The barbell row, like the deadlift and straight leg deadlift, is a fantastic way to strengthen your posterior chain. Although your lower body is stationary during this exercise and the movement comes via the upper body, the lower body is forced to work hard to stabilize the body during the lift.
I can't stress enough how much I not only enjoy this exercise, but highly recommend it to others who have had lower back pain. The unfortunate part about an exercise like this is that it may immediately seem dangerous to those of you with a history of back problems. Not only that, but this exercise alone will be of tremendous benefit to those of you who have postural issues (slouching, slight kyphosis, etc.).
Safe and effective barbell training is designed to distribute the load being lifted above our centre of gravity in order to use our bodies in the most mechanically advantageous way possible. A movement such as the straight leg deadlift, although appearing to be dangerous, can actually be a very safe and effective way of lifting, targeting the muscles that make up the posterior chain in order to strengthen the connective tissues there.
Keep in mind, however, that as with any form of exercise, there are inherent dangers associated with lifting weights, and if you have a history of injury or are unsure about a specific movement, it would be best to speak to a qualified medical professional such as your doctor to seek their opinion on whether or not you should partake in a particular exercise or program.
The Barbell Row
The barbell row is a fantastic exercise to strengthen your upper back (rhomboids), posterior deltoids, trapezius, latissimus dorsi, and biceps. Not only that, but other posterior chain muscles, similar to those worked during the straight leg deadlift such as the hamstrings, glutes, spinal erectors, etc. are also working hard to maintain form throughout.
If you have a setup that uses olympic weight plates and an olympic barbell, then your bar at starting point should be approximately 9 inches off the ground. A few inches higher or lower than that should not be a problem, although be aware of the ramifications due to the height differences. Lifting weight higher than a 9" starting position could activate less muscle fiber due to less distance for the resistance to travel. However, lifting from a deficit, or having the resistance start closer to the ground may activate more muscle, form may be compromised due to a further distance the resistance has to travel.
Note: Not all weight plates are the same diameter. If you are fortunate enough to have plates that are the same diameter, then you will be able to begin practicing the deadlift with a lower weight yet have the bar start at the same distance from the floor every time. If, however, you are unable to start with 135 pounds for your deadlift (45 lb. bar + 2x 45 lb. plates) then you can use other plates to stack and create a desired height for the bar's starting position.
- Stand behind the bar with your feet, hip distance apart, slightly underneath the barbell. When viewing the barbell from directly overhead, the barbell should line up with your mid foot.
- Squat down to grasp the bar with a pronated or overhand grip (your palms should be facing behind you. Your hands should be just slightly wider than shoulder width.
- Look at the floor about 6 feet in front of where the bar is. Keep your eyes locked on this position throughout the exercise.
- Keep your upper back engaged by squeezing your shoulder blades and keeping the curvature in your lower back. You want to keep this neutral spine throughout the exercise but don't force the issue to the point where you are hyper-extending your lower spine.
- The toughest part from here, is maintaining a neutral spine as you raise your hips up so that your back is parallel to the floor. At this point, the bar should remain on the ground as we have not begun the lift yet. It is not only normal, but highly recommended that you maintain a knee bend at this point. In fact, depending on your arm length as well as your hamstring flexibility, many of you will have a more intense knee bend than what you will use in the straight leg deadlift. Make sure the bar remains over your mid foot as you push your glutes back and bend your knees whilst maintaining perfectly upright lower legs. In other words, your shins should remain perpendicular to the floor. This will also keep your knees back and out of the way of the bar's trajectory.
- Most of the work has already been completed during the setup. The main focus throughout the exercise is for your body to remain as perfectly still as possible throughout every repetition. The only thing moving is your arms and the muscles that are pulling the bar up to your chest.
- Grip the bar very tight and lift the bar to your lower chest. The bar should touch your chest just below your nipple line, or the very bottom of your breast bone. Think of raising your arms throughout your elbows, this will help squeeze your shoulder blades together, working the upper back.
- Once the bar has reached your chest, lower it, under control, back to the floor. I prefer returning the bar to the floor after every single repetition.
7 Tips to Master Perfect Barbell Row Technique (from Strong lifts)
- Row Each Rep From The Floor. Because you’ll never train your upper-back fully if you let the bar hang in the air. Barbell Row like you Deadlift: with the bar starting and returning to the floor on each rep. The barbell should be above the middle of your feet when you start Rowing, same stance as on Deadlifts.
- Grip The Bar Like You Bench Press. For maximum carry-over to your Bench Press, your Barbell Row should be the exact opposite movement. This means no underhand grip but both palms facing you, using the same grip width as when you Bench. Thumbs around the bar and squeeze it hard for maximum strength.
- Pull With Your Elbows. This simple trick will help you use your upper-back maximally rather than turning your Rows into a biceps exercise. Pull your elbows towards the ceiling instead of merely pulling with your hands. If you don’t “get” it, briefly Barbell Row using the thumbless grip to get the feeling for it.
- Row Against Your Chest. If the bar doesn’t hit your chest, it’s like doing a partial Squat or half Bench: the rep isn’t completed and you’re not getting the most out of the exercise. So always Row the barbell against your chest. Where exactly? Same position as where you touch the bar on the Bench Press.
- Keep Your Upper-back Parallel. Don’t let yourself get carried away by your ego or you won’t get the most out of Barbell Rows. Be strict: your upper-back should be doing all the work. If your Barbell Rows turn into 50° shrugs or you’re cheating with your hips and knees, the weight is too heavy. Lower it. Proper Barbell Row Technique: Barbell starts on the floor, pulling with the elbows, bar against chest, chest open, shoulder-blades squeezed together.
- Open Your Chest. It’s – again – the same position as for the Bench Press: squeeze your shoulder-blades together at the top as hard as you can and open your chest up. Don’t try to hold the weight at the top, that’s all unnecessary nonsense because adding weight builds muscle. Simply pull the weight hard and fast against your chest, and then return it to the floor.
- Keep Your Head Down. Do not try looking at the mirror in front of you in your gym, or you’ll get neck pain. Don’t look at your feet either otherwise your lower back can round and hurt. Simply look at the floor below you and tape yourself from the side you want to check your Barbell Row technique.