The barbell row is a compound, multi-joint upper body exercise intended to increase strength of muscles within the upper and middle back, posterior shoulder girdle, and anterior elbow joint.
The barbell row exercise is a basic upper body exercise that can be performed by athletes and nonathletes alike for improving strength. It often is taught to athletes during initial stages of strength enhancement training and with novice nonathletes because of its relative simplicity.
Because of relatively higher compressive loads on some lumbar spine structures than other rowing exercises, proper teaching, posture, and exercise techniques are warranted. Lifters should be free of back pain, and those with a history of back pain should consider an alternative exercise to the barbell row.
Main muscles activated during barbell bent over row: latissimus dorsi, teres major, rhomboids, middle trapezius, lower trapezius, posterior deltoid, infraspinatus and teres minor, erector spinae, biceps brachii, brachialis, and brachioradialis. The erector spinae and abdominal muscles provide spine stability during the entire barbell row exercise.
A 2009 study, investigated 3 different rowing exercises and quantify the muscle activation of the torso and the hip musculature, together with the corresponding spinal loading and stiffness. The 3 rowing exercises investigated were the inverted row, standing bent-over row, and standing 1-armed cable row.
The inverted row elicited the highest activation of the latissimus dorsi muscles, upper-back, and hip extensor muscles. The lower activation of the lumbar erector spinae muscles during the inverted row corresponded to the lower spine load measured. The standing bent-over row produced large activation symmetrically across the back, but it produced the largest lumbar spine load. The 1-armed cable row challenged the torsional capabilities of the trunk musculature.
The standing bent-over row elicited large muscle activation symmetrically from the upper to lower back; it induced larger spine loads but also, not surprisingly, the highest spine stiffness. Some core exercises may be better for rehabilitation (e.g., having the training goals of modest muscle activation with low spine load), whereas other exercises may be better for athletic training (e.g., resulting in higher muscle activation and larger spine load).
A 2017 study, compared the electromyographic (EMG) responses in the middle trapezius, lower trapezius, infraspinatus, latissimus dorsi, and erector spinae during eight back exercises to determine which produces the greatest muscle activation for each muscle.
Nineteen males completed five repetitions of the following exercises using 70% of 1 RM, or body weight resistance: lat pull-downs, inverted rows, seated rows, bent-over rows, TRX rows, I-Y-T raises, pull-ups, and chin-ups.
Greatest activation of the middle trapezius was found with I-Y-T raises, bent-overs, seated, and inverted rows. Greatest activation of the lower trapezius was found with I-Y-T raises. Greatest activation of the latissimus dorsi was found with pull-ups and chin-ups. Greatest activation of the infraspinatus was found with pull-ups, chin-ups, I-Y-T raises, bent overs, and inverted rows.
The results of this study indicate that there wasn’t one specific exercise that was the single best exercise to activate each of the five muscles to the greatest degree. However, if a person had to choose one exercise, the bent-over row activated three of the five back muscles to the greatest degree and was the second best exercise for the other two muscles.
A 2021 study, examined the electromyographical (EMG) differences between four variations during the dynamic performance of the bent-over row (BOR) exercise: BOR in inclined bench with 90deg shoulder abduction (B/AB); BOR in inclined bench with maximum shoulder adduction (B/AD); standing BOR with 90deg shoulder abduction (S/AB); standing BOR with maximum shoulder adduction (S/AD).
Muscle activity was measured using surface EMG in six lumbar, dorsal, and shoulder muscles: posterior deltoid (PD), latissimus dorsi (LD), upper trapezius (UT), middle trapezius (MT), lumbar portion of erector spinae (LES) and thoracic portion erector spinae (TES).
Results showed that the two variations based on standing postures (S/AB and S/AD) caused greater EMG responses both on shoulder and lumbar and dorsal muscles. However, importantly, participants had the highest EMG activity on target muscles (deltoid and trapezius muscles) when performing the BOR in a shoulder abduction position (B/AB and S/AB), independent of whether they were, or were not, working with the bench.
Thus, considering that the mild activity showed from the lumbar and dorsal back muscles when performing the bench variations would denote lower spine loads, we can conclude that, from an ergonomic standpoint, the use of the bench should be indicated when performing the BOR exercise
CORRECT WAY OF DOING THE BENT OVER BARBELL ROW
With feet in a shoulder-width position, squat down with hips lower than shoulders, knees slightly flexed, and grasp the bar with a wider-than-shoulder-width, closed, pronated grip.
Elbows are fully extended, pointed outward slightly with feet flat on the floor, bar kept close to the shins and over the balls of the feet.
The head and neck are aligned with the trunk by focusing eyes slightly ahead of the feet.
While maintaining a rigid torso and neutral or flat back, the bar should be lifted off the floor by extending the hips and knees.
Next, the torso is positioned slightly above a parallel-to-the-floor, with the elbows fully extended and the bar positioned slightly above the ground.
Hips and knees remain slightly flexed, the chest is pushed upward and outward, and the scapulae (shoulder blades) are slightly retracted or adducted (pulled toward each other).
Exhale while pulling the bar upward towards the upper waist or navel. Return until arms are extended and shoulders are stretched downward. Repeat.
CONFUSIONS & ERRORS
- The torso position – this is probably the biggest confusions during performing a bent over barbell row, with different experts having different opinions on how much should be the bend in the torso during the bent over row.
After considering most of the studies and with practical personal experience, I would say that there is no one correct angle for the torso bend. But maintaining a bend of 10-45deg will give you optimal contraction of the back. Any lower will put an undue stress on the lower back, and over 45deg, will lead to improper contraction of the back muscles.
Also, the bend would depend a lot of the load. As the load increases, it gets difficult to maintain a lower bend in the torso, and would put a lot of stress on the lower back. So, increase the torso angle. But try not to go over 45deg. Anything over would generally mean a weight which you aren’t ready for.
2. Rounding the upper back – one of the most common mistakes while performing a bent over row movement is to round the upper back. This is a classic way to injure the back. Keep the back straight and neutral throughout the movement.
3. Letting the bar travel too far in front of the body – the bar should be travelling in line with the body, straight up & down.
4. Another common mistake moving the entire torso up and down with the bar. While performing the bent over row, your upper torso will remain in a fixed position, and not move up and down with the bar. Only the bar moves, not the body.
5. Wrong knee bend – there is an optimal bend in the knee while performing a row. If you bend too much, you are virtually in a squat position, which makes it difficult to maintain the proper position during bent over row.
On the other hand, if you lock out your knees, you put undue stress on the low back while limiting the amount of weight you can use. An optimal bend would be 15-20deg in the knee, which won’t change throughout the movement.
6. Another mistake and an often unanswered question is the pulling location of the bar, or the point to which the bar is pulled on to the torso.
In proper position, the bar should travel upward and downward in an arcing manner through the frontal plane, in line with the gravitational pull. The pull should not occur in line with the chest nor should the shoulders be elevated. Pulling the bar towards the navel or the upper waist would be optimal for most individuals.
Not that pulling the bar higher up towards the sternum is an issue. When you do that, you flare out your elbows outwards, and target more of traps, rear delts and overall upper back.
On the other hand, pulling keeping the elbow slightly tucked in, and pulling the bar towards your belly button is a more mechanically advantageous position, targeting the entire posterior lat musculature, and letting you pull much more weight.
7. Going too heavy – this is probably the point which needs the most attention, as its common to see beginners and intermediate lifters trying to imitate professional lifters (mainly bodybuilders) who lift insane amount of weight, but with a form which is wrong when it comes to performing the movement, but correct when it comes to the execution by the advance athlete, who has set the exercise movement acc. to his needs, over years of training.
No one cares how much weight you are lifting, if your form is going to crash. It’s common to see ego lifters using weight, they simply aren’t able to handle, and then perform the row in way where they are standing virtually straight and somehow trying to pull the bar to complete the rep, using all sorts of momentum. Deadlift is a great exercise, but don’t turn a bent over row into a deadlift, but standing straight.
8. Not lifting heavy enough – this is equally important, as the basic principle of exercise physiology is progressive overload. Lifting progressively heavier loads in an exercise like bent over barbell rows, will give you a tremendous improvement both in terms of hypertrophy & strength.
WAS DORION YATES WRONG?
When initially people saw Mr. Olympia Dorion Yates performing the barbell bent over row, with a supinated grip and in a much more upright position, they were quite taken aback.
Of course, no one could ever doubt Dorion, multiple times Mr. Olympia, who possessed one of the mightiest backs in the history of bodybuilding.
But, was Dorion trying to hide something, was he wrong in performing the traditional pronated grip bent over barbell row with a supinated (underhand grip), or was there something else which people didn’t notice?
The unconventional style of barbell rowing used by Dorion was named as “Yates Row”.
As we saw, that when you perform the pronated grip bent over barbell row, muscles which get activated are: latissimus dorsi, teres major, rhomboids, middle trapezius, lower trapezius, posterior deltoid, infraspinatus and teres minor, erector spinae, biceps brachii, brachialis, and brachioradialis. The erector spinae and abdominal muscles provide spine stability during the entire barbell row exercise.
On the other hand, during the underhand or supinated grip barbell bent over row, also called as the Yates row, back activation is similar to the traditional bent over barbell row, except that there is a greater activation of the bicep muscle.
Also, during the pronated grip bent over barbell row, the elbows are flared out, but in Yates row (supinated grip), the elbows are tucked in and travel more parallel to the body.
But, overall it’s more of a variation which can be used instead of pronated grip bent over barbell row, and both are more or less similar when it comes to muscle activation.
People often think that Dorion Yates performed only supinated grip bent over barbell row.
They also think, that Yates performed the supinated grip row in an upright position.
In both cases, its simply wrong observation. Dorion Yates performed both supinated and pronated grip bent over barbell rows, with extreme intensity, during his torturous training sessions. In fact, in his training videos also, he has been seeing teaching both forms of barbell rows.
When people saw Yates performing a supinated grip barbell row, in a more upright position, they thought it to be a different form of bent over row. However, it Yates was not upright because he wanted to, but he was upright because he had to.
Simply due to the extreme weights he lifted, during which the body compensated by being more upright, to prevent lower back injury. The same happened with virtually every bodybuilder or athlete lifting that amount of weight.