What’s the difference between doing barbell rows with an underhand or an overhand grip? Is one better than the other? Here’s everything you need to know.
What is the Underhand Barbell Row?
When I talk about the underhand barbell row, sometimes known as a reverse-grip bent-over-row or Yates row, this is the type of thing I mean:
Here’s how it’s done:
- Pick a weight that lets you do somewhere between 8 and 15 reps.
- Take hold of a barbell with your palms facing up (known as an underhand or reverse grip).
- Lean forward by hinging at the hips.
- Maintain a slight bend in the knees.
- Row the barbell towards the lower part of your stomach.
- Keep your elbows close to your sides.
- Think about squeezing the shoulder blades together as you pull the barbell towards your torso.
- The barbell should stay close to your legs during the exercise.
- Pause briefly at the top of the movement, giving your back muscles a squeeze, before lowering the bar under control to the starting position.
- That’s one rep done. Once you’ve finished all your reps, put the barbell back on the floor and have a rest.
What Muscles Does the Underhand (Reverse Grip) Barbell Row Work?
The underhand barbell row, also known as the reverse grip barbell row, is a compound exercise that works most of the muscles in your back, including:
- Latissimus dorsi
- Trapezius (middle and lower regions)
- Rear deltoids
- Elbow flexors (biceps, brachialis and brachioradialis)
The spinal erectors are also working isometrically, just to keep your spine in its neutral position.
Which Grip Is Best for the Barbell Row?
The best grip for the barbell row depends on the muscles you want to focus on.
As a general rule, an overhand grip puts the emphasis on your upper back muscles, such as the rhomboids and traps, while an underhand reverse grip puts more emphasis on the lats.
Overhand barbell rows are typically done with a grip that’s a little wider than shoulder width, the elbows flared out to the side, and the bar pulled towards the upper part of the stomach.
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When it’s done this way, the muscles in the upper back are heavily involved.
The underhand grip barbell row, on the other hand, typically involves a grip that’s narrower than shoulder width, your elbows are kept close to your torso, and the bar is pulled into the lower part of your stomach, in the general direction of your belly button.
When it’s done like this, the lats and biceps are activated to a greater extent.
In summary, no single grip is best for the barbell row. It all depends on your goals and the muscle groups you’re trying to work.
Is the Barbell Row Enough for Your Back?
The barbell row is a compound lift that works muscles in your back, biceps and shoulders. If rows are the only pulling exercise you do, your back is still going to grow.
However, if you want to maximize the size of your back muscles, the lats in particular, the barbell row alone isn’t going to be enough.
Most exercises for your back can be put into one of two categories:
- Horizontal Pull
- Vertical Pull
The underhand barbell row is a horizontal pulling movement. Similar exercises include the seated cable row, single-arm dumbbell row, or inverted row.
Vertical pulling exercises, on the other hand, are exercises like the pull-up, chin-up or close-grip lat pulldown.
While the barbell row, be it with an underhand or overhand grip, will still make the muscles in your back grow, you’ll see better results with a combination of vertical and horizontal pulling exercises.
In practical terms, that means your back workouts should include exercises like barbell or dumbbell rows, as well as pull-ups, chin-ups and pulldowns.
If you’re not strong enough to do pull-ups, but you don’t have access to a lat pulldown machine, I show you some more pull-up alternatives here.
Are Barbell Rows Bad for Your Back?
The barbell row is not inherently bad for your back. However, it’s an exercise I rarely include in my upper body workouts. That’s not because there’s anything wrong with it, just that I prefer other horizontal pulling movements.
One of the potential problems with the barbell row 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 your training session.
When you’re doing the barbell bent over row, whether it’s with an overhand or underhand grip, you want to keep your spine in its naturally curved position. That will usually mean maintaining a slight arch in your lower back throughout the movement.
The spinal erectors, a group of muscles that run more or less the entire length of your spine, are responsible for keeping your spine in that position.
However, they can end up getting fatigued before the other muscles in your back, particularly if you’ve done deadlifts and squats earlier in the training session. As a result, you have to cut the set short.
Either that, or you end up rounding your spine, potentially setting yourself up for injury.
To repeat, there is nothing wrong with the bent over barbell row. But it’s one of those exercises that I’ve seen butchered many times over the years, and I much prefer one of the barbell row variations, such as the chest-supported T-bar row or single-arm dumbbell row.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do underhand rows build biceps?
Both overhand and underhand rows will work the biceps. However, rows with a supinated grip does tend to work the biceps harder than rows with a pronated grip, meaning that underhand rows will do a better job of building the biceps than overhand rows.
Which row is best for lats?
The type of row that’s best for your lats typically involves a grip that’s narrower than shoulder width, your elbows close to your torso father than flared out to the side, with the bar pulled up and back towards the lower part of your stomach.
Are rows better than deadlifts?
Rows aren’t better than deadlifts, and deadlifts aren’t better than rows. They’re just different exercises that serve different purposes. While both movements hit the muscles in your back, rows target the lats, upper back, rear delts and biceps. The deadlift hits the spinal erectors, glutes and hamstrings.
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