Back Exercises

Build a Bigger Back With the Bent-Over Row

For our five-part series, we delve into this back-building move.

Build a Bigger Back With the Bent-Over Row

The bent-over row (watch here) is a bread-and-butter movement for adding mass to the upper back. Among its benefits include upper back thickness, shoulder stability, and lower back strength and endurance. Once again, it’s an exercise people usually get wrong due to the technical cues involved. This article should prevent any missteps going forward.

SEE ALSOThe Complete 5-Move Guide for a Bigger Back

Review Your Stance

Bent-Over Row

If you’re reading this website, it’s probably elementary knowledge to say that your back should be flat and kept neutral or slightly arched when performing bent-over rows (like it should be during most exercises). As far as foot position goes, I like to cue my clients to use a position that’s similar to their conventional deadlift stance. It keeps the legs narrow enough to avoid interrupting the bar’s path or impeding the arms.

1: Hands

There’s not really a “wrong” position to place the hands on the bar in the case of the bent-over row, as long as the hands are evenly spaced apart on the bar. With that said, a general rule of thumb would be to not exceed your barbell bench press standard grip in terms of with. This will ensure that your elbows aren’t at an angle larger than 90 degrees, which would start hurting the physics of the movement. Using an overhand grip with flared elbows will help recruit the rear deltoids and assist the shoulder retractors. Using an underhand grip will help recruit more of the lat fibers and also incorporate more of the biceps. If you have wrist mobility issues, this grip may be slightly harder on the joints, so use at your discretion.

2: Torso

It’s of supreme importance that you understand the torso position that elicits the best “hit” for the scapular muscles. Standing too tall can allow the upper traps to become involved, and defeat the purpose of the lift. A position close to parallel to the floor with the upper body will make for the best angle from which to pull.

The bar’s path needs to reflect this too. The bar should travel in a straight line from the bottom up. That means a contact point near the upper abs on the torso when performing reps. 

3: Top Rock

When weight gets heavier, it will mean a ceiling will be reached pertaining to how much your arms can pull towards your torso. People think creating “momentum” by way of a mild top rock is cheating, but the truth is, as long as it’s timed right and done carefully (and not overdone), it’s something that must happen. The most important thing to remember is that your chest must finish where it started. In other words, you don’t want to gradually move your torso “away” from the bar. You want to meet the chest to the bar. Secondly, training for a proper top rock means only using the needed amount for the weight and reps required. Most people who use a top rock overdo it, and the lift ends up looking like a momentum filled disaster with no tightness or contraction maintained in the upper back at all. This can all sound slightly baffling when only seen in words, so check out the video below for a better explanation.

4: Put it All Together

With the cues above, it’s safe to say that you’ve got the recipe for a technically sound bent-over row. Because of the target muscles and their nature as postural correctors, I like to prescribe higher reps to hit the muscles, as they tend to respond well to this nature of training. Instead of doing sets of 4 or 6 reps, try sets of 10 to 15 reps with a lighter load. Remember the ground rules:

  • Reach to full extension on the down phase to avoid the biceps doing more than they should
  • Avoid an excessive top rock; use in moderation
  • Use a conventional deadlift stance and keep the torso angle near parallel to the ground 
  • Pull the bar in a straight line, not up towards shoulder level or down towards hip level

Use these tools to make your bent-over row work for your gains. You’ll be glad you did, and your back development will serve as thanks itself. 

NEXT MOVE: Cable Pullovers>>

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