How to Barbell Row Properly: Tips, Benefits and Variations

How to Barbell Row Properly: Tips, Benefits and Variations

clock-circular-outlinePosted 7 Feb 2023

There's no doubt that the first time you perform the barbell row, it feels a little weird or awkward.

That's totally normal.

However, once you get the hang of it and complete a few sets at a light weight – it soon starts to click, and progression can begin which is where the benefits of the barbell row start to be noticed.

In this article, we'll explain everything about the barbell row, along with other variations for you to include in your training program.

Oh, and if you're not a bro-split kind of lifter, there are still plenty of reasons to include the barbell row in your workouts!

What Is The Barbell Row? And Why Is It Our Favorite Back Exercise?

The barbell row ins one of the best back exercises, and an old-school bodybuilding classic for growing muscle.

Known for its ability to help develop mass in the back muscles, the bent-over barbell row allows for some serious weight to be moved, with the key emphasis being on the posterior chain and muscle groups in the back.

The barbell row is no doubt an exercise you've seen many people doing at the gym, or on social media, with it being a staple compound exercise in most people's training programs.

Also known as the bent-over barbell row, this exercise is a compound movement best utilized to increase muscle strength, size, and power in the back and arm muscles, along with improving stability in the core and trunk.

The barbell row also makes for an excellent exercise when looking to improve grip strength, along with the different variations of the row to test your forearm strength.

What are the benefits of the barbell row?

Now we have a brief understanding of what the barbell row exercise is, let's discuss the benefits.

The barbell row makes for a great exercise to grow your back and improve strength and size. Besides these potentially more obvious outcomes, there are other multiple benefits to including back strengthening exercises, such as the barbell row in your workout program.

These benefits include:

  • Improved posture

  • Greater spine stabilization

  • Help to alleviate or prevent back pain

Barbell Row: Muscles Worked

Being a compound exercise, the barbell row targets numerous muscles, with the main emphasis being on the muscle groups in the back and biceps.

The main muscles worked during the barbell row include:

  • Rhomboids

  • Latissimus Dorsi

  • Trapezius (middle/lower)

  • Erector Spinae

Alongside these key muscles in the back, the barbell row also helps strengthen the trunk/core, along with your biceps and supporting muscles in the lower body.

The involvement of multiple muscle groups and joints makes the barbell row a great exercise for developing size and strength, alongside injury prevention and improving the posterior chain.

Barbell Row Form

The barbell row may look straightforward, but there are key points to help achieve you achieve a safe and optimal form that will help set strong foundations for when you begin to progress in strength and confidence.

How To Do Bent Over Barbell Rows:

  1. To start, grip the barbell slightly wider than shoulder width. The barbell can either be deadlifted from the floor or taken from a low rack – standing up tall and positioning the bar against your upper thighs with straight arms.

  2. Retract your scapula (shoulders), bend the knees slightly, and hinge your hips until your chest is slightly above parallel to the floor (about 45 degrees). Ensure your scapula remains retracted, with a neutral back and proud chest.

  3. Now you're in a safe row position; it's time to contract the muscles in your back, along with using your arms to pull the bar up towards the crease of your hips.

  4. Keep a stable position and focus on the row movement with a steady tempo throughout the entire rep. It may be tempting here to look in the mirror, but keep a natural gaze to avoid overstraining your neck/spine.

What are the barbell row variations?

Now we have a great understanding of a fundamental back training exercise, in that of the barbell row, it's time to explore what different variations we can utilize in our training to keep things varied.

Bent-Over Barbell Row Variations:

Don't forget, strong traps will help in each of these row movements. Check out our article on the best exercises for traps.

The Reverse Grip Barbell Row

The reverse grip barbell row requires the same body position as a regular bent-over barbell row. However, with this variation, the grip is reversed – utilizing an underhand grip, with the palms facing upward.

Utilizing a reverse grip is great for beginners getting used to the barbell row movement, or those looking to place a greater emphasis on their forearm and grip strength.

Want more reverse grip exercises to add to your training? Here are 7 reverse grip exercises to try!

Muscles Worked

The muscles worked with the reverse grip barbell row are similar to the bent-over barbell row, with additional focus/activation of the biceps and lats.

How to do a reverse grip barbell row

  1. Hold the bar slightly wider than shoulder width, with palms facing forward.

  2. Position your feet shoulder-width apart.

  3. Bend your knees slightly, and hinge your hips, bringing your torso parallel to the ground - maintaining a neutral spine.

  4. Squeezing your back muscles, bend your elbows and pull the bar in towards your belly button.

  5. Slowly straighten your arms back to the start position. This is one rep.

The Pendlay Row

The pendlay row is not too dissimilar to the regular bent-over barbell row, with just a few key differences to warrant its name.

Rather than starting the row with the bar hanging, the pendlay row starts and ends each rep with the barbell back on the ground – doing so reduces the chance of cheating, or using momentum from your legs to help move the weight, therefore placing more emphasis on the working muscles, across a stricter range of motion.

How To Do The Pendlay Row

The position of the pendlay row is almost identical to the bent-over barbell row, other than your torso will be parallel with the ground, knees slightly more bent, and the barbell touches the floor before each rep.

  1. Start with the barbell on the ground, with your feet shoulder-width apart.

  2. Place your hands on the bar with a slightly wider-than-shoulder overhand grip, with your torso parallel to the ground and knees slightly bent.

  3. From here, with a braced core, perform an explosive movement bringing the barbell up the belly button area before controlling the bar back down to the ground.

With the pendlay row, it's important to maintain a neutral spine and soft knees, whilst limiting any momentum from the legs or lower back, keeping the emphasis of the lift on the back.

Related Article: How To Pendlay Row: Everything You Need To Know.

Muscles Worked

Although the muscles worked are very similar to that of the bent-over barbell row, the nature of the movement may help further develop strength and power in comparison to the regular barbell row.

The key muscles worked in the pendlay row include:

  • Rhomboids

  • Latissimus Dorsi

  • Trapezius (middle/lower)

  • Erector Spinae

The barbell upright row

The barbell upright row may sound similar to that of the barbell row, but their purpose and the muscle groups they target do, in fact, vary.

As the name suggests, the barbell upright row follows a different bar path than a regular barbell row, and is an exercise designed to place a greater emphasis on the muscle groups around your upper back, such as your traps and shoulders, than that of the regular barbell row.

Muscles Worked

With the barbell moving upwards, rather than towards the body, this movement places more emphasis on the muscles we use to lift objects up and above our shoulders.

Therefore the key muscles targeted when performing the barbell upright row are:

  • Trapezius

  • Side Delts

Choosing the best barbell row exercise for you

Each of the above barbell row variations targets similar muscle groups, with some placing slightly more emphasis on certain muscles than others. Choosing the right barbell row movement for your training should be based on your ability and goals.

Incorporating strong compound lifts within your training will see the greatest progressions in terms of size and strength, whilst other more isolated movements will help develop smaller muscle groups too.

Explore our Gymshark lifting essentials for women and men.

. . .

Chris Beck is Senior Editor at Gymshark, with a passion for writing informative conditioning and health content. Chris is an experienced Personal Trainer, and also holds qualifications in Nutrition, Sports Performance, and is a certified Crossfit Level 1 Trainer.

Chris BeckBy Chris Beck

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