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The Beginner’s Guide to the Bent Over Row

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  • Training your back muscles is important because they are involved in everyday tasks, and it assists in improving your athletic performance. Focusing on only a certain group of muscles can lead to muscle imbalance
  • The bent over row is a strength exercise that engages the majority of your back muscles. The movement involves pulling a weight with both hands with your back parallel to the ground. This engages the back muscles while lifting the weight upward
  • A strong back can help promote good posture, improve range of motion in the area and reduce the risk of low back pain

When it comes to working out muscle groups, many people prefer to focus on "show muscles," which are the muscles you see in the mirror. These include the chest, arms, biceps and legs.1

People who focus on show muscles can develop muscle imbalances, a condition wherein one muscle group has unequal strength to its opposing group. One example is a bigger chest, but smaller, underdeveloped back muscles. Muscle imbalances can lead to bad posture, limit joint flexibility and stiffen certain muscles.2

According to a report from The Globe and Mail, one of the top muscle groups neglected are the back muscles.3 They are responsible for many movements humans do in daily life because they attach to other muscles such as the shoulders, chest, neck and abs. Working out the back properly can help you perform strenuous movements better. A well-defined back can also make you appear slimmer, giving your body the "V" shape that many people find aesthetically pleasing.4

If you're just beginning your journey in physical exercise, you should definitely include back workouts in your regimen for a well-balanced, high-performing body. The bent over row is one essential exercise you should incorporate.

What Is a Bent Over Row?

The bent over row is a compound exercise that targets your upper and lower back muscles. Secondary muscles targeted are the hips and arms. The main goal of this workout is to create a stronger back, which can help you perform other workouts that recruit back muscles more easily, such as the squat, bench press and deadlift. The bent over row is performed by standing over a barbell, bending your torso forward and pulling the weight to your lower chest area.5

What Muscles Does the Bent Over Row Target?

The bent over row is an efficient back workout because it targets multiple muscle groups at once, mainly the latissimus dorsi. Other back muscles trained include posterior shoulders, rhomboids and trapezius. The following is a description of each muscle that's targeted by the bent over row and how each relates to human anatomy:6

Latissimus dorsi — Commonly known as the "lats," the latissimus dorsi are the most powerful and largest back muscles. There are two of them, and each is flat and triangular. They cover much of the lower half of the back on both sides, starting from the vertebral column and hipbone, tapering to a tendon attached to the upper part of the humerus.7

One of the main functions of the lats is to help your arms pull your entire weight up. Examples of such actions include swimming and rock climbing. They are also crucial for breathing, as they enhance trunk expansion and compression. In addition, the lats help your body flex sideways or depress your shoulders when needed, as well as arch the spine.8

Rhomboids — The rhomboids are a pair of muscles that start at the bottom vertebra in your neck and run all the way down to the center of your thoracic spine, running laterally to attach to the inside of your shoulder blade.9 Healthy rhomboids help support the upper back and can help keep proper head posture.10 They also retract and elevate the shoulder blades.11

Posterior (rear) deltoids — These muscles are found behind the shoulder and work together with the lateral (middle) deltoids and anterior (front) deltoids to move the shoulder joints. This muscle helps extend and stabilize the arm depending on the movements performed.12

Serratus anterior — This is an important stabilizing muscle found along the rib cage, starting from the first eight bones and ending at the anterior medial aspect of the shoulder blade. It is responsible for stabilizing the scapula when lifting, as well as pulling it forward (hunching your shoulders forward). It is also used when pushing or punching.13

Trapezius — Also known as "traps," the trapezius is divided into three regions: superior, middle and inferior. It is found on the upper part of the back, situated across the top of the shoulders. It assists in rotating the shoulder blades along with the other back muscles.14,15,16

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How to Do a Bent Over Row With Proper Form

The bent over row is one of the most popular exercises for strengthening back muscles. Traditionally done with a barbell, the "row" is a motion wherein you pull the weight back close to your torso, subsequently targeting your back muscles and making them stronger. Follow this procedure from fitness magazine Coach to begin training properly:17

1. Load the barbell with weights and spread your legs shoulder-width apart.

2. Lean forward, bending from the waist. Make sure your knees are slightly bent as well, while keeping a straight back with your neck in line.

3. Grab the bar with your palms facing the floor with a grip just wider than your shoulders.

4. Engage your core and squeeze your shoulders together. Pull the weight up with your back muscles until the barbell reaches the sternum.

5. Slowly lower the weight and return to starting position.

bent over row

Once you've gotten the hang of the bent over barbell row, try the following variations to help target other muscle fibers. This can help create a well-rounded back that you will surely appreciate in the long run.

Bent Over Rear Delt Row

This variation of the bent over row particularly focuses on the rear deltoids, though the rest of your back muscles still get trained. These muscles, which are found behind the shoulder, help externally rotate your shoulder joints and bring your arms behind your body.18 To work your rear delts using this method, follow these steps:19

1. Kneel on a gym bench with one arm and one leg on one side first.

2. Grab a dumbbell with the remaining free hand and pull the weight up perpendicular to your trunk.

3. Stop the motion once the arm is beyond horizontal.

4. Slowly return to starting position and repeat on the other side once the appropriate sets are finished.

Reverse Grip Bent Over Row

The reverse grip bent over row is a simple variation of the regular bent over row. Simply put, your grip is inverted or "reversed," which means the palms are facing outward instead of toward you. This helps target various muscle fibers that are otherwise not engaged during normal-grip bent over rows. To perform this exercise, follow these steps:20

1. Bend your knees with your feet hip-width apart.

2. Bend forward and keep your back straight until your torso is 45 degrees or almost parallel to the floor.

3. Grab the barbell with an underhand grip (palms facing upward) and pull it toward your abdomen.

4. Use the back muscles to drive the barbell to the abdomen. Squeeze the shoulder blades at the top of the motion.

5. Pause slightly and return to the starting position.

One Arm Bent Over Row

This exercise uses only one hand to help isolate one side of your back muscles with greater intensity. Dumbbells are required in performing this maneuver:21

1. Place your left leg and left hand on a gym bench.

2. Bend over until your back is parallel to the ground.

3. Pick up the dumbbell using your free hand with your palms facing you.

4. Lift the dumbbell to your chest, with the effort focused on the back muscles rather than arms.

5. Once the dumbbell reaches the top movement, squeeze your shoulder and back muscles together.

6. Lower the dumbbell slowly until the arm is fully extended again.

Bent Over Cable Row

The bent over cable row is a good alternative to free weights if these devices are not available. All you need is a cable machine, which you will position one cable to the lowest height:22

1. Hook the bar on the cable machine and set to desired weight.

2. With an overhand grip, grab the bar wider than shoulder-width.

3. Bend your knees slightly, lean forward and then row the weight upward.

4. Slowly lower the weight to complete the repetition.

Wide Grip Bent Over Row

Widening your grip when doing a bent over row can help target your middle trapezius muscles better. Follow these steps for proper form:23

1. Slightly bend your knees.

2. Keep your back straight along with your neck.

3. Lean forward until your torso is nearly parallel to the floor.

4. Grasp the bar with palms facing you, with your grip slightly wider than shoulder width.

5. Pull the bar toward the chest while keeping the wrists straight and elbows wide.

6. Lower the weight in a controlled manner and repeat the movement.

Dumbbell Bent Over Row

The dumbbell bent over row is a variation of the traditional bent over barbell row. You'll be using dumbbells for this maneuver, which is great for people who want to do the bent over row at home. Shape Magazine has an easy-to-follow procedure to get you started on this exercise:24

1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart while holding dumbbells in both hands.

2. Slightly bend your knees and hinge forward at the hips until your torso is 45 degrees to the floor.

3. With dumbbells hanging below the shoulders and wrists facing in, engage your core and keep a flat back.

4. Exhale, then pull the dumbbells up next to your ribs while keeping arms tight.

5. Inhale slowly as you lower the weights to the starting position.

Kettlebell Bent Over Row

The kettlebell bent over row is a variation of the usual bent over row, but the main difference is that it uses two kettlebells, gripped by both hands. Pick a weight you're comfortable using and follow this procedure:25

1. Position your legs as you would for a normal bent over row, and place two kettlebells between your feet.

2. Bend your knees slightly while pushing out your buttocks as you begin the starting position.

3. Grab both kettlebells from the floor and pull them toward your stomach using your back muscles.

4. Lower the kettlebells to the floor to complete the repetition, and then perform the required sets.

Bent Over Row Can Help Ease Low Back Pain and Improve Posture

Training your back muscles is important, as this muscle group plays a part in many movements in your daily life. Strong back muscles can help reduce the risk of pain in the lower back, which is common among people who are overweight or obese. Excess body weight can strain your spinal column, including your spinal disks, which is the source of low back pain.26

A study published in Biology of Sport noted that a 10-week dynamic strength training program helped improve range of motion for spinal extension and back muscle strength among the participants, which can help reduce the risk of low back pain.27 Another study published in 2016 posits similar findings.28

Strengthening your back muscles can also help improve your performance in other workouts. Stronger back muscles can help you increase your weight on the bench press, as well as stabilizing your shoulder joints. You'll be able to stand taller as well, as back muscle training helps promote good posture.29

Those looking to ramp up their weight loss goals can benefit from training their back muscles. Since the back is composed of several large muscle groups, you'll burn plenty of calories every time you train them. Once you lose weight, you'll be able to get a V-shaped torso.30

How to Do the Bent Over Row for Beginners

If you're a beginner at the gym you can immediately add the bent over row to your list of exercises to achieve balanced muscle growth throughout your body. If you haven't attempted this exercise before, this step-by-step procedure from StrongLifts can help you get on the right track:31

1. Set the barbell with an appropriate weight and place the middle of your feet (also known as midfoot) under the bar. It should not touch your shins.

2. Grab the bar using a medium-width grip, with palms facing you. It should rest low on your hands. Keep wrists straight to avoid straining them.

3. Knees should be pushed back and out to the side to avoid the collision with the bar. Bend them slightly.

4. Straighten your back, horizontal to the floor. You can raise it up to 15 degrees only. Your lower back should have a natural arch.

5. Inhale and pull the bar using your elbows while maintaining form. The bar should stop against your lower chest. Elbows must be behind the torso.

6. Lower the bar fast but keep it under control.

How Many Bent Over Rows Should You Do?

The number of repetitions and sets you should do depends on your fitness goals. These are broken down into three categories:32

Strength — This type of workout intensity involves low repetitions (5 or less) with very heavy weights. While it may make your muscles bigger, the size won't increase as much because the short duration doesn't stimulate growth.

Size — Most people follow this plan, usually focusing on eight to 12 reps per set, with two seconds on both the lifting and lowering movement. This produces lactic acid, which can promote noticeable muscle growth.

Endurance — If you want to increase the stamina of specific muscle groups you should focus on doing high repetitions, ranging between 20 to 30 using light weights. Rest intervals are short to engage aerobic metabolism, thus resulting in efficient movement that can go the distance.33

Safety Tips When Performing the Bent Over Row

If you're just starting out with bent over rows and you're not sure if you're doing it properly, this checklist can help. The items listed here are common mistakes that beginners make when doing their bent over rows:34

Bouncing — Bouncing in bent over rows is considered cheating because you're using momentum to pull the barbell upward, thus not working out the intended muscles. It's important to keep a still, straight back to target your back muscles properly. Fix this problem by using a lighter weight to help control your form effectively until you get better.

Standing upright — If your torso has an angle of more than 45 degrees, your bent over rows are wrong. This problem is usually attributed to a lack of core strength. The only way to correct this is to strengthen your abs by doing the appropriate workouts.

Flaring your elbows — By flaring your elbows out, you're shifting the barbell forward and in front of your feet, which places unnecessary strain on your lower back. Mitigate this problem by rowing vertically over your midfoot to just below your chest. Elbows should have a 45-degree angle.

Rounding your back — Doing the bent over row with your back hunched or in a curvature can increase your risk of a spinal injury. Straighten your back by engaging your core muscles. This helps stabilize your upper torso throughout the duration of the exercise.

Positioning the neck improperly — Your neck should follow the same form as your spine. Looking too far up or down can affect the entire curvature of your back, throwing you off your good form. Make sure your neck is always aligned with your back by focusing your eyes on the ground a few feet in front of your body.

Build a Better Back With the Bent Over Row

You probably know by now how important it is to have strong, developed back muscles for your daily life. Those who are overweight or approaching middle age can circumvent the risk of low back pain by including the bent over row into their workout routine. Before trying the bent over row, however, it's important that you practice proper form and do it slowly. Asking for help from a licensed trainer can help you achieve the results you're looking for.

Frequently Asked Questions About the Bent Over Row

Q: Can you do a barbell row with dumbbells?

A: Yes. It's possible to do a barbell row with dumbbells. Consequently, the workout is named the "dumbbell row" to prevent confusion.35

Q: Does a bent over row work the biceps?

A: Yes. The underhand grip gives your arms a good workout because it's the secondary muscle group affected by the exercise.36

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