The Barbell Row: A Complete Guide | Form, Benefits, & Variations!

The barbell row is one of the best exercises to strengthen your lats. This compound exercise can also help to improve your posture and build a bigger back. The barbell row is an essential exercise for people of all fitness levels.

Muscles Worked By The Barbell Row 

Primary Muscle Groups:

The barbell row primarily works muscles in your mid and upper back such as your lats and rhomboids.

Originating in the lower/mid back, the latissimus dorsi is the largest muscle of the back. Your lats play a significant role in most “pulling” exercises such as the lat pulldown, pull ups, and other rowing exercises.

Your rhomboids are located in your upper back. When you contract the rhomboids at the top of each rep of the barbell row, they are responsible for bringing your shoulder blades together.

Secondary Muscle Groups:

The barbell row also incorporates the biceps, forearms, abs, rear deltoids, traps, and other smaller back muscles. During the exercise motion, your biceps and forearms contract to bring the weight up and a wide variety of other muscles also help to stabilize the upper body.

Clearly, the barbell row is a compound exercise that works your entire upper body.

Barbell Row Benefits

1. Bigger & Stronger Back

The barbell row places an intense stress on your back muscles. As a result, your individual muscle cells respond by increasing in size; this process is called hypertrophy. This will help you build a bigger, stronger back.

Not only is a sturdy back aesthetically pleasing, it is also essential for improving your performance in athletics, other compound lifts, and simple day-to-day activities. 

2. Full-Body Activation

In other back exercises such as the dumbbell row or lat pulldown, you have a bench or cable machine to help stabilize the movement. With the barbell row, your body can only rely on itself for stability.

This lack of stability forces your body to work even harder to maintain proper form throughout the exercise. While the barbell row is primarily a back exercise, it recruits muscles throughout the body for balance and stability.

3. Improved Posture

Hours of sitting in chairs at work or while driving can cause you to underuse your lats and other back muscles. As a result, this can lead to slouching, pain, and tension in your shoulders and back.

The barbell row can help to activate these under utilized muscles and reduce back pain or discomfort. With regular exercise, you will be standing upright with proper posture in no time.

How To Do The Barbell Row


For this exercise, you will need a barbell and some weights.


a) Set up a barbell on the ground with light to medium weight.

b) Assume a standing position with your feet shoulder width apart. Step forward so that the barbell is over the middle portion of your feet. 

c) Grab the bar with an overhand grip with your hands just outside your knees. 

d) Brace your abs and back and lift the barbell off the ground until you are in a standing position with your back straight.

e) Keeping your abs and back tight, hinge your hips backwards until your back is nearly parallel to the floor. Extend your arms straight down and keep your gaze focused a few feet in front of you. 


a) Keeping your elbows tucked, drive your elbows up and back to bring the barbell up towards your belly button. 

b) Squeeze your lats at the top, pause for a moment, and slowly return to the starting position.

c) Maintain tightness in your core and back and repeat!


You should aim to complete 3-4 sets of 10-12 reps of the barbell row. As you get more comfortable with the form, feel free to change up your set and rep ranges to challenge yourself.

Barbell Row Mistakes

1. Flaring Out The Elbows

I often see lifters flare out their elbows during the barbell row. Flaring out the elbows shifts excessive tension into your shoulders and lower back. Not only does this risk injury to these muscle groups, but it reduces potential gains by taking away tension from your mid-upper back.

To correct this problem, try to keep your elbows tucked to a 45 degree angle from your body. 

2. Lifting With Your Arms

Many lifters tend to bow their wrists and use their arms to pull the weight up. This most often occurs when people try to lift too much weight. As a result, they will use their arms to gain momentum and “bounce” at the top of each rep.

Not only is this unsafe for your wrists and back, but it doesn’t actually accomplish the goal of safely stressing your back muscles. Instead, choose a lighter weight and focus on proper form.

3. Rounding The Back

Another common barbell row mistake is rounding the back. This mistake usually happens due to a faulty set up position. However, it can also happen if you relax your back position in between reps.

Rounding your back puts your body in a compromised position, which can lead to injury. Throughout the barbell row, focus on keeping your chest up and your back engaged in a neutral, flat position.

This will maximize the safety and the effectiveness of the barbell row.

Barbell Row Variations

1. Underhand Barbell Row

The underhand variation of the barbell row activates your biceps more than the overhand barbell row. Bend over at a 45 degree angle and grab the barbell with an underhand grip.

Squeeze your lats to row the barbell towards your belly button with each rep. Repeat!


2. Alternating Overhand Barbell Row

You can also use the barbell row to train your back unilaterally. Instead of rowing with both hands, keep one arm stationary and row your other elbow up and back to contract one side of your back.

The alternating overhand barbell row can help to reduce muscle imbalances in your back and improve your mind-muscle connection. 

3. Overhand Close Grip Barbell Row

Instead of placing your hands just outside of your knees, try bringing your hands in line with your knees. The close grip variation of the barbell row places more tension on your mid-low back than the standard grip version.

Note—because the close grip increases your range of motion, you may have to slightly reduce the weight for this variation!

Barbell Row Alternatives

If you enjoyed the barbell row, check out these back exercises to improve your upper body training:

1. Wide Grip Lat Pulldown

To set up, grab the bar with your palms facing away from you and your hands more than shoulder width apart. Then, pull the bar down until it reaches the top of your chest.

Note — because your arms take a back seat on this variation, you might have to decrease the weight!


2. Straight Arm Pullover

Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet planted on the ground. Grasp a pair of dumbbells with an overhand grip and extend your arms straight up above your chest.

Slowly bring your arms back until the dumbbells touch the ground. Then, squeeze your lats to bring them back to the starting position. Repeat!

3. Alternating Lat Pulldown (with Handles)

The alternating lat pulldown is another great way to train your lats unilaterally. Using two separate handles, you can pull down one at a time.

The alternating lat pulldown is a great way to correct muscle imbalances between the right and left sides of your back.


Looking For A Complete Back Workout?

Check out this intense 5 minute barbell back workout!

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