see also Bent Over Row Basics
Bent-Over-Rowing or BOR is a useful compound exercise (i.e. it works more than one muscle group). Exactly how one performs this exercise will effect which muscle group/s (and which areas of the muscle group/s) get worked the most.
In a nutshell, barbell bent-over rowing is performed (as the name suggests!) in a bent-over position (a bit like you were getting ready to touch your toes without actually leaning forward quite this much, although one usually has a lot more bend in the legs, even to the point of being in a semi-squat), or a bit like a downhill ski position.
The feet are usually placed somewhere between being close together and shoulder width apart (whatever feels most comfortable). A barbell is held in the hands while in this position and pulled upwards toward the body in a “rowing” motion.
The bent-over-row works the back a good deal but uses less weight than deadlift or squats, tends to be less tiring overall, and is less likely to cause an injury during a lift (which is not to say that it can’t cause an injury either at the time of lifting, or feel fine at the time but lead to a strained back afterwards e.g. if a person either uses incorrect form or tries to handle too much weight etc). Nevertheless it is probably safer to do bent-over-row with an already tired back than to try doing deadlifts or squats with the lower back in a pre-exhausted state, so generally don’t do Bent-over-rows and then follow up with deadlifts or squats.
This is one of the reasons we often recommend Bent-over-Row (BOR) as a secondary exercise to be performed after an exercise such as squats.
So far so good, now for some slightly more technical information.
A lot of people use bent-over rowing as a back exercise. This is fair enough, but it actually works more muscle groups than just the “back” – and the “back” isn’t one single muscle. How one stands, and how one grips the bar, alters which muscle groups / areas of the muscle get used to a greater or lesser extent.
For example, if you take an over-hand grip on the bar (in other words palms down, thumbs facing toward each other on the inside of your grip) this reduces the role of the biceps in the exercise and puts more emphasis on the latismus dorsai (lats). Taking a “biceps” grip i.e. an under-hand grip (palms upward, thumbs facing away from each other on the outside of your grip) brings the biceps into play a lot more.
Which is the correct method? Basically either can be correct – it really depends on which muscles are being targeted and/or why you are doing the exercise.
For example, one person might choose the over-hand grip to get more isolation on the lats (thus treating this as a lats exercise). On the other hand, another person might choose the under-hand grip and use the exercise to work the biceps a lot more e.g. as part of a biceps routine, say along with biceps curls etc. Either option is perfectly reasonable and “correct” as long as it fulfils the requirements of the exercise – but either would be “incorrect” if applied wrongly e.g. if a person used an under-hand grip while attempting to isolate the lats (or vice versa, a overhand grip attempting to work the biceps).
Another aspect of bent-over rowing which changes the area of musculature worked is where about one “rows to”. By this I mean whereabouts on the body the bar ends up when it has been pulled up into a raised or “rowed” position. There’s actually a pretty easy way of understanding and remembering this (“it ain’t exactly rocket surgery”…). Basically if you pull up to the chest, you work more of the upper back, if you pull to say the solar plexus, you work more of the mid-back, and if you pull to the stomach/naval, you work more of the lower back. In really simple terms, if you imagine the bar passed through your body when you pulled up you’d reach the area of the back that is doing most of the work.
Likewise, if you take a close/narrow grip on the bar you will focus more on the areas of the musculature closer to the spine; if you take a medium width grip you will hit more of the middle of the musculature; and if you take a wide grip you will work more of the outer regions on muscle on the back.
A third important aspect to this exercise is the body angle. Probably the most commonly recommended way of performing barbell bent-over rowing is to bend the knees a fair amount (both for stability and so as not to use the legs when lifting) then bend the body so pretty much horizontal (which for some people, depending on their body shape etc, might pretty much mean that the stomach touches the thighs). This looks a bit like a downhill ski position, or like an upside down L but with the legs more bent. Having got into position, typically, it is recommended that a person rows to the chest.
One reason this specific method is popular with a lot of bodybuilders etc is that it can target the high lats, especially when used with very strict form (which usually also means only moderately heavy but not very heavy weight). This is fine for bodybuilders who are simply trying to put on muscle mass – but this is not likely to be the main concern for those using the exercise as a method of developing strength for other sports and activities and therefore for example wish to strengthen the back muscles and upper-body generally, not to try and just get big decorative lats.
One of the first things that most people find when doing bent-over rowing – or at least as soon as they try and lift a weight that is an actual challenge for them – is that as either the reps add up, or as the weight increases, it is very difficult to maintain a low / near horizontal body position and/or row to the chest. What usually happens, as a person either starts getting tired or as the weight reaches a really demanding level, is that either/both their body position gradually comes up from a low angle and/or they can no longer pull to the chest and instead start pulling more toward the lower ribs, the solar plexus, abs, then eventually to the stomach, naval etc.
A lot of bodybuilders would say that at this point the exercise form has broken down and if a person can’t maintain an almost horizontal body angle and/or can’t row to the chest, then they are trying to lift too much weight and should instead reduce the weight to a level they can manage and keep the low body position and bar-path to the chest. This may be perfectly true for a bodybuilder who is trying to target a particular area of the lats and not bring other muscles into play – but it isn’t what everyone else necessarily needs to be aiming for.
At first, as with any exercise, it is important to learn good form, develop a muscle-memory for the exercise and find out not only what weight you can handle but also how you feel the next day! So you should begin doing barbell rows with only a light weight, either the bar alone in order to simply practice the movement, or at most a moderate weight you can handle easily. As it can be quite difficult to assess what counts as “moderate” for any given individual, my rule of thumb is that if a person can do 15 reps with good form for 3 sets, it is basically “moderate enough”. It’s fine to feel a bit tired etc – but as a beginner to an exercise, if you can’t handle 15×3 then there is a good chance you will be using too much weight to really learn the mechanics of the exercise properly – even if a person doesn’t feel any particular strain at the time, they may well unknowingly be sacrificing form and also may well “feel it” a bit too much the next day.
Remember I said that a lot of people treat bent-over rowing as a back exercise? More specifically, a lot of people treat it as a lower-back exercise – and it is (even though it works other areas too). The whole time you are bending over and bearing weight, your lower back is taking the strain of the weight in your hands – it is easy to forget this as the lower back itself is being held in more or less a fixed position while the arms are lifting the weight – but that doesn’t mean the lower back muscles aren’t being worked! Take this exercise nice and steady…
A few points to bear in mind :
1) By changing the body angle (and the grip if necessary) you can work pretty much the whole of the back from top to bottom (and inside to outside) rather than only hitting one area.
2) Changing the angle effectively makes it a little easier to lift the same level of weight (the higher the easier) but it need not actually make it easier as changing to a higher angle can often allow you to handle more weight.
3) Getting used to handling more weight at an easier position can get the body used to coping with that weight, which in turn then makes it easier to later handle the same weight using a lower body position (and so on in a cycle).
We use this basic model as a principle with many lifting techniques (but of course things like body position, range of motion and so on vary hugely with different exercises).
As you will have gathered, the low, virtually horizontal body angle and rowing to the chest is the hardest position and bar-path to maintain. So that’s what you should work on first – get that right and things like taking a higher body angle and/or rowing lower down will pretty much take care of themselves.
If a person trains intelligently then they can continue to make rapid progress over a long period, but trying to do too much too quickly really is the best way to kill all progress.
Note Choice of grip
As I mentioned earlier, one can do bent-over row with either a overhand grip, or an underhand grip (which works the biceps more). Really, the choice is yours.
Personally I find the underhand/biceps grip with a standard (i.e. straight) barbell fine with lighter weights but a bit uncomfortable with heavy weights, so when I do biceps-grip barbell rows I often use an “e-z” bar (which is curved in a couple of places and gives a more natural grip for most biceps exercises) or occasionally a triceps bar (which narrows the grip and works the inner rather than outer muscle areas more).
If you aren’t doing any other biceps work then using a biceps grip for bent-over rowing would be no bad thing (unless you find it uncomfortable or it feels like it is putting undue strain on your wrists etc), but if you e.g. do biceps curls with dumbbells or a barbell, it probably isn’t necessary.
Biceps grip barbell row tends to be very effective when combined with other biceps exercises as a person can just about always row with more weight than they can curl (as other muscles are also being used during the exercise) and/or continue to do biceps grip bent over rows even when the biceps have been somewhat pre-exhausted due to other biceps exercises (as the strain is taken up by the lats etc) - but this in turn teaches the biceps to be able to handle a higher load / do more work (and on in a cycle).
Probably the biggest advantage to the over-hand grip for bent-over row is that it is likely to feel more “natural” and may allow slightly more weight to be lifted. But really, as I say, it pretty much comes down to a matter of personal choice.