Building a strong back is about more than having an aesthetic flex on beach days. These muscles play an important role in foundational lifts, like the deadlift and bench press. And, ok, they make for a pretty epic flex on beach day.
Bent over rows are a compound exercise that helps build a strong upper body while also engaging the core and, to an extent, your legs. This versatile movement has several variations and offers benefits to everyone, from first-timers to seasoned athletes.
Here’s what you need to know about how to perform bent over rows properly.
What are Bent Over Rows?
Bent over rows are a standing exercise, traditionally completed with a barbell. However, there are several bent over row variations that use resistance bands or dumbbells. You complete this exercise by pulling weights toward you from the ground like you’re rowing a boat— hence the name. The bent over row varies from the seated row as it incorporates more stabilizing muscles, whereas the seated row offers more isolation.
Why Should You do Bent Over Rows?
As mentioned previously, the bent over row is a compound exercise, meaning it engages multiple muscle groups simultaneously. The benefit of these exercises is that they support functional strength while giving you a more immersive workout in a shorter period. This functional movement will carry over into your daily activities while supporting other lifts.
The bent over row primarily targets the upper back muscles, including the latissimus dorsi (lats), rhomboids, and erector spinae. The shoulder muscles are also engaged during the movement, primarily the trapezius (traps) and rear delts. Meanwhile, your core, hamstrings, and glutes act as stabilizer muscles during the movement.
Anyone of any age or fitness level can do bent over rows, but form and control are key. You shouldn’t feel pain from doing bent over rows. If you experience low back pain, it indicates that you aren’t bracing your core properly. If that’s the case, drop the weight and work on proper bent over row form.
Using the right weight and avoiding jerking motions— caused by relying on momentum— will help prevent shoulder injuries. As with any exercise, if it’s hurting you, stop and get a professional opinion.
As bent over rows are an excellent pull exercise, they work well in a powerlifting training routine. Most powerlifters recommend pairing bent over rows with your bench day to get the best push-pull balance, rather than doing them with deadlifts.
Equipment Needed for Bent Over Rows
Minimal equipment is needed for bent over rows. For traditional barbell rows, you’ll need a barbell and weight plates. If you’re a beginner, it can be helpful to have bumper plates or mats to help with set-up and prevent damage if you drop them.
For bent over row variations, you’ll need kettlebells or dumbbells. You can also use resistance bands if you’re traveling or working with limited space at home.
As this exercise is relatively simple, you only need enough space to stand in a single position with your barbell.
Proper Bent Over Rows Form
While bent over rows are a compound exercise, only your arms should be moving. The rest of your body should be stable and engaged to support the movement.
Here’s how to do a barbell row:
- Stand with feet shoulder-width apart with a barbell in front of you. You can set it on a hip-level rack or deadlift the bar from the ground to starting position.
- Hinge your hips while keeping your core tight and spine neutral. Grab the barbell in an overhand grip, letting your knees bend naturally to allow the movement. Extend, so the bar is resting at the top of your knees with arms fully extended, hips hinged, and back flat. This is your starting position.
- Take a deep breath, brace your core, and pull your shoulders back to pack the lats while keeping your chest up. Imagine holding a tennis ball between your shoulder blades.
- Squeeze your back muscles as you pull the barbell toward your abdomen, targeting the bottom of your rib cage. Your elbows should be tucked close to the body.
- Pause at the top of the concentric movement, then lower the barbell back to starting position. That’s one rep.
Using this positioning— a shoulder-width stance and targeting the lower ribcage— will put the onus of the movement on the lats. A wider grip shifts some of the work to the traps and rear delts but also makes it easier to injure your shoulders if your form is off. You can also switch to an underhand grip to better engage the biceps and forearms.
To keep your balance and avoid straining your neck, pick a spot slightly ahead of you on the floor and fix your gaze there. If you feel lower back strain, pause and reset at the end of each rep to avoid losing tension. If you feel at risk for tipping forward, adjust your stance so you’re a bit more upright.
If you’re struggling in any way, drop the weight and practice your form. Slow and controlled movement is the key to success with bent over rows.
Bent Over Row Programming
Programming bent over rows ultimately depends on your goals and training style. If you’re using barbell rows as a primary lift to build back strength and support other lifts, plan to incorporate this exercise into training once per week.
If you’re doing bent over row variations using free weights, you could incorporate higher reps and lower weights into each upper body day— typically twice per week or on deadlift day in a push/pull program.
While bent over rows can be used in any age, strength, or fitness level group, starting with lower weights and working on form is preferable for success. Starting with resistance bands is a great way to practice form and engage the muscles as a warm-up or as a modification for seniors with mobility issues.
If you have shoulder or low back issues, it’s worth working with a skilled trainer to practice this exercise.
Barbell Row Alternatives
In addition to using an underhand grip or swapping out the barbell for dumbbells, several exercises work the same muscle groups as bent over rows, including:
- Inverted rows
- Seal rows
- Chest supported rows
- T-bar rows
- Pendlay rows
- One-arm dumbbell row
- Lat pulldowns
- Seated cable rows
Remember that the upper back and shoulder muscles are intricately interwoven. Compound exercises help engage various muscle groups to build better strength; using isolated exercises will help target definition in specific areas.
Did You Know?
Barbell rows engage the core muscles around the torso, improving spinal stability and contributing to better posture.
The bent over row is one of the best back exercises for building muscle mass and cross-functional strength. Both beginner and advanced lifters of any training modality can benefit from this effective compound exercise. Remember to practice form and focus on high-quality movement before increasing the weight.