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

| by Truth Seeker |

The creator of Starting Strength, Mark Rippetoe, has a very special opinion on barbell rows:

“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.”
– Rippetoe


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.

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  1. K

    People like Rippetoe need cults to survive. So they deliberately have extreme opinions so then the braindead can fight over them an Rippetoe gets more popular.

  2. Thomas Harrison

    I’m going to be 62 this October and I’ve been lifting all my adult life drug free.
    I have my formula that works for me that’s been probably set in stone for the last 20-25yrs. As far as the clean vs row question goes my answer is this: I actually do both and in the same workout…with age comes wisdom and you just got to train smarter.. I’ve found that heavy Dumbbell work for me anyway is always done after a couple of big barbell compound movements like the full barbell back squat followed by the straight legged deadlift. I used to barbell clean and press after those two and that was enough for that workout!
    But if you’re not using bumper plates and it’s your own gear even in a rack, there’s no way your going to drop the bar so you try and sorta reverse the movement which turns into a reverse upright row which in turn wreaks havoc on your shoulders. When you’re doing this with 90-120kg forget it.. so I had already found the best Row that suited me which was the two handed bent over Dumbbell row.. it just hits the back perfectly.. so I thought ok let’s do the old time two handed repetition Dumbbell clean and press and for me it worked.. no more threatening shoulder damage and a total body power movement. Heavy Dumbbell work is always coming in around 80% of what you can handle on a bar but the carry over when moving back to a barbell clean and press is massive. If I’m using a pair of say 32kg Dumbbells that’s 78lbs in old money for 3-5 x 3reps then go back to the bar 90kg is like a warm up it’s that good an exercise. But try and do that without any heavy work before hand like the squat,like the deadlift and you will fail it’s that simple.. so this is how I plan out that days workout:
    so no need to chose between the two!

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