The Truth about Barbell Rows (AVOID MISTAKES!)

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The barbell row is one of the most commonly performed back exercises. It is also one of the heavy back exercises that gets performed incorrectly the most. In this video, I’m going to show you the different variations of the barbell row and give you a way to determine which is the right version for you and your body specifically.

As is common, many strength coaches will tell you that there is only one way to do an exercise. Realizing that every body type is different from one another and every person has different sorts of muscle tightnesses and imbalances can make one version of an exercise ideal and one problematic. The barbell row can be done with an underhand grip, overhand grip, hands wide, hands narrow, etc. The right version of the row is going to depend on your ability to perform it for your desired goal safely. Period.

If you look at the most popular advice on how to do a barbell row you will see a variation where your back is held parallel to the ground throughout the move. The bar begins in a resting position on the ground and then explosively lifted up to your navel and lowered to the ground. This is called either a standard barbell row or a pendlay row. While this is definitely one of the variations of the row it is not the version that most should be doing, simply because most body types cannot perform it correctly.

For instance, if you have tight hamstrings this version of the barbell row is going to wreak havoc on your lower back. Even if the hamstrings were loose enough however, there are other issues with this row. For one, the bar is encouraged to be lifted higher on the trunk and held away from the body. The increased moment arm will effectively increase the weight that you are lifting and place extra stress in your back as well.

Add to this the explosive lifting motion and you have an unpredictable stress that could injure your back in a single rep, especially as fatigue sets in. As an alternative to this, you can keep the explosiveness of the movement while raising its safety by doing what I call a barbell dead row. Here, you let your legs work together with the back to produce a more athletic and fluid movement. You can still load up and take the bar from the ground. You just get to raise the trunk a bit at the top so you can be in a stronger and sturdier position for your back every rep.

Beyond that however, when you are just learning how to do a barbell row it is smart to start from the top down. Don’t begin the movement from the floor if you don’t even have the requisite strength built up to perform it properly while standing and leaning forward from a 45 degree angle. In fact, if your only goal is to build your lats with this rowing exercise then I would argue that you could continue to perform it from this position without having to pull from the floor. This is especially true if you are already pulling with exercises like the deadlift.

The important thing is that the lats will be built from the barbell row and if that is your only goal then you should opt to stay more vertical than the traditional pendlay row. If you wish to gain explosive athleticism and build ground-up strength then opt for the barbell dead rows instead. Focus on squeezing the bar to your upper abs while keeping your elbows angled down towards your sides. Contract the triceps at the bottom of every rep to silence the biceps and help to keep them from attempting to dominate the row instead of your lats.

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