Some say that the barbell row, also known as the bent over row, should be a staple in nearly every program, whether you’re trying to build muscle, lose fat, or improve your deadlift.
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 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 Barbell Row?
For the sake of clarity, when I talk about the “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.
“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:
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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), rear deltoids, elbow flexors (biceps and brachialis) and forearms.
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.
Are Barbell Rows Necessary?
The barbell row, like the squat, deadlift and bench press, is often touted as one of the key compound lifts, essential for building muscle.
If you like doing the barbell row, and you’re confident you’re doing the exercise properly, you can hit the back button now. None of what I’m about to say will interest you in the slightest.
While the barbell row, done with good form, is a highly effective exercise, the main downside is that it can be hard on the lower back.
That is, 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, and your form can quickly go down the pan if you’re not careful.
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 favorites:
Barbell Row vs Dumbbell 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.
Barbell Row vs Chest-Supported 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.
Barbell Row vs Inverted 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.
Barbell Row vs 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.
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 is one of the more popular compound lifts for working your back. 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.
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