The barbell row is one of the all-time great compound exercises. For building superior strength in the upper back, posterior deltoids, and arms, the barbell row has no equal.
Widely regarded as a foundational movement, barbell rowing is an integral component of any strength-developing programme. And its place of prominence should be equal to that of other classic compound exercises such as the squat, deadlift, and barbell shoulder press.
Be warned before trying barbell rows
Though a simple exercise, the barbell row is often performed incorrectly. While we of course should observe strict form with every exercise, it is more important that we do so when practicing complex, multi-joint movements.
The potential for injury is significantly greater when executing a technically challenging exercise, such as the barbell row, deadlift, or squat, than it is during a simple isolation movement, such as a biceps curl, or shoulder shrug.
This comprehensive tutorial will equip you with the key technical points of the barbell row so that you can perform the exercise correctly and safely. In addition, the article concludes with a link to a short video demonstration that displays the technique in motion.
Barbell row benefits
As illustrated in the book Strength Training Anatomy, the barbell row engages a wide range of muscles. It’s this attribute of the barbell row that makes it such a powerful upper body exercise.
But the benefits of barbell rowing extend beyond those of building back and arm strength.
Improved sport performance
One such additional benefit is how barbell rowing can improve performance in specific sports. Certain swimming strokes, for example, rely heavily on back strength and pulling power. The same can be said of rowing; concluding the initial drive out of the ‘catch’, the back and arms account for the greater portion of the stroke.
The barbell row targets many of the muscles that are recruited when performing these two sports. Thus, by including more barbell rowing into their workouts, practitioners of the two example sporting disciplines, could improve their performance.
Furthermore, because barbell rowing engages the upper echelons of the posterior chain, it can improve postural alignment. Poor posture is typically a result of weaknesses in the lower and upper back.
Weaknesses in these areas can make holding correct postural positions when seated more challenging. Thus, people with undeveloped back muscles are more likely to slouch or hunch. This compounds the problem.
Strengthening the posterior chain can help rectify poor posture while making it easier to hold correct positions. Two of the best exercises for improving posterior chain strength include the barbell row and deadlift.
Related: Best Olympic Barbell for the home gym
Benefits of barbell rows
Improves strength in the upper back and arms
Activates the posterior chain
Engages a wide range of muscles
Can enhance performance in certain sports
Strengthens postural alignment
Muscles targeted by the barbell row
The range of muscles that barbell rowing actively engages is extensive. According to Strength Training Anatomy, when barbell rowing the lats, teres major, posterior deltoids, arm flexors, biceps, brachialis, brachioradialis, rhomboids, and trapezes are all stimulated. These are the primary agonists that assist the exercise.
However, the barbell row also works the spinal erectors and quadriceps isometrically.
How to perform the barbell row
Before attempting the barbell row, reflect on the warning advanced in Strength Training Anatomy. ‘To avoid any risk of injury, make sure your back is never rounded throughout the movement.’
To get the Olympic barbell into position, perform the first phase of a deadlift.
Standing in the upright position, the bar is resting against the upper quads.
The feet and hands should be spaced a little over shoulder-width.
Keeping a slight bend locked at the knee, hinge forward at the hips until the bar is level with the patella.
The back remains perfectly flat and you are looking to your front.
Under control, row the bar until it touches your stomach. As you do so try and keep the elbows tucked in.
To complete the movement, straighten the arms.
How to modify the bent over row
The barbell row can be performed with dumbbells, kettlebell sets, and even training bands. These resistance alternatives offer a dynamic exercise experience and can engage the muscles in ways a barbell cannot.
For example, rowing with a pair of kettlebells requires significantly more control than when using a barbell. Stabilising the kettlebells throughout the movement requires additional muscle engagement.
Rowing with a resistance band offers a number of novel outcomes. First, the resistance of the band increases as you pull it to your abdomen. This helps to increase strength gains at the weakest point of the movement – at peak contraction. Also, for those who do not have access to an Olympic barbell, a resistance band provides an inexpensive alternative.
Barbell row dos and don’ts
Do make sure that you make your training area is clear prior to performing the exercise.
Don’t round the back.
Do select a weight suitable for your level of strength.
Don’t ‘cock’ the wrists or allow your elbows to splay out.
Do form a solid base with your feet before attempting the lift.
Don’t ‘hinge’ or ‘bounce’ at the hips and knees to get leverage on the bar.
Do use deadlifting shoes as they improve the stability of your base.
Don’t look down at your feet as this will cause you back to round.
Watch the barbell row video tutorial
When you've mastered the barbell bent-over row, you're ready to put it into practice in this Compound Workout Routine.