Barbell Row: How To, Benefits, Variations, and Alternatives

Although the deadlift is notoriously known for being the best exercise for increasing strength and size in the back, we must never sleep on the benefits and effectiveness of the barbell row.

Not only does it add thick slabs of muscle on the back, but it also helps you develop a solid core and strong lower back, which is likely to improve your lifts in the squat, military shoulder press, and of course, not forgetting the deadlift.

If you’re ready to learn how to barbell row properly for maximum gains and also to test out some excellent variations and alternatives to the lift, then you’re in the right place.

How To Perform the Barbell Row

There are various ways to do a bent over row, and I’ll cover those later. But for now, I’ll give you a full breakdown of how to perform the barbell row.

Note: You can choose to wear lifting straps while performing the lift. However, I would only use these on your heaviest working sets and not warm-ups. If you are a beginner to the barbell row, try and avoid using lifting straps and work on improving your grip until you are lifting a considerable amount of weight.

  1. Like the position you would be in for the deadlift, you should drop your hips, keep your back straight and elbows locked out. Ensure your grip is slightly wider than it would be for performing the deadlift. While contracting your core, lift the barbell off the floor, so the top half of your body is roughly 45 degrees, and the barbell is in line with your thighs.
  2. Tuck the barbell into your stomach area by rowing it, and do this by using your elbows to drive the bar up. When you reach the top of the movement, ensure you squeeze your shoulder blades together for maximum contraction of the upper back muscles.
  3. While at the top of the movement, momentarily pause, then lower the weight in a controlled manner. Do not let the bar take your arms down in a rush, as you may injure your lower back.

What Muscles Does the Barbell Row Work?

Barbell Row

The muscles worked doing the barbell row are predominantly the back and biceps; however, below is a more detailed breakdown.

Hamstrings

Not only should you feel the whole back working during the lift, but you should also feel a deep stretch in the hamstrings too, especially if your barbell row form is good.

The hamstrings play a role in assisting you when the top half of your body is at the 45-degree angle position about to begin the row.

Back (Latissimus Dorsi)

A powerful, strong back is hugely beneficial to any lifter. It will help you in numerous other exercises and improve your posture outside the gym and impact your core.

The latissimus dorsi – otherwise referred to as “lats” – is the muscle that covers the entire length of the back and supports a triangular look.

Shoulder Blades (Scapulas)

Although small in size, these are very important throughout the barbell row lift, especially when squeezing the scapulas together.

Their prominent role is to allow the shoulders to withdraw and extend safely, which is extremely useful during the barbell bent over row.

Lower Back (Spinal Erectors)

The lower back plays an integral part in this lift due to the hinged position you are in throughout; therefore, you must have a strong lower back for this and other compound lifts, and the spinal erectors help you accomplish that.

Benefits of the Barbell Row

There are several benefits to the barbell row. However, I have hand-picked the main reasons you should incorporate them in your exercise regime.

Improved Posture

Most people know that the barbell row is a strength and mass-builder for the upper and lower back; however, there is more to the exercise than that.

It is known as a “compound” movement, meaning several muscles are activated (usually multiple) simultaneously, and the core is one of those muscle groups.

Barbell rows can improve core strength, which has a knock-on effect of improving stability, allowing the body to have better posture during alternative lifts and everyday life outside of exercise, helping reduce the risk of back pain and possible injury.

Strong, Muscular Back

Someone with impressive thick lats stands out a mile in a crowded room; therefore, a big back should be part of the overall package if you’re seeking an aesthetically pleasing physique.

However, aesthetics aside, there are many advantages to having a muscular, big back, such as:

  • More robust and stable core
  • Better technique in the squat and deadlift
  • Stronger forearms and biceps
  • Better grip

Barbell rows tick every one of these boxes, so it’s a win-win.

Carry-over To Other Lifts

The benefits of the barbell row can be a carry-over to alternative lifts such as the squat, deadlift, and military press.

The reason is that the hips, hamstrings, and core become activated similarly to rowing.

However, this too can be beneficial in increasing the amount of weight one lifts in these movements, translating to an increase in muscle mass.

Barbell Row Variations

You’re not obliged to use the barbell to perform a rowing movement solely. Try these, too.

Kettlebell Bent-over Row

Try this using a single kettlebell instead of two, as it will completely isolate the lats and give a different feel to the row.

Kettlebells are a unique invention and can help build a solid back and improve grip strength.

Dumbbell Bent-over Row

Using dumbbells instead of a barbell allows different angles and muscles to be hit, especially in the back.

Most of us tend to have one side stronger than the other, which can cause muscle imbalances if left unacknowledged.

However, dumbbells are a great way to address any such issues as the movement is highly isolated, and the range of motion is longer than the barbell row.

Barbell Row Workout Suggestions Based on Goals

Doing barbell rows is no good without some form of strategy behind them. Below are some suggestions that may help you determine where the barbell row fits in with your current goals so that you keep moving in the right direction.

Barbell Row

Gain Strength

If you aim to increase strength, then heavy sets of barbell rows are ideal; however, I want to be clear that it is too easy for your form to go out the window with more weight on the bar, so be mindful to keep it solid.

Do between three to five sets of five repetitions per set. Take as much rest as necessary; however, 2-3 minutes between each set is usually ideal.

Gain Muscle

When it comes to gaining muscle, you need more volume and a moderate load. Although you don’t want each set to be too easy, do push yourself.

Do between three to five sets of 10-12 repetitions per set. Another option is to aim for 12-15 reps per set. Push close to failure, leaving two reps in the tank on all sets.

Barbell Row Alternatives

Here are four barbell row alternatives that can add more variety to your workouts to mix things up.

T-Bar Row

There’s no feeling like doing a heavy set of T-Bar rows (with proper form, of course!).

The deep stretch at the bottom of the movement is superb and isolates the lats entirely. It also puts the core to the test too. Remember to keep your knees bent and feet nearly shoulder width apart for a robust stance.

Pendlay Row

You might be looking at this row thinking it is practically the same as the barbell row – and you’d be right. The only difference is that with Pendlay rows, you rest the weight on the floor after each rep.

However, don’t be fooled. That brief pause on the ground helps increase concentric, which has a carry-over effect on lifts like clean and press, and deadlifts because of that “dead” start on the pause.

Incline Dumbbell Row

This again is another perfect way to isolate the lats as the bench supports the chest. Squeeze your shoulder blades together at the top of each rep for maximum contraction.

Seated Cable Row

Ensure your back is straight throughout each rep, avoiding the temptation to lean back as most gym trainers do. When you lean back too far, you are not placing the appropriate amount of stress on the lats.

If you do this exercise correctly, there is no doubt you will feel a crazy burn in your back. Your forearms also get a workout, too!

FAQs

Do barbell rows build traps?

While they aren’t a direct exercise, the trapezius muscles get worked during each row as you are bringing the bar to your belly button, which activates the traps, scapula, and rhomboids, to name a few. If you make deadlifts, barbell rows, T-bar rows, and shrugs part of your workout regime, you should develop some impressive traps providing your nutrition is well covered.

What muscles does the barbell row work?

The barbell row works the rhomboids, lats, posterior deltoid, trapezius, and smaller muscles.

Is barbell row necessary?

It is undoubtedly one of the best back-building exercises; however, the barbell row is not essential for overall back development. For example, there are plenty of alternative exercises such as deadlifts, t-bar rows, pull-ups, and cable rows.

Can beginners barbell row?

Of course. I would encourage all beginners to incorporate barbell rows into their workout program. It is a fantastic exercise to increase your strength and muscle mass.

Is barbell row enough for back?

Strictly speaking, yes. Doing them alone is enough to build a muscular back and increase strength; however, adding alternative exercises to your regime helps isolate the lats, which hits different muscles than you otherwise would, sticking to just barbell rows.

About the author

Chris Jones

I'm Chris. I have a vast interest in all things relating to health, wellness, exercise, and nutrition. I also love to improve my mindset and learn how to increase my productivity. If you'd like to say hello or ask me a question, please visit my contact page, and I'd be glad to hear from you. Alternatively, you can find me on Twitter (@liveliftlife).

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