The creator of Starting Strength, Mark Rippetoe, has a very special opinion on barbell rows:
Rippetoe’s Starting Strength comes equipped with 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 has been the source of a prolonged and heated debate between the defenders of both exercises.
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 whereas others see the barbell row as a superior back builder.
The truth is that both exercises are very different. The power clean is a “power” movement, the barbell row is a slow lift.
The purpose of the power clean is not to build your back. The exercise is a progression to the full clean which is part of the clean & jerk done by Olympic weightlifters.
The power clean definitely hits the back even though the “power” comes from the hips. The traps pull the bar up explosively; the upper back works hard to support the rack position; the spinal erectors maintain the proper back alignment. This makes the power clean a good back exercise, but its effect on the rear musculature of the upper body is more of a side effect rather than the end goal.
The main downside of the power clean is that very few people can do it safely. It’s not the hardest task in the world, but it has a harder learning curve than the barbell row. In addition, the muscle building reward is questionable and often comes with wrist strain and bruises.
Prioritizing or running from obstacles?
Many lifters have a hard time learning how to perform a real power clean and usually do a cheated reverse curl. Of course, this could be fixed, but the final results may not be worth the investment.
Conversely, the barbell row is a fairly straight forward exercise that does not require a 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 a better carryover to sports since it teaches you how to use your hips explosively. This translates to higher jumping, stronger punching…etc.
What if I told you that you can do both?
If you want, you can add both to your routine. People need to grow up and realize that exercises are just tools designed to improve your skills, conditionning and strength. The fact that you are or aren’t doing a certain movement 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. Sometimes mixing offers the best results.