Back Development: Power Cleans Vs. Barbell Rows What's better for back development - barbell rows or power cleans?

The creator of Starting Strength, Mark Rippetoe, has a very special opinion regarding the barbell row. It goes as follows:


Rippetoe (right) is one of the reasons the barbell row is deader than dead.

“My opinion about barbell rows is as follows: fuck barbell rows. Really. Fuck them. Stop wasting time worrying about barbell rows and get your deadlift up to 500. By then you’ll have your own opinion and you won’t have to worry about mine.”

In his popular routine Starting Strength Mark Rippetoe has included the power clean as one of the pulling exercises. Since the power clean is not exactly a common movement, the option to replace it with a regular barbell row was added.

This caused a prolonged and heated debate between the defenders of both exercises.

Ever since the early days of Starting Strength and its brother StrongLifts people have been wondering what’s better for back development – power cleans or barbell rows. Some say that the power clean is the manly choice while others see the barbell row as a superior back builder.

Related article: StrongLifts 5×5 – Effective or Over-hyped?

The truth is that both exercises are very different. The power clean is a “power” exercise while the barbell row is a slow lift. The goal of the power clean is not to build your back. The exercise is done as a progression to the full clean which is part of the clean & jerk done by Olympic weightlifters.

The exercise is demanding and definitely hits the traps as well as the upper back.

The power clean relies on hip power, primarily, but the traps also have to explosively pull the bar upwards. When the barbell is in the so-called racked position the upper back is what supports the bar. The lower back is also doing work during the pull.

This makes the power clean a good overall back exercise, but it’s more of a side effect rather than the main goal.

The biggest downside of the power clean is that not everybody can do it safely. It’s not the hardest task in the world, but it has a more difficult learning curve than the barbell row while the muscle building reward is questionable, and often comes with wrist strain and throat bruises.

Don’t confuse prioritizing with running away from obstacles.

Most people have hard time learning how to perform a real power clean and usually do some sort of a cheated reverse curl. Of course, this could be fixed, but depending on the situation the final results may not be worth the trouble and time investment.

On the other hand the barbell row is a fairly straight forward exercise that does not require phenomenal flexibility and skills. It’s also a good mass builder and works the back from top to bottom. Unlike the power clean the row also develops the arms. Consequently, the barbell row is a superior choice when it comes to “mass construction“.

However, the power clean has better carry over to sports since it teaches you how to use your hips explosively which translates to higher jumping, stronger punching and many other activities…etc.

Related article: Does A Strong Bench Equal Strong Punches Too?

What if I told you that you can do both – barbell rows and power cleans?

Surprisingly, nobody will hate you, if you decide to add both exercises to your routine. People need to grow up and realize that exercises are just tools that help you get conditioned and/or stronger. The fact that you are/aren’t doing a certain exercise does not make you a good or a bad person. Arguing over exercises is like arguing over colors.

Different paintings require different palettes. Choose the most appropriate for your project. Sometime mixing offers the best results.

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