There are a million ways to row. You've probably seen a litany of polite lightweight versions being used at the local gym. But if you need to build a bombproof back that can withstand a heavy deadlift, it's time to add heavy rowing to your workouts. Let's compare the two biggest, baddest rows of them all – the Kroc row and the Pendlay row – and see which one comes out on top.
We're going to grade each variation according to the following criteria:
- Learning Curve & Technique: How easy is it to learn and perform with good form?
- Progressive Overload: Can you use it to make long-term gains?
- Equipment: Does it require a specialized gym and specialized equipment?
- Safety: How high is the injury potential?
- Strength Builder: Is it a good tool for building elite strength?
- Hypertrophy Builder: Is it a good choice for building muscle?
Kroc rows are named for Matt Kroczaleski and refer to a one-arm row performed for long sets with crazy-heavy weight. Some slight momentum can be employed, but the movement should be controlled and clean. Kroc rows are useful in creating a very strong grip and a thick, dense mid and upper back. If you're new to them, or the video below with Jim Wendler doesn't suffice, check out Kroc Rows 101.
The Pendlay row, named after coach Glenn Pendlay, is a heavy barbell row in which the bar starts from the floor on each rep. This dead-stop row should be relatively strict, but some momentum from the hips is necessary to move big weights. The bar is then returned to the ground after each rep, allowing more weight to be used because the lower back doesn't have to support the weight for a long period of time. This is a great exercise to increase maximal back strength and explosiveness in the deadlift.
The point of both of these lifts is to go absolutely freaking heavy, which will produce both a ton of hypertrophy and strength. Unfortunately, heavy weights exploit weak links. Both the Kroc row and Pendlay row are designed to increase loading without exploiting the low back. Bracing on a bench with the knee and arm takes stress off the back on the Kroc row. Starting and stopping from the floor on the Pendlay row minimizes the time the weight is suspended from the long-levered bent-over position. Both of these techniques allow the use of more weight to stimulate the mid and upper back.
However, for every action, there's an equal and opposite reaction. So, as that weight is pulled off the ground in the Pendlay row, the body's first task is to resist the bar's downward force. Once overcome, the weight can move up. This again makes core and low back strength a significant limiting factor. You may have the grip and lat strength to row 225 pounds, but you've got to first have the core strength to row 225 pounds.
This is where the Kroc row shines. Bracing on a bench allows even newbies to pull as much as their grip and upper back will allow, so they can start reaping the benefits even without a world-class set of erectors.
Winner: Kroc Row
Rule #1 on Kroc rows: You're not even close to rowing a 200-pound dumbbell. Let's get that out of the way right now. I have a 175-pound pair at my facility, and let me tell you, they're hard to pick up, much less row. So don't whine about not having a set of 225s like Kroczaleski does, because 99.9% of men aren't man enough (your author included). So, lacking access to weights that high is only a problem for the elite. For most strong guys, they'll be performing Kroc rows in the 100-150-pound range, and those weights can be found at most good gyms. (Using weights as low as 100 pounds may not even qualify as a Kroc row, but I'm going to defer to relative difficulty rather than an absolute number.)
The Pendlay row requires just a barbell and plates. As far as equipment goes, that's as basic as it gets. When you get stronger, add plates to the bar.
Winner: Pendlay Row
As you get stronger at the Kroc Row, we hope you progress and surpass the local dumbbell set. If you do get to that point, you'll have to get creative or find a new favorite back builder.
If you can deadlift, you can perform a Pendlay row without issue. It tends to be more back friendly than other rowing variations because the low back is only stressed for a brief moment. I typically use the Pendlay row for reps between 5-8 as I like it as a strength builder first and foremost. The things is, I view rowing as an accessory exercise that's not well-suited for very low-rep sets, so anywhere between 5-20 reps is appropriate. The nice thing about the dead-stop is that even with a 20-rep set, time under tension can be relatively low, which again, can allow you to use more weight.
As far as time under tension is concerned, I worry about Kroc rows more than other variations because there's tremendous tension flowing through the biceps and elbow joint. Using straps to increase weight can exacerbate this problem. I view grip strength as a bit of a failsafe – if you can hold it in your hands, then the rest of your arms can probably support it as well. But when you're suddenly rowing a weight for 15 reps that you normally couldn't hold for more than five, the risk of popping your biceps becomes very real. Though straps do have their place in training, I feel that they're more for giving the grip a break, not loading extra weight onto the bar. If you artificially reinforce a weak link, something new will become the weak link... and weak links break.
Winner: Pendlay Row
The Pendlay row is safer because there's less momentum, less need for straps, and the weight is distributed across two arms.
The Pendlay row reinforces good rowing form. Because the bar starts on the ground, the torso has to stay parallel to the floor to start the movement. As such, the lower back is subject to long-lever stress, which can make long, slow bodybuilding tempos problematic. As such, the Pendlay row is better for heavier, shorter sets that are performed explosively. It's better served as a strength and power building variation and it can increase back strength so you can use more weight on other rowing variations.
The Kroc row, however, really shines for hypertrophy and strength. As many coaches on T Nation have discussed, it may be a good idea to go heavier at the slight expense of "perfect" form. The Kroc row isn't a cheater row, but using a little momentum and no pause allows very heavy weights to last through long sets. And, as you know, the magic formula for muscle growth is heavy weights for long sets. It's a no-brainer that if you can bang out sets of 15 with 150 pounds per hand, you're developing some serious grip and back strength.
And we need to remember what the upper back is – a major link, but not the prime mover in the squat, deadlift, or bench press. A strong back reinforces the spine and resists the barbell, so when we think of rowing, we need to remember that a combination of size, density and endurance is more important than 1RM strength or explosiveness.
Hypertrophy Winner: Kroc Row
Strength Winner: Kroc Row
I like the Pendlay row for heavy sets, but I view the back as needing width, density, strength and endurance more than power. All of these measures are improved faster by longer sets with more time under tension. This is exactly what the Kroc row is designed for.
My winner, if I had to choose one of these for the rest of my life, would be the Kroc row. Not only does it allow for more loading per arm and more time under tension over the Pendlay row, but it also has the added benefit of taking the shoulder blade through a greater range of motion. I think they're a riskier exercise, but one that will build more size and strength in the long haul than the Pendlay or other barbell rows.
In part, the debate comes down to the mechanics of the barbell row in general. On one hand, barbell rows are a great, whole-body, integrated exercise because the core, lower back, and hamstrings all have to be up to snuff. But this holistic nature is also the limiting factor in moving more weight, and the long levered nature of it can stall progress long-term.
Which row is your favorite? Leave your comments below.