What are Bent Over Rows? (A guide to bent over rows)

What are bent over rows?

What are bent-over rows?

The bent-over row is a resistance exercise performed with a barbell or dumbbells. It is one of the original mass builders used by bodybuilders for developing back muscles. 

It is one of the simplest and most effective compound movements you can perform in the gym if you are looking to add size and strength to your stature. 

Which muscles are targeted by the bent-over row?

The bent-over row, whether performed with a barbell or dumbbells, is a back exercise. The primary target muscles are the Latissimus Dorsi (otherwise known as the lats) in the mid-back and the Rhomboids in the upper back. 
The benefit of bent over rows

The lats are the large muscles that stretch from just above the glutes up to the shoulder blade. They are responsible for adding the 'v' shape and width to the back so are a priority if you are a competitive bodybuilder or fitness competitor. Rowing movements and pull downs are the best way to develop the lats. 

Bent over row muscle worked

The rhomboids are the other prime mover with bent-over rows and they are situated above the lats and underneath the traps. The rhomboids are responsible for bringing the shoulder blades together so they are activated in the majority of rowing movements.

Secondary muscles.

As the bent-over row is a compound movement, it brings a lot of other muscles into play as secondary movers and stabilisers. In the arm, the biceps flex the elbow to bring the bar up and the forearms are responsible for gripping the bar. The rear deltoids are also activated as are the traps with a bent-over row. 

The bent-over row is performed whilst standing so the core muscles and the lower back muscles also play their part by stabilising the body and keeping the body in a rigid position. 

What are the benefits of performing a bent-over row?

There are many benefits to adding the bent-over row into your routine.

  1. If you are a bodybuilder or physique competitor, your back is one of your most important features. Having a small waist with a 'V-shaped back is the aim along with the Christmas tree effect along the spine from developed rhomboids and spinal erectors. Bent over rows activates all of these and is great for promoting hypertrophy.
  2. Strength trainers will benefit from performing bent over rows as an accessory exercise. Developing strength in the back muscles will assist with competition lifts such as deadlifts and cleans. 
  3. Casual trainers that spend a lot of time pressing should also add rowing movements into the routine. Many advanced lifters live by the rule that for every pressing movement performed there should be two pulling movements. This helps prevent injury and promotes good posture. 

How do I perform a bent-over row? 

Bent over rows can be performed with a barbell, dumbbells, kettlebells, smith machine or on a cable machine. Each option has its own benefits and will suit different levels of mobility and competence. 

The barbell bent-over row. 

This is probably the most popular option as it allows you to train heavy and promotes good stabilisation and balance. the only equipment really needed is a loaded barbell however a rack can be beneficial. 
Barbell bent over row

  1. Load up a barbell bar with your desired weights. Start with a low weight to warm up and pyramid up to your working sets. 
  2. Lift the bar to waist height with an overhand grip which should be just wider than shoulder-width. 
  3. Hinge the hips backwards until you are bent over the bar with your head up looking forwards.
  4. Row the bar up to just under your rib cage. Make sure that your elbows are tucked in and your back is kept straight. If you can't perform with strict form, you are training too heavy. 
  5. As you row upwards, squeeze the shoulder blades together and feel the connection with the back muscles. 
  6. Slowly lower the weight down to the starting position and repeat for the required number of reps and sets. 
There are a few things that you can do to make sure you are getting the most from your bent-over rows. When you get to the top of the movement, squeeze the back muscles for a second or two before lowering the weight. 

Control your breathing. On the upwards movement, breathe out as you are exerting, on the downwards movement, take a deep breath in. Lastly, wear a belt. Weight lifting belts are designed and developed for exactly this kind of exercise. They add stability to the lower back and prevent injury. 

Underhand bent over barbell row.

Bent over row with an underhand grip

By switching to an underhand row, you are bringing the biceps into play (similar to a drag curl movement) and prioritising the lats over the rhomboids. Using an underhand grip for your bent-over rows is a good way to mix things up and confuse your muscles which forces them to adapt. 

It is not easy to train as heavy as you would with an overhand grip but it is easier to connect with the lats and focus on time under tension. 

Close grip bent over row.

Close grip bent over rows

By switching to a close grip, you are promoting a wider range of motion in the rhomboids. Bent over rows are much harder to perform with good form than using a wider grip so lower the weight to compensate. 

This option is great if you are not looking to move a heavy load but would rather focus on the range of motion and time under tension. This can be achieved with a very slow, controlled motion and a long squeeze of the shoulder blades at the top of the movement. 

Bent over dumbbell row. 

The next option is the dumbbell bent-over row. This is the same movement as the barbell bent-over row but gives you the option of using dumbbells instead. The only real benefit of using dumbbells is that you can focus on one side at a time if you wish to by using a flat bench as a support.

  1. Select your dumbbells from the rack and stand in an upright position. 
  2. Hinge at the hips and bend forward with the dumbbells hanging in front of you. 
  3. Take a deep breath, upon exhale, flex at the elbows and row the dumbbells up to the side of your hips.
  4. Keep a straight back and elbows tucked in for good form. 
  5. Squeeze the lats at the top of the movement before lowering to the start position. 
  6. Repeat for the required number of reps and sets. 

Cable bent-over rows.

Cable bent over rows
Bent over rows can be performed on a cable machine with exactly the same effect as other methods of bent-over rows. You can use a straight bar attachment to replicate a barbell bent-over row or stirrups to replicate a dumbbell bent-over row. Simply set the pulley on a low setting, add our attachment and follow the steps for a standard bent-over row. 

The main advantage of using a cable machine is that you can quickly change the selected weight. This makes it great for drop sets or pyramid sets as you don't need to interrupt the set to mess around loading weight plates. 

Smith machine bent-over rows. 

The smith machine can be a great option for bent-over rows. It allows you to perform the exact same motion as a barbell bent-over row but with a smooth movement and the ease of lading the bar off of the ground. 

Whilst some will find the rails good for gliding the weight up, others may find it a bit restrictive as it does not allow you to bring the weight right in at the top of the movement. 

Smith machine bent over row

Alternatives to bent-over rows. 

Lat pull-downs

Machine rows

Dumbbell rows


Romanian deadlifts

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