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The Barbell Row: A Complete Guide

The barbell row—proper form, muscles worked, and programming. In this video, we break down this important barbell lift. Continue reading for details, tips, and programming advice.

The Barbell Row

Barbell Row Basics

The barbell row should find its way into every barbell-based training program at some point. Even when we train for whole-body strength, we still need to target important muscle groups and movements. The barbell row (sometimes called the bent over row) does that in a simple—but effective—pulling movement. The barbell row requires control through a big range of motion with an athletic posture, maintaining strong spinal extension throughout the movement. Pulling the bar in this way helps build a bigger, stronger back and complements the deadlift, bench, and squat.

Muscles Worked

The barbell row connects large amounts of muscle mass stabilizing your back (the deep back muscles) to a common compound movement (pulling something toward you). It challenges your balance since you have to do this while standing. Together, these elements are a recipe for a useful exercise.

Many prime movers or agonist muscles of the barbell row are superficial back muscles—those connecting to the shoulder—involved in shoulder extension and shoulder retraction. These superficial back muscles include the lats, traps, and rhomboid muscles. The latissimus dorsi (“lats”) and trapezius (“traps”) muscles are the biggest muscles of the back but function to stabilize the shoulders and move the arms around the shoulder joint. As you pull the bar toward you, you extend your upper arm at the shoulder, one of the lats’ main functions. The rhomboids and traps work together to retract your scapulae at the top of the barbell row when you squeeze your shoulder blades. The barbell row even works the biceps to some degree as you flex your elbows and slam them toward the ceiling.

And any time we are holding the bar in our hands against gravity, we train our grip. (More on Training  Your Grip Strength) Since the grip may be a limiting factor, it is up to you to determine when or if you should use straps while training the barbell row. Generally, try to use the standard double overhand grip for as long as you can. The double overhand grip has both hands facing your body. Then, switch to the hook grip or use straps, depending on your training needs. Do not use a mixed grip for barbell rows.

Finally, the barbell row is great for training to set and maintain spinal extension. Our version of the row here has you setting your back on every rep. Doing so helps practice a critical movement for basic functional strength, as it becomes exceedingly challenging to set and hold your back as you add weight.

The barbell row puts you in a difficult position, requiring exceptional control of your arms and shoulders throughout the lift, contrasting the work you do in the deadlift. At the top of the deadlift, your traps and postural muscles resist scapular depression (the opposite of shrugging) to keep your arms in place, at home in the ball and socket joint of the shoulder. You don’t think about your arms and shoulders. You just try to keep your chest up and stand tall. The tradeoff for the more difficult position of the barbell row is the weight you can move effectively. If done correctly, however, you can learn to maximize the benefit of the barbell row, making it an indispensable part of your strength programming.

How to Perform the Basic Barbell Row: Stance, Grip, & Set Your Back

Take the same stance as your deadlift: feet underneath your hips. Place the bar over the front third of your foot. This will be farther away from you than in a standard deadlift setup. The bar position is less important in the barbell row than it is in the deadlift; some people prefer to start with the bar over the midfoot, mimicking the deadlift start position.

Grip Width

The grip for the barbell row will approximate your bench press grip more than your deadlift grip. Once the bar is in position, bend your knees and take your grip. Your hands need to be wide enough apart that you can touch the bar to your torso without your hands interfering. Placing your hands about shoulder-width apart is a good start.

As we said above, use a double overhand grip. Some variations will use an underhand grip (or supinated grip), but an overhand grip is best for the main variation of the lift, minimizing the risk of damaging the distal biceps tendon.

Set Your Back

Many people struggle to set their backs while bent over. Failure here means that the body cannot efficiently transfer force to the barbell. And a rounded back undercuts one of the best benefits of performing the exercise.

Don’t know how to set your back? Read more here: Learning Midfoot Balance and How to Set Your Back

Once you’ve taken your grip for the barbell row, squeeze your chest up to set your back. Keep your hips high, and then pull explosively into the upper abdomen.

Squeeze Your Shoulder Blades

Try to start the bar moving with the act of setting your back, then finish with an explosive pull that slams your elbows toward the ceiling. Finish at the top by squeezing your shoulder blades together.

Set the bar back down on the floor after each rep. Bend your knees. Squeeze your back flat again. And repeat.

Ensure that the bar returns to the correct position. You can adjust the bar forward or backward if you need to.

Your hips should stay high, and your knees bent throughout the entire movement.

Keep It Strict (Mostly)

When starting out, do not cheat the movement by either raising your chest (becoming more vertical) or by lowering your torso down to meet the bar on its way up. Start with lighter weights and keep the lift strict by maintaining a static torso as much as possible. As these get heavy, you may want to prioritize the weight and continue doing the movement, even with a little bit of body English. Some coaches and lifters like this, but you should be able to do them strictly at a light enough weight.

Row Variations

Not everyone wants to barbell row or has the right equipment. Here are some other options:

The Dumbbell Row

The Lat Pulldown

And, if you’re training on the road or at home without weights:

Bent Over Row

Inverted row

How to Program the Barbell Row

The barbell row is typically programmed in sets of five reps or more—typically in the 8–12 range. Heavy barbell rows can be useful to training, however, and a common progression will start barbell rows at around 50% of a lifter’s deadlift for three sets of eight repetitions and add weight steadily until the reps per set have to come down. Work up while decreasing the overall value to three heavy sets of five repetitions.

novice barbell rowAs a person advances from a basic novice program, the barbell row will usually sit in for the deadlift at least once per week. A simple program will alternate deadlifts and barbell rows each week. This is not because the barbell row is a deadlift supplemental lift, but the two lifts are complementary (training the ability to hold the back flat) and in competition (for grip strength and upper back fatigue).

In a four-day spilt, the barbell row can come after the bench press and press on an upper-body day.

Whether to bolster the other big barbell lifts or build a bigger, stronger back, the barbell row should be a regular part of your lifting repertoire.

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