It’s all too easy to focus on training the superficial muscles in the front of your body, the ones you can flex and see, like your biceps and triceps, and under-train muscles that are hidden most of the time like those in your back. The problem is this approach leads to muscle imbalances that increase your risk for injury.
The muscles that move your body when you do an exercise, called the agonists, work together with the opposing muscles, called the antagonists, to accomplish the move. The agonists’ contract or shorten while the antagonists relax or lengthen. For this to be seamless, these muscles must be balanced in terms of strength and flexibility.
One way to avoid muscle imbalances is to team a pulling exercise with a pushing exercise that targets the same muscle group. By using a push-pull approach, you train agonist muscles, with the pushing exercise, followed by the antagonist muscles with the pulling movement. This leads to more balanced muscle development.
One pulling exercise that should be in your routine is the bent-over row. With this exercise, you’re pulling the weight up towards your chest while in a bent-over position.
Why is the bent-over row an exercise you need in your routine? This exercise works the opposing or antagonists muscle groups that often get slighted when you do chest work like bench press. When you do a bench press, you’re primarily working the muscles in the front of your chest, your pecs. For a balanced workout, you need to target the muscles in your back with a pulling exercise like bent-over rows for balance and symmetry.
What Muscles Do Bent-Over Rows Work?
Bent-over rows work the major muscles in your back, including the two big muscles, the trapezius and latissimus dorsi as well as smaller synergist muscles like the rhomboids that aid the latissimus dorsi in pulling the arms down and back and also help stabilize your scapula. Ever notice how swimmers have such well-developed backs? That’s because their latissimus dorsi get a workout when they do the butterfly stroke.
Just as importantly, bent-over rows strengthen the deeper muscles that support your spine called the erectors, eight muscles that run from pelvis to the base of your head. These muscles give your spine stability, resistance to injury, and help keep you upright. Strengthening these muscles also helps support postural health, which is vital when you sit at a desk all day.
With bent-over rows, you’re also working your posterior deltoids – the portion of the deltoids that often gets neglected with so much focus on working the anterior delts. Bent-over rows help to maintain balanced shoulder development by hitting the often ignored back of your delts.
Mistakes People Make When Doing Bent-Over Rows
You can do bent-over rows using dumbbells or a barbell. With the classic row, your palms are facing you as you grip the bar and your feet shoulder-width apart. If you’re using dumbbells, your palms should face one another. If you’re using a barbell, when you bend over to grab the bar, the position of your head and spine should be neutral and at a 90-degree angle.
One of the most common mistakes people make when performing bent-over rows is not maintaining a neutral spine. If you arch your back, you’re increasing your risk for lower back injury. Another common error is letting your elbows flare during the movement rather than keeping them close to your body.
Another BIG problem people have with overhead rows is using momentum. If you’re using momentum, you’ve selected a bar that’s too heavy. Think about using good form rather than maxing out with the weight. When moving the barbell towards your chest, use slow controlled movement – this will increase your time under tension too. Focus on squeezing your shoulder blades together as you lift. Exhale during the lifting phase and inhale as you lower the barbell.
Good Form is Essential
Be aware that bent-over rows can strengthen your back, help compensate for too much sitting, and make your back more resistant to injury, but unless you use good form, your risk for injury is higher with this exercise. Being bent over in a flex position may be too risky for you if you have pre-existing back problems. Assuming a bent-over position, especially holding a weighted bar, places greater shearing forces on your spine and could damage a disc, especially if you have pre-existing disc issues. One way to get the benefits without added stress on your back is to lie face down on a bench and row using dumbbells.
A variation of the bent-over row is the inverted row. To do this exercise, lie underneath a sturdy bar. Grab the bar with your palms facing away from you and your arms shoulder-width apart. Slowly pull your body up towards the bar until you almost touch it. Then slowly lower your body back down. Stop just short of full arm extension. Exhale as you pull your body up and inhale on the way down.
Do inverted rows have benefits that bent-over rows don’t? Research shows inverted rows target the upper back better than a bent-over row while the bent-over row is superior for lower back development. If you have lower back problems, inverted rows are a safer exercise than bent-over ones since forces on the spine are lower.
For another variation, reverse the grip when you hold the bar. Reverse grip rows are also referred to as Yates rows, named after Dorian Yates. Rowing using a reverse grip works back muscles but also places greater emphasis on the biceps relative to a standard bent-over row. So, if you want more emphasis on the biceps, reverse the grip.
Rows Work Multiple Muscles at the Same Time
Don’t forget – rows are a compound exercise that targets multiple muscle groups at the same time. That means more calories burned. You’re even activating muscles in your legs and core to stabilize your body as you row. Don’t you love hitting so many muscles at once while getting that extra calorie burn?
The Bottom Line
Bent-over rows are an effective compound, pulling exercise that strengthens all the muscles in your back. It’s nice to know it’s a compound exercise too so you’re burning more calories than you do with isolation exercises. Enjoy the benefits that bent-over rows and row variations offer.
Bret Contreras. “The Glute Guy”
Strength and Conditioning Research. “How do rowing exercises differ?”
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