Bent Over Barbell Row Alternatives (Upper Back Exercises)

The barbell row is one of the best back building exercises that you can possibly add to your routine. It offers a great route in terms of progressive overload and for that reason, it is often considered a compound exercise (alongside the fact that it engages multiple muscle groups). 

While most people will agree that the bent over barbell row is a staple and often essential exercise for back development, there are also those who need to look for an alternative exercise, often as a result of lower back issues or an inability to lift heavy weight with good form on this exercise. 

What is the best bent over barbell row alternatives? The best alternatives to the bent over barbell row are those that allow you to train the upper back muscles without placing any additional stress on the lower back. The single arm dumbbell row, chest supported T-bar row and lying barbell row (otherwise known as the seal row) are some of the best bent over barbell row alternatives. 

While the bent over barbell row is a great mass and strength builder, it’s definitely not an exercise that is well suited to everyone. In this article, I’ll cover why the bent over barbell row is such a good exercise and then give some alternatives that will allow you to get the same benefit without the lower back strain!

What Is the Bent Over Barbell Row

The bent over barbell row is a classic bodybuilding exercise that is very simple to perform but offers great benefits and results when you use it in your pull day or back day routine. It works the full upper body posterior chain and can be modified to either target the upper back or lower lats depending on the grip you use. 

To successfully perform a barbell row there are two variations that target different muscles of the back:

  • To target the upper back (rhomboids, rear delts, mid and lower traps, and spinal erectors) bend over at a 90 degree angle, grasp the bar with a shoulder width or wider overhand grip, and row to the upper rib cage/sternum keeping your elbows flared out. 
  • To target the lower lats, bend over at a 30 – 40 degree angle, grasp the bar with a shoulder width or narrower underhand grip and row that bar to your hips. 

As you can see, your grip, angle you bend over at, and where you row the bar in relation to your torso will heavily influence the muscles that you primarily work. Just keep in mind that this is still a compound exercise and it will therefore work the entirety of your upper posterior chain to some extent. 

Bent Over Barbell Row Benefits

The benefits of the barbell row all stem from the fact that it is a compound movement for the upper body:

  1. Loading – The bent over barbell row is an exercise that has a high upper threshold in terms of how much weight you can gradually add over time for progressive overload. This is a staple movement that you can program and make progress in for years. 
  1. Works Multiple Muscle Groups – This exercise hits multiple large muscle groups and it can also be modified to prioritize specific muscle groups more than others. To name a few, this exercise hits the lats, mid and lower traps, rhomboids, rear delts, erector muscles, biceps, and finally all the muscles of the upper back. 
  1. Trains Stabilizing Muscles – As a result of progressively holding heavier weight and controlling it from a weaker position in front of your body, the stabilizing muscles of your spinal erectors and core muscles will be worked extensively with this exercise. Many powerlifters make use of the bent over barbell row to not train their back muscles but rather the stabilizing muscles around the core for a carryover to their squat and deadlifts. 

While there are other benefits to this exercise, the three above are the main ones in my opinion and produce the most bang for your buck with this exercise. There are however some that feel this exercise carries some drawbacks, one, in particular, being that bent over rows can be bad for your back. 

Are Bent Over Rows Bad for Your Back

Bent over barbell rows tend to get an unwarranted reputation for being bad on your back, holding a heavy weight in front of you with a 45 – 90 degree hip hinge will put a certain amount of strain on your lower back and overall core muscles (abs, obliques, and erectors). 

The bent over barbell row is not an exercise that is “bad for your back”, especially when done with correct form, however, the loading of your spine with weight and gravity is something that can cause aggravation for an existing injury or weak core. 

For anyone already experiencing issues with their lower back, the bent over row can certainly be an exercise that can aggravate this, and even with variations of the exercise, it isn’t one that can easily be modified. 

This is when it can be a good idea to look into an alternative that still allows you to overload the upper back without placing any unnecessary stress on the lower back. 

Bent Over Barbell Row Alternatives

When looking to introduce some bent over barbell row alternatives into your routine, the key is to look for exercises that make it difficult to use momentum to lift the weight (a very common occurrence with the barbell row) and that also reduces stress on the lower back and erector muscles. 

Below are some of the best exercises that accomplish this, seated rows and cable rows are good variations but I find that these exercises shouldn’t be an alternative and are better secondary exercises that you should include in your routine regardless.

Chest Supported T-bar Row

The chest supported T-bar row is probably my favorite alternative to the bent over barbell row, it places minimal stress on the lower back whilst still allowing you to lift some heavy weights. 

The movement is the same as the bent over row with the chest support on most machines being set at either a 45 or 90 degree angle and this allows you to perform the bent over row movement without placing any stress on the lower back. 

The real reason I like this movement, however, is because the chest support gives you something to brace against in order to produce more force and mechanical tension. This is something that is not possible on the traditional bent over barbell row as you need to balance your torso against the weight being held out in front of you. 

Being able to produce more mechanical tension can enable you to lift heavier weights (without momentum or cheating the weight up) and it’s also been shown that the more mechanical tension you can produce during an exercise, the better the hypertrophic and muscle building effects. 

Single Arm Dumbbell Row

The single arm dumbbell row is an exercise similar to the bent over barbell row (depending on how you do it) but it allows you to use one arm as support which not only reduces the strain on your lower back but also allows you to create more mechanical tension as I covered above. 

A single arm row can be done from standing by resting one arm on a bench/dumbbell rack or by kneeling with one leg on a bench for support and rowing from the side of the bench. John Meadows and Matt Koc (Kroc rows) are two people known for their own impressive back development and are big fans of the dumbbell row. 

The key benefit of a dumbbell row is that you can really emphasize the lowering portion of the rep to get a good stretch in the lats and upper back and this full stretch is something that is essential for good back development. 

While you won’t be able to use as much weight as a barbell row, you can certainly lift some decent poundages with an arguably better and more controlled form which makes it an excellent alternative. 

Seal Row

The seal row is probably the closest exercise that you can get to being an effective isolation exercise for the upper back. For this exercise, you can utilize the upper back muscles by working against the weight and gravity whilst also not being able to cheat the movement. 

The seal row puts you into a position that eliminates momentum which is often a downside with a regular barbell row as people tend to shrug and use momentum when using a weight that is too heavy for them to handle with the intended muscle groups. 

To perform the seal row, you lie face down on a flat bench with the barbell underneath and row as you would with a bent over barbell row. The closer to the upper chest you row, the more you will target the upper back though not everyone will be able to easily perform this exercise depending on access to equipment. 

The seal row is an exercise that often requires a custom bench that has longer legs to allow enough clearance for you to row the bar with fully extended arms (something that is not possible when you are using a regular bench as it’s too close to the ground). 

The below video does however show that you can raise a regular bench with the use of boxes/platforms to allow you to still perform the seal row without needing custom equipment. 

Chest Supported Dumbbell Row

The chest supported dumbbell row is something that I’d consider to be more of an isolation exercise and is a hybrid between a chest supported T-bar row and a seal row (yet requires a minimum amount of equipment). 

Setting a bench to an incline, you’ll simply lean against the bench, chest first, and row. Dumbbells are needed for this exercise in order to clear the bench and get a full contraction and the angle that you set the bench at will determine what area of the back you work. 

The flatter the bench, the more you should target the upper back and row the dumbbells closer to your rib cage, the higher the incline, the more you should row the dumbbells to your hips and target the lower lats. 

Due to the fact that you need to stabilize the weights whilst being in a position where you can’t generate much force or active tension, the weight that you can use is quite limited with this exercise. It’s therefore best used as an activation exercise to stimulate a mental connection with your back muscles before doing a heavier compound exercise.  

Final Thoughts

The bent over barbell row is undoubtedly one of the best mass builders for the upper back acting as a compound exercise with a great potential for progressive overload, though, it’s an exercise that isn’t well suited to everyone!

The above exercises are some of the best alternatives to the bent over row as they take the strain and load away from the low back whilst still allowing you to overload the upper back and put on some noticeable mass.

This is a post in a series of exercise alternatives, you might also want to check out:
Upright row alternatives
Preacher curl alternatives

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