The barbell row is among the best exercises for increasing back strength. Here, we’ll explain how to perform a barbell row with perfect form. We’ll also detail the muscles worked by barbell rows and explain the main barbell row benefits.
Table of Contents
- 1 How to Perform Barbell Rows with Correct Form
- 2 Barbell Row Benefits
- 3 Barbell Row Muscles Worked
- 4 Barbell Rows Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
- 5 Other Exercise Posts
- 5.1 Incline Bench Press Muscles Worked and Benefits
- 5.2 How to Do a Lat Pulldown with Proper Form
- 5.3 Hack Squat Muscles Worked and Benefits
- 5.4 Hammer Curl Benefits and Muscles Worked
- 5.5 Arnold Split Workout + Example Spreadsheet
- 5.6 How to Front Squat with Proper Form
- 5.7 The 5 Best Gym Machines for Chest
- 5.8 The 8 Main Muscle Groups Worked by Squats
- 5.9 Decline Bench Press Benefits and Muscles Worked
- 5.10 Romanian Deadlift Benefits and Muscles Worked
- 5.11 The Top 6 Muscles Worked by Glute Bridges
- 5.12 Side Plank Benefits, Form, and Muscles Worked
- 5.13 The Top 5 Leg Press Muscles Worked
- 5.14 Lat Pulldown Benefits and Muscles Worked
- 5.15 The Top 9 Muscles Worked with Deadlifts
- 5.16 How to Deadlift with Proper Form
- 5.17 T-Bar Row Benefits and Muscles Worked
- 5.18 Arnold Press Benefits and Muscles Worked
How to Perform Barbell Rows with Correct Form
- Stand tall with feet roughly shoulder width apart and barbell positioned over midfoot.
- Reach down to grip the bar with your hands just outside your knees.
- Deadlift the bar to standing while bracing the core to keep a neutral spine.
- Keep chin tucked and knees slightly bent.
- Push hips back and tilt torso forward until hamstrings stretch.
- Row weight by driving elbows back and up until barbell touches torso.
- Squeeze shoulder blades together at the top of the lift.
- Maintain alignment in back, hips, and head, and squeeze core to slowly lower barbell back to starting position.
- Repeat for the desired number of sets and reps.
This great YouTube video by Jeremy Ethier from Built by Science provides a great visual demonstration of how to perform a bent-over barbell row with perfect form. Jeremy also provides some barbell row variations and tips to customize the exercise according to biomechanics and goals.
Barbell Row Tips
- Experiment with set-up and stance
- Keep back straight in hinged position
- Contract abdominals to protect spine
- Keep scapula contracted
- Control eccentric (lowering) phase
- Relax scapulae slightly on the descent
- Contract triceps before each rep
Experiment with set-up and stance
Attempt narrow and wider stances to determine foot position preference. Experiment with different grips to target particular muscle groups. A wider grip allows for a higher pull towards the sternum and flares the elbows more.
Wide-grip barbell rows hit the traps, rear deltoids, and upper back due to greater transverse extension. A narrow grip enables pulling the bar lower toward the belly button and tucking elbows close to target lats more.
An underhand grip encourages more elbow tuck, engaging the lats more effectively. An underhand grip will increase bicep engagement, but reduce back and lat activation.
Keep back straight in hinged position
When setting up for a bent-over barbell row, tilt forward while keeping the back straight. Range of motion for maintaining a neutral spine during a hinge movement depends on hamstring flexibility. Standard range is between 15 and 45 degrees.
Contract abdominals to protect spine
Brace the abdominals to support spinal erectors and reduce the risk of lower back pain or injury. Relaxing core muscles when performing hinge positions compromises the spinal safety.
Keep scapula contracted
Consciously pull the scapula (shoulder blades) together during each repetition of the barbell row. Rowing the barbell with slumped or rounded shoulder blades increases the risk of shoulder joint injury and reduces the effectiveness of the exercise for strengthening your back muscles.
Control eccentric (lowering) phase
Muscles are stronger when lengthening under a load than when contracting (shortening). Take advantage of this additional strength by slowly lowering the weight during the eccentric portion of the barbell row.
Slowing down the lowering phase engages more motor units to trigger greater strength and muscle building gains. Controlling the eccentric movement also reduces shoulder, lower back, and elbow injury risk.
Relax scapulae slightly on eccentric
Let your shoulder blades relax to the sides slightly when you lower the barbell, then squeeze them together as you row the weight back and up. This adjustment increases the active range of motion for the lats and rear delts, forcing a fuller stretch before each contraction.
Contract triceps before each rep
Engaging the triceps minimizes bicep engagement to keep the emphasis on the back muscles. Triceps and biceps work synergistically; one relaxes while the other contracts.
To ensure the barbell row is working lower and upper back muscles and not biceps, squeeze the backs of your arms to brace for each repetition.
Common Barbell Row Mistakes
- Using momentum
- Standing too upright
- Pulling the barbell too high
- Flaring the elbows too much
- Rolling the shoulders forward
- Losing control of the descent
Barbell row variations are excellent for building a thicker, stronger back, but only if performed correctly. Using momentum to swing the barbell toward the body prevents the proper muscle groups from engaging. Keep the torso stationary and pull the barbell by squeezing lats and back to engage the correct muscles.
Standing too upright
Performing barbell rows without leaning forward enough reduces engagement of the back muscles and strains the upper traps. Standing upright turns the exercise into a type of shrug variation rather than a proper bent-over barbell row.
Pulling the barbell too high
Rowing the barbell toward the clavicle changes the mechanics of the lift to resemble more of a trap shrug. Experiment with lower and higher barbell paths, but try to remain somewhere between mid-sternum andnavel to ensure correct muscle group recruitment.
Flaring the elbows too much
Flaring the elbows too wide will emphasize the upper traps, reducing the intended effect of the exercise. Excessively flaring the elbows can also increase the risk of shoulder impingement injuries by restricting the natural range of motion in a barbell row.
Rolling the shoulders forward
Pull the shoulders back whenever actively rowing the barbell. Doing barbell rows with rounded shoulders risks a shoulder injury and may indicate the weight is too heavy.
Losing control of the descent
Rushing or allowing gravity to pull the weight down is a recipe for injury and poor results. Rather than dropping the barbell to its starting position, slowly extend the arms and feel your back and lats stretch during the eccentric portion.
Choose a weight you can lift and lower with control without rounding your back or rushing the reps to get the most out of each rep.
Barbell Row Benefits
- Effectively builds back muscles
- Strengthens core muscles
- Builds stronger posterior chain
- Customizable (offers plenty of variations)
Effectively builds back muscles
The barbell row is one of the best exercises for increased size and strength throughout your back. One American College of Exercise study reviewed eight pulling exercises to find the best back exercise.
The study found that the barbell bent over row was the most effective at activating three of the five back muscles tested and was the second most effective for the remaining two muscles.
One of the study authors, Dr. Porcari, concluded that if you had to choose one back exercise, it should be the bent-over barbell row.
Strengthens your core
Maintaining a forward lean during a barbell row requires activating the abdominal muscles. Compound exercises that engage your core muscles improve postural stability and abdominal muscular endurance.
Builds stronger posterior chain
The bent-over barbell row activates your hamstrings, glutes, spinal erector, traps, rear deltoids, and lats. Maintaining a strong and stable hip-hinge position adds significant time under tension for several stabilizing muscles throughout the posterior chain, adding strength and muscular density over time.
Adjust positions for the barbell row to target specific muscle groups. Barbell rows with a wider grip emphasizes the traps and posterior shoulder muscles.
Narrow-grip barbell rows target the biceps and latissimus dorsi (lats) better. Experiment with stance and starting position to find a barbell row variation that works best.
Barbell Row Muscles Worked
- Middle and lower trapezius
- Latissimus dorsi
- Rear deltoids
- Spinal erectors
- Scapula stabilizers
- Hamstrings and glutes
- Core muscles
Middle and lower trapezius
The middle and lower trapezius muscles (traps) are one of the primary muscles activated by the barbell row. Traps stabilize and control the movement of the scapula (shoulder blade) and upper arm muscles.
Latissimus dorsi (lats)
The lats are the widest muscle in the body and one of the main muscles worked by the barbell row. Your lats are a thin, wide sheet of muscle that lays across most of your other back muscles.
Barbell rows involve some of the main lat functions, like movement control of the shoulder joint. Lats work arm internal rotation, adduction (pulling arms toward the midline) and extension.
If you’re focused on developing your lats, don’t miss your articles on the best lower lat dumbbell exercises.
During a classic barbell row, the posterior deltoids (delts) pull the shoulders back to keep the scapula retracted. Target rear deltoids more by using a grip wider than shoulder width allowing a slight elbow flare and increasing shoulder abduction.
The barbell bent-over row engages the spinal erectors isometrically. The spinal erectors don’t move during a barbell row, but they are working to keep the spine and pelvis in alignment.
The spinal erectors (erector spinae) comprise the stabilizing muscles that support the spine and lay along either side of the vertebrae. During a barbell bent-over row, these muscles maintain a neutral spine and prevent unwanted spinal column movement.
Scapula stabilizers are small muscles that protect the upper back muscles around the shoulder blade (scapula). They include the serratus anterior, rhomboids, and levator scapulae. These muscles work during a barbell row to externally rotate the shoulders and stabilize the scapula during the rowing motion.
Hamstrings and glutes
Bent-over barbell rows place isometric tension on the hamstrings and glutes to stay in a stable, hip-hinge position. Keep tension in the hamstrings and glutes to maintain a hip-hinged position.
If hamstrings or glutes are weak, check out our list of the best ways to grow underdeveloped hamstrings to build a stronger lower posterior chain. Find some of the best cable exercises for developing stronger glutes.
The abdominal muscles will engage to keep the spine neutral in the bent-over position when performing barbell rows. Always brace the core to keep the torso stationary and use back muscles rather than momentum to row the weight.
If your core is weak and limits your performance in compound lifts like barbell rows, check out our list of the best ways to strengthen and build your core muscles.
Barbell Rows Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
If the traditional bent-over barbell row exercise is not for you, plenty of excellent barbell row alternatives provide similar benefits.
The dumbbell row is an excellent alternative that some lifters find more comfortable and accessible. You can also do a dumbbell row unilaterally, targeting one side at a time to address muscular imbalances.
The conventional barbell row and the Pendlay row are both great exercises for strengthening your back, lats, and shoulders.
We explore some of the main differences between these two variations of a barbell row exercise in our barbell row vs pendlay row guide.
The Pendlay row involves more range of motion and involves more power as you explosively pull the barbell from the ground each time.
The barbell row requires maintaining a bent-over row position with the barbell hanging freely between reps. Barbell rows put more strain on the spinal erectors and are more effective for upper back hypertrophy.