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Fact checked by Kirsten Yovino, CPT Brookbush InstituteFACT CHECKED
November 28, 2021 1 Comment
The bent-over barbell row is the granddaddy of all row variations because it trains the entire posterior chain hard and heavy. Being in the hinge position makes this a great accessory exercise for all deadlift variations too. And while performing the barbell bent-over row with a double overhand grip is the most common, there are other ways to grip the barbell for the sake of variety and changing the emphasis of the muscles worked.
Here we’ll take a deep dive into the barbell bent-over row, which includes how to do it, the muscles worked, benefits, and how changing the grip can allow you to target your muscles differently.
The barbell bent over row is a horizontal pulling exercise done from a bent over position via a hip hinge. It is an advanced row variation. If you don’t know how to deadlift then you have no business doing this exercise. While it is a back exercise, the position of this exercise makes this a big compound, full-body exercise that trains the entire posterior chain, grip, forearms, and biceps. There are many variations of this exercise, but the basics remain the same. Shoulders down, chest up, keeping a neutral spine, and limiting momentum to strengthen the upper back and lats.
Note: This is going to be one of your stronger back exercises, meaning you should be able to go pretty heavy, relatively speaking, once you nail down the form.
How to perform the standard barbell bent-over row:
The barbell bent over row is one of the best barbell exercises that trains several upper and lower body muscles. Here we will go into the main muscles trained and the role they play in the bent-over row
Because we stare and work at our screens are shoulders are internally rotated which over time lead to ape-like posture. Strengthening the upper and lower back with the barbell bent-over row will undo some of the damage of sitting and staring at our screens.
Improved Lower Back Strength
Being in the hinge position for time will strengthen the erector muscles that run up and down the spine which prevents unwanted movement of the spine under load. This is essential when it comes to pulling or squatting heavily.
Strengthening the lower back by being in the hinge position with the barbell bent-over row is one thing you can do to reduce low back pain that comes from your lower back being weak or lacking endurance.
A Stable Base
Building slabs of muscle on the upper back gives the barbell a nice place to rest during the squat, the ability to engage it to stop the squat from turning into a good morning. Plus, a strong upper back keeps the bar close while deadlifting. And the upper back gives you a solid base to bench press from because it supports and controls the bar path for better technique. Overall, if you have a strong back, you are likely a strong human who can lift heavy.
Builds A Stronger And More Muscular Back
Because your ability to lift more weight than other row variations gives you the potential to add slabs of muscles to your upper back and lats. Because the lower back is contracting isometrically for time this strengthens and improves the endurance of your lower back muscles. Plus, a well defined, muscular back looks great. It's pretty underrated, but there's a reason this move has found a spot in The Rock's workout routine. It gets amazing results.
There are four ways to grip a barbell for the bent-over row: underhand, overhand, wide, and narrow grip. Changing the grip doesn’t change which muscles are trained but it does emphasize certain muscles over others. Changing the grip affects the way the upper body muscles are used but doesn’t change the way the lower body muscles are used, as you will still be in the same hip hinge bent over position.
Here we’ll explore how changing the grip changes the dynamics of the movement.
The reverse-grip bent-over row targets all the same muscles of the back as the overhand (standard) variation but this simple switch changes a few things. First, it brings the forearm flexors more into play and less of the forearm extensor muscles. The forearms flexors are the biggest muscle of the forearms and for some, this grip may feel more comfortable.
Going underhand takes the elbows in and not flared out like the overhand variation. Underhand grip movement needs more elbow flexion and shoulder extension which bring the biceps and lats into play more and less emphasis on the upper back. Plus, this grip emphasizes scapular depression which brings the lower traps into play, and this helps improve scapular mobility, stability, and positioning.
This variation is a great lower lat exercise. In addition, it still allows you to go hard and heavy and for some lifters, you may be able to lift more with this grip.
Benefits of the underhand grip:
But it’s not all great. This grip requires more elbow flexion, and it can put more stress on your elbows leading to cranky elbows. Plus, because of the increased biceps engagement, you may run the risk of bicep tears when going hard and heavy.
The overhand grip bent-over row grip changes the dynamics compared to the underhanded variation. First, the overhand grip demands more forearm and grip strength because your forearms keep the bar from rotating as you lift. This grip strength demand means your grip can wear out before you fully exhaust your back muscles. Plus, as you go heavier this grip will wear out quickly.
When going overhand this flares out the elbows more than the underhanded version and this requires less elbow flexion and more work from the forearm extensors. Because the forearm extensors are smaller than the forearm flexors this wears down your grip strength faster. Plus, this puts more emphasis on scapular adduction which means your upper back gets more work and the lats less.
Benefits of the overhand bent-over row:
Because this grip fatigues faster (generally) more than the underhand grip it is best to go lighter and perform more reps for hypertrophy benefits. There is a temptation with this variation to drive your elbows further back which causes shoulder problems down the road. Be wary of this.
The wide grip bent-over row is performed with an overhand grip and by the hardest grip out of the four because it demands a lot from your forearms to grip and stabilize the barbell. Plus, it is much harder to keep a neutral spine which puts extra demand on your core strength and upper back to do so.
Due to this, this variation you cannot load this like the other three variations.
Because of the wide overhand grip, there is less elbow flexion and shoulder adduction involved which takes the emphasis on the biceps and lats. Instead, the wide grip focuses on the muscles of the upper back, the traps, rhomboids, and to a less degree the rear deltoid. Wide grip rows are great for building a thick upper back. These muscles are smaller than the lats and do not have the room to grow wide but grow out towards the rear, creating a thick and muscular upper back when trained correctly.
Benefits of the wide grip bent over row:
This is a difficult variation for the reasons explained above. It’s best to use less load to begin with. This makes it best for hypertrophy of the forearms and upper back when performed with lighter weight and more reps.
Although the wide grip requires an overhand grip, the narrow grip you can either go underhand or overhand. It’s just a matter of preference and comfort. The narrow grip is the easiest of the four grips which allows you to load up a little more than the other three variations.
Narrow grip focuses more on elbow flexion and shoulder adduction which brings the biceps and lats into play. There is less emphasis on scapular adduction so there’s less focus on the upper back muscles of the traps and rhomboids. If you want to grow your back wide this needs to be your go-to variation.
Benefits of the narrow grip bent over row:
Using a narrower grip there is a tendency for the shoulders to become internally rotated. Make your focus on keeping your chest up and shoulders down to keep better posture when performing this variation.
Changing your grip doesn’t change the way the lower body muscles are trained when performing the bent-over row. The main change is whether you want a thicker upper back or wider lats. Mixing grips from training to training will keep overuse injuries at bay, provide variety in your training, and bigger well developed back. Happy rowing.
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