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Master the Barbell Row for a Bigger, Stronger Back

The barbell row is a core training staple that can help to build a super strong back, but are you sure you’re even doing the exercise correctly?

For this movement, you shouldn’t settle for anything other than perfect form—especially because it’s such a simple, essential exercise that should serve as one of the centerpieces of your training plan. Let Men’s Health fitness director Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S. and associate fitness editor Brett Williams guide you through the barbell row’s subtleties, saving you from the bad habits that are keeping you from unlocking your fitness potential.

Before you pick up the bar and get to pulling, take note that it’s extremely important to pay attention the movement here. Your positioning, posture, and hand placement are essential to recruiting the right muscles—so let’s break down everything you need to know.

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Reverse That Grip

Eb says: You’ll generally see the barbell row taught with an overhand grip—and overall, there’s nothing wrong with that. Over the long haul of your training, you can and should use both grips, and even play with a mixed grip once you get very experienced.

However, the underhand grip is the best way to do the move, especially when you’re getting started. This is mainly because it’ll let you recruit more of your biceps. The dual-effect there: You get to work your guns more aggressively here overall, and because you can recruit your biceps and lats at once, you’ll get to move more weight too. Don’t discount the shoulder health benefits either: Doing the move underhanded will also help keep your shoulders out of internal rotation.

No Rocking

Eb says: The one thing you’ll see frequently on barbell rows: People rocking through the torso and at the waist. You’re using a lot of weight, more than you would on most rows, so there is a tendency to do that.

But you want to avoid this. That rock takes emphasis off your lats and rhomboids, the muscle groups you want driving the barbell row. You’ll have to use less weight to keep your torso quiet, but you’ll get a better workout, and you’ll also protect your lower back in the long run.

Keep Pulling

Eb says: One key idea during the barbell row: Keep pulling upwards. You’ll see some people (and this is much like the rock) end each row rep by bucking their chest towards the bar.

Work to only bring the bar to your chest. Keep your torso as quiet as possible, and keep pulling your upper arms back until the bar reaches your chest. Work hard to make the row a quiet, smooth motion, not a jerky one.

Careful With Weight and Load

Eb says: Yes, the barbell row is a move that you can eventually do plenty of weight with; overall, this is going to be your heaviest-weight variation of the row. But don’t get too crazy and try to load up, say, 315 pounds and do 3 to 4 reps.

When you do too much weight here, it becomes very easy to default to bad, rocking technique that could wreck your lower back. A good sweet spot for reps on the barbell row: 8 to 10 reps.

Want to master even more moves? Check out our entire Form Check series.

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