The Yates row and the conventional barbell row are two variants of the bent-over row exercise that are often confused due to their visual similarity and shared general development of the back muscles.
However, they are in fact not the same, as the relatively minute differences between the two exercises can impact the training stimulus and muscular recruitment of either row variant exercise, creating vastly different results over time.
The main difference between the Yates row and the conventional barbell row is in the trunk angle of the exerciser performing either lift, with the Yates row placing the upper body at a more inclined angle and therefore altering several mechanics of the bent over row exercise.
The Yates row is a variant of the free weight compound bent over row that was popularized by bodybuilding champion Dorian Yates.
It is most often performed with the use of a straight barbell for the purposes of developing mass in the various muscles of the back, though it is also occasionally involved in barbell row sticking point rectification.
Unlike the conventional barbell row, the Yates row does not involve the exerciser’s torso being nearly parallel in angle to the ground. Instead, the Yates row is performed with the exerciser’s torso at a more inclined angle, with the barbell traveling a shorter distance and thereby significantly changing the mechanics of the movement.
The Yates row’s main advantage is that it places significantly less strain on the lower back than other variants of the bent over barbell row, reducing the risk of injury and also removing one major limiting factor that hampers the performance of other barbell row variations.
This, alongside the fact that the range of motion is significantly reduced due to the thorax angle of the exerciser, equates to an exercise that allows for supramaximal loading of the upper back musculature.
Due to the altered angle of resistance involved in the Yates row, the risk of a bicep tear injury occurring is somewhat more significant, especially if the exerciser fails to adhere to proper elbow form cues. As such, the Yates row is an exercise that is better suited to lifters of an intermediate level.
Moreover, the tilt of the exerciser’s torso will also decrease the range of motion involved throughout the repetition, thereby also reducing total time under tension.
The conventional barbell row is a free weight compound resistance exercise most often performed for the purposes of developing the back and biceps muscle groups.
It is a frequent mainstay of many powerlifting and bodybuilding training routines because of its reliability, relative simplicity, and the fact that it is remarkably effective at training the entirety of the muscle groups that make up the back in a relatively short length of time.
The main benefit of performing the barbell row is in its effectiveness at building strength and mass throughout the entirety of the back, including muscle groups that are ordinarily ignored by other back-targeting movements such as the erector spinae and posterior deltoid head.
Such a complete muscular recruitment set is only further made useful by the fact that the barbell row is capable of greatly improving athletic explosiveness and isometric strength, creating significant carry-over potential to other pulling exercises.
Comparatively, one major disadvantage of the barbell row is that it does not allow as much weight to be moved, and generally requires far greater exertion per repetition than the Yates row.
This is a consequence of its larger range of motion and the fact that it recruits stabilizer muscles throughout the lower back and core, unlike the Yates row.
In addition to this, the barbell row presents an increased risk of thoracic and lumbar spine injury due to the disadvantageous position it places the exerciser’s middle and lower back in, with even minor deviations in form or improper core bracing leading to nagging acute injuries.
The Yates row and the barbell row - while sharing many similarities - are in fact more suitable in certain situations than the other.
For exercisers seeking greater specificity, supramaximal loading of their upper back or for individuals with a history of lower back instability and injury, the Yates row is most likely the safer and more effective choice.
Likewise, in the case of powerlifters wishing to reinforce their entire kinetic chain or athletes seeking a significant improvement in their explosive potential, the conventional barbell row outperforms the Yates row in terms of results and suitability.
While these two exercises may indeed be used interchangeably, optimizing one’s training routine by picking the more appropriate exercise will ensure faster and more effective physical development.
Due to differences in range of motion and angle of resistance, the Yates row and the barbell row in fact train different muscle groups to a certain extent - though the major muscle groups of the back such as the latissimus dorsi, trapezius and rhomboids are nonetheless shared as primary mover muscle groups.
As such, in the event that you choose to perform one exercise over the other, it is advisable to make up for this discrepancy in muscular recruitment by adding further isolation work into your training program.
The Yates row, like most other row exercises, recruits the latissimus dorsi, trapezius muscle group and rhomboids as primary mover muscles, while the posterior deltoids and biceps brachii take the role of secondary mover muscles or stabilizers depending on which portion of the movement is being performed.
In comparison to the barbell row, the Yates row skips any significant dynamic activation of the erector spinae, internal obliques or transverse abdominis - allowing greater exertion to be directed towards the aforementioned mover muscles instead.
The barbell row, on the other hand, activates practically every muscle group present in the back.
Recruiting such muscle groups as the latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, trapezius and posterior deltoids to a significant degree, the conventional barbell row is often the main source of upper body pull-muscle training stimulus in modern training programs.
Unlike the Yates row, however, quite a number of other muscle groups are also activated in an isometric capacity. These are the gluteal muscles, the erector spinae, much of the core musculature and the biceps brachii - all of which help stabilize the torso and the barbell itself as the exerciser bends over.
Though visually similar, the Yates row and the barbell row are in fact performed with the use of distinctly different exercise mechanics, requiring that the exerciser learn each individual movement in order to properly execute in a safe manner.
As was mentioned earlier, the main mechanical difference between the Yates row and the barbell row is in the tilt of the exerciser’s torso, of which should be an angle of approximately 40-45 degrees.
This bend of the torso feeds into the underhand grip and slightly more retracted elbow position of the Yates row, reducing the range of motion and comparatively increasing biceps brachii muscular recruitment.
From an external point of view, this appears as the barbell only traveling from between the knees and the lower sternum or abdomen, producing a short range of motion that requires slow and controlled repetitions in order to perform safely.
The barbell row is performed with the lower back and spine in a state of full extension, creating a bar path that travels between the rib cage and the point of full elbow lock-out at an angle that is parallel to the floor.
Not only does this involve greater recruitment of stabilizer muscle groups in the back and core, but it too makes use of several biomechanics that are not otherwise present in the Yates row, such as full elbow extension and gluteal muscle isometric contraction.
Additionally, the barbell row is performed in an overhand grip, further increasing the range of motion and reducing biceps brachii involvement in the movement as the resistance is instead passed to the posterior deltoid head and back muscles.
Apart from the aforementioned distinctions between the two exercises, the Yates row and the barbell row are nonetheless still rowing exercises and therefore still share many mechanics.
Minor rotation of the shoulder girdle as well as retraction and extension of the scapula are features of either exercise, and are otherwise unavoidable in the performance of most rowing-type movements.
Due to the shorter range of motion involved in the Yates row, exercisers will find that they can in fact move a greater load of weight per repetition with such an exercise than with its counterpart.
Conversely, the barbell row is considered to be a power-based movement that relies somewhat more on momentum than the Yates row, balancing out the shorter range of motion advantage that Yates row practitioners may have.
When comparing raw maximal load capacity between the two exercises, it is clear that the Yates row allows for a greater amount of weight to be moved, regardless of the tempo used in either exercise.
Whether or not a greater maximal load is a benefit or not, however, will depend on the exerciser and their own personal training goals.
Powerlifters and strength-based athletes will find that being able to condition themselves to moving larger amounts of weight directly carry-over to their sport, while bodybuilders and general fitness enthusiasts will be safer with the lower weight used in the barbell row.
Outside of specific types of athletes or individuals who wish to train their back and biceps without the involvement of their lower back muscles, it is the barbell row that is the clearly superior choice.
This is simply because of its safer movement pattern, longer time under tension, more natural biomechanical usage and greater swathe of muscle groups recruited within a single exercise.
While at the end of the day it is entirely up to the exerciser to decide on which row variant to use, our advice is that one make use of the barbell row as the main source of back muscle training stimulus in their training routine, unless certain deficits in their strength or muscles has been identified, wherein the Yates row would become the better choice.
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