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How to Barbell Row: Your Guide to the Proper Form

Bent Barbell Row

Have you ever looked at a finely sculpted physique and noticed such great shape and definition in the back muscles? Have you ever wondered how to develop your own back muscles in such a way? Well then the barbell row is for you. A defined and muscular back is key in building your body but also has a lot of practical use.

This guide will cover the basics of a barbell row and how to begin doing it.

I must call to attention that the barbell row has several variations. Some even made up that I care not to name. I’m sure you have seen guys at the gym with an underhand grip almost standing up pulling the bar into the hip area. Sure 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 parallel 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. By returning the barbell to the floor on each lift we can call on all of our muscles to lift and grow.


Notice in the diagram how the weight begins on the floor and comes up to the sternum returning to the floor before lifting up again. Thinking of rowing a boat, you dig deep with all your might thrusting your arms back and then pushing them forward again, propelling the boat forward.

The Benefits of the Barbell Row

The results of any compound exercise are going to carry over into many of your lifts and day to day activities. Case in point every time you bend over to pick up that barbell, expect . . .

Gains in Size and Strength—Your muscles are going to grow and you’re going to get stronger. Thats a fact.  If you went to university and there was a rowing team, guaranteed they had backs that even the greeks would admire. This simple yet complex movement will shape your body like no other.

Improvements in Flexibility—Hard to believe but yes you will become more flexible. When performing the barbell row properly you are stretching your hamstrings by keeping your legs as straight as possible and as well as loosening up any kinks in your posterior chain.

Better Posture—Is a given. The stronger your muscles are the easier it is for your body to support itself and keep an upright posture. Improper positioning due to daily activities have lead to more and more cases of poor posture and overall health conditions.

Common Barbell Row Misconceptions

Many people are led to assume that the barbell row puts too much strain on your lower back and it is unsafe to do. As it so happens, that is not true. Yes, there will naturally be effort exerted by your lower back, legs, and abdominals to stay in proper position. However, when you learn to perform any exercise the right way and only increase the weight as your strength increases, then you minimize the chances of hurting yourself.

A Lesson on Barbell Row Form

Attempting anything for the first time poses its challenges. Learning to perform the barbell row correctly is essential to any training routine. The barbell row is not as challenging as it may look. With time and dedication you will be lifting weights off the floor with ease.

This lesson will cover the proper form used for a bent-over parallel barbell row. I will begin by assuming you currently know nothing about rows and are eager to learn. However, even if you are a seasoned lifter a good refresher course never hurts.

I cannot advocate enough the importance of proper form. Learning to row correctly without any weight will instill the correct motor patterns in our body and will assist in our efforts.

Note: Smith machines are great inventions and have their purpose. However they are not beneficial for this workout. Barbell rows on a smith machine puts the body in a fixed path and does not allow the stabilization muscles to engage. Always row with free weights.

The Setup

A few things will come into play when performing the row. However a proper setup is key.

  • Begin the row by approaching an empty or loaded bar on the floor.
  • Ideally if the bar is weighted and raised off the ground you would step to the bar and allow the middle of your foot to be directly under the bar. If you are beginning with no weight at all you can simply hold the bar in your hand and let it hang as if it were weighted resting on the floor.
    • Approach and foot placement will be similar to the setup of a deadlift.
  • Bend at the waist using an overhand grip, gripping the bar slightly wider than shoulder width.
    • You can vary grip width the more advanced you get. To begin we will keep a similar grip to our bench press, since the barbell row movement is a mimicking movement of the flat bench press.
  • With your hands firmly placed on the bar and the bar directly over the center of your foot, keep your knees slightly bent and slightly elevate your chest so your back is parallel to the floor.

At this point you will look almost like a runner at the starting line. Head in a neutral position. Back parallel with a slight arch. Hands slightly wider than shoulder width. Legs slightly bent depending on flexibility. The key is to keep the back flat throughout the movement.

Beginning to Row

Now that your are setup and in the proper starting position, we can begin the rowing movement.

  • Begin by taking a big breath. Grip the bar firmly and tense your upper back muscles.
  • Slowly pull the bar off the floor by engaging your upper back and lat muscles.
    • 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.
    • You will need to find the best position for your elbows. A good starting position will be about 45 degrees from the body.
  • Pulling the barbell up in a straight path, close the body tightening your upper back, lats, and everything in between.
  • Squeeze hard at the top of the movement.
  • Slowly lower the bar back to the starting position over the center of your foot.
    • By lowering the barbell slowly, you will be able to feel your lats really work.

There you go! It’s as easy as that. You just learned how to do a barbell row. 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!

As a resource a great video on learning the barbell row is Pendlay Row by Glenn Pendlay.