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Fact checked by Kirsten Yovino, CPT Brookbush InstituteFACT CHECKED
November 15, 2021
Nothing is more impressive for lifters than an imposing V-shaped thick back. This is because you know it takes time, sweat, diet, and dedication to build wide wings. Women think men are more attractive with it and men just want to achieve that look. And when you have a V-shaped torso, you are going to want to show it off. Chin-ups, pull-ups, single-arm and seated rows are a staple of building back muscles worthy of showing off, but you cannot forget about the bent-over row.
The bent-over row and its variations are compound movements that hit the entire back and will add the most size and strength. Not only are you training your upper back and lats, but the hinge position also allows you to train the lower back. The hinge position also makes it a great assistance exercise for the deadlift (i.e. the stronger your bent over rows, the stronger your deadlift).
Posterior strength is the cornerstone for most all lower and upper body movements and exercises. It will help you squat heavier, deadlift heavier, and move and rotate with more power and explosion.
Below, we will go into the anatomy and function of the back, the benefits of back training, the best bent over row variations, and programming tips and tricks. Without further ado, let’s dive in.
Your back muscles are not there just to look good. They play an important role in your performance in and out of the gym. Since bent over rows train your back, let's go over the main functions and anatomy of your back muscles.
The latissimus dorsi, also known as the lats, is a largest muscle in the upper body. It runs across the entire posterior side of the torso. To get specific, the lats have multiple origin points, which are the thoracic spine T7–T12, thoracolumbar fascia, iliac crest, the bottom four ribs, and the scapula, and the insertion is on the floor of the intertubercular groove of the humerus.
The main movements of the lats are shoulder extension and adduction, horizontal abduction, and internal rotation of the shoulder joint. Essentially, your lats are used in almost every shoulder movement. What's more, the lats assist with lower back movement and are even an accessory muscle for breathing.
The rhomboids, which are two muscles, the rhomboid major and minor, originate from the cervical (neck) vertebra and run diagonally down the back and attach to the inside of the scapula. To be specific, the muscle originates from the thoracic vertebrae T2 to T5 and inserts on the medial border of the scapula.
The rhomboids are responsible for the movement of the scapula. Their functions include scapula adduction, scapula inward rotation, and scapula elevation. They help form the shoulder girdle that holds your shoulder blade and shoulder joint stable. When the muscles function correctly, the rhomboids ensure smooth movements of the shoulder and arm.
The trapezius is a large flat triangular superficial muscle that sits on both sides of the upper back. It’s often considered as three muscles, upper, middle, and lower traps. It originates from the cervical spine and all 12 of the thoracic vertebrae.
The main movements of the trapezius are scapula adduction, scapula elevation, depression (lower fibers), and scapula outward rotation. The muscle plays a vital role in the mobility and stability of your shoulders.
The erector spinae consists of three muscles that run the length of the spine from the lower back and hips all the way to the cervical (neck) spine.
The spinalis is the smallest of the three muscles and is close to the spine. The longissimus is the middle and the largest of the three muscles. And the iliocostalis is the furthest away from the spine and begins at the sacrum.
All extend the back, control the movements of the head and neck. The erector spinae plays an important role in back extension and making sure the spine stays in neutral under load.
Our view of the world is in front of us, not behind us, so naturally the anterior muscles of the chest and shoulders get a lot of attention. Some lifters fall in love with chest and shoulders and somewhat neglect their back muscles. Spending too much time pushing and not pulling is a recipe for disaster for your posture, back/spinal strength, and shoulder mobility.
Here are a few benefits of bent-over rows and back training in general:
Contracting your back muscles play an important role in keeping a neutral spine while doing the squat and deadlift. Upper back strength ensures the barbell stays close when you’re pulling from the floor. This is a must for lower back health and a stronger deadlift.
During the squat, your back muscle provides a place for the bar to sit without the need for a pad. Plus, keeping the back tight prevents your squat from turning into a good morning.
Upper back strength gives you a solid base to bench press from because the upper back engagement controls the bar path which in turn allows for better technique also.
For bench press, the upper back provides a solid foundation to press from. By keeping the upper back engaged, it supports and controls the bar path, allowing for good technique and more power.
Upper back strength prevents forward head posture. For every inch the ears are forward from the shoulders, the weight of the head on the spine increases an extra 10 pounds (study). Training the bent-over row strengthens these important upper back muscles for better posture.
Lower back injuries are no fun because when it hurts, it affects your ability to do almost anything. Training and strengthening the back is one thing you can do to reduce and prevent lower back pain.
Builds A Stronger And More Muscular Back
Depending on the bent-over row variation, you’re able to lift more weight with bent-over rows than other rowing variations and it trains your entire back area for more potential size and strength.
Here are 7 variations of the bent over row, including the standard barbell bent over row. All of these will be great to add to your training routine at some point and will target your back muscles differently.
The classic barbell bent-over row is the granddaddy of all rows. This killer barbell exercise not only strengthens your upper back, lats, lower back, shoulders, biceps, and grip, but it’s a great accessory exercise for improving your deadlift. With the barbell bent-over row, you spend some time on the hip hinge, and holding this for time will help improve your overall back endurance. Plus, it will improve your ability to keep a neutral spine while pulling heavy for a stronger and safer deadlift.
Here’s how to perform the barbell bent-over row:
Note: An underhand grip is going to target your lats and biceps a little more, while an overhand grip is going to emphasize your upper back muscles (traps, rhomboids, teres major, rear delts) a bit more.
Best Rep Range: 6-12 reps
Progression: Add load, pauses, or slow down the lift to add more time under tension
Regression: Perform with dumbbells and or any unilateral bent over row variation
The Pendlay Row is a bent-over row variation named after weightlifting coach Glenn Pendlay. This row variation involves rowing the barbell from the floor with a more forward torso, as opposed to being in a bent-over position where the barbell is hovering above the ground. Because of this, it’s a friendlier variation on your lower back but having to generate power from a dead stop makes this a more advanced exercise too. This variation is best used with bumper plates if your gym has them.
Here’s how to perform the pendlay row:
Best Rep Range: 5-8
Progression: Add load, pause at sternum for three seconds.
Regression: If you lack power from the floor either lighten the weight or go back to the bent-over row.
A common mistake with a lot of rowing variations is not having your shoulders down and back, known as scapular depression. If the shoulders aren’t depressed and your chest isn’t up, the lats have trouble being fully engaged. Not only that, but also your back won't be in neutral, leaving your lower back vulnerable. With the resistance band pulling the barbell away from you, this encourages you to retract and depress your shoulder blades while adding extra resistance to the rowing movement. With the resistance pulling you in two different directions this helps improve your grip strength.
Here’s how to perform the bent-over row with horizontal resistance:
Best rep range: 6-12
Difficulty: Medium to hard
Progression: Either a stronger band or walking back further works well here.
Regression: Either do the regular bent-over row or a single-arm variation.
T-Bar Rows are the go-to back exercise for a lot of old-school lifters. Like the bent-over row, the T- Bar row trains the same muscles but with the elbows closer to your sides you’ll squeeze your rhomboids and middle traps at the top of the movement to a higher degree, helping to achieve a thicker upper back. T-Bar rows are performed with a variety of instruments (towels, rope, handles) to help improve grip strength. But the neutral grip T-Bar row (with the V-handle) is easier to use and it's easier on your elbows and shoulders.
Here’s how to perform T-bar rows:
Best rep range: 8-15
Progression: More load, add a pause at the top or perform the eccentric slowly
Regression: Single-arm dumbbell rows or bent-over rows with dumbbells work well here.
Related: Best T-Bar Row Alternatives
A single-arm landmine row will help reduce joint stress while maximizing shoulder tension and stabilization because you’re gripping the fat end of the barbell. The set-up is similar to a barbell bent-over row because a good hip hinge and a neutral spine are essential. The landmine setup allows you to row for different angles for total upper back development. Plus, holding the end of the barbell will offer a greater grip challenge.
Here’s how to perform the single-arm landmine row:
Best rep range: 8-15 reps
Progression: More load, add a pause at the top or perform a slow eccentric.
Regression: Anything single-arm dumbbell row variation like the single-arm dumbbell bent-over row works well.
Related: Best Landmine Exercises
The dumbbell bent-over row doesn’t allow you to go as heavy as the barbell version, but this does have some advantages over the barbell variation. For one, you’re controlling two dumbbells, which trains the smaller muscles around the shoulder joint. If strength imbalance exists, then this movement’s unilateral nature helps the weaker side catch up. Plus, you can play around with the grip here going either underhand, overhand or neutral. The neutral grip is easier on the shoulder and elbow joint too. Varying the grip allows you to train the back muscles from different angles for better muscle development.
Here’s how to perform dumbbell bent-over row:
Best rep range: 8-15
Progression: Any bent-over barbell row variation.
Regression: Most single-arm row variations that have stability (i.e. Kroc Row) work well here.
Related: Best Dumbbell Back Exercises
The trap bar bent-over row is easier on the lower back since the handles are elevated, and so you don’t have to hinge as far to pick up the weight compared to the barbell variation. Plus, the hex bar design allows you to step inside the bar, which aligns the weight with your center of gravity. Due to the wider, neutral-grip handles, you can challenge the traps, forearms, biceps, and lats with more weight than the other bent-over row barbell variations.
Here’s how to perform trap bar bent over row:
Best rep range: 8-12
Progression: More load, lift with tempo, or any barbell bent-over row variation.
Regression: Any dumbbell bent-over row variations are easier here.
More Back Exercise Content:
It’s always important to warm up to get your muscles and joints ready for the work ahead. But there is another way when training time is short. Doing ramp-up sets as a warmup is another great option.
Not only will ramp-up sets help with good technique and ramp up your muscles for the work ahead, but it also helps find your working weight for the day by how easy or hard it feels. Plus, the extra volume is also helpful for fat loss and hypertrophy goals.
Here’s an example of a ramp-up set for Bent Over Row:
Muscle is gained through all reps ranges but the principle remains the same. You need to do more volume with a weight where you have a few reps in the tank and concentrate on increasing time under tension. A good start here is three to five sets of six to 12 reps with a moderate to heavy load, or two to four sets of 10-15 reps with moderate loads to technical failure.
Fewer reps and more sets are the keys to building strength. Doing three to five sets of three to six reps with a heavy load works well. Because of the load, more rest is recommended here, in the two-three-minute range.
Alternate between Training A and Training B three to four times per week for four to six weeks. Start at the lower end of the rep range and work your way to the higher end. Then increase the weight and start this process again. Reps, sets, and exercises (minus the back exercises) are adjustable to your goals.
1A. Barbell Squat/Bench Press - four to six reps
1B. Hip Mobility Exercise
- Repeat for three to five sets of each
2A. Barbell Bent Over Row- six to eight reps
2B. Dumbbell Bench Press eight to 12 reps
- Repeat for three to four sets of each
3A. Single Leg Variation 12 to 15 reps per side
3B. Single Arm Landmine row 12-20 reps per side
- Repeat for two to three sets of each
1A. Deadlift or Bench Press variation four to six reps
1B. Hip or Shoulder Mobility Exercise
- Repeat for three to five sets of each
2A. Single-Leg Exercise Variation eight to 15 reps per leg
2B. Bent Over Row With Horizontal resistance eight to 12 reps
- Repeat for three to four sets of each
3A. Overhead Triceps Variation 12 to 20 reps
3B. Unilateral Dumbbell Bent Over Row eight to 12 reps per side
- Two to three sets of each
Related: The Ultimate Back & Bicep Workout
Let us know what your favorite bent over back row variation is in the comments below. And if you have any questions for us, please don't hesitate to reach out.
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September 21, 2023
September 21, 2023
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