The Pendlay row is one of the most misunderstood exercises in the gym. Beginners to training will look at it and see a bent over row, but experienced coaches and lifters will understand the nuances behind the lift.
Whilst the movement patterns between rows are similar, they do have their differences.
In this article we will look at the Pendlay row, the muscles worked, how to do it, what the benefits are, and how it’s different from other versions. We’ll round off with how to program it to get the most from the exercise.
What Is a Pendlay Row?
The Pendlay row is a row variation designed to work on explosive strength from the floor. Unlike many other row variations where the weight is suspended between reps, the Pendlay row returns the weight to the floor every time.
With the weight being pulled from the floor, it removes a lot of the momentum from the lift. This means the effort is transferred directly to the muscles.
The Pendlay row differs from the traditional bent over row because of the explosive nature of the lift and the greater hip hinge. Whereas other row variations have a slightly more upright spinal posture, the Pendlay row keeps the spine flatter and the torso pointing towards the floor throughout the lift.
In 2009, Fenwick, Brown and McGill performed a study titled ‘Comparison of different rowing exercises: trunk muscle activation and lumbar spine motion, load, and stiffness. They concluded…
‘…the standing bent-over row elicited large muscle activation symmetrically from the upper to lower back’.
For anyone looking to train the length of their spine effectively, the Pendlay row is a great option.
Pendlay Row Muscles Worked
Like all upper-body pulling movements, the Pendlay row trains the major muscles of the back and biceps. These include…
There’s also lower back, glute, and core engagement. These muscles are used but not targeted. That’s why I haven’t included them in the main list.
In terms of overall bang for your buck, the Pendlay row benefits outweigh most row alternatives. It balances muscle engagement with power and strength development. It’s also an easy technique to perform when you have the mobility and back strength.
Benefits Of the Pendlay Row
Pendlay rows are an excellent exercise for training all the muscles of the back.
By rowing from the floor all the way to the chest, there’s no limited movement. This improves strength throughout the entire range, preventing ‘sticking points’ in the lift.
A full range of motion also means you encourage better flexibility and mobility. In many lifts, end-range movement is neglected, so joints suffer because they never work to their full capacity.
The fact that the weight hits the floor at the end of each rep is an advantage. The whole weight must be lifted each time without any momentum to help. It’s a full lift, so there’s no cheating with the Pendlay row.
This extra work makes it one of the best back exercises for developing power and building muscle.
How To Pendlay Row
The first thing to appreciate about the Pendlay row is the position you lift from. You perform the Pendlay row with your hips pushed back and your back flat throughout the movement.
You should be pulling the bar to your chest aggressively without losing control. The fast rep speed allows you to lift more than you usually would. This is because your rep tempo is much faster, which reduces the time under tension, and therefore the fatigue.
Pendlay row form is ultimately down to maintaining position and lifting through a full range.
Here’s how to pendlay row:
Bend your knees into a quarter squat position. Your legs should be straighter than they would for a deadlift, but there should be an obvious bend at the knee.
Hinge at the hips. Push your hips back and keep your back straight and flat. Maintain this position throughout.
Use an overhand grip. Hands just wider than knees, about shoulder width apart.
Smoothly but powerfully pull the bar up to your chest. Don’t stop the pull until you reach your chest.
Lower the bar to the floor, keeping control the whole time. It’s important the bar reaches the floor because you want to remove all momentum from the lift.
Repeat as many times as necessary.
Position and range of movement are integral to getting the Pendlay row right. Without these, you’re just performing a standard barbell row.
The Pendlay row isn’t for everyone because of those flexibility and positional demands. If you can’t stay in the correct position throughout the whole set, work on your flexibility and mobility before you continue.
Once you establish the flexibility and mobility at the hips, start with a light weight and build up.
Pendlay Row vs Barbell Row
In a Pendlay row, the back is kept flat. This puts your torso parallel to the floor, which also makes you closer and able to place the bar on the floor. This dramatically reduces pressure on the lower back, which helps those who may have had lower back issues.
The more upright position of the barbell row means you can’t (and shouldn’t when doing them) put the barbell on the floor at the end of a rep. This increases the time under tension for the muscles and therefore adds to fatigue.
You probably won’t be able to lift as heavy on a barbell row.
The flat back position on the Pendlay means there’s more balanced upper and lower back muscle recruitment.
A barbell row is great for building muscle in the back. It also uses a lot of time under tension, so it can work well with lighter weights. It’s not fantastic at creating athleticism in your pulling movements, though.
A Pendlay row is a great muscle builder and strength builder, with a large athletic carryover. The exercise demands a full range of movement, so it also helps with joint health. It doesn’t offer you much in the way of time under tension, though.
3 Pendlay Row Alternatives That Target Similar Muscles
If you’re interested in variations of the Pendlay row, here are some that offer similar movement patterns and benefits.
The Gorilla Row
Dumbbell Deadlift To Bent Over Row
#1 The Gorilla Row
The Gorilla row is a dumbbell or kettlebell row that replicates the movement pattern of the Pendlay row. The two exercises require a flat back, and the weight touches the floor between reps.
Here’s how you do it…
Hold the weights with a neutral (palms facing) grip.
Set your body position - straight, stiff back. Chest pointing towards the floor, slight knee bend.
Pull one of the weights up towards your chest, squeezing the shoulder blade in at the top.
At the top of the movement, pause then slowly lower the dumbbell, but don’t let it touch the floor.
Repeat the same movement on the opposite side, alternating for as many reps as required.
As a unilateral exercise, the Gorilla row forces both sides to work on their own, meaning the stronger side can’t dominate the movement. It’s a fantastic strength and power developer too.
#2 Seal Rows
Seal rows are a way of replicating a Pendlay row but using dumbbells rather than a barbell. They also remove the need to hinge for a long period because your bodyweight is supported. You can adjust the height of the bench as well.
Set the bench to an appropriate height - you should be able to reach dumbbells placed on the floor.
Hold the dumbbells with the grip of your choice - overhand, underhand, or neutral.
Pull the dumbbells up towards your chest, squeezing the shoulder blades together at the top.
At the top of the movement, pause then lower the dumbbells to complete a full rep
This is a way to generate great horizontal pulling strength without stressing the lower back at all. It’s a good way to row for those looking for a non-machine-based version.
#3 - Dumbbell deadlift to bent over row
This is a great complex and one that trains the entire back in one go. You must mix two movements, but the results are worth it.
Standing upright, hold a pair of dumbbells in an overhand grip.
Pushing your hips back and keeping your back straight, lean forward until your torso is facing the floor.
With your arms pointing directly towards the floor, pull the dumbbells back up to your torso.
Squeeze the shoulder blades together at the top of the movement, then lower the dumbbells back down until your arms are straight.
When your arms are straight, stand back upright by driving your hips forward and keeping your back straight throughout.
This is a lot of movement in one go, so keep things easy to begin with, and perfect the pendlay row exercise with a lighter weight – it catches up with you quickly!
When you get the form right and use it appropriately, the Pendlay row is an excellent back exercise. It’s a fantastic muscle builder, and power developer that can help make you a better, more capable athlete.
If you have the mobility and flexibility, program this ahead of the barbell row if you’re looking for strength and power, whilst packing on the muscle. You’ll be glad you did.
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WRITTEN BY: Steve Hoyles
Steve Hoyles received his degree in Sports Science from Swansea University. Since then he has spent his entire career working in the fitness industry - personal training and coaching thousands of clients. He now owns MyGym, a strength and conditioning gym in Stockport and works as a fitness copywriter.