Grab your UPPPER Lifting Straps and get ready to nail your bent-over barbell row form!
Along with pull-ups, the bent-over row is one of the most effective exercises that target your entire back muscles. Making it a key exercise for anyone trying to lose back fat, build a stronger back, or better upper body strength. Because this exercise is a compound exercise, you'll be getting more out of it! Aside from targeting your entire back, it also targets your upper arms, core, and even some muscles in your lower body!
Whatever your goals are, if you want to gain muscle in your back, and build full-body strength, the bent-over row should be a part of your weekly training program! Specifically, the barbell row. Doing a bent-over row with a barbell is a game-changer. This bent-over row variation involves pulling a heavy weight which will promote better muscle activation.
Unfortunately, rowing with a barbell can be hard on the lower back, so lifters need to be extra careful with this exercise to avoid injuries. To help you execute the barbell row properly and safely, we're going to give you a step-by-step guide on how to do it with proper form and technique, plus we'll give you tips on how to work your way up to it, but before we dive into that let's get into the benefits...
Why the barbell row should be your go-to back exercise
Anyone weightlifting or strength training practices these three types of back exercises - rows, pull-ups, and pulldowns. Pulldown exercises, like lat pulldowns, and pull-ups are great for building muscles in the back, however, there's really no way to do them with a heavy barbell. What makes rowing exercises so great is that there are different variations, including one that utilizes a barbell. The heavy weight involved with the barbell row makes it a highly efficient and effective exercise that trains a number of muscles and functions. To be more specific, it targets the latissimus dorsi (lats), rhomboids, trapezius (traps), rear deltoids (or rear delts), biceps, lower back, core, hamstrings, and more.
In fact, a 2018 study compared eight different popular exercises that target the muscles in the back. It included bent-over barbell rows, chin-ups, inverted rows, IYT raise, lat pulldowns, pull-ups, seated rows, and a suspension trainer row. In that study, they found that the best back exercise to do, based on how many muscles it activates, is the bent-over barbell row, as it activates three of five main back muscles.
In case you need any more selling points, here are more reasons as to why you should include this exercise into your routine:
It trains the hip hinge: The hip hinge is an essential functional movement that everyone should master. This movement involves bending your hips back, or hinging at the hips while keeping good alignment from your head to your pelvis. This helps to activate the muscles in your posterior chain and is involved in other exercises like the Romanian deadlift. The difference between other exercises using a hip hinge is that the barbell row holds you in that hinged position as you work the upper body. Thus making it a full-body movement since the hinge activates the muscles in your posterior chain, specifically the hamstrings and glutes.
Promotes better posture: For those who are unaware, poor posture is linked to having a weak upper back, and if you're a lifter who is focusing on mainly chest exercises then the problem can get even worse! If you want better posture, make sure that you are targeting all muscles equally and strengthen your upper back! Rowing exercises, including barbell rows, help strengthen the muscles found there, specifically - the rhomboids and middle traps. Strengthening those muscles will help you naturally stand upright with your shoulders back and your chest out. Naturally giving you that good posture you've always wanted!
Allows you to handle more weight than other back exercises: As mentioned earlier, barbell rows work a ton of muscle groups at once. But it also puts you in a position that has you using both arms at once which allows you to handle a heavier weight! This is what makes barbell rows an excellent exercise for building back strength and muscle. The heavier you're able to lift the more strength and muscle you'll build.
Strengthens weak points: Various compound exercises like deadlifts and front squats require a large amount of power to move or stabilize the body in certain positions. That can be difficult if the back muscles, along with the lower back and hips are weak. Barbell rows will help strengthen the back and help you gain better control of the bar and increase general strength which will allow for greater pulling performance.
How to do a bent-over barbell row with proper form
Now that you understand why you should barbell row, let's get started on how to actually do it with good form and technique.
Step 1: The Setup
To start, the bar must be on the floor. Once the barbell is on the floor, walk up to the bar and position your feet so they're slightly narrower than shoulder-width apart. Make sure the barbell is more or less below your shoulders that way it's easier for you to pull the bar straight up into your torso as opposed to away.
Once the barbell is set close to the body (should be hitting your shins or near that area), take a deep inhale, brace your core, and move toward the bar by pushing your hips back bending slightly at the knees, almost as if you're getting into a Romanian deadlift position. Next, place your hands on the bar using a double overhand grip, palms facing down, just outside of shoulder-width apart. Grab the bar with a secure grip and makes sure that your shoulder blades are tucked back and down (so chest up, or a "proud chest"), back straight, and head in a neutral position - don't look up or down at your feet! Instead, focus on a spot a few feet in front of you.
Make sure your shoulders are tucked back and down, your back is flat, and your head is in a neutral position with your eyes focused on a spot 3 to 4 feet in front of you. Don’t look up at the ceiling or down at your feet. This is your starting position/
Step 2: The Pull
To lift the bar off the floor and start the pull, extend your legs by raising your hips. Begin pulling your elbows toward the ceiling to lift the bar until it comes in contact with the bottom of your rib cage or belly button. Squeeze your back muscles as you row the bar up, and remember to keep your back flat and in a neutral position. At the top of the movement, hold for a second or two.
Step 3: The Ascent
The last step is to lower the weight back down, which sounds easy enough, but you must do it in a controlled manner. Now, you can either lower the bar to the floor or lower it a few inches above the floor. Typically bodybuilders or Olympic lifters will rest their rep by putting the bar to the floor and lifting again from the floor, average lifters tend to keep it a few inches above the floor before doing the next rep. It's a matter of preference, but typically if you're lifting a heavy load then it's best to reset the rep in order to go through the full range of motion. Just do what works best for you!
So, after holding the bar at the top of the movement, in a controlled manner lower the bar toward the ground, or a few inches off the floor, until your arms are straight. Once your back to the starting position, brace your core and begin to lift again!
If you're unsure about how many reps and sets to do, the bent-over barbell row is usually performed for 3-5 sets of 6-12 reps. Again, it depends on the weight being used, but it is a heavy movement, so your reps might be lower than if you were doing a dumbbell row.
Technique tips to keep in mind
To ensure you're performing this exercise in a safe and effective manner, here are some tips to keep in mind when rowing:
Don't bounce the bar up: One of the most common mistakes that lifters make is letting the torso bounce up and down when rowing the bar. But this mistake is one you don't want to make. It can irritate the shoulder joint over time and even increase the risk of a lower-back injury. To avoid this, focus on keeping your torso motionless and using your upper-back and other muscles to pull the bar. If you're struggling to pull the bar towards you without 'bouncing' your torso, then take a step back and use a lighter weight. The key to avoiding injuries and making progress is to use a weight you can control. It will make it easier for you to focus on your form and it will also recruit the intended muscle groups. Before increasing the weight on any exercise, make sure you can do at least 10 reps with proper form.
Try different grip widths and hand positions: The double overhand grip is the most common grip to use, and the best one for those just starting out with this exercise. Once you're comfortable with the barbell row, don't be afraid to change up your grip and hand positions. Different grips and hand positions can help emphasize one muscle group more than another. For example, placing your hands at a narrower than shoulder-width grip will have you pulling the bar towards your lower abdomen, which puts a greater emphasis on your lats (middle to lower back). As another example, using an underhand grip (palms facing up) instead of an overhand grip puts more tension on the lats and biceps, and less on the traps and upper back muscles. Therefore you can choose a certain grip or hand placement that best suits your goals.
Make sure you're not standing upright: To avoid unwanted injuries or strains, and get the most out of the exercise, make sure that you're hovering over the bar, not standing upright. If your torso is at a 45-degree angle or more, you're doing it wrong! This typically happens if the weight is too heavy or weak core strength. To fix this, either lower the weight or take a step back and work on developing a stronger core. Our Best At-Home Core Exercises is a good place to start!
Reset your reps, if possible: Most people are used to doing the exercise by keeping the bar a few inches of the floor and only resetting after every set. There's not a problem doing this, but once you're comfortable with the exercise, consider resetting after every rep, meaning lowering the bar all the way to the floor. This will help you move through the full range of motion and make the exercise more effective thus maximizing your results.
Reduce grip fatigue with lifting straps: To get better results you have to practice progressive overload and lift heavy. Lifting heavy is the best way to maximize any results - fat loss, building muscle, and strength. But sometimes it can be hard to hit the heavier weights if your grip is giving out. It doesn't mean your grip is weak, it just means you need a little support to lift the heavy load. Once you can go really heavy on your barbell rows, consider using lifting straps! They are a great piece of workout gear that will help reduce grip fatigue and will prevent the bar (or any free weight) from slipping out of your hands. Plus, you can use them for other pulling exercises like deadlifts and upright rows. And in case you're in need of a pair already, we have our very own collection of Lifting Straps designed to help you lift heavier (and in style).
Bent-over row variations for beginners
The bent-over barbell row is a great exercise, but it can be extremely difficult on your lower back. Some may not be able to do it or will need to take the time to work their way up to it. This is when it's good to have a list of alternative exercises that work the same muscles as the barbell row!
Here are three of the best bent-over row variations that beginners can try:
This exercise works the same muscles as the barbell row does, but it requires only your bodyweight. And it's much easier since you don't load your back in a hinged position! This could be either done on a barbell or a suspension trainer like a TRX kit.
To keep it simple, here are directions on how to do it on a barbell: Using a barbell on a sturdy squat rack or a Smith Machine, set the bar at a height that is challenging for you enough to complete three sets of 8-10 reps - the higher the bar, the easier it is, and vice versa. Once the bar is set up, get underneath the bar and lie facing up with your feet extended out in front of you. Grab the bar with an overhand grip (palms facing away from you) and slightly wider than shoulder-width. Engage your core and glutes so they're tight, and maintain your body in a straight line. Pull your shoulder blades down and back, and focus on pulling your body up towards the bar with your arms. Pull up until your chest touches the bar.
The dumbbell row is still a very effective exercise because it allows for a greater and freer range of motion. This allows you to determine the best path of the movement while forcing you to stabilize your torso. Plus, you can train with a heavy weight or stick to lighter weights for higher reps.
Here's how to do it: Kneel over the side of the bench by placing the knee and hand of the supporting arm on the bench. Position foot of opposite leg slightly back to the side. Grasp the dumbbell from the floor. Pull the dumbbell up to the side until it makes contact with ribs or until the upper arm is just beyond horizontal. Return until the arm is extended, and the shoulder is stretched downward. Repeat for 8-12 reps, then switch to the other side.
Unlike the seated row, a low pulley cable row has the added benefit of mimicking the same movement like the barbell row. It challenges your posture, core, and lower back.
Here's how to do it: Using a cable machine, attach a rope or short bar handle to a low pulley and set the appropriate weight on the machine. Grip the bar with your palms facing up, and take a few steps back placing your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart. Begin to hinge at the hips so the knees are slightly bent and your torso is leaning forward. Exhale as you pull the bar towards your belly button, squeezing your back and core muscles as you bring it up. Breathe in as you slowly extend your arms and then return the bar to the starting position.
In summary, as difficult as this exercise is, anyone can do it, not only bodybuilders or powerlifters. All it takes is knowing the right tools, consistency, and having a proper training routine. Luckily, now you have the necessary tools to help you achieve a bent-over barbell row with proper form and technique! And once you've mastered it you can go even heavier with the help of UPPPER Lifting Straps 😉