a heavy barbell on gym floor

How To Do Bent-Over Barbell Rows and Get Shredded

by Evelyn Valdez

Grab your UPPPER Lifting Belt and 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 targets your entire back muscles, and then some! Aside from targeting your entire back, it also targets your upper arms, core, and even some muscles in your lower body! Making it a key exercise for anyone trying to lose back fat, build a stronger back or better upper body strength.

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!

How to do a bent-over barbell row with proper form


There are two main types of barbell rows, one using an overhand grip and one using an underhand grip. The underhand barbell row is known as the Yates row, we'll be going over how to do this one because it's better for beginners and superior at training the biceps, latissimus dorsi (lats), trapezius (traps), and other upper body muscles.

Master proper barbell row technique and form by following the three steps below.

​​​​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 shoulders and 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, squeeze your shoulder blades and 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! Wrist straps 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).

Barbell Bent Over Row Alternatives

The 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 barbell bent over row alternatives that beginners can try:

  • Inverted row:

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.

  • Single-arm dumbbell row:

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.

  • Low pulley cable row: 

Unlike the seated cable row, a low pulley cable row has the added benefit of mimicking the same movement as 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 having the right tools, being consistent, and having a proper training routine - And now you do! So, follow the steps and tips above to master proper barbell row technique and form, and start building the strong back you've been dreaming of!

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