If you’ve ever wondered how to develop your back muscles so that they are not only practical and powerful but also well defined, then you need proper barbell row form. So grab a barbell and follow our guide on how to properly use the barbell row to build a bigger more defined back.
This guide will cover the basics of the barbell row and how to do it properly.
The barbell row has several variations. I’m sure you’ve seen guys at the gym with an underhand grip almost standing up pulling the bar into the hip area. Sure, it looks like the back is being hit hard but, more than likely they are just building the traps and biceps.
The row that we will be talking about is the bent-over barbell row. Or barbell row for short.
The barbell row is a favorite of many bodybuilding legends. It builds the upper back as well as helps to stabilize the lower back and core.
Barbell Row – Muscles Worked
Before I get into the details of how to properly perform the barbell row, let’s look at exactly what muscles are worked.
The barbell row works the whole back, but the main muscles that are targeted with this exercise are your lats (latissimus dorsi), traps (trapezius), and the rear delts (deltoids).
Barbell Row Form: Setup & Stance
A few things will come into play when performing the barbell row but having a proper setup is key to maintaining the correct barbell row form.
Begin the row by approaching a loaded barbell on the floor.
As shown in the illustration, your feet should be slightly wider than hip-width but narrower than shoulder-width.
The stance shown should work well for most people, but the taller you are the broader you may want your stance, so experiment to see what works best for you.
Approach and foot placement is similar to the setup of a deadlift. Step to the bar and allow the middle of your foot to be directly under the bar as shown in the illustration above.
Barbell Row Form: Grip Width
For most people an overhand wide grip is best to begin with.
Bend at the waist using an overhand grip, gripping the bar just outside the width of your knees.
You can vary grip width the more advanced you get. To begin with, keep a similar grip to the bench press, since the barbell row movement is mimicking the movement of the flat bench press.
As shown in the illustration below, your elbows should be at approximately 45º to your body. Going any wider will cause excessive flaring of your elbows.
Once you’ve mastered the standard grip you can try a narrower grip.
The narrower grips shown below activate more of your lat muscles with the underhand version bringing in more of your biceps.
Avoid going narrower than hip width as this will result in your forearms moving out of proper alignment and also leads to excessive stress on your elbows and wrists.
Barbell Row Form: Starting Position
With your hands firmly placed on the bar and the bar directly over the center of your foot, deadlift the bar up to a standing position whilst keeping your back in a neutral position. Push your hips back, with a slight bend in knees and lower the barbell back down to between a 15 to 45-degree angle depending on how much flexibility you have in your hamstrings.
At this point you will look almost like a runner at the starting line. Head in a neutral position. Back straight (with just a slight arch). Hands slightly wider than hip width. Legs slightly bent depending on flexibility.
The key is to keep the back flat throughout the movement. Avoid taking the bar too far down and ensure you keep within the range of your hamstring flexibility. If you go too low, you will likely round your back which places a lot of stress on your lower back.
Avoid taking the bar too low & rounding your back
Barbell Row Up
Now that your are setup and in the proper starting position, we can begin the rowing movement.
Begin by taking a deep breath, tighten your core muscles. Grip the bar firmly and tense your upper back muscles.
Then, slowly row the bar up by engaging your upper back and lat muscles. At the same time pull your elbows up and slightly back. Keep your back in straight alignment.
Stop when the bar is just about to touch your upper abs/ sternum.
You should feel a pulling across your back, this will indicate the lats are engaged.
As the lats engage and you begin to lift the bar off the floor in line with your sternum, keep your elbows locked and in position.
The elbows play a significant role in the row as well as other pushing and pulling lifts.
As shown in the illustration below, don’t pull the bar too high and flare your elbows out. Doing this puts too much pressure on your shoulders and will reduce your results as the exercise will shift the tension to your upper traps at the expense of your lats.
Avoid pulling your elbows up too high
Pull the barbell up in a straight path, close the body, tightening your upper back, lats, and everything in between as you go.
Focus on pulling your shoulders back and squeezing your shoulder blades hard at the top of the movement.
Be careful not to put too much weight on the bar to begin with. Overloading the bar means you will likely stand up straighter and straighter with each rep to make the lift easier. This takes the emphasis off your larger back muscles and puts them on your upper traps.
Avoid standing up too straight
Barbell Row Down
Slowly lower the bar back to the starting position whilst keeping your core muscles engaged. Be sure to keep the alignment of you head, back and hip as you lower the weight.
Continue until your arms are straight and the bar is back over the centre of your foot.
By lowering the barbell slowly, you will be able to feel your lats really work.
As you lower the weight, let your shoulder blades naturally protract outwards.
At the bottom, before starting the next rep, contract your triceps. This will reduce the use of your biceps, whilst keeping your back muscles engaged.
Proper Form Is The Key
There you go! It’s as easy as that. You just learned how to do a barbell row with the correct form. And you’re well on your way to building some serious size and strength.
Keep at it. Pretty soon you will have a back all your friends will envy!
Interested in building up your legs next? Check out this article on how to improve your squats
Check out this video by Atomic Athlete showing the barbell row in action.
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