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March 26, 2021 10 min read

If you’re looking to broaden your shoulders and strengthen your back then bent-over rows are an excellent addition to your arsenal. As long as you watch your form, they’re great for your body and you don’t run into the same dangers that other rows present. They’re one of the better exercises for strengthening your shoulders without constantly threatening your body with the danger of wearing down the intricate inner workings of your shoulder joints.


Muscles Worked

Bent-over rows cover a huge range of your muscles. They ask you to hold a pretty specific position while you work your upper body, so you’re getting a full-body workout without having to subject yourself to a bunch of contortion. If you’re going to add bent-over rows, it’s important to know which muscles are specifically being worked out. When you understand how your muscles are being engaged during your exercise, you can draw the most out of your body and get in the best workout possible.

Latissimus Dorsi: Your latissimus dorsi is a pair of muscles that make up the sides of your lower. They come from the Latin words meaning “broadest” and “back.” The Latin name is pretty apt, they’re the broadest muscles on the backside of your body, and they provide your body with stability and structure.

Your lats work with other muscles in your body like the teres major and your pecs to help with depressing your arms. When you squeeze your arms to your sides you can feel all of those muscles working together. You also use your lats to help with adduction, extension, and internal rotation of your shoulders. You can also feel the work your lats do when your arms are extended over your head. If you keep your arms fixed up above you, you can use your lats to move your torso upwards and forwards. This is why exercises like pull-ups, or pull-downs make your sides so sore. The muscles in your sides are a little hard to engage in everyday motion, so despite their size, they’re easy to work down when you find the right movements.

Their stabilizing function is easily engaged with exercises that flex your elbows. When doing things like biceps curls, your lats engage to keep your body steady and lend you the stability required to isolate and engage the muscles in your upper arms.

Posterior Delts: Your delts overall are going to be getting in a good deal of work, but the posterior delts are going to be taking the brunt of the work. They’re the muscles responsible for extending your shoulders and the rowing action of bent-over rows is going to get a lot of mileage out of your posterior delts. They also act as oppositional forces to the muscles internally rotating your arms. 

Rhomboids: This pair of rhombus-shaped muscles connect your shoulder blades to the mid-line of your body. They work to pull your scapula in towards your spinal column as well as keeping it pressed against your torso. Without your rhomboids, your shoulder blades would be flinging themselves away from your body all the time. Strengthening these is a great way to improve an easily overlooked aspect of your posture.

Spinal Erectors: Your spinal erectors are a set of muscles that are responsible for exactly what it sounds like. They run all the way down your back, connecting your spine and rib cage to your hips. Your body uses this long web of muscles to pull your body back into an upright position. During bent-over rows, your spinal erectors are going to be getting a lot of isometric exercise. The isometric exercise that happens during bent-over rows is great for strengthening muscles that are though to reach.

The bigger muscles in your back aren’t the only things getting a workout. You’re going to be getting a lot of work done with your forearms and biceps just from holding the barbell underneath your chest. Your biceps, in particular, are going to be engaged partially in order to bring your lats into the exercise.

Similar to deadlifts, your body is going to be recruiting your hamstrings and your glutes to keep you standing and providing stability to your lower half during the exercise. 

The engagement of these auxiliary muscles becomes an excellent way to build muscle all over your body

Why Bent-over Rows?

Bent-over rows are a simple full-body exercise that will make it easy to build muscle in your back. They’ll sculpt your back muscles while also chiseling out your shoulders. While they work out your full body, they’re an exercise that you might want to fit into your upper body workout. 

They’re one of the best alternatives to upright rows, which are murder on your shoulders. Upright rows put a lot of pressure on your shoulders, they’re perfectly engineered to ruin your shoulder joints over time. They provide a lot of internal rotation in places it shouldn’t be. Upright rows force your upper arms inward and apply a lot of pressure to a pair of joints that don’t appreciate having themselves tested.

Bent-over rows will alleviate that pressure, leaving you with an exercise that won’t tear up your shoulders after a few months of doing them.


Bent-over Form

Bent-over rows are an exercise that will give you incredible results over time, but you have to come at them with the right form, though. If your form is lacking, then you’re just going to get yourself hurt, and you’re not going to get any of the work done. Your back will also come out the other side worse for wear, and you won’t have the muscle definition to show for all the work either. 

Make sure you’re getting your form right so you can reap the rewards of your work. If you learn how to get it right the first time, you won’t have to unlearn it after you get yourself hurt.

  • Start with your feet about shoulder-width apart. It’s important that you have a comfortable start with your foot stance. You’re going to be driving down through your heels, and moving your center of gravity in front of your hips. It’s important to make sure you’re going to be able to keep your balance while lifting the weights underneath your torso.
  • Bend over at your hips and reach down to grab the bar with your hands. Your grip should be a good amount wider than your shoulders. You should be going at it with an overhead grip, that is, with your palms face down. If you’re getting to weights that are exceeding your grip strength, you can try a hook grip
  • Flatten out your back. Your back is a delicate thing, even when you’re building muscle along your backside, you need to make sure you’re not arching your back and placing pressure in parts of your body that aren’t built to take it. The human spine is already kind of a mess, so when we’re doing exercises that involve bending over like this, you have to be mindful of arching your back. 
  • Your knees should be slightly bent at this point. Raise your hips to get the exercise started. Doing this should get the weight moving. Once you have a little bit of momentum, continue pulling the weight up towards your chest until it touches near the bottom of your rib cage.
  • Remember to keep your lats engaged when pulling the weights up towards your chest, this is where most of your stability and power are going to come from. These are the muscles that help set your core, as well as providing assistance to your arms while they pull your arms back and away from your torso.
  • Reverse the action of your arms to lower the weights, and let them drop when you’re closer to the floor
  • Continue this for a reasonable number of reps each set. You should be able to maintain good form the entire time you’re doing this exercise. Be honest with yourself about the amount of weight you can lift.

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Common Mistakes

Once you feel like you’ve got a firm understanding of bent-over rows, it’s a good idea to take the time to review some common mistakes. Even if you feel like you’re doing well, it’s good to have either a lifting partner or a mirror around so you can keep an eye on your form the entire time you’re working on this exercise.

Watch Your Back: One of the biggest issues facing folks when they do bent-over rows is the way their backs are arching during bent-over rows. There are a few reasons you’re going to have to watch out for your back. We always talk about lifting with your legs rather than your back, because the muscles responsible for erecting your spine aren’t as powerful as the muscles in your legs. Your spine is also just flat out not built to take on the kind of weight your legs can move.

Using your legs and hips to initially drive the weight off of the floor will relieve your back. Your spinal erectors should be used to hold your back over your weights on the floor, leave the lifting to your arms and legs.

If you’re watching yourself in the mirror, look out for a rounded upper back. Poor neck position is going to be born out of a bad back as well. You want a flat back and you want your neck in line with your flat back. Don’t crane it or tuck in your chin. All of this is in pursuit of avoiding injury, it sounds like a lot of rules to keep in mind, but a little practice will have you lifting proficiently in no time. 

Getting a Grip: Your grip strength is going to be a huge limiting factor with this exercise. Your arms and legs are a great deal more powerful than the muscles in your forearms that are responsible for closing your fingers around the things you’re lifting. If you’re loading your barbell with too much weight too quickly, then your grip strength is going to have a really hard time keeping up with the rest of your body.

You can supplement your grip strength by changing up your grip if you’re getting up into weights that are much higher than your forearms alone could ever hope to keep up with. Using a mixed grip or a hook grip will help you when you need a boost, but be mindful that the best grip for bent-over rows is a good old-fashioned overhand grip.

The overhand grip is what’s going to allow you to get the weights out of your hands once you’re lowering them, it’s the grip that will keep the weights from internally rotating your shoulders, and the overhand grip is going to keep the weights from drifting in towards your legs and banging your shins.

Stay in Control: It’s tempting to just let yourself throw the weights down the ground. You’re not going to be getting a full workout out of this exercise if you just bail once you get the weights up to your chest. You’re also, probably going to look pretty obnoxious in the gym if you’re just dropping your weights from three feet off the floor.

Going limp once you get the weights up to your torso is also going to be murder on your back. Releasing your tension when you’re holding all of that weight is inevitably going to force your back to follow that weight when unless you’re perfectly timing your release with your back. It’s just a lot of things that could go wrong.

Lowering the weights in a controlled fashion is going to keep your muscles engaged for longer. You’re also going to explore a more full range of motion when you maintain control over your weights. 

Bent-Over Variations

If bent-over rows aren’t for you, or you have some equipment limitations, then there are several ways you can vary this exercise to fit your needs. You won’t be missing out on the benefits or losing gains you’ve already earned with these variations either. You may be sacrificing weight, but the benefits outweigh that hitch.

Inverted Row

Inverted rows are a great calisthenic exercise. If you’re more concerned with losing weight and developing a subtle sculpted look, then these are a great choice. You’ll also be able to get these done in more places than bent-over rows. For an inverted row, you’re going to want to find a bar that’s close to the ground, you can buy one of these for your home gym or you can find them in parks all over the world.

  • Lower yourself underneath the bar, and grab it with your hands wider than shoulder-width apart
  • Engage your core, focusing on getting your lats and pecs ready to row your body upwards
  • Pull yourself towards the bar and pivot your weight around your heels
  • Lower yourself in a controlled manner back to your starting position
  • Repeat

This exercise is going to be great for emphasizing control, stability, and functional muscle growth. If you’re having a hard time wrapping your head around bent-over rows, then this low-impact variation is going to be much easier to master, and you’ll have less to worry about with your form


Dumbbell rows

Bent-over rows don’t have to be done with a barbell if that’s creating a problem for you. Often barbell exercises are going to be hard on a lifter’s wrists. It’s important to make sure you’re keeping your wrists set when handling the barbell. Barbells also create a scenario where you’re overcompensating with one arm over the other.

Using a pair of dumbbells will solve a lot of these problems without sacrificing more than the overall weight you’re lifting. Swapping dumbbells for your barbell is going to force you to isolate each side of your body, encouraging even growth.

Using dumbbells doesn’t require much of a change to your form, in fact, you can do them exactly the same way you do your bent-over rows. The only change is going to be the weights you’re pulling off of the ground. 

You can use dumbbells to hang onto your weights throughout your entire set rather than dropping the weights when you’re lowering them. The lighter weights and the more flexible grip will make it more plausible to hang onto your weights while maintaining good form. Keeping your weights in your hands throughout the duration of your exercise is a great way to keep tension on your muscles for longer. More tension means better exercise, and that’s going to lead directly to greater gains.

Stand Up Straight

Bent-over rows are an amazing exercise as long as you’re taking your time and monitoring your form. They’re an excellent exercise you can vary wildly to fit your needs. You’ll find a drastic improvement in your posture, your stability, and your strength overall after a few good sessions with your barbell. Take your time, watch your back, and engage your core, and you’ll be rowing with the best of them in no time.