When it comes to effective back exercises for your upper body days, bent-over barbell rows are among the best! This challenging strength training exercise will work the muscle groups in your entire back, including your latissimus dorsi (lats), rhomboids, trapezius, deltoids (specifically the rear delts), and lower back, as well as your biceps, core, and even some lower body muscles like your hamstrings, making it a compound exercise that you’ll definitely want to master. It will help you develop better posture, train and strengthen your hip hinge, and lift heavier weights by recruiting a ton of muscles during the lift. Not only that but the more obvious benefit… You’ll develop a bigger and stronger back, along with a stronger core - both will help you improve on other important compound lifts like deadlifts!
If your focus is on growing bigger muscles, or your back is a weak point and you need to strengthen it to perform better in your workouts, mastering the bent-over barbell row should be your next move. We’ve put together a list of some of the best tips to master this movement so you can successfully train your back on your upper body days without risking your muscle and joint health. But first, let’s review how to properly perform a bent-over barbell row...
How to do the bent-over barbell row
The first step that you need to take to master this killer exercise is knowing how to do it properly! There are many bent-over barbell row variations, such as the Yates row which uses an underhand grip, and the T-bar row that uses a landmine instead of a barbell. Still, the standard bent-over barbell row is a great staple exercise for your back that you’ll want to learn how to do if you’re serious about building a stronger and more toned body.
First of all, you need a barbell with adequate weight for your fitness level. Whether you’re a beginner or you’re an advanced lifter on a bodybuilding journey, starting with a lighter weight will help you master proper form first before really getting into the tough part of the exercise. After you’ve selected the appropriate weight for you, follow these steps:
- Stand with your legs shoulder-width apart, making sure you feel comfortable enough to lift the weight in that stance, and grab the weight with an overhand grip, hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Bend your knees and hinge forward at the hips, pushing your hips back while keeping a straight back, until your torso is near parallel to the floor. This will be your starting position.
- Begin the movement by bracing your core and lifting the weight up and towards your body, near your belly button. Pull your elbows back while moving the barbell in a controlled manner.
- At the top of the movement, squeeze your shoulder blades together while you pause for a couple of seconds before lowering the weight and repeating for as many reps as desired.
Keep in mind that this might be a difficult movement to master at first because you’re lifting a heavy weight with the added challenge of bending over, so you need to keep your balance throughout the full range of motion. But don’t worry! While it can be tough at first, it’s not impossible, so make sure you follow the following tips to get the most out of this effective back exercise...
Tips for mastering the bent-over barbell row
Now that you know how to do it, let’s take a look at a few tips to make this strength training exercise more effective. It’s all about proper form and choosing the right weight, so after you’ve taken all of these tips into consideration, you’ll be well on your way to a successful muscle-building journey!
Here are some of the key aspects to keep in mind next time you perform a bent-over barbell row:
Make sure to engage your core
A big part of doing an effective, risk-free bent-over barbell row is keeping your back straight throughout the movement! Curving your back during weightlifting is a common mistake among beginners, but it could be dangerous, particularly when lifting heavy weights such as a barbell because you’re putting your spine in a compromised position. The weight of the bar might be too straining on your spine, which will not be protected by your back muscles if the back is too arched, so you need to make sure you’re keeping it straight. By fully engaging and tightening your core, you’ll be able to maintain enough stability to avoid arching your back throughout the movement. And this isn’t only beneficial to your back! Core activation will also help with the up-and-down motion, allowing your upper body to go through the full range of motion smoothly.
Don't use momentum
This is probably the first mistake people make when trying bent-over barbell rows. Typically, you bounce the weight when it feels too heavy for you, using momentum when you’re not able to recruit your muscles to do the work, but doing this won’t take you anywhere! First of all, bouncing isn’t helping you grow bigger muscles, because you’re not actually using them to lift or lower the weight with control. By bouncing, you’re only generating enough power to get the weight up and down explosively, which can be damaging to your muscle fibers and joints - and not in the way that you want! You need to be able to keep your torso motionless and the weight controlled, so make sure to recruit your upper arms and upper back muscles as well as tighten your core to be able to lift the weight and keep it up for a couple of seconds before slowly lowering it back down, all without using momentum. Keeping the weight slow and controlled is what will help you benefit from the exercise and build muscle mass for a more toned upper body!
Keep an eye on your elbows
When you’re raising the bar, be careful not to drive your elbows as high as you possibly can. You want to drive them back enough to give your back and arms a good burn, but without going too far because you can risk irritating your shoulder joints, so try to keep them at level with your torso when you’re lifting the weight. Another common elbow mistake is flaring them, which can happen when the weight is too heavy. This puts additional stress on your lower back and may cause shoulder pain because it drives the focus of the weight away from your back and more toward your arms. A good tip to help you master proper elbow form during your bent-over barbell rows is thinking about pulling them behind instead of just lifting the bar. By focusing on your elbow movement instead of getting the bar up, you’ll avoid struggling with your form and will be able to lift with more control.
Push your hips back
A proper lifting stance for a bent-over barbell row includes bending at the hips, as the name indicates, which means that you won’t be standing upright during the movement. You need to go deep into your row position, and this means going further than a 45-degree angle since you’ll want to make sure you’re truly engaging your whole back instead of emphasizing just your upper traps. Anything less than that is considered incorrect form because it basically turns your bent-over row into a shrug, and you don’t want that! To get into a proper bent-over stance, focus on pushing your hips back rather than just hinging forward at the hips. This will help you balance your weight against the weight of the barbell, and you’ll be able to engage your back muscles properly. And if you find that you’re not able to bend at more than 45 degrees when lifting, it might be because the weight is too heavy for you or your core isn’t strong enough, so go lighter while you work on your form and strengthen your core!
Avoid dropping the weight
When working with heavy weights, it’s very common to put everything you have on the lifting motion, and then let the weight drop on the down movement. But the exercise isn’t just the lifting portion! You need to be able to lower the weight with control if you want to be able to effectively perform this movement, engaging your muscles and keeping them under tension while you move the weight up and down. By dropping the weights on the second part of the movement, not only you won’t be working your muscles as hard as you could be and missing out on some serious gains, but you’ll also be putting them and your working joints at risk because of the impact of the heavy weight when it goes down. So always move your weight with control during all parts of the exercise!
Keep your shoulders back
During the bent-over barbell row, you’re bending your hips while lifting a heavy weight, which might cause you to round your shoulders when performing the movement. This is a common mistake that can be fixed by starting slow with a lighter weight, so you can practice your form. During the lifting movement, keep your shoulders back and focus on squeezing your shoulder blades together when the weight reaches its highest point. This will help you lift with more control and properly recruit your muscles, as well as avoid arching your upper back during the lift. But don’t keep your shoulders tucked throughout the whole range of movement! Make sure you’re more relaxed when putting the weight down so you can release the tension that you build while going up, without fully rounding your shoulders. Remember that, while your muscles should be tight and engaged, you need to be able to move smoothly to avoid any back injury.
Don't forget to pause
If you want to make sure that your workout is as effective as it can be, make a short pause at the top of the movement! You’re already giving your muscles a good burn by lifting the weight up and down, but by pausing at the top of the movement when your elbows are flexed and your core and back are completely engaged, you’ll promote maximum muscle growth by tearing your muscle fibers and forcing your body to create new, stronger muscle to make up for the damage caused during your exercise. This is the principle of muscle growth and one of the key aspects of progressive overload, which is why holding the weight for a couple of seconds after lifting to challenge your body is highly encouraged if you want to achieve bigger and stronger muscles during your strength training journey!
Use lifting straps on your really heavy sets
Using a pair of lifting straps on your heaviest sets can help you lift longer and safer! Lifting straps are designed to connect your hands to the bar to improve traction and prevent the bar from slipping out of your hand, but most importantly, it helps reduce grip fatigue! Using them will help reduce the tension on your forearms and biceps which will allow you to exhaust the muscle group you’re actually trying to target, in this case, your back! They will also help you focus less on your grip and more on your form and technique. If you’re serious about going heavy on your barbell rows, deadlifts, or other pulling exercises then seriously consider having a pair of durable, supportive lifting straps - like these from UPPPER Gear!
Many people tend to avoid this exercise because of how risky it can be without proper form, but if you make sure to practice with adequate weight for you, you’ll have nothing to worry about! These tips are meant to guide you through the exercise so you can be aware of your body during the movement and be able to move the weight with control at all times, so if you’re new to this exercise or you haven’t mastered proper form yet, start slow with a lighter weight on the barbell or a pair of dumbbells so you can get the gist of it and slowly make progress towards heavier weights. The bent-over barbell row is a killer exercise for your back that you’ll want to keep in your workout routine, so don’t be afraid to try and master it!
And if you want to add this exercise to your back days and need some help with it, check out the Fit With Iulia app! Iulia plans new goal-focused workouts each week to help you get better and more effective results in your fitness journey, whether you’re training to gain muscle, build resistance, or lose weight. Try your first workout for free by downloading the Fit With Iulia app, choosing a goal, and starting your first workout with Iulia – no subscription required!