T-bar Row Alternatives: Variations to Target the Same Muscles

Published by Debbie Luna
Last Updated: October 18, 2021

The T-bar row is a free weight back exercise primarily targeting the vast majority of muscles located in the posterior side of the upper body. The T-bar row is most frequently incorporated into certain exercise routines that require significant hypertrophic muscle growth and neurological adaptation in the back muscles of the exerciser.

With such a wide range of muscles activated by this exercise, it is considered a compound movement type exercise, and has many alternatives that can both act as more specific isolation exercises for certain muscles or similar compound movement exercises.

What Muscles Does the T-bar Row Target?

The fact that the T-bar row is a compound exercise equates to it activating a variety of muscle groups and muscles while it is being performed. Targeting the latissimus dorsi, scapula, rear deltoid head and trapezius muscle groups, the T-bar row also incorporates the biceps, triceps, and the muscle groups in the legs as either accessory dynamic movement stabilizers or as simple static support stabilizers.

t-bar row muscles

In order to fully realize the muscle-growing potential of the T-bar row, it is vitally important to use proper form while performing the exercise, as improper form can not only result in muscular injury but also reduce the stress or load on certain muscle groups, reducing the hypertrophic growth and neurological adaptation in these areas.

How is the T-bar Row Performed?

While the T-bar row works best with a piece of gym equipment referred to as a “landmine unit” or “landmine station” wherein one end of an Olympic standard barbell is placed in a receptacle bolted to the floor, it is still entirely possible to perform the T-bar row with nothing more than free weight plates and a barbell.

First, place your barbell diagonally on the floor. Rest a weight plate or heavy dumbbell across one end in order to prevent the barbell from raising as you perform this exercise.

Load the opposite end of the barbell with your desired weight. If you have not performed this exercise before, we recommend keeping your initial weight load low so as to prevent injury as much as possible.

Position yourself in such a way that the barbell is between your legs, with the weighted end extending away from your feet. Keeping your back straight and bending from the hips, rest both hands at both sides of the barbell.

It is also possible to use a T-bar row grip beneath the barbell in order to maximize muscle activation via a neutral grip position, if available.

Gripping the bar either with a T-bar row grip or simply by the barbell itself, squeeze your scapula together while simultaneously drawing your elbows towards your back. This will raise the weight plates towards your chest, completing the concentric portion of the exercise. 

Ensure that your back is completely stable and straight all throughout this exercise as you lower the barbell back to its initial position, completing one repetition of a T-bar row.

Free Weight T-bar Row Alternatives

As T-bar rows are considered a free weight exercise owing to the fact that it is your own muscles that perform the primary stabilization of the weight load, replacements for T-bar rows are best chosen based on their similarity to this particular characteristic.

Supported Single-Arm Dumbbell Rows

The single arm dumbbell row is a unilateral compound movement exercise that incorporates the abdominal muscles as stabilizers and essentially removes the leg muscles from the equation. 

In comparison to the T-bar row, the single arm dumbbell row allows the exerciser to perform more focused muscular contractions owing to the fact that they may direct more of their energy and attention to one side of their body at a time.

single arm dumbbell row

In order to perform the single-arm dumbbell row, all that is required is a dumbbell of suitable weight and a flat surface elevated high enough to kneel over.

Simply place one knee over the bench or flat surface, preferably on the side opposite the arm you wish to start with. Bend over while keeping your back straight in such a way that your torso is parallel to the bench you are kneeling over.

Rest the hand that is not being exercised against the bench or flat surface in order to aid in stabilizing your torso.

In your free hand, grip a dumbbell and draw your scapula backwards while pulling your elbow behind you. If performed correctly, the exerciser will feel tension in the general rear deltoid area of their shoulders as well as the latissimus dorsi muscles in the middle partition of their back.

Slowly allow the dumbbell to return to its original position as you squeeze your scapula, completing a single repetition of the exercise. Repeat as directed by your physical therapist or exercise program.

Standard Barbell Rows

Standard barbell rows are extremely similar to T-bar rows with the main difference being the general position of your arms while performing the exercise.

In terms of muscular activation, standard barbell rows differ to T-bar rows in their activation of the trapezius muscle at the top of your shoulders, with standard barbell rows placing more of an emphasis on the rear deltoid head and biceps brachii muscle group. 

This is not to say that the trapezius is not activated by standard barbell rows, however, as the trapezius is still activated to a significant degree during this exercise.

bent over row

In order to perform standard barbell rows, all you will require is roughly the same equipment needed to perform T-bar rows; a barbell, weight plates, and weight collars if you so desire it.

Load the barbell at both ends with an equal amount of weight. If you have not performed this exercise before, it is best to use light weights so as to focus on improving your form as well as reduce the chance of injury.

Place the barbell against the floor, approximately three inches away from your shins. The closer the barbell is placed to your center of gravity, the easier it will be to raise it into position during the exercise, though care must be taken not to curve your spine as you are doing this.

Spread your feet shoulder-width apart and plant your heels firmly on the ground. Bending from the hips and knees, keep your back straight as you lower your hands to the barbell, gripping it firmly in a pronated grip.

Raise the barbell to your sternum by bracing your abdominal muscles, pulling your elbows behind you and squeezing your shoulders towards each other from behind. If performed correctly, the exerciser will feel a tension in the general area of their upper back.

Slowly lower the weight back to your knees, all the while maintaining a straight back as you bend over. This completes the eccentric portion of the exercise, as well as one repetition of barbell rows.

Scapula Push-ups

The scapula push-up is by far the lightest exercise in this list, and as such is both suitable for members of the older population and for people who cannot or do not desire to go to a gym. Being a calisthenic exercise, scapula retraction push-ups require no equipment other than a flat and open surface on the ground.

If you have not performed this exercise before, it is best to consult with your physical therapist, coach, or physician before attempting it, as previous injuries to your scapula, collarbone or shoulders may be aggravated.

On a flat and comfortable surface, enter the pushup position by extending your arms in front of you, hands positioned approximately at shoulder length. Balance on the tips of your feet with your legs extended straight and your back in a neutral position.

scapula push up

Drop your shoulder blades or scapula slowly, allowing them to relax and your upper torso to sag somewhat towards the ground. Reverse this action by then retracting your shoulder blades together and arching your back upwards, like that of the cat yoga position.

Ensure that you perform the second part of this movement slowly, as suddenly snapping your shoulder blades together may cause injury. All the while you are doing this, keep your abdominal muscles as tight as possible and your feet firmly in place.

Perform as many repetitions as your exercise program or fitness coach has prescribed to you.

Machine T-bar Row Alternatives

T-bar rows are classified as closed kinetic chain exercises owing to the fact that your distal point or feet are firmly planted on the ground, leaving no room for movement. 

This allows the exerciser to both focus more on the muscles being exercised as well as train their stabilizer muscles, such as their core and accessory back muscles.

However, an excellent way to replicate this effect is to utilize machines, which require far less use of your stabilizer muscles, allowing more energy be spent on the particular muscle groups you desire to focus on.

Cable Rows

The cable row is the standard machine replacement exercise for most kinds of row exercises owing to the fact that it activates much the same muscles as dumbbell or barbell rows.

This exercise may be performed seated or standing, though we recommend performing it seated if you are new to it so as to allow you to focus on your form.

Using a cable machine, adjust it in such a way that the cable mount is parallel to your torso, at approximately sternum height. If needed, switch the cable attachment with a cable rowing bar or T-bar row attachment, either of which are perfectly suitable for cable rows.

standing cable row

Sit or stand at a far enough distance from the cable mount that the tension in the cable pulls it taut. Relax your shoulders and keep your back straight as you raise the cable rowing attachment to approximately navel height. Allow your arms to bend at the elbows, tucking them against your sides.

If you are having trouble stabilizing yourself, press your feet against the machine’s footplates or any other surface that may be available to brace against.

Slowly, pull the cable rowing attachment towards your chest, taking care to activate your back muscles by retracting your shoulder blades. Keep your spine straight as you are doing this by straightening your back and keeping your head facing forward, in line with your torso.

After holding the cable rowing attachment as close to your chest as possible, allow it to return to its initial position by releasing the tension in your back muscles and shoulder blades. This completes one repetition of the exercise.

Rowing Machine

The rowing machine is a piece of gym equipment specifically built to replicate the movement of a row-boat rower, often with an adjustable level of resistance and speed. 

Suitable for most healthy individuals, the rowing machine provides an excellent cardio alternative to T-bar rows, though the muscular hypertrophy growth from using this machine will be nowhere near the level of weighted back exercises like T-bar rows.

The rowing machine is best used as a supplementary exercise combined with any other T-bar row alternative mentioned in this article.

To begin, simply sit on the moving seat, firmly bracing both of your feet against the ground or footplates present on the machine. Grip the handlebars attached to a cable with both hands at both sides.

rowing

Generating the movement from your back and abdomen, draw the handle towards your chest as your legs extend, straightening out and partially locking your knees. Lean your torso backwards, ensuring that the scapula is firmly held in place as the bar moves as close as possible to your sternum or chest.

To perform the eccentric movement, allow your arms to release some of their tension, straightening outwards as the handle is pulled towards the opposite end of the machine. Allow your torso to follow this movement as it bends forward, with your legs curling upwards. Come to a stop in the same position you began the repetition at, with the bar extended towards the machine, your torso bent slightly forward and your legs curled.

References

1. Unknown Author. (N.D.) “T-bar Row (plate loaded)” ExRx.net https://exrx.net/WeightExercises/BackGeneral/LVTBarRow

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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