The Chest-Supported Row
Chest supported rows (including the T-bar row) reign supreme in upper back training. Yes, they're even better than the barbell row.
First, the T-bar's fulcrum is further away from the body, which results in better activation of key movers like the lats, rhomboids, and lower traps. The fulcrum being further way allows you to rely on less stabilization of your low back, which acts isometrically in a traditional barbell row.
When you do a free standing barbell row, you'll incur more stress on the hips and lumbar spine, which can detract from the role the upper-back plays in the movement.
It's not uncommon to be sore in the posterior chain after an intensive lower-body session. If you're doing your upper body work 24-48 hours afterward, you'll likely be training the same areas of the body again without enough time for optimal recovery. The chest-supported row will eliminate the chances of overtraining and build in recovery for the lumbar spine.
Overall, if you intend to perform the most effective exercise variations for the upper back, a chest-supported version is simply more effective.
Now, let's look at some advanced variations:
1. Fatbell or Dumbbell Chest-Supported Row
If you've got access to Thompson Fatbells, you're going to want to try them for this. The loading distribution is different than that of a dumbbell or kettlebell. If not, just grab some dumbbells. Do 4-5 sets of 12-15 reps.
2. Chest-Supported Cable Row with Iso Hold
This variation works best using a cable system since tension is consistent through the range of motion. In this case, you'll be doing 10 reps with a 10-second hold, then 8 reps with an 8-second hold, 6 reps with a 6-second hold, 4 reps with a 4-second hold, and finally 2 reps with a 2-second hold.
Do that two more times for a total of three sets. That's 30 total reps per set and 30 seconds of isometric holds per set, so go a lot lighter than you think.
3. T-Bar Row Complex
With this variation, you'll do a single-arm T-bar row on both sides, then finish using both arms. Do 4 sets of 8 reps on each side, then another 8 reps with both arms.
You may notice one side will be harder to stabilize. That's why I'm using an irradiation technique with the opposing arm. This exercise also adds a rotary stability challenge, so start light.
4. Chest-Supported Cable Row with Supinated Grip
This one works well if you have a handle that optimizes the range of motion. Using a supinated grip increases activation of the biceps while still smoking your upper back. Use this variation in a metabolic stress setting: 3 sets of 15-20 reps.
5. T-Bar Row with Varied Grips
The T-bar row with both a neutral grip and pronated grip is the king of all upper-back exercises. You can go heavier for 6-8 reps per set or take a more traditional hypertrophy approach and do 10-15 reps per set.
The type of T-bar you're using will determine what type of loading you can handle. Even slight differences in pad angle can cause a difference in the activation of the upper-back complex. So experiment before doing your actual work sets.