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Few things shout out raw power more than a thick, broad back. But developing the type of lat density that turns heads doesn't come easy. It takes years of hard work in the trenches performing pulling and rowing movements. While the deadlift is the king of back-pulling exercises, the bent-over row is the exercise that will create thickness.
The bent-over row is an exercise that demands heavy, strict training. Unfortunately, it's all too common to see people butchering this exercise in the gym. This puts excessive strain on the lower back, risking severe injury. This article dissects how to do bent-over rows with proper form. We'll also correct frequently seen bent-over-row mistakes, explore weight load, and answer the most common FAQs.
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The barbell bent-over row can be done with the bar loaded on the floor or on a power rack at mid-thigh height, as in the video above. If you have access to a rack, use this option, as it allows you to get into the start position with less effort and risk of lower back rounding.
Here's how to do the overhand version of the barbell bent over row:
A variation on the standard barbell bent over row is to use an underhand grip. This version places more emphasis on the biceps and forearm flexors. Here's how to do the underhand, or reverse grip, barbell bent over row:
Learn more about the benefits of using the different grips on the bent-over row.
As a personal trainer, I see the barbell bent over row being incorrectly performed every time I go to the gym. Here are the six biggest mistakes I commonly encounter and how to fix them:
When you don't hinge your hips sufficiently, you end up being too upright. As a result, you will hit your trapezius more than your lats. If that's what you're going for, you'd be better of checking out our list of the Best Trap Exercises This also severely limits your range of motion. As you know, you won't get maximum muscle growth unless you work through a full range of motion.
To correct this problem, hinge your hips so that you are pushing your butt back as far as possible. Stop when your lower back starts rounding. The bar should be at knee level or slightly lower in the start position. This will put your upper body at around a 45-degree angle.
Allowing the lower back to become rounded plays excessive stress on your erector spinae muscles (which should also be worked out). It also limits your ability to utilize your back's pulling muscles. Your erector spinae will quickly become the weak leak, fatiguing before your lats have been sufficiently stimulated.
To overcome this problem, consciously arch your lower back in the start position by pulling your stomach into your spine and arching the back to pull back your shoulder blades and lift your chest.
The bent-over row, when done properly, does more than work your lats. It also hits your middle traps and rhomboids. These muscles retract the scapula. However, for them to do this, you need to protract in the bottom position.
This simply means that you stretch your scapulae in the bottom position. For an observer, it will look like your back is sinking slightly in the bottom position. Your arms should achieve a dead hang in this position.
The ideal range of motion is to come from a dead hang to touching your stomach, just below the sternum. Yet, I see many people overloading the bar with too much weight, which prevents them from touching their tummy on the pull.
You should use the touching of the bar to your stomach as a cue. It will set a standard so you know that you are executing a full range of motion on every rep. Lower the weight if you have to, but ensure you are coming all the way up.
The barbell bent-over row requires a decent amount of weight for maximum effectiveness. If you go too heavy, though, your form will break down, and your back muscles will not be sufficiently activated.
If you are new to this exercise, begin with a weight that allows you to learn the correct technique before you pile on the plates. Do three sets of 15 reps, with the last two or three reps being challenging. Pay special attention to the common mistakes mentioned in the previous section.
Once you've nailed your form, it's time to increase your lifting poundage. Remember, though, that going super heavy, with fewer than eight reps, is not ideal for this exercise. You will find that your body will fatigue before your back muscles are fully stimulated when you load up in the 5-8 rep range. Having to support your body in the bent-over position with a huge weight in your hands will demand a lot of your core - and it won't be able to keep it for very long. This will prevent your back from receiving sufficient time under tension.
Neither should you go too light with super high reps on the bent-over row. If you do, your spinal erectors will fatigue first. They'll, therefore, become the weak link preventing your lats, traps, and rhomboids from getting maximum stimulation.
The ideal rep range for this exercise is ten to fifteen. Use a weight that challenges you for the last three reps. You should feel like you've got one rep left in the tank for the first few sets. Then, on the last two sets, that final rep should be the limit you can do with proper form at that weight.
Here's a suggested set and rep scheme for the barbell row over five sets:
Both barbells and dumbells are effective for bent-over rows. Barbells will allow you to use more weight, while dumbbells allow you to get a slightly greater range of motion. Dumbbells also allow for unilateral training so that each side of your back muscles is pulling its own weight.
If you have lower back problems, you will be better off doing a modified version of the bent-over row that provides more back support. I recommend performing an incline bench row, where you lie face down on an incline bench and row dumbbells or a barbell up to your chest level. In this position, the bench fully supports your lower back. If you want a real challenge, you can try to perform seal rows, which involve laying flat on an elevated bench.
If your goal is hypertrophy, I recommend including bent-over rows as part of your normal back workout, which you should be performing twice per week. Allow 2-3 days between sessions to allow for full recovery.
The bent-over row is an effective back-thickening exercise. But it will only benefit you when done with proper form. This is an exercise where your ego needs to be kept in check; pulling up weights that are beyond your ability is foolish. Train smarter than that by learning proper form, avoiding common mistakes, and exercising within the 10-15 rep range.
Want to learn more about the different rowing variations? Check out our analysis of the top 7 bent-over row variations for strength and size.
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