6 Barbell Row Alternatives for Max Gains (With Pictures!)

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
July 30, 2022

The barbell row is a free weight compound exercise performed for the purposes of training the back muscles and biceps brachii in a single high-intensity closed kinetic chain movement.

However, as is often the case in the majority of classic exercises, the barbell row may require substitution in a workout routine for a variety of reasons - the majority of which are easily remedied by the usage of a suitable alternative exercise.

Whether the exerciser wishes to alternate out the barbell row with an entirely different exercise or to simply fulfill their training needs with a variation of the barbell row, they need not worry - as quite a number of potential candidates exist for either goal.

Why Should the Barbell Row be Alternated Out?

The barbell row may require substitution with another exercise due to a variety of reasons, the most common of which is the rather difficult to master form mechanics involved, with such issues like an overloading of the lumbar spine, unconsciously retracted scapula and hip hinging resulting in an increased risk of injury and reduced training stimulus to the correct muscle groups.

bent over row

Other factors that may come into play when an exerciser wishes to substitute the barbell row is its rather high intensity - of which may make the exercise difficult to perform if the exerciser is not experienced enough in free weight resistance exercises.

This connects to the fact that the barbell row may not provide sufficient enough training stimulus if an improper amount of weight is used, with other alternative exercises providing more specific or effective methods of achieving muscular hypertrophy in a safer manner.

Who Should Substitute the Barbell Row with an Alternative Exercise?

The barbell row may be substituted by athletes of an intermediate to high level that wish to induce a more specific or intense training stimulus that what the barbell row is capable of - especially in regards to mid-back muscle groups that receive less benefit from the barbell row itself.

It is also advisable for the barbell row to be substituted in the workout programs of individuals with a history of lumbar spine issues or other types of conditions associated with the lower back, all of which may be worsened by the barbell row’s particular angle of resistance.

Lastly are those exercisers whose particular training goals require that a unilateral exercise or one that provides a constant time under tension takes the place of the barbell row, not necessarily substituting the latter with a more intense exercise, but with one of a different form of training stimulus instead.

Variations of the Barbell Row

In the event that an alternative exercise is not necessary, a simple tweak in the equipment used for the barbell row should more than suffice for the purposes of the exerciser and their training goals.

These exercises, though still maintaining the general form cues and muscle group activation pattern as the barbell row, are considered only minimally differing exercises  - of which is primarily due to the difference in equipment used as well as the positioning of the exerciser themselves.

As such, the following substitute exercises to the barbell row are those that possess the closest possible similarity in all but name and equipment used.

1. Dumbbell Rows

Performed either unilaterally or bilaterally depending on whether the exerciser wishes to use one or a pair of dumbbells instead, the dumbbell row is practically the same as the barbell row in form and results save for the somewhat increased muscular activation due to each half of the body working independently of the other.

single arm dumbbell row

This alters the muscle group activation somewhat, with the posterior deltoid head taking on a somewhat higher percentage of the resistance - especially in the unilateral version of the dumbbell row wherein the exerciser is bent over a bench, altering the angle of resistance.

2. Power Rack Rows

As can be clued in by its name, power rack rows are simply barbell rows performed from the elevated position of a power rack, generally resulting in a reduced range of motion that can allow the exerciser to induce a higher level of resistance and a greater focus on concentric flexion of their muscle groups.

power rack row

While time under tension is considered to be a vital component of inducing muscular hypertrophy and strength conditioning, individuals wishing to train their explosive power or advanced weightlifters wishing to focus on a particular sticking point in their pull muscle group can find great benefit in the power rack rows.

This equates to power rack rows being an excellent alternative to the barbell row for individuals seeking a more intense amount of weight, or those whose training goals require a stronger capacity for concentric flexion in the back muscles.

3. Meadows Rows 

A highly intense unilateral variation of the row exercise, the meadows row is considered an intermediate level movement primarily performed for the purposes of inducing a similar type and intensity of training stimulus as the barbell row, but only in a single side of the exerciser’s body at a time.

meadows row

This is all done with the use of a barbell and a piece of gym equipment known as a landmine, wherein one end of the barbell is affixed to the floor and thereby allows the exerciser to lift the other end in a lever-like fashion with a single arm at a time.

The meadows row may act as a direct one to one substitution to the barbell row, both in terms of workout routine programming and in terms of volume of repetitions - though the exerciser should note the somewhat higher rate of exertion as they essentially spend double the time exercising due to the unilateral nature of the meadows row.

Alternatives to the Barbell Row

In circumstances or training programs wherein a simple modification of the barbell row’s various characteristics is insufficient to meet the needs of the exerciser, substituting the exercise with a suitable alternative may be necessary.

This alternative exercise may take the form of a compound movement similar in muscular activation pattern to the barbell row, but with the usage of a different sort of equipment - or even an entirely different exercise that specifically focuses targeted muscle activation on only the primary mover muscles of the barbell row itself.

Which particular exercise to use as a substitute to the barbell row will depend on a variety of factors, however, and as such it is up to the exerciser to decide which possible alternative is most suitable for their needs and own unique biomechanics.

4. Cable Rows

A form of the row exercise performed with the usage of a cable pulley machine instead of any sort of free weight equipment, the cable row makes use of a constant time under tension in order to induce a training stimulus that is otherwise difficult to achieve with the use of a barbell.

This can equate to an increased capacity to function for longer periods of time under tension in concerns to the various muscles activated by the cable row - of which are practically the same as those trained by the barbell row, save for the lower back.

standing cable row

A loss of lower back muscle group activation is one of the few drawbacks to substituting the barbell row with this particular exercise, as it is a direct consequence of the cable machine based nature of the exercise.

The usage of such a machine removes the need for the exerciser to stabilize the source of resistance themselves, removing the need for the rectus abdominis, erector spinae, or any other number of lower back and core stabilizer muscles that would normally come into play if performing a barbell row instead.

Otherwise, if this factor is not of concern to the exerciser, the cable row is an excellent alternative to the barbell row, allowing not only a far safer substitute to be performed but also one capable of a higher volume of repetitions per set.

This makes the cable row the best possible alternative choice for athletes seeking a longer time under tension during the exercise, for physical therapy patients or individuals with poor lower back health, and for exercisers seeking more volume in their back muscle training routine.

5. Inverted Rows

A hotly debated exercise popularized by high level bodybuilder athletes of the golden era, the inverted row is a calisthenic movement of novice complexity, generally requiring only an elevated surface such as a racked barbell from which the exerciser will “row” their own bodyweight with.

inverted row

This exercise is of considerably lower intensity than the majority of barbell row exercises in most common weightlifting programs, and as such will not reproduce as effective a training stimulus as would be normally found in the barbell row or its variants.

Despite this, the inverted row is nonetheless quite effective at conditioning novice to intermediate level exercisers in terms of strength and endurance, and is characterized by an extremely safe form that leaves little risk of injury or overtraining.

As such, the inverted row is a perfect alternative exercise for exercisers wishing for a less intense back training exercise to replace the barbell row, for individuals without access to any significant resistance training equipment, or for exercisers concerned about the safety risks involved in the use of the barbell row.

6. T-Bar Rows

Distinctly similar to the barbell row save for the altered position of the exerciser’s hands due to the addition of a T-bar attachment, the t-bar row possesses the same level of intensity and form complexity as the exercise it is meant to replace, with the primary difference being the level of activation each muscle group receives.

t-bar row muscles

This is from the neutral grip that is utilized by the T-bar row, placing a greater emphasis on the trapezius muscles as well as the rhomboid muscle group, both of which make up the top and middle of the back and as such take a large portion of the resistance from the latissimus dorsi and biceps brachii.

Unlike certain other alternatives to the barbell row, the T-bar row is mechanically and kinetically similar to the traditional barbell row, and as such places some level of loading upon the lower back and core stabilizers of the exerciser, excluding it from the list of possible alternatives for individuals with injuries in said areas.

The T-bar row is otherwise an excellent substitute to the barbell row for exercisers wishing to induce a larger level of muscular activation in their middle back muscles, or those whose bodily proportions make the traditional barbell row uncomfortable to perform at higher levels of weight.

In terms of equipment requirements, the T-bar row simply requires the same equipment as an ordinary barbell row - save for the additional requirement of a T-bar attachment placed around or beneath the barbell’s distal end.

References

1. Graham, John F. MS, CSCS, *D Barbell Upright Row, Strength and Conditioning Journal: October 2004 - Volume 26 - Issue 5 - p 60-61

2. Schoenfeld, Brad MSc, CSCS1; Kolber, Morey J PT, PhD, CSCS2; Haimes, Jonathan E BS, CSCS2 The Upright Row: Implications for Preventing Subacromial Impingement, Strength and Conditioning Journal: October 2011 - Volume 33 - Issue 5 - p 25-28 doi: 10.1519/SSC.0b013e31822ec3e3

3. Fenwick CM, Brown SH, McGill SM. Comparison of different rowing exercises: trunk muscle activation and lumbar spine motion, load, and stiffness. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Mar;23(2):350-8. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181942019. PMID: 19197209.

4. Berry, D.B., Padwal, J., Johnson, S. et al. The effect of high-intensity resistance exercise on lumbar musculature in patients with low back pain: a preliminary study. BMC Musculoskelet Disord 20, 290 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12891-019-2658-1

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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