Barbell Row: Benefits, Muscles Used, and More

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
November 27, 2022

The quintessential rowing exercise, barbell rows are featured throughout most bodybuilding and powerlifting workout routines, wherein they will usually act as the primary source of back muscle recruitment during a training session.

In this article, we will explore the various benefits, targeted muscle groups and frequently encountered mistakes of the barbell row - as well as how to go about performing it in a safe and effective manner.

To encapsulate the barbell row’s characteristics, it can be said to be a back and biceps resistance exercise of moderate intensity and a novice level of complexity, usually performed for the purpose of inducing muscular hypertrophy and strength development within the aforementioned muscle groups.

What is the Barbell Row?

The barbell row is a free weight compound resistance exercise with a closed kinetic chain type movement and a particular focus on the muscles of the back and biceps. 

barbell bent over row

The barbell row is most often seen in pull day workouts or paired alongside other back muscle exercises like the pull-up so as to create a thicker and wider back. 

Even in instances where the barbell row is of lesser intensity as a design of training programming, it is still utilized as a secondary compound movement due to the number of muscle groups recruited.

Equipment Used

The barbell row - as its name implies - features the use of a straight barbell and set of weight plates, usually without the need for a barbell rack or platform. 

Home gym owners or people lifting without floor padding may wish to make use of bumper plates, as particularly heavy row sets are safer to perform when the barbell is dropped rather than bending to lower it.

What Muscles are Worked by the Barbell Row?

Primary Mover Muscles

The barbell row’s primary mover muscles are that of the latissimus dorsi, trapezius and rhomboids - each of which are contracted fully and in a dynamic fashion throughout the movements of a barbell row repetition. 

This equates to the previously mentioned muscles being those that develop the most readily from stimulus produced by barbell row execution, with secondary mover muscles and stabilizer muscles developing to a lesser extent in comparison.

Secondary Mover Muscles

Secondary mover muscles are muscle groups utilized in a dynamic capacity during the barbell row - though to a lesser extent in comparison to the primary mover muscles.

These muscles are the biceps brachii, brachioradialis and deltoid muscles. In particular, the posterior head of the deltoids is recruited to the greatest degree, whereas the other two heads are seen more as stabilizer muscles due to their isometric contraction.

Stabilizer Muscles

Stabilizer muscles are those that directly aid in secondary and primary mover muscle recruitment by stabilizing the bones of the body and external source of resistance throughout an exercise.

For the barbell row, these are the abdominal muscles, the erector spinae and the hamstring muscles - all of which are not recruited in a dynamic fashion, but are nonetheless utilized in an isometric manner during each repetition.

Benefits of the Barbell Row

Greater Back Muscle Mass and Strength

The most clear and obvious benefit of performing the barbell row is that of the muscular development encountered over a length of time - growth in terms of muscle mass and maximum strength output are all but guaranteed when the barbell row is included into a workout routine.

This, of course, hinges on other factors that promote anabolism such as adequate caloric intake and rest.

Scapular Movement Reinforcement

Scapular retraction and protraction are two major biomechanics that are reinforced by regular performance of the barbell row, meaning that the stability and endurance of the tissues involved in such movements are only improved through such exercise.

As scapular movement is a vital component of many other weightlifting activities, the reinforcement of this biomechanic can directly lead to a reduced risk of injury and even improved performance for certain other lifts.

Reduced Risk of Lower Back Injury

Just as the muscles responsible for scapular movement are reinforced by the barbell row, so too are those responsible for stabilizing and moving the lower back. 

These muscles are composed of several different groups that are all recruited in an isometric capacity throughout each repetition of the barbell row, resulting in improved endurance and strength over time.

Athletic Carryover

Gross muscular strength of the back and biceps has a clear carryover to many other athletic activities - a benefit that works quite well with other factors normally associated with heavy compound exercises, like improved CNS endurance and improved proprioception.

As such, even for general athletes who do not participate in a strength-focused sport, the inclusion of the barbell row into their training routine may be a worthwhile choice.

How is the Barbell Row Performed?

Set-Up

To prepare for a set of barbell row repetitions, the exerciser will load a straight barbell with a moderate amount of weight and set it on the ground, readying their stance by bending at the hips and knees with the hands placed shoulder-width apart along the barbell.

Performing the Repetition

To begin a repetition of the barbell row, the exerciser will flex their core musculature and maintain a neutral lower back as they lift the weight from the ground, maintaining an angled torso as they do so.

Then, once the barbell is raised to approximately knee-height, the exerciser will draw their elbows behind their back, thereby pulling the barbell to their diaphragm or somewhere in the vicinity of this area.

barbell bent over row

Throughout this movement, the shoulder blades or scapula must also be contracted so as to reduce the risk of shoulder injury.

Once the barbell has reached its apex, the exerciser will allow the weight to pull their arms back to full extension beneath them - ensuring that they control the movement in a slow and careful manner.

This completes a repetition of the barbell row, with any subsequent repetitions simply repeating the rowing motion without the need to lower the barbell beneath the knees once more.

Common Barbell Row Mistakes

Dropping the Chest

During performance of the barbell row, the torso must remain at an upward angle while maintaining a relatively straight line. 

This means that any dropping of the chest downwards can result in injury due to an uneven distribution of tension across the torso, as well as the fact that dropping the chest can be an indicator of issues relating to the exercise itself.

Generally, the main cause of this mistake is excessive weight being lifted, and is usually remedied through a reduction in the total weight of the barbell - though a dropping of the chest can also be caused by the hands being too far apart along the barbell, or from weak upper back muscles.

Rounding of the Back

Just as is the case in practically every heavy compound movement; rounding the lower back when under significant tension can easily result in serious injury.

This particular mistake can be caused by a variety of reasons, and is generally one of the most damaging when left uncorrected for a significant length of time.

Due to the various causes of the back rounding during a set of barbell rows, it is best to perform a deload (temporarily reducing the weight of the exercise) so as to focus more on rehabilitating and correcting whatever may be causing the rounding.

Factors like weak spinal erector muscles, poor core muscle contraction or simple poor body coordination are among the most common culprits for rounding of the back, though it can also point to more serious issues like general posterior chain weakness or shortened hamstrings.

“Jerking” the Barbell

The barbell row is meant to be performed in a slow and controlled manner, with any jerking of the barbell potentially injuring the lifter or otherwise reducing the effectiveness of the exercise due to a shortened time under tension.

Jerking the barbell, whether intentionally or not, is usually a result of excessive weight being lifted - or otherwise a weakness of one or multiple muscles recruited by the exercise.

As such, jerking of the barbell is a mistake that can be remedied by reducing the total weight of the exercise, as well as purposefully slowing down the repetition in an intentional manner.

Barbell Row Variations and Alternatives

In the event that a barbell is not available or you simply wish to add some variety to your back workout session, there are fortunately quite a number of variations that can act as excellent replacements for the standard barbell row.

Equipment Variations of the Barbell Row

Several variations of the row exercise involve a similar kinetic pattern and muscle group activation as the barbell row, with exercises like the dumbbell row or kettlebell row simply altering otherwise small characteristics in comparison to their barbell-based counterpart.

dumbbell row

In fact, dumbbell or kettlebell rows account for the majority of variation usage to the barbell row, with machine-based rowing exercises making up the rest of row variation exercises.

Execution Alternatives of the Barbell Row

Alternatives to the barbell row do not necessarily need to make use of the same biomechanics or angle of resistance - so long as the intensity and muscles targeted are similar, it is perfectly fine to substitute the barbell row with more complex or mechanically different back exercises.

Row variations like the Arnold row, seal row or pendlay row alter certain mechanics or positionings of the standard row exercise so as to produce a different stimulus, either to target different muscle groups or to change the intensity of the exercise in a certain manner.

pendlay row

While there are far too many row alternatives to name within a single article, the most common are the T-bar row, Arnold row and the chest-supported row, as these three exercises preserve the main purpose of the barbell row while presenting several advantages over their more traditional counterpart.

Final Thoughts

So - should you add the barbell row to your workout routine? 

In most cases, the answer is an absolute yes, as there are few compound movements that target the muscles of the back and biceps as readily as the conventional barbell row.

Even in instances where you are unable or do not wish to perform the traditional barbell row, there is doubtless a similar variation that is perfect for you.

References

1. Ronai, Peter. (2017). The Barbell Row Exercise. ACSMʼs Health & Fitness Journal. 21. 25-28. 10.1249/FIT.0000000000000278.

2. 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.

3. Lorenzetti, Silvio, Romain Dayer, Michael Plüss, and Renate List. 2017. "Pulling Exercises for Strength Training and Rehabilitation: Movements and Loading Conditions" Journal of Functional Morphology and Kinesiology 2, no. 3: 33. https://doi.org/10.3390/jfmk2030033

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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