Three staple free-weight rowing exercises that meet the bill include bentover barbell rows, plate-loaded T-bar rows, and one-arm dumbbell rows. Here’s how to do each. 


Barbell rows are fantastic because they’re such a basic exercise that they can be done anywhere, even in the crudest possible gym, as long as you have a barbell and some weights. As with any rowing motion, be careful not to go too heavy. And, as the aforementioned meatheads apparently aren’t aware, it’s a myth to think you have to go excessively heavy to stimulate deep muscle growth in the back. In fact, excessively heavy work on rows will cause a lower-back injury. In order to avoid this, the first caveat is to tend to form first, and only as long as that’s strict through every rep can the weight be advanced.

Even though you’re bending over, begin the bentover row with your eyes up and forward (i.e., looking in the mirror and not down at your feet) and keep your lower back arched and concave at all times in a ski-jump position, which, if done properly, positions your butt sticking out behind you. Staying bent at the waist, grasp the barbell with a shoulder-width, overhand grip, and raise the bar of the floor just slightly. Execute your first rep by driving your elbows back toward the ceiling as you bring the bar to mid-abdomen. As the bar rises, focus on keeping your chest out and bringing your shoulder blades together behind you. Let the barbell down in a controlled fashion. Don’t ever lose the protective arch in your lower back. 


I can confidently say that 99.9%of the people I see doing one-arm rows are just not getting the full benefit of the motion. That’s usually because they can’t resist going too heavy. As a result, the elbow never gets high enough to effectuate the stress on the upper-inner back that’s needed to stimulate the gnarly growth I’m talking about.

Keep in mind that you must feel the scapula move toward the spine on every rep. If you’re not sensing that “grab,” then the weight is too heavy. Start with a properly weighted dumbbell and position yourself on a bench with one knee up toward the back of the bench and your arm on the same side posted toward the front of the bench. Your eyes should be up and forward, with your lower back arched and concave at all times. I tend to favor a small rotational movement because it helps keep my ego in check and not go too heavy.

I start the pull with the dumbbell handle perpendicular to the direction of my spine. As I raise the weight, I rotate clockwise on the right side and counterclockwise on the left side, so that the dumbbell ultimately ends up parallel to the direction of my spine and tight against my side. For added intensity, I try and get as much height as possible, momentarily squeezing at the apex of the movement, then lowering it in a slow and controlled manner.



T-bar rows are a really fantastic motion because they give you the same mid-range-rushing stimulation as the bentover row, but the difference is that they bring the hands in very close together. Though not everyone feels it the same way, for some guys and gals this closer grip affords a more intense hit on the upper-inner back region. You’ll have to put in your time and determine if you’re one of those people, and how much of a place—if any—this movement plays into your routine.

Although some gyms have a pre-built T-bar row setup with a welded handle and a bar hinged on one side, it may not always be the best version. That’s because such arrangements are almost invariably too short due to the size constraints of what owners are willing to put in their gyms. You actually need length to the bar to pull you over the movement and thus create the right length and range of motion to stimulate the big back muscles to grow (otherwise it’s just a crappy arm movement).

I remember a gym way back (some 30 years ago) up in Warwick, NJ, called Mike and Vinnie’s. These brothers had a cruddy little local gym that actually did the job quite nicely. I recall they had made some of their own equipment. One such monstrous creation was an extra-long T-bar hinged on one side and adapted for Olympic-size plates on the other. An Olympic bar is seven feet long, but this contraption must’ve been eight or nine feet in length. It was crazy-looking but amazing, because it really gave the right hit. Of course, it took up such a ridiculous amount of space, I never figured out if these guys were geniuses for coming up with it or just idiots with a boob like me celebrating their mistake.

At any rate, my point is that you may have to find a corner and stick an Olympic bar there to get it done. Some gyms have a steel corner piece that the Olympic bar actually just slides into.

And remember that your grip will have one hand in front of the other, so you’ll have to alternate grips every set. I usually do six reps with my right hand below and my left above, then put the bar down, switch, and complete another six.

By the way, you can forget those short- padded plate-loaded mini T-bar contraptions I see in many gyms, that have you place your chest against a pad and lift the bar of from a side trestle to center it and begin the movement. I’m convinced that whoever came up with that inane piece of equipment also designed those coach-class airplane seats we’re all so fond of. 


Although there’s no true substitute for free-weight rowing movements, a close second that’s worth mentioning is the long-cable row machine. This movement is especially helpful if you have a lower-back injury or some other circumstance that precludes the optimal approach, or are simply getting older and find the systemic drain of heavy rows to be a bit too much. The cable row provides an opportunity to load the same muscle areas without the same demands on the big hinge or the body. But for the more capable and younger set, don’t expect much more than maintenance with this movement.

Execute the movement by sitting down and reaching forward to grasp the handle with both hands. For the entire duration of the move, keep your back concave as previously instructed, with knees slightly bent and chest upright. Pull toward your lower abdomen, keeping your elbows close to the sides of your body. The handle should be brought all the way to your midsection. Finish by slowly allowing your arms to extend to return the handles to the starting position in a nice, extended reach position, with your eyes remaining up.

Finally, keep in mind that the back muscles constitute the largest grouping of muscles anywhere in the body. As such, there’s an intrinsic requirement for both variety of direction and length of movement.