The barbell row is probably the most common weight training exercise for the upper back muscles next to the pulldowns. In addition to the bench press , rowing with the barbell is also an important complex basic exercise for your upper body. If you really want to build muscle mass effectively, then you shouldn’t do without this exercise or a variant of it in your training plan.
Especially with barbell rows, however, some mistakes are often made that significantly reduce the effectiveness of the training. This can also lead to discomfort and injuries. In order to avoid this, there are a few things to watch out for in your barbell rowing technique.
So that you can improve yourself and make progress quickly, in this article I want to introduce you to the five essential things that you should first pay attention to when rowing a barbell. Of course there are dozens of other things that you could optimize for in order to arrive at a perfect technique. However, it doesn’t help most to get lost in the details. That’s why I want to focus here on the things that get you to 90% quickly. Once these things are right, you can always consider whether you want to improve further. There is then special literature, specialized trainers and seminars.
This article is divided into the following sections:
After reading this, you should know enough about barbell rowing that you can quickly and effectively incorporate it into your training. With the focus on the crucial things and a little practice, you will quickly improve your technique and make progress in training.
Why barbell rowing is a great back exercise
There are a whole bunch of good reasons why you should include rowing with a barbell in your training plan for good upper body workout. Here I would like to briefly introduce you to the most important arguments in my opinion.
1) Doing a proper barbell row strengthens your entire upper body
The barbell row is one of the complex basic exercises. In my opinion, these exercises should always form the basis of your strength training, because they train a large proportion of the muscles of your body. They also do this in a sensible combination of so-called muscle chains. This is exactly what makes these exercises particularly effective if you want to strengthen and / or enlarge your muscles in a meaningful way.
In barbell rowing, these are basically all muscles that play a role in tensile loads. This is a particularly effective way of strengthening the entire back of your upper body. A large part of the other muscles in your body are also involved in a supporting role. This makes rowing with a barbell one of the best upper body exercises ever.
2) Rowing brings you closer to your dream figure
A real man needs a wide cross. Have you heard that before? The V or Y body shape that most men strive for depends on strong and well-developed back muscles. One of the best exercises you can do for this is barbell rowing.
When rowing with a barbell, you train precisely those muscles that make you particularly strong and, above all, make you look. In addition to the back and rear shoulder muscles that are so important for the desired upper body shape, a strong and large biceps is an unavoidable by-product. 😉
Of course you have to keep in mind that the duration of muscle building should not be underestimated, even with the best exercises. Even with consistent Hypertrophy training takes muscle growth some time. With a good barbell rowing technique, in connection with a well thought-out, individual training plan and a consistent mass phase nutrition you will achieve your goals much faster than otherwise.
In the opposite case too, if you would like to lose weight and define your muscles , the barbell row is useful for you. Especially in a restrictive diet, regular, heavy rowing helps you to maintain as much muscle mass as possible. Because your body protects what it needs regularly.
3) Rowing with a barbell is functional
Many exercises in weight training aren’t particularly functional. So-called isolation exercises in particular often only involve individual muscles. Of course, that doesn’t really apply to everyday situations. Therefore, the basic exercises of your strength training should always be complex and functional exercises.
Barbell rows are just such an exercise. Here a movement is carried out with weight, which can be transferred to many everyday movements of pulling and lifting or even rowing (which we do not have to do so every day). The exercise is also extremely useful for climbing, for example.
4) Barbell rows prevent back problems
Many people have back problems. In our western society, in particular, where people often sit a lot (often with a bent posture), this is often due to specific problems that you can counter through more exercise in everyday life . Regular barbell rows can also give you a significant advantage as a preventive measure.
An important and useful exercise in this context is, besides rowing, also this Deadlift , which wrongly has a bad reputation in this context.
Which muscles do you train when rowing a barbell
As mentioned earlier, barbell rowing is one of the best and most common exercises for the upper back muscles. Basically, when you do a bent barbell row correctly, you are using the following muscle groups:
At the core, you train your entire upper back muscles with the bent barbell row. These include the latissimus, the hood muscle (trapezius), as well as the lesser-known rhomboids and the lower bone muscle (infraspinatus). Your elbow muscles and the rear part of your deltoid muscle (shoulder) also make a significant contribution.
Other muscles are used in a supporting and stabilizing function. For example, the tension in the core muscles (especially the activation of the lower back) should not be underestimated when performing properly. Your leg muscles are also involved, by the way, to stabilize your body and to support your back in lifting the barbell.
What you should consider for a good barbell rowing technique
At this point we finally come to the correct execution. There are a lot of things to look out for here. However, your goal shouldn’t be to do the perfect bent over row with the barbell right away and pay attention to everything. Rather concentrate on a few essential things.
In my opinion, there are five things to watch out for when rowing a barbell. If you follow these rules, the exercise will be pretty good and effective for you very quickly. With that you should get 80-90% of the perfect execution (if there is one). After that, if you want, you can of course (preferably with a specialized trainer) readjust a few more details.
Rowing with the barbell rule 1: stable stance
I regularly see people rowing with a barbell, who move their upper body up and down by 10-20 degrees or more, bounce off their knees or wiggle their feet. All of this is anything but optimal for your execution and thus also for your training effect.
Make sure that you find a stable stance and that you really only move your arms and shoulders during the exercise. To do this, you perform the exercise slowly and with concentration and not too hectically. It’s best to practice this sideways in front of a mirror first.
The basis for all of this is a stable stand and shoes in which you stand really stable. It doesn’t necessarily have to be Lifter shoes *, but I’ll get to that later with the equipment.
Barbell row rule 2: straight back
You probably want to do something good for your back with this exercise and not harm it. To do this, you should keep your back stable and straight throughout the entire execution. Straight means neutral, so a slight lordosis is perfectly fine. However, you shouldn’t have a strong hollow back or a rounded back.
Also make sure that the entire spine, i.e. your lower and upper back and also your cervical spine, remain neutral. For example, I still regularly make the mistake of overstretching my cervical spine a little. I have to pay attention to that.
To do this, fix your shoulder blades for most of the exercise. Your shoulders only move in the lowest part of the movement when your arms are straight. This is important for the full range of motion because you also want to train the muscles that move your shoulder blades.
Barbell rows, rule 3: upper body almost parallel to the ground
As with the deadlift , start with the bar at about mid-height of your feet, close to the shin and lift the dumbbell until your upper body is in the correct position. Ideally, you should train with your upper body as parallel to the floor as possible. That may work with a very low weight. However, as soon as you train with a little more weight, you will have huge problems with your balance because the center of gravity simply slides too far forward. This then leads to very shaky executions and the target muscles are not properly hit and challenged.
For this reason, you should imagine that your elongated upper body is about 20 degrees to the floor. This is steep enough that with a little practice you can still achieve a stable execution even with a heavy weight. It is also flat enough that you can hit the target muscles very well. You shouldn’t get any steeper, however, because otherwise you shift the focus of the exercise too much to your upper trapezoid muscles and you want to train your back and not your neck. 😉
Rowing with the barbell rule 4: correct grip
Basically you should reach about shoulder width. But how do you grip the barbell correctly when rowing? There is some dispute about whether it is better to use the upper handle or the cross handle. In the following briefly my view of things:
There are two types of grips that are allowed when doing a clean, bent barbell row: the underhand grip (palms facing away from you) and the overhand grip (palms facing you). I recommend the underhand grip because this grip position puts the focus more on the inner, rear muscles of the back. In the overhand grip, the activation of the rear shoulder muscles is slightly greater.
Under no circumstances should you row cross-handle. I can understand why some people do this because it makes it easier to hold more weight. However, your movement and thus the load will become asymmetrical. Even if you change regularly, this is a suboptimal burden, especially with high weight. If it is difficult for you to hold on to a heavy weight with your hands, then you better train your forearms so that you get more strength there or use pulling aids * for the very heavy sets. On the subject of pulling aids, I’ll write something later about the equipment. A pair of good training gloves can also be a good help for more grip.
Barbell row rule 5: Elbows close to the body
Many would explain at this point how the bar must move. I think it makes a lot more sense, however, to take care of your elbows. Your elbows should move backward, not sideways, as you move up. Bring your elbows as close to your body as possible.
If you pay attention, the bar automatically goes the right way and I don’t have to tell you to pull the bar towards the pleura or navel. In addition, you have a much better focus on tensioning your back muscles because you consciously tighten your elbows. Just give it a try.
Bonus tip: Have your execution checked regularly and readjust
Finally, I will give you a tip on how you can best ensure that you really stick to the rules. All you have to do is ask your training partner to pay close attention to these things and give you feedback on where there is potential for improvement. It is best to always have him or her make a video of your technique. So you can see it again for yourself. I also make videos like this regularly with my cell phone camera.
You may think that you don’t need this because you know exactly what to look out for. But believe me, even if you really pay close attention to your own execution, you can often see things from the outside that you would have overlooked yourself. Errors that can slowly creep in can also be quickly identified in this way. So you have the chance to take countermeasures early.
In this way, your technique will improve even faster when you bent forward rowing with the barbell and you reduce the risk that your technique will deteriorate again over time after you have learned it once.
Here is a video of my technique with the bent barbell row
During my last coaching with Aljoscha Liebe, I had my barbell row technique recorded. You can also see in the video how he gives me the tip to increase the amplitude of movement. It could look like this for you too. The execution is not always 100% perfect for me either. As mentioned before, the most important thing is that you focus on the most important things. These things really make a difference and lead you to better technique.
Useful training equipment for barbell rows
If you have been training for a while and have made your first progress, maybe even earlier, you will think about what else you can do with your equipment to improve your training. The more difficult it becomes to make progress, it is of course obvious that you look around for optimization potential. In addition, you have probably already seen one or the other train in your gym with various accessories.
Of course, even with the best accessories, you won’t be able to increase your training progress exponentially. Nevertheless, one or the other tool can help you to get a little more out of barbell rowing and to make it a little more effective and maybe a little more pleasant. In the following I want to introduce you to a few such things.
I almost always train with training gloves. I just don’t like to tear my hands open on the barbell. I also have a better grip with the gloves. For these reasons, I recommend that most people get a pair of these gloves.
The best way to find out which training gloves are right for you is in our fitness gloves test . My current personal favorite from is that RDX Man´s Power Training Glove *. This one also has a relatively stable wrist bandage. Although I am of the opinion that such gloves can never completely replace good bandages.
Liquid Chalk * would be an alternative to such gloves. This gives you even better grip. However, this is forbidden in many gyms or at least not welcomed because it makes a pretty mess. Plus, it doesn’t really protect your hands from injury.
As mentioned before, a stable stance when rowing with the barbell is essential for a good execution. A good connection to the ground must be ensured by wearing the right footwear. If you’ve got yourself a pair of lifter shoes * for your squats and deadlifts anyway, you can of course also wear them for barbell rows.
I also know some people who swear by Chucks * when training. In principle, however, you can very well use any simple, neutral pair of shoes with a flat sole. It is important that you stand as stable as possible in it. You should therefore not necessarily wear running shoes.
Opinions are divided when it comes to using pulling aids when rowing a barbell. Admittedly, I used to use pulling aids regularly during this exercise. Especially at the limit, it is more comfortable if you take the forearms out of the game as a potential breaking point. However, if you are already using pulling aids when rowing with the barbell, then you will not be able to cope with the deadlift .
My motto is therefore if you want to get everything out of your last one or two sentences, challenge your back with full focus and use pulling aids, then you can do that. However, I also advise you to do as much as possible without and also to train your forearms so that you don’t need any pulling aids at all when rowing with the barbell. As long as you have not yet mastered the technique properly, you should generally refrain from using pulling aids.
Progression is essential if you want to get stronger and build muscle with strength training. If you can regularly improve a little bit from one training session to the next, then you can make even better progress. At some point these possible advances get smaller and smaller.
In most fitness studios, the smallest weight plates of 2.5 kg or even 5 kg are relatively large for regular progress. Such increases in steps of 5 or even 10 kilograms can quickly become quite a challenge when rowing a barbell. So-called Micro or Fractional Plates * can solve this problem for you. With these mini weight plates, which also fit well in your sports bag, small increases are possible from 500g.
Your conclusion on barbell rowing
After reading this article, you should now know what to look out for when rowing a barbell. I also hope that I was able to bring you closer to the numerous advantages of the exercise for your training and your body and that you will make rowing with the barbell an integral part of your training plan in the future.
If you follow the rules of technique, I am sure that you will progress quickly and benefit from the strengths of this exercise. The possible accessories are optional and can help you to get a little more out of your training. It is only really important that you have shoes in which you can stand stable and secure during the exercise.
If you would like to find out more about the correct execution of barbell rows and other basic exercises, I can recommend the book Starting strenght by Marc Rippetoe * to you. From this book I learned a lot about performing and using the basic exercises.
If you want to go a step further, then I recommend that you train with a specialized trainer or attend a barbell workshop with one of the experts in this field. I have already attended several such seminars myself and still take a lot with me.