Bent Over Barbell Row Exercise Guide
The bent over barbell row is one of the most important exercises for the large muscles of your back – the latissimus dorsi – and will give you the classic “V” shape. That’s because the bulk of the stress of the barbell row is applied to the latissimus dorsi, which is the muscle responsible for the “V” shape. This is a large, flat muscle whose Latin root means “broad of the back.” Even though the latissimus dorsi, or lat muscles, are situated on the back, they are in effect arm muscles; their action is to draw the arm back behind the midline of the body and downward. In action, their movement resembles that of rowing a boat or climbing a rope.
Furthermore, it is a multi-joint exercise that builds good posture, helps prevent back injuries, and also provides a thorough lower-body and core workout. The barbell bent-over row is one of the most prominent horizontal-pull exercise, the opposite of the barbell bench press.
Bent Over Barbell Row Proper Technique
STARTING POSITION (SETUP): Flex your knees slightly and bend over so that your back is almost parallel to the floor, with your feet hip-width (shoulder-width) apart. Keeping your back flat, grip a barbell with an overhand shoulder-width (or just slightly wider than shoulder-width apart) grip. Make sure your spine is in a neutral position. Your hips should be behind your feet and your knees should be bent, with your torso angled forwards so that your shoulders are slightly above your hips. The barbell should be above your shoelaces. Your chest should be up, your abdomen pulled in, and your chin slightly raised.
MOVEMENT (ACTION): Keeping your torso in the same position, pull the barbell directly upwards to your mid-torso (to your abdomen), just below your rib cage. Your forearms travel vertically and your elbows are pulled directly upwards, above the plane of your back. In other words, your elbows should be higher than your back in final position. Squeeze your shoulders down and back. Inhale and lower the bar in the same path, close to and parallel with your lower legs.
Bent-Over Barbell Row Additional Tips (Key Points)
- Your centre of mass remains stationary. Your upper arms move from a forward, downward-facing position backwards and upwards, while your lower arms remain forward and downward facing.
- Keep your back straight (tighten up your abs and lower back); if you allow it to become rounded and loose its flat, neutral position, the forces acting on the base of spine increase dramatically and the risk of injury is high.
- Keep your lower back flat or slightly arched, and your torso at an angle slightly above horizontal to the floor.
- Look for your neck and head to be aligned with your back. Keep your chest elevated.
- Pull the bar up until it touches your abdominals, without moving your legs or torso out of the position described above. It is tempting to move your torso upwards with the bar to generate momentum. This reduces the work on the back muscles and increases the risk of injury.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades together at the top of the movement.
- Do not allow your shoulders to collapse forward either during or after the lift when you return the bar to the floor.
- Swinging the body.
- Curving the back.
- Bringing the barbell up to the chest.
- Wide/narrow hand spacing. Spacing your hands shoulder-width apart or closer targets the central inner section of the latissimus dorsi, whereas a wider grip targets the outer latissimus dorsi.
- Underhand/overhand grip. An underhand (supinated) grip on the bar facilitates a closer hand spacing, emphasizing shoulder extension and targeting the central inner section of the latissimus dorsi. With an underhand grip, a greater contribution from the biceps brachii provides added strength during the row.
- Movemet path (trajectory). Pulling the bar up higher toward the chest targets the upper latissimus dorsi and trapezius. Pulling the bar through a lower trajectory to touch the abdomen targets the lower latissimus dorsi.
Replacement Exercises (Substitutes)
To add variety to your middle back workout routine, replace the bent over barbell row with a different exercise that works the same muscles (latissimus dorsi). Use dumbbells, cables, a gym machine or your own body weight to perform the rowing motion without a barbell.
Let’s look at the best middle back exercises with the rowing motion for building muscle and strength.
- Dumbbell bent-over row
- One-arm dumbbell row
- Seated cable row
- Smith-machine bent-over row
- Machine row
- T-bar row
- Supported T-bar row
- Body row
This is a great overall exercise. It not only works muscles in the back, but also in the shoulders, butt, and the back of the thighs. Since the bent-over position requires you to keep your stomach tight and your back flat, it provides an ab and lower-back workout as well.
- Main muscles: latissimus dorsi, teres major and minor, deltoid (rear)
- Secondary muscles: rhomboids, biceps, brachialis, brachioradialis, trapezius, infraspinatus, lower back muscles – erector spinae
- Antagonists: pectoralis major, triceps, deltoid (front)
The bent over barbell row is a basic yet demanding exercise. It works all of the back muscles effectively, the latissimus dorsi in particular. It is an excellent way to thicken the middle muscle fibers in this area and to gain overall strength, as it also gives the torso and legs an isometric workout.
With the exception of perhaps the deadlift (and pull-up), the bent-over row is arguably the king of all back exercises. The key to your form on the bent over barbell row is to exaggerate the arch in your lower back as you bend your knees. This will help protect your spine from injury while simultaneously putting yourself in your strongest position possible. So the key to the row is to keep your body’s center of gravity directly over your legs, holding your torso in the same plane throughout the exercise.