How to Perform the Barbell Row for a Thick, Strong Back

By Matt Walter
Last update:
Learn how to perform and program the barbell row

The barbell row is a compound movement that builds back thickness. Along with pull-ups, it is one of the most tried-and-true exercises for building the muscles of the back and should be a staple of any lifting program.

The barbell row primarily targets your latissimus dorsi, spinal erectors, and posterior deltoid muscles but also works other supporting muscle groups such as the trapezius and biceps. For those who are new to lifting weights or are unsure how to perform this exercise, I have included a video demonstration.

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Table of Contents

Video: Barbell Row Demonstration

How to Perform the Barbell Row: Step-by-Step Instructions

Step 1: Position a barbell on the ground, or on safety pins in a squat cage so the barbell is just below knee height. Approach the bar and stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Your shins should just be touching the bar.

Barbell Row Start From Floor
Place your barbell on the pins of a squat rack to avoid picking it up off the floor
Photo courtesy of Andrew Valvidia

Step 2: Keeping your back straight, bend and grasp the bar with an overhand grip (pronated, palms facing toward your body) just outside your legs. Deadlift the barbell to a fully standing position.

Bring the barbell to a fully standing position

Step 3: Keeping your back straight, hinge at the waist and bend so that your back is at roughly a 30-degree angle and the barbell is hanging just below your knees.

Barbell Row Starting Position

Step 4: Keeping your back straight, pull the barbell up toward your body using the muscles of your back and arms. The barbell will touch your stomach just above your belly button. Squeeze the muscles of your mid-back and hold the barbell against your stomach for a count of 1 second.

Barbell Row Finishing Position

Step 5: Lower the weight, under control, back to your knees. Repeat as many times as necessary.

Step 6: Keeping your back straight, lower the barbell back to the safety pins of the squat cage or to the floor.

Barbell Row Tips

The barbell row is a very straightforward exercise. The keys to doing it both safely and to get the maximum benefit out of the movement are to keep the weight light, not use your hips to help move the bar, and focus on squeezing your back muscles as you lift.

Do your best to keep your traps “relaxed” during the movement. The traps are going to be working, but try not to shrug your traps up toward your ears.

You should feel this movement in the muscles of your mid-back, just around your rib cage.

Don’t think about lifting the barbell with your hands. Instead, think about pushing your elbows toward the ceiling, and then trying to bring your elbows together behind your back once the bar touches your stomach. This will help you really feel the movement in your back muscles.

If this is a new movement for you, start with the barbell elevated off the ground. You can use a squat cage or stack some 45-pound weight plates on the ground to give you some ideas. The purpose of this is to limit having to pick the weight up all the way from the ground while you are learning good technique.

You will see a lot of people use way too much weight when performing this movement. They tend to stand very tall and move about the waist a lot to help move the barbell (“cheating”). Use less weight, focus on feeling the muscles in the mid-back, and squeeze your reps at the top of the movement.

Programming the Barbell Row

Everyone loves a good chest training day, and I’m no different! It’s fun to work on muscles that we see, and a strong chest goes a long way to showcase our dedication to the gym.

Unfortunately, an over-emphasis on chest development and comparatively weak back muscles can lead to problems down the road. Along with the fact that we spend a lot of our time sitting, with our shoulders rolled forward and upper back muscles stretched, it’s no wonder so many people, even avid gym-goers, end up with back and neck pain!

The bent-over barbell row is a great antagonist movement to the bench press. Give both of these exercises equal attention and you should be able to build a balanced upper body. Most importantly, this will go a long way to keeping your back strong and helping you avoid back problems.

Barbell rows are best trained in the 6-12 rep range for 3 to 4 sets.

Start with a light weight, perform 6 to 12 reps, and then increase in weight. Continue until you reach a weight that pushes you to your limit around 8 reps.

Pair this movement with bench presses or incline presses to make a great superset that will build thickness from front to back.

Perform a set of bench presses for 6-10 controlled reps with a slight pause to stretch your pecs with the weight on your chest. Then, move to your barbell row station and take a 1:30 – 2:00 rest before starting your set of rows. Do this for 2-3 sets.

Barbell rows can be performed at any point during your back workout, but they are best performed either first or immediately following deadlifts. It’s always best to start with your heaviest compound movement first when you are at full strength.

Muscles Trained With the Barbell Row

The main muscles used when performing the barbell row are the mid-back, spinal erectors, and lower lats. The trapezius, rhomboids, biceps, forearms, posterior deltoid, hamstrings, and glutes are also exercised to a lesser extent.

Back Musculature Labeled Diagram

Barbell Row Variations

The main variations of the barbell row, often called the bent-over barbell row, are the underhand barbell row (Yates row) and the Pendlay row. You can also perform rows with other pieces of equipment including the dumbbell row, T-bar row, landmine row, seated cable row, and the inverted row.

Get the Gear for Your Garage Gym

Weight Plates

Titan Fitness 230-pound Economy Bumper Plate Set – This is the set I have at home.

Rogue Crumb Bumper Plates – Crumb bumpers are amazing for home gyms! They are incredibly durable and are much quieter than typical bumper plates. And, if you plan on training outside at any point, these are the plates you need.

Rogue Fitness Cast Iron Olympic Plates – These are high quality and slightly less expensive than bumper plates. Again, great if you’re not going to drop them.

Titan Fitness 245-Pound Cast Iron Plate Set – Steel for strength! These are great if you don’t plan on dropping your weights.

Barbells

Again Faster Team Barbell 2.0 – This is the barbell I have and use at home.

Rogue Bar 2.0 – This is another incredible all-purpose barbell. Some of my closest friends own this one and use it as their daily bar.

Titan Fitness Olympic Barbell – My local CrossFit gym has this barbell and I use it often. It’s a great all-purpose barbell.

Squat Racks

Titan Fitness X-3 Series Bolt Down Power Rack – this rack will allow you to do everything, from powerlifting to CrossFit movements and gymnastics. This is the style rack I have. The only difference is that I bought mine locally (for more money!)

Titan Fitness T-2 Series Power Rack – this is the best budget-friendly rack you will find anywhere!

Titan Fitness Folding Power Rack – save space (and money) with a folding power rack.

Conclusion: The Barbell Row

The barbell row is a great exercise for building thickness in your back. While it can be easy to get carried away with this movement, it’s best to start light and focus on technique before adding too much weight.

This article should have provided you with all of the information you need to get started doing barbell rows correctly today! Remember that if at any point during your workout something feels wrong or causes pain, stop immediately and contact an expert who knows how to do these exercises safely.

And, if you’ve got this movement down and you want something a little different, check out the Yates Row!

What is your favorite row variation?

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AUTHOR

Matt has been a personal trainer for more than 18 years. He is also a Certified Holistic Nutritionist, has a master's degree in teaching, and is a former competitive powerlifter and CrossFit athlete. His passion is helping others get in shape from mid-life and beyond.

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