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June 13, 2022 8 min read

A popular pulling exercise that you've likely seen in the gym and maybe even performed yourself is the barbell row, also known as the bent-over row. It's a compound exercise that targets the upper back and lower back as well as the biceps to aid in the pulling motion. 

Pulling exercises like pull-ups and deadlifts can benefit from the barbell row because similar muscles are used in these exercises.

That makes it a great move for powerlifters, CrossFitters, and regular gym-goers to implement into their routine. 

Anyone that goes to the gym regularly can tell you that variety is important not just for your muscles but for your own focus and motivation. Varying exercises and a mental support formula like Focused-AF can help you stay on track. The barbell row is a staple for building strength and muscle, but changing it up can help your body and keep your workouts interesting. 

Benefits of the Barbell Row 

Although the barbell row is great for building your back muscles, that's not the only thing it's good for.

The lats, rhomboids, trapezius, rear deltoids, and spinal erectors are under tension during this exercise, helping to build not only a stronger back, but stronger deadlifts and back squats.

The barbell row can help improve overall upper body strength, which can translate to other lifts and everyday life. 

A strong back can look good on the outside, but the benefits it can provide inside can help further aid in daily function.

Developing the muscles in the back is a beneficial way to help improve core and spinal stability, as well as posture.

Poor posture can cause shoulder, neck, and back pain, along with more serious conditions like exhaustion, hypertension, and decreased mood.

Spinal stability is also important for helping reduce pain in the neck and back, and it is essential for helping reduce the risk of injury in and outside the gym.   

The big muscles in your back are responsible for the heavy lifting, but you wouldn't be able to even hold the weight without strength in your forearms and overall grip.

Holding onto the heavy bar through multiple reps can help grow stubborn forearm muscle and improve grip strength. 

What are Some Good Alternatives? 

Having a solid back exercise like the barbell row in your workout routine is important, but having alternatives up your sleeve can help make your workout even better. You may need an alternative simply to add variety to your upper body day, or if all the free weights are taken.

If you're a bodybuilder, building muscle mass is one of your top priorities, and having alternatives that may isolate muscles just a little more can help that.

If you're a beginner, the barbell row may be something to build up to since the hip hinged position that can require hamstring and glute activation may suffer. 

Whatever the case may be, it's always good to have alternative exercises for your workout. Luckily, there are plenty of exercises that mimic the same movement pattern or work similar muscle groups as the barbell row does.     

1. Dumbbell Row 

Almost identical to the barbell row is the dumbbell row. The name should give away the difference with this alternative, but the benefits may not be as obvious. It targets the same muscles as the barbell row, but it also recruits the core and shoulders to help with stabilization.

Using dumbbells versus a barbell can require more balance, which can help to improve overall stability in the back, core, and shoulders. 

The movement pattern is the same, but the dumbbells allow you to train both sides of your body equally, which can help correct muscle imbalances. Although the barbell allows you to pull a heavier weight, using the lighter dumbbells for higher repetitions can help build muscle hypertrophy. 

How to do the Dumbbell Row: 

  • Hold one dumbbell in each hand.
  • Bend your knees slightly and hinge at your hips.
  • Hold this position and pull your shoulder blades down and back.
  • Maintain a flat back as you pull both dumbbells up towards your torso.
  • Lower all the way back down for a full range of motion.       

2. Seated Cable Row 

The seated cable row uses a cable pulley machine to perform a rowing movement, and it works similar muscle groups to the barbell row.

Since you're seated on a machine, you have more support that would otherwise be the responsibility of the stabilizer muscles.

This can help isolate the back more, which can help build more muscle mass. Lifters of all fitness levels can perform this exercise, and you can easily adjust the weight for more or less intensity. 

Although a compound exercise, the seated cable row primarily focuses on the latissimus dorsi muscles and can be beneficial for building a wider back. You can also improve your pulling strength to carry over to Olympic weightlifting or powerlifting. 

How to do the Seated Cable Row: 

  • Sit on a bench in front of a cable machine and grab the handle.
  • With your back straight, pull your shoulder blades back like you're pinching them together and keep your arms extended. This is your starting position.
  • Maintain this position as you pull the handle in a straight line towards your sternum, keeping your core tight.
  • Slowly extend your arms to the starting position.     

3. Single-Arm Dumbbell Row

Performing unilateral exercises can help ensure that both sides of your body are equally strong and muscular.

The barbell can build strength and muscle, but if one side is weaker than the other, it could be limiting the amount of weight you're able to lift.

The single-arm dumbbell row can help expose these weaknesses and improve them. It's typically performed on a bench to provide more stability and allow you to pull a heavier weight. 

Since you are only using one arm, it can require more balance and stability, which can improve your overall strength. Improving the imbalances in your upper body can help your bilateral exercise performance and may just be what's holding you back from that PR. 

How to do the Single-Arm Dumbbell Row: 

  • Place the same hand and same knee on a bench with the opposite foot planted on the floor for balance.
  • Hold one dumbbell in your free hand with your arm fully extended.
  • Keep your back flat and core tight as you row the weight up towards your ribcage.
  • Be sure to keep your shoulders square the whole time.
  • Squeeze your shoulder blades at the top of the movement and slowly lower back to the starting position.   

4. Gorilla Row  

You probably won't acquire the strength of a gorilla, but the gorilla row can help you build ultimate strength in your upper and lower body. The hip hinged position you hold is similar to that of a deadlift and can build strength, control, and endurance through the legs.

The muscles worked by the barbell row are also worked by the gorilla row, and you get the added core and spine stability work. 

One of the big things that sets this exercise apart from the barbell row, besides the position, is the alternating dumbbells in each hand. As one arm rows up, the other arm presses down with the weight on the floor. The alternating movement helps build stability through the core and mobility through the shoulders. 

How to do the Gorilla Row: 

  • Hold one dumbbell or kettlebell in a neutral grip on each side.
  • Bend your knees slightly more than you would a barbell row and hinge at your hips until you reach the ground with the weights.
  • Maintain a neutral spine as you row one arm up.
  • The other arm should stay extended while pressing the weight into the ground.
  • Lower the lifted weight and repeat on the other side.   

5. Resistance Band Row 

Even if you don't have weights, you can still perform a rowing exercise. The resistance band row is a convenient, effective exercise that can be performed at the gym or at home.

Resistance bands can produce similar strength gains to that of traditional strength training and can help improve performance in the gym and function in everyday life.

Since the band is elastic, it helps maintain constant tension in your muscles.  

This alternative targets the upper back muscles and can help build overall upper body strength for other pulling and even pushing exercises like the bench press. Not to mention that the resistance band is versatile and easy to use, making it a great option for lifters of all fitness levels. 

How to do the Resistance Band Row: 

  • Wrap a resistance band around a stable apparatus like the leg of a squat rack or even your own feet.
  • Pull both sides of the bands tightly and maintain an upright position with your arms fully extended and about shoulder-width apart.
  • Keep your back straight and core tight as you pull both sides of the band towards your ribcage.
  • Slowly extend your arms back out.    

6. Incline Dumbbell Row 

The lower lats can often lack strength and mass due to angles only hitting the upper lats or poor range of motion. What you may not realize is the lower lats are important for spine support, back muscle balance, and even breathing.

The incline dumbbell row is one of the exercises that helps to target those often neglected muscles because of the different angle you're pulling from. 

Since you're recruiting a different part of your back that may be weaker, the incline dumbbell row can help improve your other lifts and overall upper body strength. The use of the bench not only changes the angle, but it also eliminates the ability to use momentum, which can be considered cheating. 

How to do the Incline Dumbbell Row: 

  • Lie on an incline bench of about a 45 degree angle.
  • With your arms fully extended, hold one dumbbell in each hand with a neutral grip.
  • Row the dumbbells up to your sides by squeezing your shoulder blades together.
  • Slowly lower the weights down to the starting position.        

7. Inverted Row

Some of the most easily adjustable and accessible exercises are bodyweight ones. For the inverted row, all you need is a stable apparatus and your own body. It's a great alternative because it mimics the movement of the barbell row, except you're pulling your body up instead of the weight.

The inverted row recruits similar muscle groups in the upper body, as well as the glutes, hamstrings, and core to stabilize. 

Holding onto the bar can help improve grip strength and can help improve other pulling exercises. Since it's easily adjustable, it can be great for beginners or more advanced lifters because all you need to do is make the angle of your body more or less aggressive for your ability.    

How to do the Inverted Row: 

  • Position yourself on a stable bar that's low enough to the ground that you can angle your body while still extending your arms.
  • Grab the bar with an overhand grip and angle your body under the bar.
  • Keep your body in a straight line by squeezing your core and glutes.
  • Pull yourself up towards the bar and slowly lower back down. 

Let's Wrap Up 

Whichever alternative you decide to perform, know that proper form is crucial for muscle growth and development, as well as injury prevention.

Your back is an extremely important part of your body for posture, strength, body balance, and overall function.

If you don't take care of it, your lifts and your quality of life can suffer. 

The barbell row is one of the best exercises you can do for your back, and luckily, there are plenty of alternatives that can provide similar and unique benefits. You don't always need a barbell and weight plates to get gains.

You can use dumbbells, resistance bands, TRX straps, and even your own bodyweight to see results. Change up your workout and don't be afraid to step out of your comfort zone.