The Underhand Barbell Row for a Thick, Muscular Back

By Matt Walter
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Learn how to perform and program the underhand barbell row

The underhand barbell row is an often underused exercise that can help add thickness to your back. This version is often called the Yates Row after the 6-time Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates. Yates is still known for having possibly the best back to ever step on bodybuilding’s biggest stage, and this is the version he used almost exclusively.

Along with pull-ups, the barbell row 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. And the underhand barbell row is definitely a variation you should try.

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Table of Contents

Video Demonstration: The Underhand Barbell Row

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

Step 1: Position a barbell on the ground, or elevated 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.

Place your barbell on the pins of a squat rack to avoid picking it up off the floor

Step 2: Keeping your back straight, bend and grasp the bar with an underhand, supinated grip (palms facing in front of you) just outside your legs. Deadlift the barbell to a fully standing position with the bar hanging at mid-thigh. This is the starting 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.

Step 4: Keep you back straight and pull the barbell toward your torso using the muscles of your back and arms. The barbell will touch your stomach low, right around or just below your belly button. Squeeze the muscles of your mid-back and hold the barbell against your stomach for a count of 1 second.

Pull the barbell to your stomach, just below your belly button

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.

Underhand Barbell Row Tips

Keep your traps “relaxed” during the movement. Your traps will be working, but do not shrug your traps up toward your ears.

Focus on feeling the muscles of your mid-back working, and especially lower toward your hips, just around your rib cage.

Don’t pull the barbell with your hands. Think about pushing your elbows up, and then trying to bring them together behind your back when you reach the top of the movement. This will help you help feel the movement in your low lats.

You don’t have to start with the barbell on the ground. Try starting in a squat cage or stack some 45-pound plates on the ground to elevate the bar slightly.

You will see people using way too much weight for this movement. Especially with this version! They tend to stand very tall and use a lot of body momentum to move the barbell (“cheating”). Don’t worry about how much weight you’re lifting! Focus on feeling the contraction of the muscles in the mid-back and lats. And squeeze your reps at the top of the movement.

Programming the Underhand Barbell Row

Underhand 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.

Underhand barbell rows can be performed at any point during your back workout, but they are best performed at the beginning of your workout. It’s always best to start with your heaviest compound movement first when you are at full strength.

Try alternating weeks of underhand barbell rows with convention deadlifts. This will give you a rest between these heavy, compound movements.

Or try this superset! Pair this movement with pull-ups or a lat pulldown for a great back pump. Perform one set of rows then move to a pull-up station. Once you are at the pull-up station, rest 1:30. Perform a set of 6-10 pull-ups, and then move back to the rows. Again, rest 1:30 once you are seated at your rowing area. Do this for 2-3 high-intensity sets of each movement.

Muscles Trained With the Underhand Barbell Row

The underhand barbell row targets the muscles of the mid-back, spinal erectors, lower lats, trapezius, rhomboids, biceps, forearms, posterior deltoid, and to a lesser extent the hamstrings, and glutes

Back Musculature Labeled Diagram

Underhand Barbell Row Variations

The underhand barbell row, often called the reverse grip barbell row or the Yates row, has several variations. The standard barbell row and the Pendlay row are the most common variations.

You can also perform underhand rows with different implements, including dumbbells and kettlebells.

Why the Underhand Version is Unique

Dorian Yates Relaxed Back

The underhand grip version of the barbell rows places your biceps in a mechanically stronger position. Think about doing a traditional barbell biceps curl as opposed to doing them reversed, with your palms facing backward. You can lift quite a bit more weight the traditional way.

Dorian liked to say that this barbell row alternative placed more emphasis on the lower portion of the lats, further down by your hips and waistline.

Dorian Yates Performing the Underhand Row

Personally, I feel both movements in the same muscles of my back, regardless of the version I choose. Your genetics determine how close to your waistline your lats extend (some have longer muscle bellies and shorter tendon attachments while others have longer tendons), and no specific movement is going to change that.

What I do notice is that I am able to lift more weight with this row variation. This also gives you an alternate exercise. No one wants to do the same movement day in and day out.

Although the traditional, compound exercises (barbell rows, bench press variations, squats, and deadlifts) are important for strength and muscle gain, boredom may drive you out of the gym eventually if you don’t change things up a bit. The more exercises you know how to do, the more exciting your training will be.

And you’ll target your muscles in slightly different ways, which provides a new stimulus to help them grow.

One caution with this exercise; Dorian Yates tore one of his biceps muscles performing this movement. He was so strong with this exercise that he overloaded his biceps to a point where the tendon tore. We mortals will likely never get that strong, but knowing your limitations is something to always keep in mind.

Here is an incredible interview with Dorian, where he talks a bit about that injury and the exercise that caused it.

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.

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

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.

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.

Underhand Barbell Rows Conclusion

The underhand barbell row is a great exercise for adding size to your back. It can be done at home or in the gym with little equipment and it’s easy on the joints because you don’t have to bend over too far. Follow these tips and tricks when doing underhand barbell rows, and start building that monster back!

And, while you’re at it, don’t forget to keep working on your pull-ups! Whether you’re still trying to earn your first, or are pushing toward new feats of strength with exercises like the Archer Pull-Up, the only way to get better is to work on them consistently.

Which version of the barbell row do you prefer?

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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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