How To Barbell Row With Proper Form For Maximum Lat Activation

The barbell row may not be a difficult exercise to learn but still deserves some special attention because many individuals, who have not developed proper back awareness, look like a camel rubbing its groin area into a stainless steel bar when doing the movement.

Double overhand grip will sooner or later fail on you.


Loading the barbell

The first step of a properly perform barbell row is finding a barbell and loading it with regular size plates.


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

If your gym has small plates as big as regular 45s / 20 kg 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.

The goal is to elevate the barbell a little so that you don’t have to bend over that much. Later on, you can use small plates to increase the range of motion. This is an advanced variations and will not be discussed in this basic tutorial.

Another option would be to use a power rack. You load the barbell with small plates, perform a rack pull and then do a few steps backwards to clear the rack and begin rowing. This works fine, but it’s good only if you are NOT doing the dead stop barbell row. Also, once the weight gets heavy the walkout may be troublesome. However, at this point you will probably be using over 135 lbs / 60 kg for your works sets, and you won’t have to rely on small plates.

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

At the same time, 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 backwards. Thereupon, you have to push you 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.

What does that mean?

It means that you have to imagine that you are trying to touch the floor with your sternum (the part in-between and below your chest muscles). If you do it correctly, your back will assume normal anatomical position and you will feel your hamstrings (muscles behind the leg) stretch. The goal here is to avoid doing barbell rows with bent spine because this 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) which can also cause unnecessary stress. However, this is pretty rare and most people have the opposite problem – bent spine.

Being always aware of your back position is a skill called ”back awareness”. This is very important and takes some time to master. Still, it’s not the hardest thing in the world – maybe a little harder than playing Subway Surfers Level 1.

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 and if you are looking straight forward, 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. Wider grip works the upper back more while narrow width keeps the stress over the entire back. The wider the grip, the less weight can be lifted. At the same time super close grip is uncomfortable and places the wrists and elbows at a disadvantageous position.

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

However, I believe most people do better with the full stop version. This method also teaches you how to generate explosive power without bouncing ( there is no stretch reflex coming from the lats and traps at the bottom) and allows your lower back to rest a little more in-between reps. Still, it would be wrong to say that the other method is invalid and bad form by default.

When I was doing barbell rows, I relied on the dead stop method because I have long arms and the other style is less convenient without using a platform to elevate myself or stand too upright which is not proper form. There are other people who find it more appropriate.

The whole point here is not to fall for the tactics of the permabulking crew and 5×5 zealots who believe barbell rows should always be done from a dead stop. It’s not true, and many barbell technicians such as the popular powerlifter Ed Coan actually keep the barbell hanging in-between reps. Only the first repetition begins from the floor.

Note: Not letting the bar touch the floor keeps your lats stretched at the bottom. For some people this means easier time activating the muscle.

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!!! Many Men’s Health wannabes think that retracting your shoulders constantly protects your back, but the only thing it does is creating 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 this point you want your shoulders to be back. However, keeping them in similar position the whole time is not proper form. The thing that keeps 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 body movement is allowed. That does not mean that you should behave like a bodybuilding idiot humping the barbell. If you are using so much of your hips, you might just as well deadlift.

Keep the back angle the same as much as possible

When you are doing barbell rows, you should keep the angle formed by your torso and upper legs the same as much as possible. When the weight gets heavy this angle will increase – make sure to limit its growth.

What kind of grip should I use – overhand or underhand?

Always use an overhand grip (palms facing you). This is very important. Only idiots use the underhand grip (palms facing away). Why? Because this will tear your biceps tendons. The weight you are going to barbell row is too heavy for the connective tissue of your arms to handle.

Let’s say that you can barbell row 200 lbs / 90kg with some decent amount of hip power. What do you think will happen if all that weight shifts to your biceps tendon? Some bozos will say that more weight equals more stimulation and growth, but in this case it means 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 much less and protects it.

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

Here’s the deal: The Yates row sucks – plain and simple. The range of motion is short because you are too far upright. The reasons why Yates had a great back are genetics, drugs and drugs and genetics. Sorry. An exercise variation is not the secret to massive back growth.

Should I hold my breath during barbell rows?

Naturally, you will hold your breath during the execution of the exercise. This will protect your back and make you stronger. Whenever you have to exert some sort of strength effort, holding your breath happens naturally. Even people who don’t exercise do it. I have witnessed this many times. One time when our old car was frozen I had to push it with the help of two other people. They both held their breath while exerting force, and I can tell you right now that they knew nothing about training.

The simple way to things 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

You have to let your shoulders row forward at the bottom as previously mentioned. The second part is to use narrow grip. This will stretch the lats even more. Unlike what many people say – the narrow grip works your lats much more than the wide version. That’s a simple fact of life and is also true when it comes to pull-ups and chin-ups.

The final part is to imagine pulling through your elbows while retracting your shoulders back on the way up. It helps if you treat your arms as just 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 works sets. Only use straps when you need them. Don’t be afraid! You will not go in Hell due to strap usage.

Should I do barbell rows for high or low reps?

Barbell rows work better when you keep the reps no higher than 8-10. Why? Because they contain 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 much benefit in doing 20 reps. In 99% of the cases, your form will suffer a lot during the final repetitions. Where’s the benefit in that?

Where should I feel the barbell row?

In your groin area…just kidding.

When 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 barbell rows occupies the mid zone. Usually, the day after barbell rows people are really sore in the middle of their traps (middle back). If that’s you, don’t panic – there’s not a ninja star in your back.

If for some reason your are feeling barbell rows mostly in your arms, you are probably using too much biceps to pull. Reduce the weight and when you are pulling imagine that your arms are just hooks. Using straps may help with this, because straps require less grip force, which 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 iFone to record yourself and evaluate what you are doing wrong. If you don’t have an iFone, ask somebody from the gym with an iFone (preferably a lady) to record you and sent you the video to your e-mail address. This technique is part of another upcoming article – how to pick up girls with barbell rows.

Some final points to remember

  • At the end of the day, the most important element of the barbell row is to keep your back straight, use a double overhand grip, hold your breath and explode. Those techniques will make it really hard to injure your back.

  • The best way to improve your barbell row is to use training cycles – you work up to a certain weight, 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. Examples: 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.

Additional resources

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FAQ: Barbell Rows Vs. Dumbbell Rows – What Will Add Slabs Of Meat To Your Back The Fastest?

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. Meanwhile the barbell row allows you to use more overall weight and is easier to program – the jumps are much more precise.

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 isometrically to promote proper spinal alignment. At the same time, the default dumbbell row version requires you to use a bench for support, which reduces the lower back involvement 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 quite similar. It’s like comparing the dumbbell bench press to the barbell version – they both develop the chest fully.

What’s better for beginners?

I don’t think one is more difficult than the other in terms of technique. Beginners will not have hard time learning either. Maybe the barbell version is a little more straight forward, but it all comes down to personal preference.

What will promote more growth?

This is the money question, right? Here’s the deal – people should stop thinking so much about exercise X vs. exercise Y. At the end of the day, what makes you strong is consistence and gradual weight increase with the help of training cycles. That’s the most important part of getting stronger. If that element is not in action, there will be no progress. No matter the exercise, there has to be some sort of progression.

I know that the stupid muscle websites and magazines have brainwashed people to the point where most zombies believe 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 obviously be – barbell rows. In this situation, however, it’s almost irrelevant what you choose. The essential is to stick to your plan, be patient and get stronger as fast as nature allows you to.

Big guys at my gym say 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 the their back development.

There are many people who think barbells transfer testosterone to you when you lift, but this is logic deprived thinking. In this case we are simply talking about a slightly different form of resistance. The rest is permabulking macho nonsense.

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

The dumbbell row 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 low pull-up bar. Pick one according to your preferences and available equipment.

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FAQ: Building a Thicker Back: Barbell Rows Vs Deadlifts…what’s better?

The main difference between the two is that barbell rows focus more on the lats and upper back. There is less emphasis on the spinal erectors. The deadlift hits them all in 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.

Barbell rows have a fairly strong advantage over deadlifts – they are easier to recover from. A deadlift burns your CNS and body quite easily while the barbell row is much less stressful. There are many people who cry themselves to sleep the night before or after a deadlift session. Meanwhile there are very few individuals who lose sleep over barbell rows. That’s not because the exercise is for cowards who are not men enough to deadlift. It’s an effective movement that can build a thicker back. The reason is that it does not make you feel like you are about to die and you use much less weight. This makes it a better choice for people who love to train more frequently.

Honestly, the only reason why a sane person would be trying to compare the two is a physical condition that prevents you from doing one of the two. The deadlift seems like the more problematic lift. If you can deadlift, I can’t see why you will be unable to do barbell rows. Thus, if you are wondering whether the barbell row can replace the deadlift as a way to build a thicker back, the answer would be positive. However, you can also consider adding an additional exercise for your spinal erectors, because those are part of your back too and don’t work much during supported rows of any kind. You can’t build a thicker and stronger back if you ignore this part of your musculature.

At the end of the day, however, it would be naive to believe that one of the exercises is better than the other. They are just different, and if you try to get strong using a working protocol each of the movements will get the job done. Far too many people get caught in the ”Exercise X vs. Exercise Z” game. Listen: it’s not the exercise, but the work and persistence that count. Don’t listen to the books that classify men according to the exercise they do. I am telling you that’s complete nonsense. You should treat each exercise as nothing but a tool. That’s what barbell movements are. Neither the deadlift, nor the barbell row is an angel sent from heaven which you should respect and love until the end of times. Those two are just a decently safe way to exert physical effort using your back muscles. Nothing more, nothing less. I hope you don’t get married to a barbell row or a deadlift. I heard they make a bad husband/wife.

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FAQ: 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. The truth is that in both situations programming is the same. I used to believe there are secret routines, but at the end the best method has always turned out to be cycling.

Training cycles are fairly simple – you start with a low weight you can do for 5-10 reps and build up to 2-3 reps by adding weight. Then, you remove weight and start a new cycle with something that’s slightly heavier than your initial weight. You continue to add weight until you reach a new small personal best. You can read much more about training cycles in this post.

Barbell rows are no different. They are also an exercise that works well with the cycling method.

Here’s an example 8 week cycle.

Cycle 1

Starting point: 150 lbs or 70 kg x 10 reps;

Workout 1: 150 lbs x 10;
Workout 2: 155 lbs x 8-10;
Workout 3: 160 lbs x 8;
Workout 4: 165 lbs x 5;
Workout 5: 170 lbs x 5;
Workout 6: 175 lbs x 5;
Workout 7: 180 lbs x 3-5;
Workout 8: 185 lbs x 3-5;

Cycle 2

Starting point: 160 lbs or 75 kg x 10 reps;

Workout 1: 160 lbs x 10;
Workout 2: 165 lbs x 8-10;
Workout 3: 170 lbs x 8;
Workout 4: 175 lbs x 5;
Workout 5: 180 lbs x 5;
Workout 6: 185 lbs x 5;
Workout 7: 190 lbs x 3-5;
Workout 8: 195 lbs x 3-5;

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

Q: How many working sets should I do?

A: 1-2 working heavy sets seem fine. If you want to practice form, you can also add a couple of back-off sets.

Q: For how long does cycling works?

A: Technically, it can work forever, but it doesn’t because our bodies are not machines. However, it can work for decades 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 while 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.

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FAQ: What are the best row variations for 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 you spinal erectors and makes them stronger. The whole time you have to maintain proper back position and that can only take place if your spinal muscles are under fire. A lot of people neglect that muscle group and focus on the lats and traps. It’s wrong. Having strong spinal erectors is even more 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).

With that said, 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. Obviously, in this case we are talking about personal preference.

T-bar Row

Another row variation that is pretty decent is the T-bar row. 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. I know many wannabe barbell purists will say stupid things like: ”Arnold used to do them this way. It builds more muscles.” This is how dumb some gym members are. In reality the machine version is just more comfortable. Neither builds more muscles.

Due to technical restrictions the T-bar row is usually done with 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 really popular when the powerlifter Matt Kroc became famous for his 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 hit the bottom once again. People just don’t want to be imagining a muscular guy in a dress every time they do a row I guess.

At the end of the day, dumbbell row will recover and its shares will raise because it’s a valuable exercise that allows you to work the left and the right part independently. It also does not require a lot of equipment and is a perfect back exercise if you are training at home.

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. It’s also another way to place less stress on your lower back while training the rest of the rear musculature. You can also do the exercise with a weighted vest.

Those are the four best row 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.

2 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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