February 28, 2022
If you’re looking for the best possible development of your back muscles, then it is important to add some exercise variety to your routine, especially as you become more advanced. Exercise selection and training variables like grip position and body position can allow you to hit the muscles from different angles and place stress on them differently, which is great for strength and hypertrophy.
In this post, we are discussing rows (horizontal pulls). There are A LOT of variations of rows. One of the most popular is the T-Bar Row, and for good reason, it's among the best back exercises. But, what if you can't set up the landmine or you don't have access to a T-bar row machine? Or, you simply just want to change things up?
Well, there are plenty of T-bar row exercise alternatives – and we’re going to discuss and teach you the best of those below.
Let’s get started!
A T-bar row is very similar to a bent over row in terms of body positioning (bent over forward with a hip hinge) and overall movement mechanics (pulling motion with scapular retraction/protraction), but rather than the bar being perpendicular to your body, it runs parallel with your body, going in-between your legs. Moreover, you aren't lifting the entire bar off the floor, just one side of the bar, which is loaded with plates.
Essentially, the difference is in the load positioning.
T-bar rows can be done using a landmine attachment (or simply shoving one end of the barbell into a corner and loading the other end OR there are t-bar row machines which basically mimic that.
T-bar rows can be done using a variety of grips. Most gyms will have several attachments to choose from for landmine t-bar rows, which allow you to use a neutral close grip or wide overhand grip. A T-bar row machine will have a multi-handle that allows for the same thing.
All in all, it's a great compound movement, allowing multiple joints and muscle groups to be worked at one time. However, it's not the only great compound back exercise.
Before we go over alternatives to the T-bar row, let's look at the muscles worked, as this is important when choosing a substitute exercise.
T-bar rows are fantastic for strengthening and building the muscles within the back. Since this is classified as a horizontal pulling movement, several muscles will be working together in order to bring the weight toward your body. These muscles are the:
Other secondary muscles used in a T-bar row (mainly to help stabilize during the movement) include the glutes, hamstrings, triceps, and biceps. The abdominals are also another muscle group that aids in proper form and technique, bracing, and posture during exercises involving the back.
While T-bar rows are great, it's good to switch things up in your programming, especially as this exercise would be considered more of an accessory exercise for most.
When choosing an alternative to the t-bar you, you need to consider the following:
You, of course, also need to consider the equipment available to you. Below we have plenty of t-bar row alternatives for the gym using different equipment and machines, and some that can be done at home as well.
Another important factor to consider when adding new or different exercises into your training regimen is that you can have correct form and technique, and that you have no physical limitations. As such, we will state important points you need to know about each exercise and we will teach you how to do each one.
Before jumping into some of the best alternatives to the T-bar row, let’s take a look at grip; after all, this is an important variable to aid in switching up your routine a bit!
Grips like shoulder-width, close grip, wide grip, and even switching from an overhand grip to an underhand grip can change the dynamics of an exercise. It is a vital variable to switch up from time to time and by doing so you can improve muscular development and your strength (it's important to be strong from all angles and grips!).
Body positioning and load placement are other important variables. By changing how your body is positioned (i.e. bent over, seated, standing) and where the load is placed (to the side of your body, in front of you, at your center, etc), you can emphasize certain muscles and stress the muscles differently.
With that said, you will notice how we provide exercises with different grips, load placement, and body positioning below. Not just different equipment.
Single arm rows allow you to work the back muscles in a unilateral fashion, which can also help point out asymmetries that may need to be addressed. Single arm rows are also good if you are needing a bit more support throughout your core and lower back (hence the use of the bench) while still allowing you to pull the dumbbell appropriately.
Another great thing about single arm rows is that you have freedom of grip and movement. This allows you to change up variables. You can use an overhand, neutral or underhand grip AND you can pull toward your hips, side abdominal area, or even up near your chest (by doing this you will change the muscles emphasized - i.e. pulling low toward your hips with a neutral is more lats and pulling up higher toward your chest with an overhand grip is more upper back).
Muscles targeted: Lats, rhomboids, erector spinae, trapezius, posterior delts, teres major/minor.
Related: Best Dumbbell Back Exercises
The inverted row is a bodyweight row. Think of it like a horizontal pull up. It is going to work all the same muscles as other rows and is surprisingly effective for building up your back. You can alter difficulty, making it easier by bringing placing your knees at about 90-degree angle or harder by laying your body straight out with your legs extended or even harder by placing them up on a platform like a bench so that your body and legs are completely parallel with the ground.
Pro-tip: Be sure to maximize your range of motion, going all the way down with full scapula protraction and up as high as you can maximizing scapula retraction.
Muscles targeted: Lats, rhomboids, erector spinae, trapezius, posterior delts, teres minor, infraspinatus.
Related: Best Bodyweight Back Exercises
Barbell rows can be more challenging that a T-bar row, since you’re in complete control of the bar and how far you want to move through your range of motion. It can also serve to challenge your core a bit more, since you have to stabilize yourself in that forward hinge rather than leaning back into the leverage of the landmine.
Be careful not to load this exercise too much too soon, especially if you are dealing with a lower back injury. Perfect that form and technique before increasing resistance!
Muscles targeted: Lats, rhomboids, erector spinae, trapezius, posterior delts, teres minor and major, infraspinatus.
If you have access to a TRX suspension trainer, you will definitely want to add this row variation into your routine! It is the same concept as the inverted row, but the suspension trainer provides uniqueness in that the handles are free and unstable. This will cause you to work harder to stabilize as you row. Moreover, you can change your grip from overhand and underhand to neutral as well.
This exercise can be made more challenging (or made easier) by adjusting how close you stand to the anchor point; walking your feet further in will make it easier, while walking your feet away from the anchor will make it harder. Lifting your feet up off the ground to make your body more parallel with the floor will also make it harder. Play around with your angles and see what is going to give you the most bang for your buck with the TRX row!
Muscles targeted: Lats, trapezius, rhomboids, deltoids.
An underhand barbell row, specifically, is a great variation of the row as it allows your to increase range of motion and hit the lats and biceps more, similar to a neutral grip T-bar row using a v-handle.
You'll likely notice that you can lift more weight with an underhand row too. This is great for maximizing load and building strength, but be careful! The lower back really has to stabilize appropriately in order for you to hold the weight correctly, so add weight with caution and ensure that you are moving correctly before progressing.
Muscles targeted: Lats, trapezius, posterior delts, rhomboids, teres major/minor, erector spinae.
Related: Best Barbell Back Exercises
A renegade row is an excellent pulling exercise, and it gives you bonus work by activating your glutes, core, shoulders and even chest. It's really a great total body exercise.
With a ton of stabilizing happening in this movement, you will really have to focus on not only retracting the shoulder blades and letting your back do the work to pull, but you will also have to ensure that you aren’t twisting the upper body to get the dumbbell off of the floor.
Pro-Tip: If you do upper body workouts or chest/back days, then add a push up in every rep too to turn this into a chest and back exercise!
Muscles targeted: Lats, trapezius, rhomboids, teres major/minor, deltoids, erector spinae.
A high row can be done with a cable machine or a machine high row. Like a close-grip T-bar row, the high row emphasizes the lats while also getting a great activation in the rhomboids and traps. It is essentially a hybrid between a horizontal pull and a vertical pull, it is an exercise most people don't do, yet should be doing!
Muscles targeted: Lats, trapezius, rhomboids, teres major/minor, deltoids.
Related: Machine High Row Exercise Guide
While the below describes how to do a seated row using a cable machine, there are also machines that are specifically made for a rowing motion – you can use these as well. One thing the machine provides that the cable machine won't is chest support. Chest supported rows are great as they really place focus on the pulling motion and keeping very strict form, as you can cheat by using your torso for momentum if you are pressing your chest into the pad.
Muscles targeted: Lats, trapezius, rhomboids, teres major/minor.
Related: Best Seated Cable Row Alternatives
While this last (but certainly not least) exercise might have you questioning if it’s actually for the back, it totally is! The range of motion of the shoulder blades is crucial to everyday activities – think, throwing, anything requiring stabilization, etc. – and this “lighter” movement can certainly get the upper back muscles firing. Moreover, it will teach you how to properly protract and retract your shoulder blades when doing other rowing exercises.
Muscles targeted: Lats, trapezius, rhomboids, teres major/minor, posterior delts, serratus anterior, erector spinae.
Thankfully, the T-bar row (along with its many alternatives) can be done by a novice exerciser all the way to an elite athlete thanks to the load potential. One might think that these movements are only for the strongest of them – however, starting with the weights very light and slowly working up in resistance is beneficial for everyone, especially if the movement(s) are new and you are unsure of proper lifting form and technique.
Generally speaking, muscle mass can be built in any rep range. But, these are some basic guidelines:
For bodyweight exercise, use a slow tempo and really try to maximize time under tension if you want to build muscle.
Aim for around 15-20 sets total per week for back (this includes all your pulling exercises and can be split up into two or three sessions each week).
If any of these T-bar row alternative exercises are new to you, start low and slow! Many require a lot of stabilization and strength throughout the lower back, so ensuring that you can maintain proper form and technique is key before adding a ton of weight. Take a look at your training goals, and progress appropriately!
While the T-bar row is a fantastic exercise for thickening and strengthening the upper back, sometimes you need (or want) an alternative – and these 9 exercises can get you there. Work them individually into a routine, or pick and choose the ones that suit you and your training goals the best! Whichever way you utilize them, make sure that you are moving correctly and safely…and you are sure to notice some increases in both strength and size throughout your upper back!
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