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Barbell Rowing Form

Form is extremely important with barbell rows. The most important form point is to keep a flat lower back. This will require quite a bit of flexibility in the hamstrings, and good core strength and stability in the bentover position. You must develop these prerequisites before attempting barbell rows… or T-bar rows, or seated pulley rows.

There are a lot of don’ts with barbell rows.

  • Don’t try to modify your form so the exercise will emphasize lat development. It will develop the lats without any fiddling.
  • Don’t emulate the form some of the monsters use in photo shoots for bodybuilding magazines. You’ll typically see these guys with five hundred pounds, barely bent over, with very little range of motion. Stick to the truly bentover form.
  • Don’t use too narrow of a grip. Use a fairly wide grip, keep your trunk pretty much parallel to the ground, and pull the bar to the lower chest.
  • Don’t use too much thrust. With heavy weights, a little thrust might be okay.
  • Don’t cut the rep range short. Start each rep with the bar resting on the ground, with acceleration, and emphasizing arching your upper back.

The number one thing to consider in bentover barbell rows is putting the bar down between reps. This is much like resetting between reps of the deadlift, but has even more of a back-sparing effect.

The physics are simple: The weight on the bar is the force required to move it when it is sitting still on the floor. Once it starts moving, it is a different story. When doing rows the usual way, the forces involved are highest at the bottom, at the turnaround point. The force required to stop the downward motion of the weight and reverse it is much more than the weight on the bar. This is exactly why the needle on a scale goes well past your weight when you first step on the scale. This is also the most vulnerable position for the lumbar spine. It is mainly an eccentric action, where our muscle soreness comes from,  that has to brake the fall of the weight.

By letting the bar rest on the floor, you are letting the downward momentum of the weight dissipate into the floor, sparing the low back. You don’t have to drop the weight in a free fall to get the benefit. You also have a second to re-set the core, which is a big help.

Beyond that, the spinal motion is to have no motion in the lumbar spine, but some flexion and extension of the thoracic spine. In the bottom position, you can let the upper back round over some; in the top position, you actively extend and arch the thoracic spine. In this respect, Glenn Pendlay was ahead of the crowd on the idea of lumbar stability and thoracic mobility.

There is a lot to be aware of here. First you’re picking it off the floor and paying attention to the weight and how it’s transferred through the back and legs and feet, to the floor; then you’re paying attention to the shoulder blades and thoracic spine. This is a lot of attention.

The height of the bar is important. Bumpers, which are 17 inches in diameter,  will work fine. Don’t jerk it off the ground; that’s not necessary. Just keep pulling harder and harder, so the bar accelerates.

Do bentover rows totally strict, bent over so the torso is parallel to the floor, knees unlocked, keeping everything still but the arms, back perfectly flat, weight on the heels. You need a surprising degree of hamstring flexibility to do them flat-backed. It will help to warm up and stretch the hamstrings well before you begin. If you’re too tight for good form, develop the necessary flexibility before working that exercise.

The underhand grip for the bentover barbell row will probably force you to keep your elbows tucked in close. This will lead to more lat work and less middle and upper back work. If you rely on rowing more for upper back work, do them more Draper-style, overhand, wider grip, elbows out a bit. If you’re hoping rows will keep your shoulders healthy, you probably want the Draper method.

The looser you row, the harder it is going to be on the lower back. If you use a lot of hip thrust, you’re going to use more weight. The low back is involved with the hip thrust, so there’s more strain on the low back.

If you just stay more upright, with no thrust, you’re still going to use more weigh. Whether the easier angle and less momentum is cancelled out by the heavier weight, it’s hard to say. Those stooped-over rows, where your trunk is barely past 45 degrees as you pull into your stomach, are just a partial movement, and there’s not much going for them.

The hardest part of rows for the lower back is the turnaround at the bottom. If you can drop your weights rather than lowering them under control, it makes the movement much easier on the low back, yet another good reason to train somewhere with bumpers.

The Pendlay Row reduces the low back strain considerably. The hardest part for the low back is the turnaround point, where you stop lowering and start lifting. By letting it down on the floor, you deload the turnaround.

There are a lot of exercises that can strengthen your low back for rows, but arguably none is better than doing the rows with the core locked and using a weight you can handle. If you lock your core properly, keep it that way, and don’t use more weight than you can with the core locked, your back will be fine.

The way Dave does barbell rows is pretty similar to the row Glenn Pendlay teaches. You may not have seen his rowing description, so here’s a simple overview of the two Pendlay variations.

3 Responses to 'Barbell Rowing Form'

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  1. Michael said,

    on August 1st, 2014 at 2:06 pm

    Last week I commented on lower back issues I faced when rowing, and this week there’s a complete tutorial on proper rowing form. Very helpful, and much appreciated!

  2. ldraper said,

    on August 1st, 2014 at 3:30 pm

    Cool, thanks, Michael! I’ve got a short one on form for Pendlay rows for next week.

  3. DALE said,

    on August 7th, 2014 at 9:08 am

    What is described is a Pendlay row, which is not the same as the regular barbell row. It is a good exercise, but not the only viable row variation. And it has its good and bad points when it comes to not injuring your lower back.

    There are two mechanical factors that increase strain on the low back during a bent row, how far the lifter bends over, and how far the bar moves away from the body. In the Pendlay row, both of these factors occur. But strain on the back is mitigated by the weight not being held off the floor in the bottom position. Then again, strain is exacerbated by the fact that the movement is begun from a dead stop.

    In a proper bent over row, the back is held in a 45 degree position, where it is in a stronger leverage position than when it is held at 90 degrees; and the bar is kept close to the lifter’s legs and center of gravity, which affords better leverage than when the bar is allowed to hang down away from the body.

    While it’s true that the movement done in this way has a shorter range of motion, Dorian Yates and many other top bodybuilders have attested to its effectiveness.

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