The barbell row, like the barbell squat, deadlift and bench press, is often touted as a key compound movement, essential for building muscle.
However, 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 glutes, hamstrings and 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.
For some people, the barbell row just never feels quite right, and they’re never sure if they’re doing the exercise properly.
- Are you leaning over too much or not enough?
- Is your grip too wide? Too narrow?
- Are your elbows flaring too much?
If you do find yourself running into problems with the barbell row, here are 10 alternatives that will do the job just as well.
- One-Arm Dumbbell Row
- Chest-Supported T-Bar Row
- Seated Machine Row
- Chest-Supported Bench Row
- Inverted Row
- Seated Cable Row
- Single-Arm Cable Row
- Landmine Row
- Meadows Row
- Yates Row
The 10 Best Barbell Row Alternatives
One-Arm Dumbbell Row
With the one-arm 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 muscles 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.
- Put a dumbbell on the floor at one end of a bench.
- Put your right knee on the bench, then lean forward and put your right hand on the bench to support your body weight.
- Reach down, grab the dumbbell and hold it just off the floor.
- In the starting position, your palms should be facing your torso, rather than forward or back.
- Leading with your elbow, pull the dumbbell up and slightly back.
- The dumbbell should move in a slight arc, rather than straight up and straight down.
- Keep your torso roughly parallel to the floor. Your lower body and trunk should remain relatively still as you lift the dumbbell.
- Pause briefly at the top of the movement, then lower the dumbbell under control to the starting position.
Chest-Supported T-Bar Row
If you struggle to maintain a neutral spine during other rowing movements, the chest-supported T-bar row is an excellent alternative.
Because the pad supports your weight, you can focus on training your back without lower back fatigue forcing you to cut the set short.
The chest supported T-bar row typically has two sets of handles. The handles you use depends on which back muscles you want to work.
If you want to focus more on the lats, use the neutral grip handles (i.e. your palms face each other), and keep your elbows close to your torso as you row.
To focus more on the muscles of the upper back and rear deltoids, position yourself so the pad sits a little higher on the chest, use a wider grip and flare your elbows out to the side as you row.
The neutral grip lat-focused row is typically the more shoulder-friendly variation of the two.
- Position yourself so the top of the pad lines up roughly with the lower part of your chest.
- Grasp the handles, take the T-bar off the pin and extend your arms.
- In the starting position, your arms should be straight.
- Pull the handles up towards your torso, feeling your shoulder blades squeeze together as you lift the weight.
- Pause briefly at the top, then lower the handles under control back to the starting position.
- While you should feel a slight stretch at the bottom of the movement, avoid relaxing the shoulder joint completely. You want to maintain a degree of tension in the shoulders and upper back in order to keep the shoulders healthy.
Seated Machine Row
Chest-Supported Incline Bench Row
If you’ve got an incline bench, you can also do chest-supported dumbbell rows using both arms at the same time. All your weight is supported by the bench, so lower back fatigue isn’t an issue.
- Grab a pair of dumbbells and lie face down on the bench.
- Hold the dumbbells directly below your shoulders with your palms facing each other.
- Leading with your elbows, pull the dumbbells up and slightly back.
- Focus on squeezing your shoulder blades together at the top.
- Lower the dumbbells until your arms are straight.
With the inverted row, you perform a rowing motion while hanging from a suspension trainer, gymnastic rings or even a barbell supported on a power rack.
Studies show that the inverted row works many of the back muscles 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.
- Position the handles at roughly waist height. The lower the handles, the harder the exercise is.
- Grab the handles and position yourself so that your arms are straight, with your body in a straight line.
- Pull yourself up towards the handles, keeping your body in a straight line the whole time.
- In the top position, your hands should be roughly level with your chest. Don’t pull up towards your neck, or down towards your hips.
- Lower yourself under control back to the starting position.
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.
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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.
- Take hold of the handle and push your body back with your feet.
- In the starting position, your arms should be extended, knees slightly bent and your torso inclined back slightly so your shoulders are positioned slightly behind your hips.
- Pull the handle into your abdomen, arching your back slightly as you pull your shoulders back and slightly down.
- Avoid letting your elbows rise as you pull the handle into your stomach. Your elbows should go down ever so slightly as you bring your shoulder blades together.
- Hold the contraction briefly, then allow your arms to straighten as you return the handle to the starting position.
- Allow a little forward movement of your torso as you straighten your arms, rather than trying to keep the upper body perfectly still. However, don’t lean too far forward and allow your back to round.
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 landmine row is very similar to the T-bar row, in the sense that one end of the bar is anchored in place, while you row the other end of the bar towards your torso.
- Secure one end of a barbell to a landmine attachment.
- Attach a V-handle or multi-grip handle to the other end of the barbell.
- Face away from the landmine attachment and straddle the bar.
- Bend forward at the waist, and grab the handle with both hands.
- In the starting position, your torso should be slightly above horizontal, with a slight arch in your lower back and your arms fully extended.
- Pull the barbell towards your torso, pause briefly at the top of the movement, then lower the barbell under control to the starting position.
Named after bodybuilder John Meadows, who popularized the exercise, the Meadows row is a modified version of a single-arm dumbbell row, done with a barbell rather than a dumbbell.
- Stand in a staggered stance, with your right foot roughly in line with the barbell.
- Lean forward and grab the end of the barbell with your left hand.
- Rest your right arm on the front leg to support your body weight.
- Pull the barbell up towards your torso, leading with your elbow. Avoid using large diameter plates, as this has the effect of reducing the range of motion.
- Rather than keeping your elbow close to your body or flared out to the side, it should be somewhere in between.
- Keep your torso roughly parallel to the floor. Your lower body and trunk should remain relatively still throughout the movement.
- Lower the barbell under control to the point where you feel a slight stretch in your lats.
- Repeat for the desired number of reps, then repeat the process on the other side.
Popularized by former Mr Olympia Dorian Yates in the 1990’s, the Yates Row involves more of an upright torso than a regular row, with the upper body positioned at roughly a 50-degree angle.
The barbell is pulled to the lower part of the stomach, then lowered to a point just above the knees.
It’s sometimes known as a reverse or underhand grip bent-over-row, as Yates used an underhand rather than overhand grip before he tore his biceps. Yates liked the underhand grip, in part because he felt it did a better job of working his lower lats.
Technically, the Yates row is more of a barbell row variation than it is an alternative. However, the reason I’m including it on this list is mainly because the upright torso position means that it’s not as hard on the spinal erectors as regular bent-over rows.
Here’s the man himself demonstrating the exercise if you want to watch:
Frequently Asked Questions
Are barbell rows bad for your back?
Some people experience soreness in their lower back after doing barbell rows, and assume the exercise is bad for their back.
Given that the lower back muscles are working hard to support your torso, it would be unusual if you didn’t experience some level of muscle soreness, especially if you’re new to the exercise. But that’s because your lower back muscles are being challenged in a way they’re not used to, rather than because barbell rows are bad for your back.
Like many exercises, the barbell row certainly has the potential to be bad for your back if you don’t do it properly, but it’s not bad for your back per se.
Are inverted (aka bodyweight) rows a good alternative to barbell rows?
Yes, the inverted row is a good alternative to the barbell row, especially if you’re training in a home gym with limited equipment. It targets the same muscles in the upper back, but with less load on the spine. If you find inverted bodyweight rows too easy, you can make the exercise harder by moving your body closer to the floor and/or wearing a weighted vest.
Are rows necessary if you deadlift?
The short answer is yes. While both exercises work the back, barbell rows target the lats, upper back, rear delts and biceps, while the deadlift hits the lower back, glutes and hamstrings. Rows don’t replace deadlifts, and deadlifts don’t replace rows.
How often should I row?
As a general rule, it’s a good idea to include some kind of rowing movement whenever you train your back. Depending on the training program you’re using, that will typically be somewhere between 1 and 3 times per week.
Are upright rows an effective substitute for barbell rows?
No. Upright rows target mainly the delts, upper traps, biceps and forearms. They don’t stimulate the lats or upper back muscles. Upright rows are more of an exercise for your shoulders than they are for your back.
Are barbell rows better than lat pulldowns?
Barbell rows aren’t necessarily better than lat pulldowns, nor are pulldowns better than rows. They’re just different exercises that do different things.
While both exercises train your back and biceps, there are some key differences between the two.
First, when you do the barbell row, your spinal erectors – a group of muscles and tendons running up the left and right side of your spine – have to work hard to maintain the position of your torso and prevent the spine from rounding.
But during the lat pulldown, the spinal erectors aren’t trained to the same extent as they are during the barbell row. That’s difference number one. Barbell rows work the spinal erectors a lot harder than pulldowns.
In addition, the barbell row isn’t quite as effective as the lat pulldown for training the lats.
That’s because pulldowns work the lats through a much larger range of motion than rows, challenging your lats while they’re in a stretched position.
Why is that important?
One of the things that stimulates growth in a muscle is subjecting it to high levels of tension at long muscle lengths, a phenomenon known as stretch-mediated hypertrophy.
By that, I mean you want an exercise that challenges your muscles in a stretched position.
You get that with lat pulldowns, but not so much with barbell rows.
If you took two different people, and got one of them to do a vertical pulling exercise like lat pulldowns, while the other did a horizontal rowing exercise, like the barbell row, you’d expect to see more lat growth with pulldowns.
Can pull-ups replace barbell rows?
Pull-ups are certainly an effective way to train your back and biceps. In fact, if I had to choose between pull-ups and barbell rows for making my back grow, I’d go with pull-ups.
That’s because they’ve got a much larger range of motion, challenging your lats while they’re in a lengthened position.
However, the back is a big area comprising a number of different muscles, not just the lats. For complete back development, it makes sense to use a variety of exercises, not just one or two.
That is, an effective training program for your back will include a combination of both horizontal (such as dumbbell rows, barbell rows, seated cable rows or inverted rows) and vertical pulling movements like pull-ups, chin-ups or pulldowns.
Are seated rows the same as barbell rows?
Seated rows and barbell rows are both horizontal pulling movements that work your back and biceps.
However, there are some important differences between the two.
First, unlike the barbell row, the seated row doesn’t require you to support the weight of your upper body. This means it’s a lot easier on the spinal erectors.
The seated cable row is typically done with a V-handle, which puts your hands relatively close together. It also involves the use of a neutral grip, where your palms face each other. The handle is pulled in towards the lower part of your stomach.
This makes it more of a lat-focused exercise than the classic barbell row.
Of course, there are ways to modify a seated row to make it more like a barbell row. You can use a wider straight handle, which involves the use of a pronated grip (palms facing the floor), flare your elbows out to the side a little more, and pull the handle higher up on your torso.
You can also modify the barbell row so it’s more like the seated row, by bringing your hands closer together, keeping your elbows closer to your side and pulling the barbell towards the lower part of the stomach.
How do you do a row without weights?
To do a row without weights, you’ve got a couple of options.
Option one is the inverted row, where you use the weight of your own body, rather than a barbell or dumbbell, to provide resistance.
The inverted row is usually done with a suspension trainer or gymnastic rings. But even just a bit of rope will do the job.
In the video below, I’m using a tow rope from my car, which I threw over the beams in my garage.
If you don’t have access to a rope or suspension trainer, the single-arm gym bag row is another good way to do rows without weights
In the video below, I’m using a rucksack loaded with stones and as much heavy stuff as I could find lying around the house.
What’s the difference between Pendlay rows and barbell rows?
The Pendlay row is a variation of the barbell row named after veteran weightlifting coach Glenn Pendlay.
According to Pendlay, the exercise bearing his name is nothing more than a strict barbell row, done with a rigid torso that stays more or less parallel to the ground.
“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.”
Here’s Glenn Pendlay showing you what proper execution of the Pendlay row looks like:
There are four main differences between the Pendlay row and barbell row:
1. Starting Position. With the bent-over row, you start with the bar off the floor, positioned just below your knees. Your arms are straight, supporting the weight of the barbell.
Unlike the conventional row, where the bar stays off the ground throughout the set, the Pendlay row involves resting the barbell briefly on the floor between each rep.
2. Torso Position. With the Pendlay row, the torso is roughly parallel with the floor. During the barbell row, you’re in a slightly more upright position, with a torso angle between 30 and 45 degrees.
3. Speed of Movement. The Pendlay row is an explosive-type exercise that’s performed relatively quickly, while the barbell row is typically done using a slower, more controlled lifting speed.
4. Bar Path. With a regular barbell row, the bar is rowed up and slightly back towards the lower part of your stomach. The Pendlay row involves pulling the bar straight up towards your sternum.
The slower, more controlled lifting speed makes the regular barbell row better suited to people wanting a bigger, more muscular back.
The Pendlay row, on the other hand, is often programmed as an assistance exercise for the deadlift. That’s mainly because the exercise is a lot harder on the spinal erectors than the classic barbell row.
In fact, Pendlay started doing barbell rows when he was competing in powerlifting. His back was a huge weak point, which was holding back his performance in the squat.
“I originally used it to strengthen my back for powerlifting, specifically the squat,” says Pendlay. “It was only many years later when the name had already firmly stuck, and I was coaching weightlifting that I started using it for weightlifters. Turns out, strong is strong, and a strong back is just as useful for weightlifting as it is for powerlifting.”
More Back Training Posts
- Overhand vs Underhand (Reverse Grip) Barbell Row: Which is Best?
- Lat Pulldowns vs Pull-Ups: What’s the Best Lat Exercise?
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