Could your upper back use some work? For building a stronger, more defined upper back, barbell rows rock! With each repetition, you’re building a stronger upper and mid-back and building muscle definition. With a stronger upper back comes better posture too. Although the barbell row isn’t a knockout exercise for the biceps muscles, it works the brachialis muscle that runs under your biceps muscle and into your forearm. When this muscle is strong, you can grip with greater force. So, your forearms get benefits too when you row.
In addition, barbell rows is a compound exercise that works more than one muscle group at a time, making it a good functional exercise and calorie burner. Learning to do a barbell row with proper technique will also help your form when you do deadlifts and bench press.
There’s more than one way to do a barbell row; you can vary the grip and when you do, it works the muscles in your back and arms slightly differently. Let’s look at the various ways you can vary your grip when you row.
Standard Grip vs. Reverse Grip Barbell Row
The standard grip for a barbell row is an overhand grip. What does that mean? When you grip the bar, your palms point toward your body and thumbs wrap around the bar. For a standard grip, your hands should be about shoulder-width apart. However, you can also use a reverse grip when you do barbell rows. This is an underhand grip where your palms face away from your body and your hands are shoulder-width apart on the bar.
What are the advantages of one grip over the other? The standard grip feels more natural, so it’s a good choice when first starting out. Using an overhand grip also places more emphasis on the trapezius muscle in your upper back. When you switch to an underhand or reverse grip, the larger latissimus dorsi muscles in the middle of your back work harder, and you also activate your biceps more. The two latissimus dorsi muscles, when hypertrophied, give an attractive V-shape to your back. A disadvantage of the underhand grip is it places more stress on your elbows. Therefore, it’s not a good option if you have arthritis in your elbows or elbow pain for other reasons.
These aren’t the only grip options. You can also use a mixed grip where one hand is in the overhand position and the other in an underhanded one. With this grip, you might be able to lift more weight, but there’s also a higher risk of injury. Don’t try it until you’ve mastered the overhand and underhand grip and keep the weight light so you can focus on form.
Wide Grip vs. Narrow Grip Barbell Rows
Another way to change your grip is to place your hands closer or further apart on the bar. When you do a wide-grip barbell row, you emphasize your lats less than with a narrow-grip barbell row. Instead, the emphasis shifts toward your trapezius muscles and the posterior deltoids, the muscles that give shape to the back of your shoulders. The posterior deltoids don’t get enough emphasis with most shoulder exercises such as overhead presses. It’s also a good variation for rounded shoulders.
Narrow-grip barbell rows are where you place your hands about hip-width apart on the barbell. With this row, you’ll pull the bar toward you at a lower level, around the level of your abs. What are the advantages of using a narrow grip? For one, you can often work with a heavier barbell when you use a narrow grip. The narrow hand placement also emphasizes your latissimus dorsi muscles more. It also forces your trapezius muscles and back of the shoulders to work less hard, although they get benefits too.
Which of the two grips should you choose? It depends on your goals. Since your latissimus dorsi muscles run through your middle back, developing these muscles will give you a more defined mid-back and, of course, greater strength. The narrow grip barbell row will best work your lats. However, many people like the look of a defined upper back with wide shoulders, and when these muscles are strong, it helps your posture. If that’s your goal, include wide-grip barbell rows in your routine. This variation is the best version for improving your posture and rounded shoulders too.
Balance It Out
If you do barbell rows, don’t neglect the opposing muscles, the muscles in your chest. When you work your chest and back muscles in a balanced way, you avoid strength imbalances that can lead to injury. So, make sure you’re doing exercises that target your pectoral muscles too, like bench press. Also, make sure you’re using good form when you do barbell rows. Avoid the most common mistakes including:
- Using momentum – Letting the weight bounce. This usually means you’re using a barbell that’s too heavy. You’ll get the most benefits if you lower the barbell slowly in a controlled manner. The lowering phase should take around 2 seconds.
- Standing too upright – If you can’t comfortably do the exercise in a bent-over position, focus on doing core-strengthening exercises to enhance your core strength.
- Arching your back – Arching your back can lead to a back or spine injury, especially if you’re working with a heavy barbell. Keep your abs tight and don’t use too much weight.
- Flaring your elbows – Flaring your elbows when you do barbell rows increases the stress on your back and can lead to injury.
The Bottom Line
There’s no right or wrong grip for doing barbell rows. It depends on what you’re trying to achieve. If your goal is to build upper back strength, wide hand placement, and an overhand grip will help you best achieve your objective and improve your posture at the same time. If your mid-back could use some work, a reverse grip and narrow hand placement emphasize the lats in your mid-back more. Of course, you can also vary your grip from workout to workout for variety. Although barbell rows can strengthen the muscles in your upper and mid-back and lower your risk of back pain, it can also be hard on your back if you use poor form. If you have pre-existing back problems, check with your health care provider before doing barbell rows.
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