How to Do a Barbell Row

Medically Reviewed by Tyler Wheeler, MD on June 09, 2024
4 min read

A barbell row is a type of strength-training exercise that works your back muscles. It’s sometimes also called a bent-over row. 

Here’s what you need to know. 

A barbell row is an upper-body weightlifting exercise that strengthens your back and shoulders. It’s often one of the first techniques athletes or novice lifters learn because it’s simple. 

The barbell row is a two-step move. You lift the barbell from the ground and then angle your chest parallel to the ground so you’re slightly bent over. Then, you lift and lower the barbell in a series of reps. Ideally, a trainer watches your form and coaches you through the exercise, but you don’t need a direct spotter as you do on the bench press or for a barbell squat. 

The barbell row works your upper body, and it’s one of the best movements for building a strong back. It works a few muscles called agonist, stabilizer, and synergist muscles. 

Agonist muscles, also called primer movers, are the major muscles that drive movement, while synergists are helpers that stabilize muscles during the movement.

A barbell row works these prime movers:

  • Rhomboids: bands that stretch from your upper spine to your shoulder blade
  • Lats: large, V-shaped muscles on each side of your spine
  • Middle and lower traps: a muscle that extends down your neck, across your shoulders, and into your upper back
  • Posterior deltoid, the back shoulder muscle that attaches to your shoulder blade

The barbell row also works these synergist muscles:

  • Biceps: thick muscle on top of your upper arms
  • Teres minor: muscles that stretch from the head of your shoulder to your shoulder blade
  • Brachialis: the elbow flexor 
  • Brachioradialis: a muscle on your forearm
  • Erector spinae: a group of muscles on either side of your spine

With a squat and forward lean, you’re also working your abdominal and leg muscles. You’re not necessarily directly focusing attention on these muscles with the weights, but good form can also help activate these areas. 

The key benefit of any weightlifting exercise is that it builds muscle strength, but the barbell row helps your body in other ways. 

Trunk strength. The barbell row helps build trunk strength that carries over into other exercises and your daily life. You can enhance the exercise with a lot of weight, and it targets lots of muscles at once, which helps challenge and activate your trunk. A barbell row also helps promote spine stability. 

Improves hip hinge. As the name suggests, part of the bent-over row is to hinge forward at the waist and hips. You do this after you’ve lifted a weight off the ground and you stay suspended forward as you lift the weight up and down in a series of reps. 

To keep your spine neutral and stable, you need to hold your torso and contract your hips. All of this improves your hip movements, which can carry over into sports. Your hips help you generate force and power, so your coach or trainer might use the barbell row to strengthen these movements. 

Good form is important for all workouts, but it’s especially important for these types of back exercises. 

To do a barbell row:

  1. Stand in the starting position with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Squat down with your hips lower than your shoulders and your knees slightly bent, then grab the bar. Keep your hands wider than your shoulders and your elbows extended and pointing slightly outwards. 
  3. Brace your torso and keep your back flat. Don’t round it forward.  
  4. Lift the bar as you stand up. Use your hips and knees, not your back. Focus your eyes just ahead of your feet to keep your head and neck lined up with your torso.
  5. Next, squeeze your abdominal muscles and bend forward at the waist so that your chest is at a 60-degree angle with the ground. Keep your chest up and out, your knees slightly bent, and let the weight hang.
  6. Start the row. Hold your torso rigid and pull the barbell upwards toward your chest. Think about pulling your elbows back together, like you’re starting a lawnmower. 
  7. Bring the barbell back down with control and start the row again.
  8. Keep your torso strong and at a steady angle, with your back flat and straight.
  9. Repeat 12 to 15 times. 
  10. When you’re done, lower the bar to the ground with control. 

There are a couple of tips to help you maintain good form and get the most benefit from your barbell row.

Practice with unloaded bars. If you’ve never done a barbell row before, practice the motion without the barbell first to get a good sense of how to do the exercise properly. This will help protect your back and make sure you’re using the right form. 

Once you have a feel for it, practice a few times with just the bar or with light weights. You can add heavier weights when you feel confident in your form and abilities.

Watch your elbows. It’s common to flare your elbows outward, but try to avoid it. Keep your elbows aimed toward your back instead of up and out. 

Stay straight. It’s also common to drop your angle down or roll your upper back and shoulders forward. Keep your spine straight and flat or try a lighter weight.  

While this exercise can help define your upper back muscles, it can cause a lot of stiffness in your spine and lower back. Some stiffness after exercise can be normal, but a barbell might not be a good idea if you currently have a history of back pain. You also shouldn’t do the exercise if you have a back injury or any other muscle injury. 

Your coach or trainer should assess your history and your current condition before starting. Talk to your doctor about this exercise if you’ve had an injury or are wondering whether it’s a good choice for you.