You’ve probably heard the phrase “you’ve gotta row to grow.” Rowing exercises are one of the best ways to target your upper posterior chain and build a broader, stronger back. Barbell rows are among the most popular rowing variations.
Barbell rows load your lats and back muscles with heavy weights while strengthening your core and hamstrings. However, they may not be an appropriate choice for everyone. Bent-over barbell rows cause some lifters to experience lower back pain. Others lack the core stability or grip strength to get the most out of this exercise.
If you are looking for an alternative to the bent-over row to avoid pain, manage an injury, make do with minimal equipment, or simply change things up, we have you covered. Here is our list of the best barbell row alternatives to help you build a strong, broad back.
Table of Contents
- 1 The 9 Best Barbell Row Alternatives
- 2 1. Dumbbell Bent-Over Rows
- 3 2. T-Bar Rows
- 4 3. Gorilla Rows
- 5 4. Inverted Bodyweight Rows
- 6 5. Meadows Rows
- 7 6. Pendlay Rows
- 8 7. Rack Pulls
- 9 8. Seated Cable Rows
- 10 9. Renegade Rows
- 11 Reasons to Choose a Barbell Row Alternative
- 12 Muscles Worked by Barbell Rows
- 13 Barbell Row Alternatives: FAQs
- 14 Other Alternative Exercises
- 14.1 The 8 Best Decline Bench Press Alternatives
- 14.2 The 9 Best T-Bar Row Alternatives
- 14.3 The 8 Best Hammer Curl Alternatives
- 14.4 The 10 Best Bulgarian Split Squat Alternatives
- 14.5 The 9 Best Pendlay Row Alternatives
- 14.6 The 10 Best Hack Squat Alternatives
- 14.7 The 10 Best Overhead Press Alternatives
- 14.8 The 10 Best Lying Leg Curl Alternatives
- 14.9 The 10 Best Glute Bridge Alternatives
- 14.10 The 10 Best Romanian Deadlift Alternatives
- 14.11 The 10 Best Front Squat Alternatives
- 14.12 The 10 Best Bent Over Row Alternatives
- 14.13 The 10 Best Bench Press Alternatives
- 14.14 The 10 Best Dumbbell Pullover Alternatives
- 14.15 The 10 Best Lat Pulldown Alternatives
The 9 Best Barbell Row Alternatives
- Dumbbell Bent-Over Rows
- T-Bar Rows
- Gorilla Rows
- Inverted Bodyweight Rows
- Meadows Rows
- Pendlay Rows
- Rack Pulls
- Seated Cable Rows
- Renegade Rows
1. Dumbbell Bent-Over Rows
Bent-over dumbbell rows are an easier alternative to the barbell row. Using the support of a bench to anchor your body as you row one arm at a time minimizes strain on the lower back.
Weighted rowing variations like the unilateral dumbbell bent-over row build a stronger back. Unilateral dumbbell bent-over rows are a fantastic way to cross-train your pull-ups because they help identify and address muscular imbalances.
How to Perform Dumbbell Bent-Over Rows
- Stand beside a bench and hold a dumbbell in your left hand with a neutral grip (palm facing towards your body).
- Place your right knee on the bench directly under your right hip and your left foot firmly planted on the ground for support.
- Place your right palm on the bench under your right shoulder. Tuck your chin and look straight down to keep a neutral spine.
- Take a breath in and engage your abdominals. Keep your shoulders pulled back.
- Exhale. Squeeze the rear delt to pull the dumbbell up so your elbow travels behind your torso.
- Stop when the dumbbell reaches the side of your ribcage. Keep your elbow close to your body. Don’t let the elbows flare out.
- Pause at the point of maximum muscle contraction before slowly lowering the dumbbell back to the ground.
- Repeat for the desired number of reps and then switch sides.
- Perform an even number of sets per arm.
This video provides a helpful visual guide for performing bent-over dumbbell rows.
Tips for Dumbbell Bent-Over Rows
Start with your weaker arm and match the work on your more dominant arm to address muscular imbalances. Move through the full range of motion and keep your torso stable to eliminate any momentum. Slow down your reps, especially in the eccentric (lowering) phase, to get more time under tension and build strict strength.
2. T-Bar Rows
When to Perform T-Bar Rows
T-Bar rows are a great substitute for bent-over barbell rows. They use all the same muscle groups but support the torso. T-Bar rows load the weight directly under your center of gravity. T-Bar rows put less strain on the lower lumbar spine and require less core strength to perform correctly. T-Bar rows are a great choice for lifters wanting to isolate their back and lats.
How to Perform T-Bar Rows
- Lie face down on a T-Bar rowing station so the pad supports your sternum.
- Grasp the handles using your preferred grip (neutral or pronated) and brace your abdominals and legs for support.
- Tuck your chin and keep a neutral spine throughout the exercise.
- Squeeze your lats and retract your shoulder blades.
- Pull your elbows behind your torso to pull the weight towards you.
- Pause when your elbows pass your midline.
- Slowly extend your elbows to return the weight to its starting position.
- Repeat for the desired number of sets and reps.
For a visual aid, check out this video from Luke Hoffman.
Tips for T-Bar Rows
Keep your shoulders pulled down and back throughout the exercise to avoid engaging your traps and rhomboids. Actively retracting your shoulder blades protects your shoulder joint and ensures you target the correct muscle groups. Lead with your elbows and keep your wrists in line with your forearms.
3. Gorilla Rows
When to Perform Gorilla Rows
Gorilla rows are a great alternative to barbell rows as they only require a pair of dumbbells or kettlebells. They work the same muscle groups as a barbell row and help strengthen your core and spinal erectors in a hip hinge position. Gorilla rows even out the strength in your left and right side by training each arm unilaterally.
How to Perform Gorilla Rows
- Stand tall with your feet firmly planted at a hip-width distance and place two dumbbells or kettlebells between your legs.
- Keep your knees softly bent and engage your core throughout the exercise.
- Hinge at your hips and push them back until you can reach the dumbbells or kettlebells without squatting down. You should be in a starting position similar to a deadlift or Pendlay row.
- Keep tension in the glutes and hamstrings. Squeeze your lats and back muscles to row one of the dumbbells or kettlebells towards you. Externally rotate the working shoulder slightly to achieve a maximal range of motion. Firmly grip the other weight resting on the floor with the non-working arm.
- Slowly return the lifted kettlebell or dumbbell to the ground and switch sides to row on the other arm.
- Alternate arm for each rep until you perform an even amount of reps per side.
Check out this video from Functional Bodybuilding for a visual guide to performing the gorilla row.
Tips for Gorilla Rows
Keep your chin tucked and your spine straight throughout the exercise. If you only have access to a single dumbbell or kettlebell, you can also do this exercise one arm at a time. Secure your non-working arm by grasping your hip and row one arm at a time for a complete set before swapping sides.
4. Inverted Bodyweight Rows
When to Perform Inverted Bodyweight Rows
Inverted bodyweight rows are a great alternative to bent-over barbell rows because they target the same muscle groups without straining the lower back. You can do inverted bodyweight rows anywhere you can find a stable horizontal bar. Pulling your body weight against gravity is an effective way to strengthen your lats and back muscles. Inverted bodyweight rows also help improve your body awareness and grip strength.
How to Perform Inverted Bodyweight Rows
- Set up a barbell in a squat rack or smith machine. If you have access to J hooks, use these as they are more stable. Otherwise, load the barbell with a moderate weight to provide a heavier anchor.
- Select the height you want for the exercise. The higher the bar from the ground, the easier the movement will be.
- Position your body underneath the bar, so your nipples are in line with the barbell.
- Grip the bar with an overhand grip. Position your hands about an inch wider than shoulder-width distance.
- Brace your entire body to keep a rigid torso. Maintain some tension in the legs for added stability.
- Keep your chin tucked and gaze straight up.
- Squeeze your lats and rear delts to pull your body towards the bar.
- Hold at the top. Slowly lower yourself to return to the starting position.
- Repeat for the desired number of sets and reps.
Check out this video from Scott Herman Fitness for a visual guide to performing the inverted bodyweight row.
Tips for Inverted Bodyweight Rows
Inverted rows can be made easier or harder, depending on your set-up. Having your body more horizontal (parallel to the ground) will make the exercise more difficult. Being more upright (raising the bar higher off the ground) will make it easier. Experiment with different tempos or add a pause mid-rep to address areas of weakness or sticking points.
5. Meadows Rows
When to Perform Meadows Rows
Named after IFBB bodybuilder John Meadows, the Meadows row is a unilateral horizontal rowing exercise that uses a landmine barbell device. The landmine Meadows row involves gripping the thicker end of a barbell and rowing one arm at a time. Meadows rows place less stress on the shoulder joint than some other rowing variations while giving your back, delts, lats, and biceps a great workout.
How to Perform Meadows Rows
- Stand perpendicular to a loaded barbell with a landmine attachment. Stagger your stance for a wider center of gravity and more stability.
- Hinge your torso forward and grip the thick end of the barbell with a pronated grip.
- Rest your non-working arm on your hip.
- Retract your shoulder blade and drive your working elbow behind your torso to row the weight towards you.
- Pause when your elbow is at or just behind your midline.
- Slowly release the barbell to the ground.
- Repeat for the desired number of reps on your first side.
- Switch sides and match the work on your opposite arm.
For a visual guide to performing the Meadows row, here’s a useful video from John Rusin.
Tips for Meadows Rows
Start on your weaker side and match the work with your dominant arm to even out muscular imbalances. If you don’t have access to a landmine device, you can place a barbell in the corner of a room and use towels or mats to avoid damaging your walls. If you struggle to grip the end of the barbell, use lifting straps to secure it in place.
6. Pendlay Rows
When to Perform Pendlay Rows
Pendlay rows are a great alternative to bent-over barbell rows as they engage the same muscle groups. Pendlay rows have an impressive ability to improve strength and size in your back, lats, and core. Both are highly effective barbell pull exercises.
The main difference between a Pendlay row and a barbell row is that Pendlay rows are reset from the ground for each rep. This movement pattern helps you improve your hamstring mobility and perfect your technique for other rowing exercises.
How to Perform Pendlay Rows
- Stand with your loaded barbell in front of you on the floor. Your feet should be about hip-width and placed directly under the bar.
- Micro-bend your knees and hinge at the waist, pushing your hips back so that your back is flat and parallel to the floor.
- Reach down to hold the barbell with an overhand grip, with your hands just wider than your shoulder width.
- Engage your core and brace your back and shoulders to take excess slack out of the bar. Keep your shoulders pulled back throughout.
- Pull the barbell towards your torso with explosive force. Hinge at the elbows and drive them behind you as you lift the bar to your chest.
- Keeping the core activated and the back braced, release the barbell to the ground.
- Reset and repeat for each repetition.
Here is a useful video from Scott Herman Fitness showing the correct form for a Pendlay row and how to avoid some common mistakes.
Tips for Pendlay Rows
Pendlay rows are best executed using explosive power, so avoid using momentum to ‘bounce’ the bar off the ground between reps. Ensure the bar comes to a complete stop after each rep. Maintain a micro-bend in your knees and keep a neutral spine throughout the exercise.
7. Rack Pulls
When to Perform Rack Pulls
Rack pulls are a useful deadlift variation that is an effective alternative to barbell bent-over rows. They target the mid and upper back muscles and improve your grip and core strength. The reduced range of motion reduces leg involvement and isolates your upper body.
How to Perform Rack Pulls
- Place your barbell in safety pins or on blocks so that it is around knee height.
- Stand right behind the barbell and grip it with a pronated grip and with your hands just outside your quads.
- Hinge forward slightly and maintain a slight bend in your knees. Keep your chin tucked and gaze forward.
- Brace your abdominals, squeeze your shoulder blades together and pull them down. Grip the barbell firmly to remove any slack in your arms.
- Squeeze your glutes to drag the barbell up and along your thighs. Maintain contact with the barbell throughout the lift.
- When your knees and hips reach full extension, slowly reverse the movement by pushing your hips down and returning the barbell to its pins or blocks.
- Repeat for the desired number of reps and sets.
For a visual guide to doing rack pulls, check out this video from Bodybuilding.com.
Tips for Performing Rack Pulls
Keep a neutral spine and only choose a weight that you can lift with perfect form to avoid straining your back. Always control the eccentric (lowering) phase of the lift, rather than simply dropping the barbell once they lock it out. Lower the barbell slowly onto its pins or blocks to get the most out of this exercise and avoid any accidents.
8. Seated Cable Rows
When to Perform Seated Cable Rows
The seated cable machine row effectively targets your back muscles without fatiguing your posterior chain and core stabilizers. They are a great alternative to bent-over barbell rows as they use the same muscle groups in the same way but are easier to perform with a neutral, upright spine. Cable machine exercises are also less intimidating and safer for beginners or those managing an injury.
Related guide: Seated Cable Row Benefits, Form, and Muscles Worked
How to Perform Seated Cable Rows
- Attach the narrow grip (v-shaped) cable machine handle to a low pulley on a cable row machine.
- Sit down facing the cable machine with the handle in your hands and your palms facing each other.
- Sit up straight without rounding your back. Choose an appropriate weight To maintain a neutral spine throughout the movement. Brace the abdominals and tuck your chin.
- Retract your shoulder blades to pull the cable handle towards your torso.
- Hold at the point of maximum contraction for a second and then slowly straighten the arms.
- Repeat for the desired number of reps and sets.
Check out this useful video from Testosterone Nation for a visual guide to performing the seated cable row with a narrow grip.
Tips for Performing Seated Cable Rows
Get the most out of this exercise by paying close attention to your posture. Avoid leaning back too much as you pull the handle into your torso to ensure your back and rear delts are doing all the work. You can experiment with different handle attachments and grips to target the muscles in your back from multiple angles.
9. Renegade Rows
When to Perform Renegade Rows
Renegade rows are a full-body strengthener and a great alternative to barbell rows. You probably won’t be able to lift as heavy as you would in a barbell row, but you get the bonus of strengthening your core. Renegade rows also help address bilateral muscular imbalances and improve your grip strength and coordination. Renegade rows are convenient, requiring only a pair of dumbbells to give your back, lats, rhomboids, and obliques a great workout.
How to Perform Renegade Rows
- Place two dumbbells on the floor about shoulder-width apart. Hex dumbbells will be easier to balance on than dumbbells with a round edge.
- Assume a high plank position, gripping the dumbbells with a neutral grip. Ensure your shoulders are stacked directly above your wrists.
- Starting on your weaker arm, row one of the dumbbells by pulling your elbow directly behind you. Stop when the dumbbell is in line with your ribs. Balance on your feet and your non-working arm.
- Lower the dumbbell and repeat on the other side.
- Alternate sides for each rep until you perform the desired number of reps per side.
Here’s a useful video from BuiltLean demonstrating the correct form for dumbbell renegade rows.
Tips for Renegade Rows
Avoid rocking side to side as you row each dumbbell. Engage your core to keep your torso stable so that only your arms move. If you struggle with your balance, space your feet out wider for a more stable base. Protect your spine by keeping your gaze straight down between your hands and your chin tucked slightly.
Reasons to Choose a Barbell Row Alternative
Some lifters experience lower back pain when doing traditional bent-over rows. Barbell rows require strong and stable core and spinal erector muscles. Lifters also need good hamstring mobility, grip strength, and technical ability to do the bent-over barbell row safely and effectively. Lifters may seek an alternative exercise to barbell rows if they are managing an injury, working on their hamstring mobility, have poor grip strength, or don’t have access to a barbell.
Muscles Worked by Barbell Rows
Barbell rows are a compound exercise that primarily targets the posterior muscles of your torso. They also recruit the core and lower body to assist and stabilize the exercise.
- Primary muscles used: Latissimus Dorsi, Trapezius (Traps), Rear Deltoids.
- Secondary muscles used: Biceps Brachii, Brachioradialis and Brachialis (Forearm Flexors), Infraspinatus (Rotator Cuff), Rhomboids.
For more detail, check out our article on the muscles worked by barbell rows.
Barbell Row Alternatives: FAQs
Can I do barbell rows with dumbbells?
Yes, you can switch barbells for dumbbells to do rowing exercises. Dumbbells target your muscles from different angles than a barbell, but you will still get a great back and lat workout. Variations like single-arm dumbbell rows help you balance the strength on your left and right side. They can help improve your posture and your strength for other rowing exercises.
Can I do rowing exercises without any equipment?
Most rowing exercises need some equipment to add resistance and make the movement most effective. Some rowing exercises use minimal equipment, like the inverted bodyweight row. You can do bodyweight rows anywhere you can find a stable horizontal bar, such as at a playground or outdoor gym.
Other Alternative Exercises
If you enjoyed this post, check out our other roundups of the best alternatives for other exercises.