How to do barbell rows: the ultimate guide

how to do barbell rows

What is barbell rowing?

In addition to pull-ups, bench presses, and shoulder presses, barbell rows are one of the basic exercises in strength training. It’s a pull exercise: you pull the weight toward you, not push it away from you. It primarily trains the muscles in the upper body, especially the upper back, shoulders, and upper arms. Working with the barbell is demanding, so barbell rowing is one of the more advanced exercises. It helps if you master the deadlift technique well before you start rowing.
In barbell rowing, a distinction is made between overhand grip and underhand grip. Popular alternatives are rowing with a dumbbell and rowing on a cable pulley or the machine. The latter variant is particularly recommended for beginners. Incidentally, the term rowing is no coincidence, because the design is reminiscent of the pulling movement in a rowing boat. In this blog post, we will provide you the complete guideline about barbell rowing, what’s the point of doing it and how to do barbell rows properly, and its alternatives.

What is the point of barbell rowing?

Barbell rowing is one of the most important muscle-building exercises in weight training. Primarily you train your upper body with it, but your buttocks and legs are also involved. Therefore, rowing with the barbell can undoubtedly be considered a full-body exercise.

This has two major advantages: You burn tons of calories while you run. In addition, you build muscle mass on a large scale. And as we all know, muscles are real energy guzzlers. Thus,  basal metabolic rate increases.

In addition, barbell rowing is a functional exercise. Those who work a lot at their desks can particularly benefit from this. Because when working on a laptop or PC, we tend to rotate our shoulders forward. This can permanently cause back problems. The barbell row with underhand grip counteracts this posture: You consciously turn your shoulders outwards and strengthen your upper body muscles.

Last but not least, barbell rowing is a good exercise for your grip strength. It not only helps you to get stronger but can also improve your performance in other disciplines, for example, climbing or bouldering.

What muscles does a barbell row train?

The focus of barbell rowing is on the upper body. The following muscles are primarily trained.

  • Musculus latissimus dorsi / broad back muscle: The latissimus is a two-part muscle that you find below the shoulder blades. Its main task is to pull your outstretched arm back towards your torso.
  • Trapezius Muscle: The trapezoid or hood muscle lies to the left and right of the spine. He is responsible for the mobility of the shoulder blades. When rowing, you must rotate them back and down in the end position.
  • Musculus deltoideus: The deltoid muscle lies above the shoulder joint. When rowing, the rear part is particularly active, which allows us to pull our arms backward.
  • Large and small rhombus muscle: The rhomboid muscle helps us to stabilize the torso when rowing a barbell.
  • Lower bone muscle: The lower bone muscle is responsible for the upper arms and shoulders. Its main task is the external rotation of the arms.

Muscles which are supportive active:

  • Lower back muscles: The lower back muscles stabilize the lumbar spine when the barbell is bent over and thus protect your intervertebral discs from injuries.
  • Biceps: The biceps support the pulling movement when rowing a barbell.
  • Triceps/ triceps: The triceps are active in the last third of the exercise when you pull your elbows behind your torso.
  • Arm flexor: The muscle on the outside of your upper arms is responsible for flexing the elbow joint.
  • You will also feel barbell rows in your thighs and buttocks. The muscles in the lower body are active when you lift the barbell off the floor and maintain a stable stance.

Barbell rows in underhand grip: execution

The bent barbell row under grip is the classic variant of the muscle-building exercise. We’ll explain step by step how to do barbell rows correctly:

  • Stand hip-width apart, which means your heels are under your hip joints. The barbell is on the floor above your metatarsus.
  • Your knees are slightly bent and rotated slightly outwards; your feet are firmly anchored in the ground. The stress is mainly on the heels and the outside of the foot.
  • Grasp the barbell about shoulder-width apart so that your elbows are minimally away from your torso when you pull it towards you. The thumbs hold the barbell in a firm grip. The palms are facing up.
  • Consciously stretch your chest out and keep your back straight. Tense your stomach tightly. Your upper body is almost parallel to the floor and your head is an extension of the spine.
  • Now pull the barbell toward you in a straight vertical line from the position above your metatarsus to your lower chest. Your elbows point towards the ceiling as you move. In keeping with your forearms, wrists are straight. Pull the barbell toward you until your elbows are behind your torso. In this final position, consciously pull your shoulder blades back and down.
  • Bring the barbell back towards the floor in a controlled manner without putting it down. Repeat the movement.

Barbell row variations and alternatives

  • Barbell rows in the overhand grip:

By varying the grip technique, you can focus on other supporting muscle groups. When doing an overhand barbell row, your biceps and deltoids are more involved. To do this, grab the barbell from above, so your palms are facing the floor. Your thumbs tightly encircle the bar, and your pinky fingers point away from you.

  • Yates Rowing

In contrast to the classic shape, your upper body is more upright. You don’t start with the barbell from the floor but hold it in the air. The grip is a little tighter. The biggest difference is that you pull the barbell towards your stomach, not your chest.
Many athletes find it easier to perform. This is mainly because the already strong biceps work proportionally more. That’s why you can move more weight while rowing Yates. Compared to classic barbell rowing, this variant requires more grip strength. And the more volume you move, the greater the risk of injury. Good body tension is a must here.

  • Dumbbell row

As an alternative to the barbell version, dumbbells are suitable for rowing. With this variant, you work unilaterally, i.e., first with one side, then with the other. Ideally, you should use a training bench for dumbbell rows. Position one knee on it, lean forward, and support yourself with your hand. Take a dumbbell in the other hand. Your upper body is parallel to the floor, your core is tense. First, let your arm hang straight down with the palm facing you. Now pull the dumbbell towards your chest. Your elbow gives the direction. Stop the movement as soon as the elbow joint is behind the torso and bring the dumbbell back towards the floor.

Dumbbell rows require a lot of body tension, and the risk of cheating is quite high. Beginners are better advised to try their hand at rowing on the machine first. The next step is rowing on the cable pulley.

  • Pull-up

Similar to the barbell row, the chin-up is also a pull exercise. You pull your upper body from the hanging position towards the chin-up bar. You can also do pull-ups with an overhand grip or underhand grip. So, if you want a bit of variety, this exercise alternative is a good idea for your next training plan.

Typical barbell rowing mistakes

The barbell row is a demanding exercise with many pitfalls. To get the most out of yourself, try to avoid the following mistakes:

  • Your upper body is too upright

The further you bend forward, the more your legs and buttocks must be activated, and the more core tension is required – this is of course exhausting. Therefore, beginners tend to stay upright as much as possible. However, the bent posture is crucial to reaching the target muscles while rowing. Make sure that the upper body and thigh form a 90-degree angle to each other throughout the exercise.

  • You pull the barbell toward you

This mistake does not only apply to barbell rowing but affects all strength exercises: never work with momentum. It’s not about speed. Slowly bring the barbell towards your chest while exhaling. Lower the barbell in a controlled manner while inhaling.

  • You pick a weight that is heavy

Depending on your training level, you can already lift a lot of weight. But volume is not everything. The correct technique always comes first. If you feel like you must straighten your upper body while rowing a barbell, reduce the weight.

  • You arch your back

To avoid injuries, especially around the spine, make sure you keep your upper body straight. A hollow back and a hunched back are a sign that the weight is too high or that you are not flexing your stomach sufficiently.

  • Your knees are in the way

If you come to your knees while pulling the barbell, your posture is not correct. Make sure the barbell is positioned over your metatarsus before you start. The second source of error is too low a position of your hips. Your legs are only slightly bent, and your upper body is parallel to the floor. If you observe these points, nothing should stand in the way of correct execution, especially not your knees.


  • Barbell rowing is an important basic exercise in strength training and is one of the pull exercises.
  • The barbell row primarily trains the upper back, shoulders, and arms.
  • Good body tension and good grip are a prerequisite for rowing a barbell. You should also have mastered the deadlifts.
  • There is classic barbell rowing in two variants: in the underhand grip and the overhand grip.
  • As an alternative to the barbell, you can use dumbbells, cable pulls, or the rowing machine for the pull exercise.