How To Barbell Row With Proper Form For Maximum Lat Activation

| September 27, 2015 by Truth Seeker |

Double overhand grip will sooner or later fail on you.

The barbell row is not the most complicated exercise but deserves special attention because many individuals who have not developed the required back awareness look like a camel rubbing its groin area into a stainless steel bar when doing the movement.

Loading the barbell

You don’t want to be doing barbell rows with small plates because you will be at a deficit resulting in a higher back strain. This is especially true if you start each rep from a dead stop like a deadlift.

If your gym has small plates as big as regular 45s/20kg biscuits, consider yourself lucky and use them. However, if you are not so fortuitous, you can just stack a couple of big plates under the plates at the end of your barbell.


Another option would be to use a power rack. You can load the barbell with small plates, perform a rack pull, step back to clear the rack and begin rowing. This method works well, but it will prevent you from doing rows with a dead stop.

Once you have the barbell loaded the right way, it is time to assume a proper stance.

Proper stance

Assume a shoulder-width stance (use your built-in bio-ruler) while making sure that you are in the middle of the barbell – use the rings on the bar for proper spacing.

When you look down the barbell should be dividing your foot in two. This cue makes sure that you are not too far forward or backward. Thereupon, you have to push your hips back while bending your knees as little as possible. The goal is to create a torso that’s almost vertical to the floor. This cannot happen when you are squatting your barbell row. Push your hips back until you can grab the bar and your shins (lower legs) are pressing slightly against the barbell.

Now comes a really important part. This is key. Push your chest out as much as humanly possible.

Imagine that you are trying to touch the floor with your chest. If you do it correctly, your back will assume its normal anatomical position, and you will feel your hamstrings (muscles behind the leg) stretch. This should prevent you from doing rows with a bent spine – a position that places too much stress on your spinal ligaments.

This is the trickiest part of the barbell row, but in reality, it’s not more complicated than learning how to play Subway Surfers. Just push your chest out, and you will have this element covered for the most part.

Note: In some rare situations people actually overextend their backs (the opposite of overflexing your spine). This can also cause unnecessary stress. However, this is pretty rare. Most people have the opposite problem – a bent spine.

Where should I look?

Let’s not complicate things – look down and maybe a little forward. The most important part is to avoid looking at the ceiling as if the formula of life is written there. The barbell row requires your torso to be almost parallel to the ground. If you are looking at the ceiling, you will be placing unnecessary stress on your neck. Neck pain can be really annoying because most people always carry their heads with them.

How wide should my grip be during barbell rows?

For regular barbell rows keep your grip a little wider than shoulder width. This is the generic style. A wider grip works the upper back more while a narrow width keeps the stress over the entire back.

The execution

Once you are in a proper position (chest out, back straight, strong grip, looking down and forward), take a deep breath, tighten your abs and pull the bar until it touches your upper abdomen/lower chest. You don’t want to be pulling too high when doing the mainstream version of the exercise. Safe the wide grip and high pulling stuff for the advanced era.

You want this part to feel like a little explosion – fast and strong. Forget about the personal trainers who want everything to look like a stunt from the Matrix. This is not a cable exercise. It’s a slow lift with a power element. Honestly, for most people, the explosive part will happen naturally. You will feel it when you try it.

Once you have pulled the bar as high as you can, let it drop under control. Don’t lose your back position even for a second. That’s the key to the whole lift. If you can do that, you got the hardest part down.

Should I let the bar drop on the floor or keep it hanging?

According to some, each barbell row rep should start from a dead stop. Others prefer to keep the weight hanging the whole time. Technically, neither is right or wrong.

However, I believe that most people do better with the full stop version. This method teaches you how to generate explosive power without bouncing (there is no stretch reflex coming from the lats at the bottom). Still, it would be wrong to say that the other method is invalid and bad form by default.

Note: Not letting the bar touch the floor keeps your lats stretched at the bottom. For some people, this technique makes it easier to feel the muscle working.

Also, don’t be afraid to let your shoulders row forward at the end of each repetition. Don’t be one of those idiots who always try to keep their shoulders back! Men’s Health wannabes think that retracting your shoulders constantly protects your joints, but the only thing it does is creating an opportunity for shoulder impingement. You should allow your scapula to protract (shoulders move forward) at the bottom of the lift. Safe the retraction for the last part of the barbell row. At that point you want your shoulders to be back. However, keeping them in a similar position the whole time is not proper form. The muscles that keep your back straight are the spinal erectors – not the muscles in your shoulders. Thus, the better cue is to push your chest out, not to retract your shoulders.

Can I cheat when the weight gets heavy?

This is another tricky part of the barbell row. First, some hip extension and leg movement is natural and does not equal bad form, especially when the weight gets heavy. You will never lift a decent number while trying to look like a client of a personal trainer with shaved legs and lots of oil. Some hip movement is allowed. That does not mean that you should behave like a bodybuilding idiot humping the barbell.

Preserve the back angle as much as possible

Try to keep the angle formed by your torso and upper legs the same. When the weight gets heavy this angle will increase. Make sure to limit its growth.

What grip should I use – overhand or underhand?

Always use an overhand grip (palms facing you). This is very important. Only idiots rely on the underhand grip (palms facing away). The underhand grip can tear your biceps tendons because you will always row more than you can curl.

Let’s say that you can a barbell row with 200lbs/90kg. What do you think will happen if all that weight shifts to your biceps tendons? Some bozos will say that more weight equals more stimulation and growth, but in this case, it equals an injury because it’s just too much. Even Dorian Yates, the guy who popularized the underhand barbell row, has suffered from biceps problems due to it. The overhand (palms facing you) version stretches the biceps less and protects it.

What about the Yates row? Dorian Yates had a great back. Maybe the key to back mass is his row variation?

The Yates row sucks. The range of motion is short because you are too upright. The reasons why Yates had a great back are genetics and drugs. Sorry. An exercise variation is not the secret to massive back growth.

Should I hold my breath during barbell rows?

Whenever you have to exert some sort of strong physical effort, holding your breath happens naturally. Even people who don’t exercise do it. I have witnessed this on a couple of occasions. One time I had to push a car with the help of two men. They both held their breaths while exerting force despite knowing nothing about training.

The classic method is to inhale at the bottom, hold your breath during the hardest part and exhale on the way down under control. Honestly, most people will do this naturally.

How can I activate my lats more?

bruce-lee-big-lats

Let your shoulders row forward at the bottom as previously mentioned and use a narrow grip. This will stretch the lats even more. Then imagine pulling through your elbows while retracting your shoulders back on the way up. It helps if you treat your arms as hooks. You can read more about lat activation in this article.

Can I use straps for my barbell rows?

Yes, but the best way is to keep them for your final work sets. Only use straps when you need them.

Should I do barbell rows for high or low reps?

Barbell rows work better when you keep the reps lower than 8-10 because the exercise contains technical elements that suffer when you are fatigued. You can’t compare the exercise to seated cable rows. The barbell row is a free weight movement and demands a little more respect. It’s better to keep the execution tight and strict. I don’t see a benefit in doing 20 reps. In 99% of the cases, your form will suffer a lot during the final repetitions.

Where should I feel the barbell row?

If you are doing barbell rows properly, you will ”feel them” in the middle of the back. The lats are also targeted, but the middle back muscles are so compressed that most of the sensation produced by the exercise occupies the mid zone. Usually, the day after barbell rows people are really sore in the middle of their traps. If that’s you, don’t panic – there’s not a ninja star in your back.

If for some reason you are feeling barbell rows mostly in your arms, you are probably using too much biceps to pull. Reduce the weight and treat your arms as hooks. Using straps may help with this because straps require less grip force. This can help with ”deactivating your biceps” during rows. However, sometimes you may be doing everything right and still get sore arms. That’s not a surprise because the elbow flexors (biceps) are a big part of the barbell row. Use your iPhone to record yourself and evaluate what you are doing wrong. If you don’t have an iPhone, ask somebody from the gym (preferably a lady) to record you and sent you the videos to your e-mail address. This technique is part of another upcoming article – how to pick up girls with barbell rows.

Final points to remember

At the end of the day, the crucial components of a proper barbell row are:

1.A straight back.

2.Double overhand grip.

3.Tight abs.

4.Explosiveness.

The best way to improve your barbell row is to use training cycles – work up, deload and then build back up again. All else is literally ineffective magazine glamor.

The barbell row works the lower back only when you are not using support. However, there are other exercises that will focus on your spinal erectors much more (e.g., deadlifts, weighted back hyperextensions, Romanian deadlifts…etc.)

The barbell row develops both – back width and thickness. However, don’t expect to develop a back similar to the ones you see in magazines. Those guys and girls ain’t natty.

FAQ

What are the main differences between barbell rows and dumbbell rows?

There are two main differences between dumbbell rows and barbell rows – the first version forces each side to work independently and is a good way to fix imbalances whereas the second allows you to use more overall weight and is easier to program thanks to the more precise jumps.

Which version develops the back fully?

Technically, when people talk about barbell rows they are referring to the standing version in which the spinal erectors have to contract intensely to ensure a proper spinal alignment. Conversely, the default dumbbell row version requires you to use a bench for support. This reduces the involvement of the lower back substantially.

This is good if you want to remove the lower back from the equation but makes the variation incomplete. This could easily be fixed by doing your dumbbell rows standing.

When all parameters are equal, the overall effect on the back musculature is similar. It’s like comparing the dumbbell bench press to the barbell version – they both develop the chest fully.

What’s better for beginners?

Both work well. The barbell version is more convenient, though.

Which movement promotes more growth?

This is the money question, right? Here’s the deal – people should stop thinking so much about the exercise. At the end of the day, what makes you strong is consistency and gradual weight increase with the help of training cycles. That’s the most important part of getting stronger. If that part is not covered, there will be no progress regardless of the exercises you are doing.

I know that the stupid muscle websites and magazines have brainwashed people to the point where most zombies believe that there is a secret exercise providing exceptional muscle growth, but there isn’t. There are exercises that are better than others, but in this case, the difference is too small. If the question was: “What adds mass faster – barbell rows or reverse dumbbell flies?“, the answer would be – barbell rows. In this situation, however, your choice is almost irrelevant.

The big guys at my gym say that barbell rows are the best for growth?

There are many big guys who are complete idiots when it comes to training. Barbell rows do not offer superior muscular growth compared to dumbbells rows. That’s the truth. Take two twins and make each one do a separate rowing version while keeping everything else the same for a year. There will be no visible difference in their back development.

Which one should I choose if I have a bad back?

The one arm dumbbell row on a bench would be the easiest option, but you can also do bench supported rows with a barbell. Another valid option would be the good old horizontal row on rings or a low pull-up bar. Pick one according to your preferences and available equipment.

Building a Thicker Back: Barbell Rows Vs Deadlifts?

The barbell row focuses on the lats and the upper back with a smaller emphasis on the spinal erectors whereas the deadlift hits them all in an isometric fashion. If your goal is to develop super strong and thick spinal muscles, barbell rows alone are not the ultimate solution, although when you do them unsupported they do work your whole back. Still, deadlifts, rack pulls and weighted hyperextensions will build your spinal muscles much faster than barbell rows.

Ultimately, the deadlift builds thicker backs, but the difference is smaller than what the permabulkers say.

Note: Barbell rows have a fairly strong advantage over deadlifts – they are easier to recover from. Many people cry themselves to sleep the night before or after a deadlift session. Meanwhile, no one loses sleep over barbell rows.

What Is The Best Way To Program Barbell Rows?

The barbell row is an assistance lift in most programs, but it can also be your main back lift. In both situations, the programming is the same. I used to believe that there are secret routines, but so far simple cycles have worked the best for me.

The principle behind cycling is pretty straightforward – you start with a low weight allowing you to perform for 5-10 reps and build up to 2-3 reps while adding weight. Then, you remove a little weight and start a new cycle with a number slightly heavier than your initial starting point. You continue to add weight until you reach a new small personal best.

Here’s an example 8-week cycle.

Cycle 1

Starting point: 150lbs x 10

Workout 1: 150×10

Workout 2: 155×10

Workout 3: 160x 8

Workout 4: 165×5

Workout 5: 170×5

Workout 6: 175×5

Workout 7: 180×3-5

Workout 8: 185×3-5

Cycle 2

Starting point: 160lbs x 10

Workout 1: 160×10

Workout 2: 165×8-10

Workout 3: 170×8

Workout 4: 175x 5

Workout 5: 180×5

Workout 6: 185×5

Workout 7: 190×3-5

Workout 8: 195×3-5

You start with 150 pounds and add weight while reducing the number of reps per set. The two cycles you take your barbell row from 150lbs for 10 reps to 160lbs for 10 reps and from 185lbs for 3-5 reps to 195lbs for 3-5 reps.

Q: How many work sets should I do?

A: 1-2 work sets are plenty. If you want to practice form, you can also add a couple of back-off sets.

Q: Do cycles work for a long time?

A: Cycling can work for many years as long as you don’t expect miracles. You have to be really conservative with the weights you pick. The more advanced you become, the smaller your PRs will be even though the length of the cycles will actually increase. Sucks but that’s how the world works.

Q: How often should I do barbell rows?

A: Once a week seems fine, but you can also do barbell rows every 5th or 6th day if you want to. Stay away from routines that come with Smolov like frequency. Those have little value when it comes to long-term progress.

What are the best row variations for a bigger, thicker and stronger back?

Barbell Row

There are two main ways to do a barbell row – with your back supported or unsupported. The benefit of the first variation is that the exercise hits your spinal erectors and makes them stronger.

Many people neglect that muscle group and focus on the lats and traps. That’s wrong. Having strong spinal erectors is very important because they protect a really vulnerable part of your back – the spine.

However, not all backs can tolerate barbell rows. If you are recovering from some sort of injury, a better option would be to switch to supported rows. Most people use a bench for this. The cool thing is that you still get the benefits of barbell rows without putting unnecessary stress on your back.

The downside of the chest supported barbell row is that unless you have special equipment your range of motion will be limited significantly (the bar will hit the bottom part of the bench).

There is also another reason to do supported rows – to save your back for movements such as the deadlift. Some lifters prefer to let the deadlift be their spinal builder and don’t want to fatigue the back with standing barbell rows.

T-bar Rows

The T-bar row is a solid choice. It can be done with a machine or the old-school way with a handle and a barbell in the corner. If you have a machine, use it. It takes less time to set-up and you don’t have to argue with gym owners.

Due to technical restrictions, the T-bar row is usually done with a narrow grip which puts more emphasis on the lats and the middle of the back.

Dumbbell rows

The dumbbell row has been here for a long time, but it got extra popular when the powerlifter Matt Kroc introduced the so-called Kroc rows which are simply dumbbell rows done for high reps. However, after the guy presented himself as a transgender the shares of the dumbbell row dropped once again. People just don’t want to be imagining a muscular guy in a dress every time they do a row I guess. Joking aside, this is a great exercise.

Horizontal Bodyweight Rows

This is the opposite of a push-up and is also known as an Australian pull-up. It’s a legit variation and actually very challenging. This movement offers another way to place less stress on your lower back while training the rest of the rear musculature. You can do the exercise with a weighted vest too.

Those are the best rowing variations. The rest are exercises done with cables that are still decent but not nearly as fun as the ones above. Cable rows are good for high reps if you want to work the area a little more, but they cannot be considered a big exercise because they are not.

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3 comments

  1. Ryan

    Should I be able to barbell row roughly the same or a little less than what I bench press? right now my bench is a 205 5×5 but my barbell row is closer to a 175 5×5 and I’m worried that it might be lagging behind because I neglected my back when I first started training

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