variations of the barbell row are the Pendlay Row and the Yates Row, both of which challenge your back in different ways.
The Pendlay Row
The Pendlay Row is named after veteran weightlifting coach Glenn Pendlay. According to Pendlay himself, the exercise bearing his name is nothing more than a strict barbell row, done with the back staying more or less parallel to the ground. It’s typically used as an assistance lift for the deadlift.
FREE: The Muscle Building Cheat Sheet. This is a quick guide to building muscle, which you can read online or keep as a PDF, that shows you exactly how to put on muscle. To get a FREE copy of the cheat sheet emailed to you, please click or tap here.
“I didn’t really invent this,” says Pendlay in an interview with Barbend. “It’s just a barbell row done the way they should be done.”
The Pendlay Row is an explosive-type exercise that’s performed relatively quickly. Unlike the conventional barbell row, the bar touches the floor between each rep. Your torso stays in a much more horizontal position, with the starting position similar to that of a deadlift.
Here’s Glenn Pendlay showing you what the Pendlay Row looks like:
The Yates Row
Popularized by former Mr Olympia Dorian Yates in the 1990’s, the Yates Row involves standing in much more of an upright position, with the bar pulled to the lower part of the stomach.
It’s sometimes known as a reverse-grip bent-over-row, as Yates used an underhand rather than overhand grip before he tore his biceps. Here’s the man himself demonstrating the exercise if you want to watch:
Barbell Row: What Muscles Are Being Worked?
The barbell row works most of the muscles in your back, including latissimus dorsi, trapezius (middle and lower regions), and rear deltoids, along with the elbow flexors (biceps, brachialis and brachioradialis) [1, 2].
The muscles surrounding the spine, particularly those in the lower back, also have to work very hard just to keep your spine in its neutral position.
The way the barbell row is done will affect how hard each of those muscles is working. If you want to focus more on the lats, use a relatively narrow grip, keep your elbows close to your side and pull the bar into the lower part of your stomach.
Taking a wider grip, on the other hand, flaring the elbows out to the side and pulling the bar towards the sternum involves more of the muscles in the upper back, along with the rear delts.
Do You Need to Do Barbell Rows?
While the barbell row is an effective way to train your back and arms, it’s not an exercise you need to do. One of its main downsides is that the strength of the muscles in your lower back can be a limiting factor, especially if you’ve done squats or deadlifts earlier in the workout.
The spinal erectors – those cable-like muscles that run up both sides of your spine – end up getting fatigued before your lats and upper back, and you have to terminate the set.
Either that, or you end up rounding your spine, potentially exposing yourself to an increased risk of injury.
Bent Over Barbell Row Alternatives
There are several exercises I prefer doing, mainly because I feel them much more in my lats and upper back, and less in my lower back. Here are some of my favorite barbell row alternatives:
- Dumbbell Row
- Chest-Supported T-Bar Row
- Seated Machine Row
- Chest-Supported Bench Row
- Inverted Row
- Seated Cable Row
- Single-Arm Cable Row
With the dumbbell row, your weight is supported on the bench. As a result, the spinal erectors don’t have to work as hard. This lets you focus on training your lats and upper back without fatigue in the spinal erectors forcing you to cut the set short.
What’s more, because all the resistance comes from one side, various muscles in your torso have to work harder than normal to keep your body stable.
The obliques in particular are working isometrically to resist rotation, making the single-arm dumbbell row similar to the Pallof Press in the sense that it’s an anti-rotational exercise.
An exercise doesn’t have to involve an actual twist to work the twisting muscles. By actively preventing your torso from twisting, those same muscles are still being trained.
Chest-Supported T-Bar Row
Any type of chest-supported row, be it on a bench or machine, offers similar benefits to the dumbbell row in the sense that lower back fatigue isn’t an issue.
Seated Machine Row
Chest-Supported Bench Row
If your back plays up during the barbell row, try the inverted row instead. Studies show that it works many of the muscles in the back just as well as the barbell row, but with less load on the spine.
You can adjust the difficulty of this exercise by altering the position of your body. The closer you are to an upright position, the easier it is. Moving your body closer to the floor makes it more difficult. You can also try wearing a weighted vest if you find the inverted row too easy.
Seated Cable Row
With the seated cable row, there’s no support for your chest. This means the lower back is going to be involved to a greater extent than the chest-supported row.
However, because you don’t have to support the weight of your head and upper body, it’s still a lot easier on your lower back than the barbell row.
To keep the focus on the lats during the seated row, keep your elbows close to your sides, and think about pulling your elbows down and back.
Single-Arm Cable Row
Another variation on the seated cable row is to use one arm at a time, which you can see in the video below.
The single-arm cable row lets you get more of a stretch in your lats, as well as helping to iron out any imbalances that might exist between your left and right side.
It’s also useful if you have a large belly that stops you doing the regular two-handed row through a full range of motion.
The barbell row, like the squat, deadlift and bench press, is often touted as one of the key compound lifts, essential for building muscle.
However, it’s an exercise I rarely include in my training programs. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with it, just that I think there are better alternatives out there.
If you're overwhelmed and confused by all the conflicting advice out there, then check out The Muscle Building Cheat Sheet.
It's a quick guide to building muscle, which you can read online or keep as a PDF, that shows you exactly how to put on muscle. To get a copy of the cheat sheet sent to you, please enter your email address in the box below, and hit the “send it now” button.