Most people who participate in strength training focus on the muscles they can see in the mirror. But adding strength to the back is just as important and is beneficial for a more balanced physique and a functional, injury-free life.
In addition, increasing the strength of the pulling muscles in the back helps to correct muscle imbalances that result from overdeveloping the pushing muscles of the upper body.
One of the most popular exercises for the back is the bent over row. It’s an old-school, iron-pumping exercise guaranteed to add mass to your back and give you the strength to pull more than you have before.
Bent over rows require good form to decrease risk of injury. Good form may be hard to achieve at first. However, there are benefits to bent over rows — like better posture and trunk stability — that will further lower your risk of injury over time.
Bent over rows are usually performed with a barbell but can be performed using a variety of different resistance tools (such as a band, dumbbells, or machines). In addition, there are other variations that can be performed if you have issues such as back pain.
- Stand behind a barbell with your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Bend at the hips while keeping the back straight and knees slightly bent. Think of sitting back slightly (moving your tailbone behind your feet) — this helps with positioning for lifting the barbell. Your body should be bent forward at about a 45 degree angle, but no further.
- Grasp the bar a little wider than shoulder width, keeping your forearms pronated (palms facing your shins).
- Tighten your glutes and core as you pull your elbows up behind you, bringing the bar to your abs. Keep pulling your elbows behind you and squeeze your shoulder blades together while keeping your back straight.
- Hold for 1 second and then slowly lower the bar back to the starting position, with your arms extended and the barbell plates just off the ground.
- Repeat this for 6–12 repetitions and complete 3 sets.
The bent over row primarily works the latissimus dorsi (the large wing-like muscles in your back), the middle and lower trapezius, the rhomboids, and the posterior deltoids. These are the prime movers that are responsible for the movement in the exercise.
Some research has concluded that the angle of your elbows as you row will target some of these muscles more than others. For instance, abducting your shoulders — or keeping the elbows away from your body as you row — will activate the traps and posterior deltoid to a much greater extent (1).
Beyond the prime movers, the bent over row requires significant strength and stability from other muscles of the posterior chain. Besides activating the muscles of the back, the bent over row also uses the hip extensors to stabilize your body in the flexed-forward position.
In other words, the same muscles involved in a deadlift are used in a static fashion during the row (
The bent-over row primarily works the latissimus dorsi, trapezius, rhomboids, and posterior deltoids.
The bent over row is a good functional exercise for movements that involve picking up objects from the ground. It also works the same muscles involved in pulling your body, such as in inverted climbing positions.
Because it strengthens the multifidus and muscles of the back, including the bent over row as part of a training program may help alleviate or improve chronic lower back pain (
Furthermore, strengthening the muscles of the posterior chain can help improve posture, prevent injury, improve athletic performance, and strengthen explosive movements (5).
Finally, the bent over row doesn’t require much space nor does it require much equipment. It can be performed with a load barbell or other equipment that will be discussed later.
The bent over row is a good functional exercise that may help improve posture, may reduce low back pain, and doesn’t require a lot of equipment.
Reverse grip bent over row
This variation involves the same positioning as the traditional bent over row, except that your forearms are supinated so your palms face your face. With this grip you’ll target the biceps muscles a bit more than in the traditional bent over row.
Dumbbell bent over row
This variation involves using dumbbells or kettlebells instead of a barbell. This allows you to vary your hand position and perform the exercise with a pronated, supinated, or neutral grip. In addition, you can vary your grip during the movement and go from pronated at the beginning to supinated at the end.
The dumbbell row can also be performed with a resistance band anchored under the feet.
Single arm supported bent over row
This version is better if you don’t tolerate the traditional or any other unsupported bent over row. For example, if back pain limits your tolerance to the bent over row, you may want to give this variation a try.
To perform, place your right knee and hand on a flat bench. The left foot should be flat on the ground and the left hand reaches down and gasps the weight to perform the movement.
Incline bench supported row
This is another good variation on the traditional bent over row if you have back pain issues. It is best performed with dumbbells.
Start by lying with your chest and abdomen on an incline bench. Place your feet on the front base of the bar or your knees on the seat of the bench. Pull the dumbbells up toward your torso.
You may have to adjust the forearm position to a neutral grip to keep from banging the bench with the dumbbells.
The bent over row can be performed with a reverse grip, with dumbbells, supported with a single arm, or supported on an incline bench.
- If this is a new movement for you, start with a light weight to ensure you use proper form.
- Be sure to keep your knees slightly bent and hinge at the hips in order to protect your lower back. Keep a neutral spine throughout the movement.
- Perform the movement slowly. Avoid swinging the weight up as this will cause your head to shoot forward and your back to arch, which can increase risk of injury.
- Keep your head inline with your torso as you perform the movement. It helps to look at a spot on the floor about 12 inches in front of where the barbell begins.
Start with a light weight and perform the movement slowly. Avoid swinging the dumbbell and keep your trunk and head in line with each other.
The bent over row is a great exercise to work the back muscles but also works on trunk stability and hip stability. However, if you have back pain or are not able to keep your back straight during this movement, try either the supported one arm dumbbell row or incline bench row.
Start with a light weight, perform the exercise slowly, and maintain good form. Try adding the bent over row to your strength training program for better posture, more back strength, and fewer injuries.
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