The back is a complex muscle group with no shortage of possible exercises, so many that an overeager newbie armed with a Flex magazine and a belly full of ambition could easily hammer away at his back for hours, yet still barely scratch the surface of available options.
The Golden Age of bodybuilding was a decidedly simpler time. While there were many exercises for bodybuilders to use, the KISS principle (Keep It Simple Stupid) was usually first in mind, and for building back thickness, one didn’t have to look any further than the barbell row (along with the deadlift).
But it wasn’t a case of “happily ever after.” Cautious critics would target the barbell row due to the propensity for technique errors and the trainee’s inability to fully recruit the lats – not to mention that “safer” alternatives like dumbbell rows and lat pulldowns allowed for greater range of motion and more focus on the targeted back muscles.
So we labeled it as dangerous, ushered in a host of “safer” alternatives, and the barbell row faded into relative training obscurity.
What a mistake.
You can do a lot with a dumbbell, but you can’t match the amount of weight you can use with a barbell. More weight, when used correctly, means more potential for muscular growth.
Let’s start with the basics.
The Barbell Row Revisited
Forget the notion that a barbell row is just a “back” or “upper body” exercise. Think about it – you unrack the bar, set your stance, and bend at the waist. But before you even perform your first pull, the glutes, hamstrings, and hips are working to stabilize you. Oh, and don’t forget the abdominals, which keep your low back from crumbling.
As mentioned, a big benefit of the barbell row is that you can use more weight than with other rowing variations. The more weight you use, the more these “other” muscles are called into play to help – and on heavy sets, they need to fire to allow the back musculature and shoulder girdle to experience maximum recruitment.
If they don’t fire efficiently, it could be the difference between a smoothly pulled bar and one involving a lot of jerky momentum.
For example, a pull like the latter usually involves subtle movement at the hip and glute. This takes them out of their stabilizing role, leading to a greater likelihood of a rounded lower back.
So while it’s a kick-ass full body exercise, the barbell row is also prone to a whole lot of butchering. Let’s look at some key technique points that will have you barbell rowing correctly, and building a thick back, in no time.
The Set Up
The setup for a barbell row starts when the bar is in the rack, not when you’re already bent over.
You should grip the bar for a barbell row like you would a bench press. Your brain has more neurons connected to your hand than the rest of the arm combined, so a good grip will transmit force to the shoulder and make it stronger.
Considering the glenohumeral and AC joints are the primary joints involved in this type of row, you can see why a solid grip can make a big difference.
A basic grip for the row is just outside shoulder-width, with the pinkies hovering around the smooth rings. There’s some debate concerning grip-width, type of grip, and so forth, but it’s basically majoring in the minors.
In his article, Inside the Muscles: Best Back and Biceps Exercises, author Bret Contreras looked at the muscle activation on several lifts, including bent-over barbell rows.
Compared to the supinated grip, Bret found that there was slightly greater mean MVC for the mid-trap using a pronated grip with 185 pounds (62.2 vs. 58.6). The lower trap activation was negligibly different using 185 pounds (51.0 vs. 50.6), but increased when the weight was increased to 225 pounds (52.4 vs. 48.5).
As expected, the supinated grip activated a lot more biceps action. Interestingly, the supinated grip also got a little more lat activation using both sets of weights.
Is it enough to say using a supinated grip is superior to a pronated grip?
Not necessarily. It depends on the goal and individual weak points, but it’s definitely worth including in the context of a long-term program.
As for grip width, stick with a normal-width. A very wide or narrow grip may elicit the activation of a slightly different muscle profile or provide a “pump” in a place never felt before, but it can also restrict overall range of motion. I mentioned lack of ROM being a point against the barbell row; there’s no point in taking any more range away.
So we have your grip locked and loaded. Now, let’s take the bar out of the rack and assume a comfortable stance (shoulder-width for most people).
How Low Should You Go?
A big question surrounding the barbell row is how far to bend over. Some coaches say to bend to 90 degrees and go as strict as possible, while others say a 45-degree bend is best as it allows the most weight to be used.
First, people don’t like to do hard things. A bent-over-row at or very near parallel with a decent amount of weight is difficult – maintaining strict form as you become fatigued is a definite test of will. But it works.
Still, the primary justifications for doing rows at a shallower angle, such as the Yates row, is that you can use more weight, hit the upper back/traps better, and not cause as much low back stress. Let’s look at each of those points.
You Can Use More Weight Doing Yates Rows
While this may be true, this type of row also removes a lot of ROM and is rarely done correctly. And reducing ROM is rarely advantageous from a muscle-building standpoint.
You can also use more weight on quarter squats but few would argue that they’re superior to full squats for leg development. It’s no different with rowing.
It’s important to note the temptation to use more weight on Yates rows is just asking for more hip/leg work than back work, and therefore greater risk of injury.
Competitive powerlifters could see some benefit from this more upright position, but for the majority of trainees, a strict, parallel row is the smarter option.
Yates Rows Hits the Upper Back/Traps Better
The general population tends to already carry an upper trap dominance, so why exacerbate it? The strict barbell row recruits a good amount of mid and low-trap musculature, so do yourself a favor and give them some attention.
If you still want to work upper traps, do some heavy shrugs.
Yates Rows Take Stress Off the Lower Back
There’s greater lower back involvement with a 80-90 degree row compared to a 45-degree row, but the lower back is only stressed excessively if too much weight is being used and the low back rounds.
It’s not, contrary to popular belief, safer for the low back to use heavier weights at a shallower angle, considering there’s a greater potential for hip thrusting.
So we have a solid grip on the bar and we’re bent over right near 90 degrees.
Get the chest up slightly, arch the low back a bit, and get your head in line with your spine. Brace the abdominals to get as stable as possible.
Lastly, tighten up the glutes and “grip the floor” with your feet.
Tightening the glutes and “gripping the floor” may be new to you, but for best results the barbell row should be treated from a total-body viewpoint. You tighten your glutes and grip the floor when getting ready to bench – there shouldn’t be any difference for your rowing setup.
Locking the lats and scapulae down and back is a big part of a good bench press. It essentially gives you a solid platform from which to press heavy-ass weight. Well, the barbell row is basically the exact opposite.
To elicit the greatest ROM and muscle-growth potential, we want to have the lats, rhomboids, and middle traps stretched.
We need protraction to generate any sort of retraction. This includes having the elbows extended. Making sure you achieve this pre-stretch at the start of every repetition is a good check against any cheating.
From there, pull through your elbows to somewhere around the lower abdomen/navel. Pulling to your upper abdomen encourages shrugging the weight up rather than pulling it back, which can shift the entire focus of the exercise.
Focus on pulling your shoulder blades together hard at the top, getting everything you can out of the actual contraction.
After all that work, it’s natural to want to send the weight crashing down to the floor, but stay strong and lower the bar under control. Think of resisting the descent with the lats.
Putting It All Together
Here’s a video putting all of this info together into a properly executed conventional barbell row.
Now let’s look at some cool variations to keep your training interesting and the gains coming.
This is a well-known barbell row variation popularized by legendary coach Glenn Pendlay. You’ll be glad you learned to row from a parallel position, because this movement is designed to require even more muscular control.
Pendlay rows start from the floor every repetition. There’s nearly a straight line from the hips to the top of the head, apart from the arch required through the mid-back and the protraction of the upper back.
Nothing moves during the movement except the arms and the retractors in the upper back. If you lose hip position, it reverts to a poorly done row off the floor, not a Pendlay row.
Due to the strictness of the row and the fact that each rep is pulled from a dead stop, the lats get more activation than in the regular row. Granted there are no Pub Med studies to support this, but it makes sense.
All the other technique points from the barbell row apply, just focus on pulling that sucker explosively off the ground.
When I think of T-bar rows, images of Arnold fighting through a heavy set in Pumping Iron and Ronnie Coleman literally breaking a bar from heaving too many plates race through my mind. This alone is enough to convince me that T-bar rows should be a staple for anyone looking to build a thicker back.
The grip obviously changes to neutral here, shifting the primary focus to the rhomboids and mid-traps. But don’t be fooled – T-bars are fantastic for lat development.
Besides straddling the bar and taking a neutral grip, the only other technique difference concerns how far you bend at the waist. It would be difficult to get down to 90 degrees while getting any appreciable ROM, so allow yourself a few degrees leeway. You can also opt to use 25-pound plates to make up the difference; just don’t rise up to 45 degrees.
If you want even more ROM, consider using a rope attachment.
Are you so damn strong that your gym doesn’t have heavy enough dumbbells for you to row? Enter the one-arm T-bar row.
Not only is this a great exercise for the back, it also places a high demand on your core stability, specifically in anti-rotation.
Dumbbell rowing variations and pulldown machines can deliver a terrific back workout, but let’s not forget about those dusty barbells in the corner.
There’s no way to match the thickness that doing good old-fashioned barbell rows can provide for your entire back. Use them to their fullest!