Illustration of a man doing the barbell row.

The barbell row, also known as the bent-over row, is one of the more popular compound lifts, and is commonly used in both strength training and bodybuilding workout routines. But what most people don’t realize is that powerlifters and bodybuilders use the barbell row for very different purposes.

In strength training routines, the barbell row is used as an assistance lift for the deadlift, used to strengthen the hips and spinal erectors. It’s a hip strength lift. In hypertrophy routines, the barbell row is used to stimulate muscle growth in the upper back, spinal erectors, and forearms. It’s an upper-body bulking lift. Both styles of row can be useful, both are great lifts. Which type of row you favour just depends on your goals. So, how should you do the barbell row if you goal is to gain muscle size and strength?

The next thing to consider is how the barbell row compares against the dumbbell row and the t-bar machine row, which are incredibly popular among bodybuilders as well as athletes. Does the barbell row have any special advantage or disadvantage?

Finally, we’ll teach you how to do the barbell row properly, and in a way that’s great for gaining both muscle size and general strength.

Illustration showing a skinny-fat man gaining muscle and losing belly fat.

The Barbell Row

The barbell row is a compound lift that’s used to strengthen the entire posterior chain, including both the hips and upper back. There are a number of different ways to perform the lift, each with their own pros and cons. When training for muscle size, most people will start in a hip hinge position and row the barbell to their stomachs, like so:

Illustration of a man doing the barbell row.
The barbell “bent-over” row.

The barbell row is popular in strength training and bodybuilding routines, and has a great carryover to general strength, fitness, and athleticism. As a result, it’s often considered once of the foundational barbell lifts, and is included in most intermediate and advanced workout routines, as well as some beginner ones.

Muscles Worked by the Barbell Row

The barbell row works a wide variety of muscles. It’s famous for being an upper back exercise, and it is, but it’s also much, much more than that. Our muscles grow best when we challenge them in a deep stretch, and holding a hip-hinge position means holding our glutes and hamstrings in a maximally stretched position. Our spinal erectors need to help stabilize the weight, too, giving them a great growth stimulus as well. That means that while we’re rowing with our upper backs, we’re also training all of the muscles in our posterior chain.

Illustration showing the muscles worked by the barbell row.

The next thing that’s interesting about the barbell row is that it’s quite good for building bigger forearms. It doesn’t train all of the muscles in our forearms, but it does train the brachioradialis, which is fairly big and has quite a lot of potential for growth:

Illustration showing the anatomy of our biceps, brachialis, and brachioradialis.

We have a few different muscles that can flex our forearms. Our biceps are the most famous, and they’re strongest when our palms are facing up. The classic barbell row doesn’t do a very good job of training them unless we use an underhand grip, and even then, it isn’t one of the better biceps exercises. The next forearm flexor is the brachialis, which sits underneath our biceps, and tends to be strongest when our palms are facing one another. But if you look at the brachioradialis, you’ll see that it twists around our wrists. It’s strongest when we use an overhand grip, as we do in the barbell row. That’s the muscle that helps us flex our arms when we row the barbell up. So, overall, the barbell row is poor lift for our biceps and upper arms, but it’s a great compound lift for bulking up our forearms.

The barbell row works the muscles in our upper backs, including our traps, lats, rhomboids, and rear delts. It also stimulates growth in our spinal erectors, hips, hamstrings, and forearms.

How to Do the Barbell Row

Here’s a tutorial video of Marco teaching the barbell row. Marco’s a certified strength coach with a degree in health sciences, and his specialty was helping college, professional, and Olympic athletes bulk up. He’s teaching how to row for muscle size, strength, and athleticism, not as a way of increasing your deadlift 1-rep max or power output, which we’ll cover down below.

Here’s how to set up for the barbell row:

  • Foot position: plant your feet in a sturdy position, about hip-width apart. This is the same position that you’d use for a conventional deadlift.
  • Grip width: similar to the bench press, there are a variety of different grip widths you can use for the barbell row. Most people grip the bar an inch or three outside the smooth of the barbell, but there’s nothing wrong with going a bit narrower or wider.
  • The hip hinge position: the barbell row starts in a hip hinge, similar to the bottom position of a Romanian deadlift. To get into that position, you can either deadlift the barbell up from the floor or pick it up from a rack. Note that there’s no magic depth. Just go as low as you can go, getting a nice stretch on your hamstrings and keeping your spine in a neutral position, same as when doing a Romanian deadlift.

And here’s how to do the barbell row:

  • Row the barbell up to your torso, thinking of driving your elbows back. Row to your lower chest if you’re using a wider grip; row lower in your stomach if you’re using a narrower grip. Either one is fine.
  • Lower the barbell down slowly and under control, taking 1–3 seconds to lower the barbell back down. This will keep tension on your muscles, stimulating some extra muscle growth.
  • Stretch your arms out. Some people row with their shoulder blades protracted throughout the lift. But as a general rule of thumb, we want to give our upper-back muscles a good stretch at the bottom of the lift. So reach out with your arms. Let your shoulder blades come apart. That extra range of motion at the bottom will help you gain more muscle size and strength.
  • Row the barbell back up. No need to pause, no need to rest the barbell on the ground. Better to keep the tension on your muscles all through your set.
Illustration of a man doing the barbell row.
How to do the barbell row.

When it comes to depth, note that this person is rowing from a bit below the knee. If you can go deeper without needing to bend your knees or round your back, great. The depth of your hip hinge should be determined by your mobility.

Barbell Row Grip Width

Using a wider grip and rowing the bar to your lower chest will work the rear delts and traps a bit harder, whereas gripping narrower and rowing lower on the stomach tends to hit the lats a bit harder. Neither is better or worse, it just depends on which muscles you’re trying to emphasize.

A good default is to grip the bar a bit wider than your deadlift, a bit narrower than your bench press. That usually winds up being an inch or three outside the smooth of the barbell. Then, if you notice that you aren’t stimulating your lats, grip the bar a bit narrower and row lower on your torso. Or, if you’re only feeling it in your lats, try griping a bit wider and rowing a bit higher

Barbell Row Rep Range

The barbell row is a big compound lift that can be done quite heavy. In strength training routines, it’s common to do them for sets of five repetitions. But unless you have a good reason for doing them in such low rep ranges, you might want to consider doing higher.

When doing rows for 5–8 reps per set, it’s common for guys to have trouble maintaining their spinal position, and even when they do, they have trouble feeling the muscle working their upper-back muscles. They just feel kind of fatigued in their hips and core, and maybe their upper traps, not unlike when doing deadlifts.

When doing rows for 10–20 reps per set, though, core strength will often stop being a limiting factor, allowing people to work their upper-back muscles harder, and thus stimulate more overall muscle growth. Another benefit is that the lower back won’t get quite as fatigued, which can save some energy for your other lifts, such as the squat and deadlift (where it often makes sense to lift in lower rep ranges).

If you’re trying to gain muscle size, then, it’s often better to row for something like 15 reps per set, but anywhere from 8–20 reps will often work well.

Should We Use Lifting Straps for Barbell Rows?

As a general rule of thumb, beginners often benefit from avoiding lifting straps. But as they get stronger, grip strength often becomes a limiting factor on lifts that aren’t designed to tax our grip. The barbell row is one of those lifts. We aren’t rowing to just improve our grip strength, we’re also trying to bulk up our upper backs and posterior chains. If your grip strength is limiting you, then, it can make sense to get some lifting straps.

Of the various types of lifting straps, Mike Israetel, PhD, is a fan of Versa Grips (affiliate link). Compared to regular lifting straps, I fully agree, they’re quite a bit more convenient.

Then, if you want to focus on improving your grip strength, you can do barbell holds or hang from the chin-up bar. That way you can train your grip strength without sacrificing your upper-back gains.

Does the Barbell Row Give us a Thicker Back?

There’s an old bodybuilding adage that vertical pulls, such as the chin-up, give us wider backs, whereas horizontal pulls, such as the barbell row, give us thicker backs. Is that true?

Illustration of a bodybuilding flexing his back and biceps.
A wide back from doing chin-ups.

Chin-ups are great for training the lats with a large range of motion and with a deep stretch, giving us wider backs, but they don’t train our spinal erectors, meaning they won’t make our backs thicker. The barbell row, on the other hand, isn’t quite as good at training our lats—the range of motion is smaller and the resistance curve isn’t as good—but it’s quite good for training our spinal erectors, meaning that it will do a good job of making our backs thicker:

Before and after illustration of a man building a thicker torso.
A thick back from doing barbell row.

The catch is that if you do your rows with your back supported, such as with one-armed dumbbells rows, seal rows, chest-supported rows, or t-bar machine rows, then you won’t be training your spinal erectors, and so you won’t be building a thicker back. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, especially since the front squat and conventional deadlift can both do a good job of training the spinal erectors. It just helps to know the differences between different lifts.

Yes, the barbell row does indeed help us build thicker backs by bulking up our spinal erectors. This makes it unique from a number of other back lifts, such as the chin-up, dumbbell row, lat pulldown, and pullover.

The Barbell Row vs The Pendlay Row

There are a few different ways to do the barbell row, and so which style you choose will depend on your goals. In strength training routines, the barbell row is an assistance lift for the deadlift. It’s used to strengthen the spinal erectors, hips, grip, and hamstrings. To do that, people will usually start in a conventional deadlift position and row the barbell from the floor, like so:

Illustration of a man doing the Pendlay barbell row.

Then, similar to the deadlift, they’ll let it fall quickly back down. This is often called a Pendlay barbell row, named after Glenn Pendlay, a famous weightlifting coach. That’s the type of row you’ll see in strength training routines like StrongLifts 5×5 and Starting Strength.

In bodybuilding routines, the barbell row used to build size in the upper back and forearms. The goal isn’t to improve hip strength but rather to improve our upper-body muscle size, strength, and aesthetics. To do that, people will start in a Romanian deadlift position and row the barbell from midair, like so:

Illustration of a man doing a classic barbell row, as a bodybuilder would.

This shifts the emphasis to the upper body, and it becomes a better lift for the upper back and forearms. Each rep is done with a bodybuilding tempo, lifting explosively and lowering slowly and under control. This helps to build muscle on both the way up and the way down. Plus, since the weight is never resting on the ground, tension is kept on our muscles all through the set, making it quite a bit better for gaining muscle size.

Both barbell row variations are useful, and both are quite good for gaining general strength. After all, in either case, you need to support the weight with your hips and spinal erectors, and then row it up using your upper back muscles. The main difference is in how muscle growth it produces. If you’re trying to gain muscle size in your upper back forearms, it’s usually better to row from midair, lower the barbell down more slowly, and not set it down on the ground between reps.

The Barbell Row vs the Dumbbell Row

The next rowing variations we can compare are the barbell row and the dumbbell row. Both are quite good at working our upper back muscles, but when we’re rowing dumbbells, we usually planting our hands for support, taking the strain off of our lower backs.

Illustration of a man doing a 3-point dumbbell row.

It’s common for beginner lifters to struggle with their lower back stabilization and strength. If you’re already doing deadlift and squat variations, you lower back might already be tired and sore, and so when you’re training your upper back, it can become a limiting factor, preventing you from stimulating much growth in your upper-back muscles.

Even as an intermediate lifter with a strong lower back, you might already be working your spinal erectors quite hard with your deadlift and squat variations. If your spinal erectors are already overworked, it can help to choose a row variation where they’re supported, allowing you to stimulate more growth in your upper back.

If your lower back feels strong, though, the barbell row tends to engage more overall muscle mass, and gives you more bang for your bulk.

Dumbbell Alternative to the Barbell Row

A good dumbbell alternative to the barbell row is the two-point dumbbell row, where instead of resting your hand on a bench, you row from hip hinge position, like so:

Illustration of a man doing a dumbbell version of the barbell row.
The two-point dumbbell row.

You can do these with one or two dumbbells. If you do it one dumbbell at a time, there will be less load on your spinal erectors, but your obliques will need to fire to keep your torso from twisting, making it a great core exercise. If you use two dumbbells, you’ll have twice the weight on your spinal erectors, making it more similar to the barbell row.

The Barbell Row vs the T-Bar Row

In our article on exercise machines, we covered a new study by Schwanbeck et al showing that muscle growth from exercise machines was comparable to muscle growth from barbell lifts. We still recommend defaulting to barbell or dumbbell lifts as your default choices, but machines can work quite well if you know what you’re doing.

Illustration of a bodybuilder doing a t-bar row using an exercise machine.
The t-bar row machine.

What makes the t-bar row machine unique is that it improves the strength curve of the barbell row by quite a bit. See, the barbell row is hardest at the top of the range of motion, where our lats are the weakest, and easiest at the bottom of the range of motion, where our lats are the strongest. Worse, it’s when our muscles are stretched that we can stimulate the most muscle growth. Now, that doesn’t mean that the barbell row is a bad lift. After all, it’s great for the hips and hamstrings, and it works a number of other muscles in our upper backs, not just our lats.

What’s nice about the t-bar row machine, though, is that it makes the lift harder at the bottom of the lift, easier at the top, lining up better with our strength curves. It’s a big enough improvement that when most people try it, they notice that it feels quite a bit better. They can feel their lats being hit harder.

T-bar row machines usually have a pad that supports your chest, meaning that it won’t bulk your spinal erectors. You can find machines or doodads that let you do it them without your chest supported, though. That’s why you’ll see guys setting up a barbell in the corner of the room and doing rows with it.

Summary

The barbell row is a great compound lift for working the posterior chain, upper back, and forearms. Not only is it great for gaining muscle size and strength, but it also serves as a great accessory lift for the deadlift. The only downside is that it’s hard on the lower back, making it better for intermediate and advanced lifters who are already fairly strong at the conventional or Romanian deadlift.

Of all the ways of doing the barbell row, the best default is to row from a hip hinge position, similar to the bottom portion of a Romanian deadlift. From there, we can keep constant tension on our muscles during the set, lifting explosively and then lowering the barbell back down slowly and under control. That will stimulate the greatest amount of muscle growth per set.

Barbell rows often work best in moderate-to-high rep ranges, somewhere in the neighbourhood of 8–20 reps, with 15 reps per set being a good default. Some people with especially strong lower backs can benefit from going as low as 5 reps per set, though.

Cover illustration of the Outlift intermediate bulking program for naturally skinny guys.

If you want a customizable workout program (and full guide) that builds these principles in, check out our Outlift Intermediate Bulking Program. Or, if you’re still skinny, try our Bony to Beastly (men’s) program or Bony to Bombshell (women’s) program. If you liked this article, I think you’d love our full programs.

Shane Duquette is the co-founder and creative lead of Outlift, Bony to Beastly, and Bony to Bombshell, and has a degree in design from York University in Toronto, Canada. He's personally gained sixty pounds at 11% body fat and has nine years of experience helping nearly ten thousand skinny people bulk up.

Marco Walker-Ng is the co-founder and strength coach of Outlift, Bony to Beastly, and Bony to Bombshell, and is a certified trainer (PTS) with a Bachelor's degree in Health Sciences (BHSc) from the University of Ottawa. His specialty is helping people build muscle to improve their strength and general health, with clients including college, professional, and Olympic athletes.

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2 Comments

  1. Tomas on October 7, 2020 at 8:39 pm

    Hi Shane, great article. I circuit with bench press but I have only one standard barbell, so I use the ez bar for rowing instead. Using the EZ-Bar should be fine right ?

    • Shane Duquette on October 9, 2020 at 10:30 am

      Hey Tomas, thank you! Barbell rows are awesome to superset/circuit with the bench press. I often do the same thing. And yeah, totally cool to use an EZ-bar. Makes the grip more comfortable, I find.You can use the more overhand grip for more forearm/brachialis work, the underhand grip for more biceps/ work 🙂

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