October 09, 2020 10 min read
Strengthening the upper back can sometimes seem daunting.
There’s a lot of big muscles up there, and they’re not necessarily “mirror” muscles either—so how do you even know if things are looking good?
Yet whatever our feelings on the matter, the back will always remain as one of the most important parts of our bodies to train. Outside of the aesthetic benefits of giving us a straighter posture, the back—and especially the upper back—is absolutely essential when it comes to improving our largest lifts. A.k.a. the bench press, deadlift, and squat.
So, out of the myriad of back exercises, what’s one of the best ways to beef up your back? The good ol’ classic barbell bent-over row, or barbell row for short. In the vast world of rows, the barbell row stands as one of the best compound exercises for an upper back workout—but it won’t just be your back that ends up getting ripped.
Like we just mentioned, as a compound movement the barbell row has benefits that cascade into all of your other lifts. But the ones you’re probably most interested in (bench press/deadlift/squat) are particularly benefited from a strong upper back.
For the squat, your traps and rear deltoids are where the barbell has to sit, the latissimus dorsi and rhomboids maintain the bar’s position and the lats aid in keeping the chest up.
The bench press necessitates a strong back since the shoulder blades need to be squeezed together for proper form; this happens thanks to the lats, rhomboids, and middle traps. A strong back also allows you to maintain an arch in your back throughout the lift.
And last but not least, the deadlift has you engaging your entire upper back to keep the bar close to your body.
It’s a lot of these muscle groups that end up limiting your big lifts, so it makes sense that giving them some proper TLC will allow the stars of the show to really shine. And of course, the full-body engagement of the barbell row will ensure that all of your other lifts see improvements as well. This is especially the case when looking at improving hip hinge mechanics with your other lifts; the barbell row provides a terrific training opportunity in this department.
While some compound exercises only squeak into “compound” territory by engaging a few muscle groups, that’s definitely not the case with the classic row.
Obviously, the back muscles. This includes the:
But it doesn’t stop there. Your abdominals also have to work in conjunction with several of your leg muscles in order to keep you stable and in a powerful position. For example, your glutes and hamstrings are necessary for getting the bar moving in the first place while also keeping your back in a stable position.
Finally, your arms come into play as well. This includes your biceps to bend your elbow when lifting the bar, and also your triceps to bring the upper arm behind the torso. Lastly, you need strong forearm muscles to actually grip the barbell.
Down below, we have everything you need to know.
While rows can be done with all manner of equipment, including the t-bar row and dumbbell row, we’re going to be looking specifically at the barbell bent-over row. So, all you really need is a barbell, some plates, and some space. However, if you’re not using either 45-pound plates or bumper plates, you will need some sort of rack to place the bar on—otherwise, your form will be off.
We’ll first go through the general step by step instructions for how to barbell row, and then dive deeper into what makes the perfect row, a perfect row.
1. You want to begin by standing with your feet hip-width apart, with the bar positioned directly over top of your feet. Bending down and hinging at the hips, grasp the bar with an overhand grip. Your hands should be shoulder-width apart.
2. At this point, you should be in the conventional deadlift position. That means your back should be flat and your shoulders need to be pulled back and down. Keep your arms straight and taught, keeping tension between yourself and the bar. Your chest should be up.
3. Engaging your core and glutes while keeping the back flat, initiate the motion by pulling your shoulders back along with your lats, while your elbows drive back as well.
4. The bar should just touch (or almost just touch) your torso around the bottom of your ribcage.
5. Lower the bar in a controlled manner until your arms are straight and you’ve come back to the starting position. Maintain the same angle of your torso while also keeping your back flat and core tight throughout the entire movement.
That’s the essence of a proper barbell row, but let’s take a closer look at what really makes this movement tick.
Beginning in the proper positioning is important since the better your positioning, the easier it’ll be to move the weight.
Much like the deadlift, you want the bar to be as close to your body as possible as you pull it up. The closer it is to your body, the more control and power you have over it—but if you’re starting with the barbell way in front of you, that’s going to mean less force goes into pulling it straight up.
So, you want the bar somewhere between your shins and the middle of your feet, but that also depends on how tall you are and your overall body composition.
You then want to engage your abs while inhaling before hinging at the hips and pushing them back. You also want to slightly bend at the knees, with your shins being nearly vertical to the floor. While this does sound “deadlift-esque”, barbell row form differs in that your hips are higher to allow for straightening your legs more. The goal here is to have your back about parallel to the ground.
Reaching down, you want to grab hold of the bar with an overhand grip and your thumbs should be hooked around. Along with keeping your shoulders tucked down and back, your back should also remain flat as you keep your eyes focused at a spot about 4 feet away. Your head shouldn’t move to look at something up high, and neither should you be looking at your feet.
You begin the movement by raising your hips to jerk the bar off of the ground. Immediately after this initial jerk, your elbows should start pulling up towards the ceiling.
Your shoulders should be rising along with your hips—and ensure that your back is still remaining flat.
As the weight moves up, keep pulling until you reach the bottom of the rib cage. As it travels upwards, the bar should remain in close contact with your shins, and your knees should move out of the way as your body straightens through the lift.
This last point is important because that’s what allows you to move the bar along the most efficient path—straight up. You don’t want to be moving the bar towards you during the lift.
The descent is basically all the motions but in reverse. It comes down to your arms straightening out downwards, and then once you’ve reached that limit, your hips should also drop down to place the weight back on the floor.
Especially if you’re moving heavier weights, you’re not going to be able to go down slowly—so don’t try. This isn’t one of those “slowly descend” exercises that try to maximize time under tension. You’ll be wanting to move that weight down, but also make it a controlled descent.
Throughout the entire time making sure that your back is straight and your core is engaged. Your head should also not be looking really far or really close to you.
Now, whether you place the bar on the ground between reps is ultimately up to you (and a lot of people don’t), but it is recommended. Not only are you going to be getting a fuller range of motion if you go through the entire motion (duh), but it’ll also be difficult to keep going if you’re using heavier weights and only lowering the bar a few inches above the ground each time.
As with most compound exercises, row technique is king. And that becomes especially apparent when seeing all the things that can go wrong—and commonly do go wrong.
While we’ve tried to stress the most important points in the how-to section, there are some common mistakes that you’ll do well to avoid if you want to reap the fullest benefits from this exercise.
This goes for almost all exercises, but jerky and bouncy movements are the most common and problematic of the mistakes.
And as with most exercises, this usually comes down to using a heavy weight that’s too heavy. You need to be controlling the barbell throughout the entire motion. And while it might feel good to be chasing numbers with the loads and the reps, you’ll get a lot more out of the lift if you focus on high-quality reps.
Otherwise, you’re letting momentum do all the heavy lifting.
We’ve been saying it over and over again, but it’s worth repeating again: keep your back straight and maintain the angle of your torso. While the torso will move slightly throughout the motion, you want it to be at a relatively consistent angle.
This can either look like your torso coming down too far, or having you progressively stand more and more upright. If it’s at a 45-degree angle or more, that’s bad news.
And just like with bouncy movements, keeping the correct angle is also about keeping the correct plates on the bar.
This usually means your core isn’t up to par with the load you’re moving, so it’s best to either improve your core strength or lower the weights—or just ensure that you’re performing the technique the correct way.
Another common issue is—you guessed it—not maintaining a flat back throughout the lift.
Your spine is super important, we all know that. And putting yourself in this kind of position that places unnecessary tension on your spine isn’t a good move. The barbell row doesn’t necessarily have a sterling reputation among some gym-goers, and the back issue is a central problem to that.
Of course, if you keep your form up to par, then you don’t have much to worry about.
If you’re looking to fix a rounding back issue, make sure that you’re properly engaging your abs. You should be bracing them as if you’re expecting a punch to the gut. Otherwise, the problem probably lies with weights that are too heavy.
While this might be obvious to some, it’s worthwhile repeating: your wrists shouldn’t be movers in this exercise.
Not only does this take away from the engagement that your back muscles should be experiencing, but it can also be a major point of failure and can lead to injuries over the long term. Keep your wrists straight and think of them as hooks rather than part of the lift itself.
Your neck isn’t a mover as well (surprise, surprise)—but that doesn’t mean it’s out of the mistake-swamp just yet. Don’t look too far down or too far up. Doing that can throw the alignment of the rest of your spine off, and that’s a recipe for both instability and injuries.
Ensure that your neck is aligned with the rest of your spine by looking at a point just a few feet in front of you.
This is a big one: flaring the elbows outwards during the lift.
For one, if you flare your elbows out then it usually results in your chest dipping down—effectively disengaging some of the prime movers of the lift. Good news if you’re trying to leave gains on the table.
But perhaps more importantly, flared elbows increase the stress on your lower back and is more likely to cause you shoulder pain.
To mediate this potential problem, make sure that both the barbell travels in a vertical line over your midfoot, and that your elbows are flared at just about a 45-degree angle from the rest of your body. It can help to envision a string tying them together through the whole movement.
The one exercise that’s most associated with the barbell row (that isn’t the barbell row), is the Pendlay row.
Named after Olympic weightlifting coach Glenn Pendlay, this lift is almost the exact same through and through. The difference lies in two key aspects.
For one, you don’t use your legs to initiate the movement at all. This means your torso maintains the same position, and it also generally means you’re not able to move as much weight as with a conventional barbell row. However, the primary movers (your upper back) get a more solid workout since it all comes down to them.
However, if you’re looking to bring things down a notch as a beginner, consider including the inverted row into your routine. It has much of the same benefits as a regular barbell row, but it’s much easier.
This exercise has you standing upright and leaned back as you hold onto a bar. Then, you pull yourself up and back down for the “row” part. It’s a fantastic way to train your way up to pull-ups and it also has the benefit of being a bodyweight exercise.
Another good option is the seal row. This movement has you lying face down on a flat bench as you pull either dumbbells or a barbell up from the floor. The top of the movement is reached when you bring the weight up to the underside of the bench itself.
The main benefit of the seal row is that you’ll be completely taking out the lower body from the exercise. This is useful if you’re not wanting to gas out your leg muscles if they’re already sore (or you’re saving their strength for lower body focused exercises). Also, it’ll place a greater emphasis on the upper body since it’ll then be forced to do even more work.
Barbell rows are one of the most useful exercises you can include in your workout routine. They’re good for strength training and bodybuilding alike, and when done properly they’ll turbocharge your PRs in your other main lifts.
It’s a fundamental movement that’ll have positive effects both in the gym and with your functional fitness if included in your training program.
But as always, make sure you’re supporting all your hard work in the gym with enough high-quality protein to maintain and cement your sculpted physique. Put all the pieces together, and you’ll become a legend in the halls of the iron temple.