Rowing movements are a fantastic way to add some good thickness to your back and there are plenty of exercises to choose from.
It’s important to include a variety of movements that focus on both width and thickness. Pulling movements that require the torso to be in a vertical position (like a lat pulldown or a pull-up) will mainly target the width of your back.
Whereas movements where your torso is usually horizontal and you’re performing more of a rowing motion (like a dumbbell row or a T-bar row) are going to focus more on thickness in the lats.
Today we’re going to focus on the movements that target back thickness and we’re going to tackle two great exercises and compare them both. Read on as we compare the inverted row vs barbell rows.
What Is an Inverted Row?
Inverted rows are a great exercise to master before you move over to pull-ups.
This is an exercise that uses your body weight as resistance, which can be increased in difficulty the further you extend your legs out in front of you. It’s an easily accessible exercise to perform in the gym as all you need is a bar to lean back from, as well as your body weight.
You’ll also benefit from an added core workout as you need to keep this tight to keep your body straight.
Make sure to keep the torso in line with the legs so the body is forming one long straight line – also be sure to control your descent back to the starting position. We’re focusing on total time under tension here.
You can perform this movement both with an overhand (pronated) grip and an underhand (supinated) grip; depending on which hand positioning you are using will also decide on the primary focus area of your lats.
If you favor an overhand grip you are focusing more on the upper lats and traps whereas, if you’re using an underhand grip you’re focusing more on the lower lats as well as the biceps.
Whatever variation you choose, make sure to be squeezed at the top of the movement. Rowing movements are great for the added advantage of being able to get a full contraction at the top of the movement.
Which Muscles Are Worked In Inverted Rows?
When working with rows you’re mainly improving the thickness of your back. Let’s focus on the overhand grip first; with this hand placement, you are providing more direct stimulation to the lats (those big triangular-shaped muscles that cover the majority of your back).
By strengthening your lats you’ll greatly improve your posture as well as provide more support to your torso when performing large compound movements like the overhead press or deadlift.
As mentioned earlier – the overhand grip focuses more on the upper back area, so you’ll also be hitting your traps (the muscles on either side of your neck that then travel down your spine to your lats) as well as your rear deltoids.
Combined together, these muscle groups make up the majority of your upper back.
Due to the muscles being needed to assist the movement, you’ll also get some stimulation to your biceps and forearms; but on a lesser scale compared to the underhand grip.
The underhand grip will still be hitting your lats as a whole, but more of that focus is on the lower lats and not so much on the traps as a result of the arm path you’ll take.
Expert tip – The lower your elbows pull into (think your waist) the more lat involvement you’ll get, whereas the higher up and more flared out your elbows are, the more upper back and rear delt engagement.
If this is your target area to improve then an underhand grip is the way to go. You’ll also be providing more stimulation to the biceps and forearms during this movement as they are in more of a natural position to assist in pulling the torso upward.
No matter which variation you choose, be sure to perform this in a slow and controlled manner. It can be very easy to start using the momentum from your body weight to help assist you if you’re not mindful of what you’re doing.
Always remember: 5 perfect reps are better than 10 reps performed with assistance from momentum.
What Is a Barbell Row?
Barbell rows have always been a popular choice for adding thickness to your lats and traps. They also do not require too much equipment to perform.
Grab a barbell and some weight plates and you’re good to go.
As this movement works your upper back, lower back, hip flexors, and your arms – it is definitely considered to be a full body compound movement.
Just like with the inverted row, it’s important to keep your back/spine in a neutral position. Don’t let it round or you’ll end up putting a lot of pressure on your lower back and increase your risk of injury.
It can be very easy to start cheating when performing this movement; be sure to perform slow and controlled reps. It can become second nature to start using the hips to assist you in shifting the weight but again, doing so will mean less stimulation on the area and target muscles that you’re trying to stimulate.
To avoid rounding the back at the bottom of the movement, you can rest the barbell on the ground momentarily to reset yourself for your next rep (also known as a Pendlay Row). You’ll find that if you don’t do this, your back will slowly start to round as you perform more reps at heavier weights.
Barbell Row Muscles Worked
There’s a reason this movement proves to be popular for back thickness.
Due to the positioning of the torso, it can be a great choice to get a full squeeze at the top of the movement and achieve maximum contraction.
It’s one of the most popular movements for overall strength and muscle building due to the large number of muscles needed to assist the lift. You’ll be targeting the back, traps, rear deltoids, hamstrings, glutes, biceps, and forearms, to name a few.
Though keep in mind the latter muscles are stimulated through passive tension by holding and stabilizing the weight, your hamstrings will be engaged but won’t grow from barbell rowing.
This is also another move you can switch up depending on the grip you want to use. No matter whether using an overhand or underhand grip – bring the bar up toward the belly button and hold for a few seconds to get a good contraction, before slowly lowering back to the starting position.
The same rule applies to the inverted row, if you’re using an overhand grip you’re focusing more on the upper back, rear deltoids, and traps; whereas an underhand grip is going to focus more on the central area of the lats and your biceps/forearms.
You will have the added benefit of increasing your grip strength when performing this move. If you find your grip is giving out before your back, maybe perform the odd set with some wrist wraps.
But don’t become too reliant on these as a lack of grip strength will hinder a lot of your possible back progress.
Inverted Row vs Barbell Row: Comparison
We’ve covered the ins and outs of each exercise; so, which one is better for you? The answer could lie in both your goals and what equipment is readily available for you to use.
The barbell row can be a contender for lower back issues as it’s easy to incorrectly perform this exercise if you’re not careful. Whereas the inverted row adds less stress to this area as your core is the main area used to stabilize your torso throughout the movement.
What’s beneficial for this age-old question is the fact research has been done to find the official answer!
Studies show that lat muscle activity is around 60% greater whilst performing the inverted row in comparison to the barbell row. More muscle engagement is usually what we’re always striving for when choosing the right exercise, so with that evidence alone, we have a winner.
The potential to load weight and utilize progressive overload is a lot more difficult with an inverted row.
Therefore, in the short term you may get more lat engagement from an inverted row but for long-term muscle growth, the weight progression that a barbell row allows could result in greater overall muscle mass and strength gains.
If possible, it would be great to have both variations within your routine to maximize your lat potential though.
Remember that there’s no need to favor one over the other, but more so important for you to know what muscles these exercises stimulate so you have more data to decide when and where to incorporate these into your workout week.
For overall back development, you ideally want (or need) to be including a rowing exercise in your routine.
The back is a large and complex muscle group that works through multiple ranges of motion and has muscle fibers running in a variety of directions. What this essentially means is that you need to target your back from a variety of angles for maximum growth.
Therefore, a row is almost essential but with so many to choose from, which is best? Above, we’ve looked at the inverted row (a bodyweight dominant exercise) and the barbell row (a compound barbell exercise).
While both would be beneficial, a fair assessment would be that inverted rows are ideal for beginners whereas a barbell row is better for an intermediate-advanced lifter.
The reasoning is that an inverted row produces more lat activation/stimulation and is an easier movement to safely learn. It will help develop perfect rowing form before you move onto a spinal loading exercise like the barbell row.
Once you have the core strength and form to handle a loaded weight, a barbell row may be the better option as the loading potential is significantly greater for a barbell row so in terms of long-term progress, this would be a great option for most people.
There is room for both in a routine though and it would simply depend on how you best program them into a routine.
If you’re looking into some other rows to grow your back, check out our list of the best barbell row alternatives next.
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