Do you include rows in your strength-training routine? Rows are a standard training exercise that primarily works the muscles in the back. One reason rows are such an effective exercise is they’re a compound movement, one that works multiple muscles at the same time. Doing a high ratio of compound movements, as opposed to isolation movements, is time expedient because you work multiple muscles with a single exercise. Working more than one muscle simultaneously burns more calories and is more effective for building functional strength.
What muscles do you target with rows? The most popular row, the bent-over row, mainly works the muscles in the upper and mid-back. When you do a bent-over row using good form, you hit the large latissimus dorsi muscles in the mid-back. You also work the rhomboids, trapezius, and the erector spinae muscles that help stabilize the back and keep it correctly aligned. That’s good for your posture and the health of your back! During the rowing motion, your biceps also chip in to help with the movement. Even your core muscles get some stimulation with the bent-over row.
There are several approaches to doing rows and you can use a barbell or dumbbells to do this exercise. You might wonder what the pros and cons of each approach are. Let’s take a closer look at the pros and cons of using dumbbells vs.a barbell.
Barbell Rows vs. Dumbbell Bent-Over Rows
Using a barbell offers certain advantages and disadvantages over using dumbbells when you row. You should be aware of these differences to choose the one that’s right for you.
The biggest disadvantage of using a barbell, especially if you’re using a heavy one, is the position your body is in. During a row, you’re in a bent-over position without lower back support. As you row in a bent-over position with a barbell, lower back, glutes, and hamstrings must contract to help you maintain your posture as you row with your upper body. This adds an additional element of lower-body fatigue to the exercise. If your lower body fatigues, you may not be able to complete as many reps and this can limit the full benefits you get from this exercise.
The goal of bent-over rows is to work the muscles in the upper and mid-back and, to a lesser extent, the biceps. If your lower body fatigues too quickly when you use a barbell, you won’t get the full benefits. With dumbbell bent-over rows, you can take some of the tension off of your hamstrings and glutes that work to support you by placing your bent leg and hand on a bench for support while you work one side. Doing this makes it easier to emphasize the muscles you’re trying to strengthen and hypertrophy, the muscles in the upper and mid back. There are lots of other exercises you can do for your hamstrings and glutes. Why fatigue them with an exercise meant for the mid back? Another advantage of using dumbbells is you can work one side at a time. Doing this will help you correct one side that’s weaker than the other. You can’t do unilateral rows using a barbell.
One of the biggest advantages of using a barbell when you do a bent-over row is you can usually use more resistance with a barbell since you don’t have to stabilize the bar as you do with dumbbells. Using a heavier weight helps with strength building, but if your glutes and hamstrings fatigue from trying to hold your posture, the overall volume may be lower and this can limit muscle growth.
Other Types of Rows
The bent-over row isn’t the only row that can strengthen your back. If you have access to a cable, cable rows in a seated position are an effective way to work your back. This approach is good for beginners since you do the exercise in a seated upright position and are less dependent on lower back strength to complete the move. Another good move for beginners is a chest-supported row. To do this version of a row, lie face down on an incline bench and pull two dumbbells toward your body from this position. This exercise is effective for targeting the trapezius muscles in the upper back but isn’t as effective for working the lats and the supporting muscles in the back since the back is in a stable position.
Another challenging move is the inverted row, an exercise that’s almost as tough as a pull-up. In fact, mastering inverted rows brings you a step closer to doing your first pull-up. To do this exercise, you lie on a bench and hold on to a bar that’s about arms-length overhead. To complete a rep, you use your upper body strength to pull yourself up toward the bar. This row variation requires good form as it places stress on your wrists, elbows, and shoulders.
You can also include upright rows in your routine, an exercise that works the upper traps, but the risks to your shoulders outweigh some of the benefits. When you raise the weights to the top, it can compress the nerves in the shoulders and lead to an impingement syndrome. So, don’t attempt this variation if you have a history of shoulder problems.
The Bottom Line
Ultimately, whether you use barbells or dumbbells for rows depends upon how comfortable you feel with each and which you have access to. You can increase muscle strength and hypertrophy the muscles in your upper and mid-back with either dumbbells or a barbell. You can even use both during different workouts. Also, don’t forget to add some of the other types of rows, such as the inverted row to your routine. It targets the muscles in the mid and upper back in a way that other rows don’t and offers a unique challenge since you’re pulling your body up against the force of gravity. Why not experiment with both?
· American Council on Exercise. “Bent-Over Row”
· The National Strength and Conditioning Association’s (NSCA) Basics of Strength and Conditioning Manual.