While there are countless valid adaptations to the barbell row, there are nine fundamental mistakes in form. These issues will not only hinder gains but could severely injure the lifter. The pain from such an injury is debilitating and can completely derail training.
The barbell row is a fantastic overall back exercise. It enables the targeting of all major back muscles (as well as a bit of the triceps). However, the lift is most associated with targeting the latissimus dorsi, giving a nice flare to the upper body. The “lats” are important functionally as well and should be strengthened like any other muscle of the core. Weak lats lead to shoulder and neck pain.
First, let’s take a look at what a traditional barbell row looks like.
Bent-Over Barbell Row Proper Form
For the sake of this article, we will be discussing the traditional Bent-Over Barbell Row. This advice can be carried across to any barbell row variation that you may choose to add to your repertoire.
“Bend over at hips with chest at 45-degree angle. Pull back toward the armpit and squeeze shoulder blades together. Avoid lifting shoulders or allowing the head to drop forward.”
- You should begin this exercise with your barbell in a rack, though some prefer to deadlift it straight from the floor.
- Stand with your midfoot beneath the bar, toes straight ahead or slightly pronated (turned out).
- Bend at the waist, keeping the spine neutral and the torso stable.
- Grasp the bar in an overhand or underhand grip (underhand may be easier for most).
- Draw the bar toward your sternum or belly button.
- Return the bar to the starting position and repeat.
MISTAKE #1: Leaning Too Far
It is true that the further you bend at the waist, the more activation you will get in the back. However, you will also feel your hamstrings begin to pull tight. If you are limber enough to lean horizontal to the floor without rounding your back to compensate for tight hamstrings, good for you! If not, stick with a 45-degree lean or as close as you can get to parallel without compensating by rounding your lower back.
Mistake #2 NOT Leaning Enough
While the upper trapezius muscle does deserve a part in this exercise, we don’t want it shouldering all of the weight. If you are only leaning slightly forward, you are essentially performing a shrug and leaving those gorgeous lower traps, rhomboids, and lats out in the cold. Always strive to be at about a 45-degree angle. However, if you notice that your back is rounding when you attempt to get to this angle, you most likely need static stretching, myofascial release (foam rolling), and possibly core development. Do not attempt the barbell row if you are unable to comfortably get to a 45-degree angle.
Mistake #3 Limiting Range of Motion
Each rep will begin with your shoulder blades protracted. You will then pull the bar toward your belly button. When the bar is close to the abdomen, your shoulder blades should be squeezed together. Don’t cheat yourself out of all of your return. Make sure that you achieve a full range of motion. Protraction at the bottom of the movement and retraction at the top are the goal.
Mistake #4 Not Keeping the Bar Close To Your Body
The barbell row is similar to the deadlift in this regard. You should be pulling the bar along very close to your body. Do not attempt to hold the bar out in front of your body during this movement.
Mistake #5 Not Using Correct Tempo
Lifting should have a goal of either endurance-strength, hypertrophy, maximal strength, or power. You need to utilize the appropriate tempo while lifting. Too often focus is on the concentric portion of a lift (raising of the bar). However, the eccentric (lowering of the bar) and isometric (hold at the bottom of the move) portions are equally important.
If you are just beginning your training program or returning after some time, you should raise the bar on a count of two, lower it slowly to a count of four, and hold at the bottom for another count of two before returning the bar to your abdomen.
If you are working on building muscle size, you should raise the barbell to your chest to a count of two, lower it to a count of two, and then immediately raise it again without any isometric hold.
If you are training for maximal strength or power, you will need to perform the lift explosively, but ALWAYS control your movement.
A brief side note here: There is an order to any training program and periodization is vital to continued gains without injury. You should always lay a foundation of stability, flexibility, and strength endurance, BEFORE training for muscle size, maximal strength, or power. In addition, after you have spent a period of time training for maximal strength or power, you should return to training at the lower intensity end of the spectrum for a set amount of time in order to allow your body to rest and rejuvenate.
Mistake #6 Flaring Your Elbows
Do not flare your elbows out to the side at the top of the move. Your elbows should stay close to your sides and travel in a straight line back behind your body.
Mistake #7 Not Activating Your Triceps
There are many great lifts to use for targeting your biceps. Don’t waste this amazing exercise on them. In order to minimize assistance from the biceps during this exercise, which will wear out your bicep long before effectively working your back muscles, make sure that you are contracting your triceps at the bottom of the row. By activating your triceps, you will inhibit your biceps and keep the focus where it belongs.
Mistake #8 Not Controlling Your Posture
During the barbell row, your spine should remain neutral, hips stationary, head in line with the body and facing down (not craned up at the mirror), and the movement itself controlled. You should not be bouncing, wrenching, twisting or arching your neck. Always proceed with your program erring on the side of caution. Issues with uncontrolled form and massive compensations are nearly always due to mistake #9.
Mistake #9 Too Much Weight
Think about it, when are you ever encouraged to bend over at the waist, grab a super heavy weight, and manhandle it up to your chest? NEVER. Elite lifters with tons of experience and amazing, strong bodies understand that the barbell row is way more about using proper form and the perfect amount of weight, and less about impressing everyone at the gym with how much weight you have on the bar.
Selecting the amount of weight and the number of reps and sets you are going to perform is something you should have determined prior to picking up the bar. Is your immediate goal to gain endurance and a base level of strength? Or are you already well into a macrocycle and focused on building muscle size (hypertrophy) or maximal strength?
A personal trainer can be a great asset in assisting you with a formula to use based upon immediate goals. That said the following formulas, paired with the tempo suggestions above, will reward you with gains and save you from injury:
- For building a base-level of endurance strength: lift a modest weight (or about 50-70% of your 1 Rep Max) for 12-20 reps, resting roughly 90 seconds between each of 1-3 sets.
- For building muscle size: lift a moderately heavy weight (or about 85% of your 1 Rep Max) for 6-12 reps, resting no more than 60 seconds between each of 3-5 sets.
- For building maximal strength: you will be handling a weight that is quite difficult to lift WHILE USING PROPER FORM (or 85-100% of your 1 Rep Max) for 1-5 reps, with a 3-5 minute rest between each of 4-6 sets.
Get Those Gains
At the end of the day, we lift to gain endurance, strength, and overall health. In order for these consistent gains to occur, we must use proper form and employ intelligent design. Nobody wants to train for years and look the same as they did when they began, and nobody wants to run headlong into a program that leaves them injured and their training derailed.
Avoiding these nine mistakes while performing the bent-over barbell row will enable you to build that cobralike physique and more importantly strengthen the vital muscles of your back while avoiding injury.