Pendlay Row vs Barbell Row: Which is Best?

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
November 12, 2022

The standard rowing motion has quite a few variations under its belt, with the two most common among weightlifters being the pendlay row and the classic barbell row - both compound back exercises that make use of a barbell and weight plates to train the various muscles of the torso.

However, due to the similarity of the mechanics between the two exercises, some confusion is found when choosing which row variation to add to the lifter’s program.

To put it in a nutshell, the main differences between the pendlay row and the barbell row lie in the angle of the torso and the starting position of the exercise, with the pendlay row featuring a more parallel torso angle whereas the barbell row angles the torso at a more upward direction.

What is the Pendlay Row?

The pendlay row is an advanced level free weight compound exercise meant to target muscle groups along the back of the torso in a high-intensity fashion, making use of a modified version of the standard rowing motion so as to increase rate of force demands on certain portions of the upper back.

pendlay row

When comparing the pendlay row to other row variations, the main difference seen from an external point of view is that the pendlay row begins from a complete standstill of the barbell atop the floor, requiring the lifter to bend further forward and maintain a flatter lower back so as to ensure the exercise is executed correctly.

Benefits of the Pendlay Row

The pendlay row’s main benefit involves its capacity to develop explosiveness and power in the musculature of the back, making it particularly useful for athletes or similar types of lifters wishing to improve the rate at which their musculature can exert force within a short span of time.

Furthermore, pendlay rows are an excellent tool for powerlifters in terms of carry-over and practice of correct exercise mechanics, as they not only ensure better power development, but also require impeccable form so as to execute correctly.

Disadvantages of the Pendlay Row

Unfortunately, due to the explosiveness and angle of resistance involved in a repetition of the pendlay row, it features a far shorter length of time under tension than other back muscle-targeting row variations, leading to poorer gross strength development and a comparatively lesser amount of muscle mass being packed on via hypertrophy.

Furthermore, the angle of the torso relative to the source of resistance creates greater strain on the lower back and other portions of the posterior chain, increasing the risk of injury for lifters with poor hamstring mobility or improper form.

How to Perform the Pendlay Row

To begin performing the pendlay row, the exerciser will position a loaded barbell upon the ground in front of them, planting their heels approximately hip-width apart as they bend at the hips and knees with a straight lower back.

pendlay row

The torso should be at a flat angle in accordance with the ground as the exerciser pulls the barbell from the floor through their elbows, drawing it as high along the chest as possible until a full range of motion has been achieved.

Then, the exerciser will slowly lower the bar in a slow and careful manner, stopping once it has returned to its original position on the ground.

This completes a repetition of the pendlay row exercise, with subsequent repetitions requiring the exerciser to return the bar to the ground each time so as to ensure a more forceful pull is utilized.

What is the Barbell Row?

The barbell row is a free weight compound exercise made iconic for its usage in many bodybuilding and powerlifting training programs, as it is considered to be one among the most effective for developing strength and muscle mass along the middle and upper back.

barbell bent over row

The barbell row is considered to be the traditional or standard row exercise, and is most often used as the basis for a number of different barbell-based row variations with a higher level of specificity in regards to training stimulus.

Benefits of the Barbell Row

The barbell row is best known for being beginner-accessible and highly effective at developing the two basic aspects of resistance training; that being the development of muscle mass via muscular hypertrophy, and the development of back-muscle strength through high intensity resistance.

Furthermore, the barbell row employs a greater capacity for time under tension and volume of repetitions than most other row variations, allowing individuals who wish to focus on these aspects of their training to take full advantage in regards to their back muscles.

Disadvantages of the Barbell Row

The main disadvantage to the barbell row lies in its longer range of motion being combined with the angle of the torso in relation to the floor. 

This results in greater strain being placed on the lower back and a larger role being taken by the muscles of the glutes, resulting in some resistance being drawn away from the muscles of the upper and middle back in turn.

Other issues normally found with the barbell row are too lengthy a time under tension, less clearly defined form cues and the usual drawbacks of using bilateral training equipment like barbells.

How to Perform the Barbell Row

In order to begin performing a repetition of the barbell row, the exerciser will plant their feet approximately hip-width apart while the barbell is gripped between their hands and the lower back is bent somewhat.

barbell bent over row

Pushing the chest outwards and retracting the elbows behind the torso, the exerciser will then pull the barbell towards their sternum before allowing their arms to return to the original position in a slow and controlled manner.

This completes a repetition of the barbell row, with subsequent repetitions simply requiring the exerciser to repeat the rowing motion without setting the barbell down again.

Muscle Activation of the Pendlay Row and the Barbell Row

Though both the pendlay row and the barbell row are generally considered to be back-muscle compound exercises, the angle of the torso and the time under tension involved in each row variation can alter which muscle groups are recruited, as well as to what extent.

During the pendlay row, the short time under tension and generally explosive movement pattern results in less isometric contraction of the posterior deltoid heads and erector spinae, producing less stabilization adaptation in favor of power development instead.

Inversely, the barbell row’s greater length of time under tension allows for these muscles to be recruited in an isometric manner for a longer period of time, improving muscular endurance and stability instead of rate of force development.

Regardless, both the barbell row and pendlay row are known to recruit the muscles of the trapezius, latissimus dorsi, rhomboids and biceps brachii to a similarly dynamic degree, making the difference in muscular activation between these two exercises rather negligible in the long run.

Power Development Differences of the Pendlay Row and the Barbell Row

The pendlay row and the barbell row are capable of developing similar levels of gross muscular strength. 

However, the rate at which this strength can be maximized is a major distinction between the two, as the barbell row features more slow repetitions in a position that makes rapid muscular recruitment more difficult to achieve.

As such, individuals seeking to develop their explosiveness and power may wish to make use of the pendlay row instead of the barbell row, with the pendlay row generally being more capable of inducing rate of force development improvements than its traditional counterpart.

Hypertrophy and Strength Development Differences of the Pendlay Row and the Barbell Row

In truth, both the pendlay row and the barbell row are capable of improving the size and strength of the muscles that make up the back of the torso.

However, due to the submaximal loading of the pendlay row and the general method in which it is executed, the barbell row can be said to be superior for inducing muscular hypertrophy and gross muscular strength development.

This is because of a two-fold advantage that the barbell row holds over the pendlay row, where it is capable of being performed with far more weight due to the angle of the lifter’s torso, as well as the fact that it is capable of being performed for a greater volume of repetitions per set.

Athletic Carryover and Specificity of the Pendlay Row and the Barbell Row

As was touched upon earlier in this article, the barbell row is often considered to be the “default” row exercise in the majority of resistance training disciplines due to its more general approach to training stimulus, providing basic muscular hypertrophy and strength development to the muscles of the back.

As such, higher level athletes or lifters seeking greater specificity of training may wish to employ the pendlay row instead, as it is capable of being modified or utilized in such a way that it can provide more specific training stimulus and benefits than the barbell row can.

Injury Risk Potential of the Pendlay Row and the Barbell Row

When performed correctly, both the pendlay row and the barbell row are perfectly safe and unlikely to result in any sort of serious injury.

However, due to the strain placed on the lower back during the barbell row, individuals with a particular predisposition to lower back injuries may find that the pendlay row is far more comfortable and less dangerous to perform.

Likewise, individuals with a history of shoulder injury may find that the pendlay row is more aggravating to their shoulder joints due to the angle of resistance combining with gravity in line with the shoulder girdle itself.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What Exercises Can Replace the Barbell Row?

Practically any row variation is capable of acting as a substitute to the standard barbell row, with exercises like the T-bar row or dumbbell row each featuring their own unique characteristics that make them particularly suitable for certain goals or training needs.

Are Pendlay Rows Better?

Pendlay rows are not better than other row variations per se, but are nonetheless a highly effective tool for building athleticism and muscular explosiveness, even in comparison to most other versions of the barbell-based row exercise.

The most effective way to determine which row variation is suitable for your needs is to test them out and program your workout accordingly.

Is Barbell Row the "Best" Row?

Just as the pendlay row is not necessarily superior to other row variations, neither is the barbell row considered to be the “best” row in a generalist sense. 

Instead, the barbell row is considered to be the ideal starting row variation for novice or intermediate level lifters without any particular athletic discipline, as well as the fact that the barbell row is quite suitable for developing mass in muscle groups like the rhomboids and latissimus dorsi due to its effective compound training stimulus.

In Conclusion

So - which row variation should you choose? 

The answer lies in what sort of goals you have in mind for your training program.

Athletes or lifters that wish to develop their muscular power may be better served performing the pendlay row instead of the barbell row, whereas bodybuilders and those seeking a less specific form of training stimulus can perform the latter row variation instead.

Of course, these results are also influenced by many other factors, and choosing the right exercise for the job is only a fraction of what is needed to perfect a training program.

References

1. Tjøsvoll, S.O., Mork, P.J., Iversen, V.M. et al. Periodized resistance training for persistent non-specific low back pain: a mixed methods feasibility study. BMC Sports Sci Med Rehabil 12, 30 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13102-020-00181-0

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

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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