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The Barbell Row Exercise

Ronai, Peter M.S., RCEP, CEP, EP-C, CSCS-D, FACSM

doi: 10.1249/FIT.0000000000000278
Columns: Do It Right
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Peter Ronai, M.S., RCEP, CEP, EP-C, CSCS-D, FACSM, is a clinical associate professor of exercise science in the Department of Physical Therapy and Human Movement Sciences at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut. He is a Fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and an associate editor of ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal®. He is a member of ACSM’s Health & Fitness Summit & Expo program committee and a past president of the New England Chapter of ACSM (NEACSM). He writes articles regarding exercise programming for persons with chronic diseases and disorders and also about online tips and tools that exercise professionals can access to better serve their clients.

Disclosure: The author declares no conflict of interest and does not have any financial disclosures.

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EXERCISE TYPE

The barbell row is a compound, multijoint upper body exercise intended to increase strength of muscles within the upper and middle back, posterior shoulder girdle, and anterior elbow joint (1,4,10).

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BENEFITS OF THE EXERCISE

The barbell row often is performed as a means of enhancing upper body strength and posture (3,4,7,8,11).

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INTRODUCTION

The barbell row exercise is a basic multijoint upper body exercise that can be performed by athletes and nonathletes alike for improving strength of the posterior shoulder girdle, back, and elbow flexor muscles (3–8,11). It often is taught to athletes during initial stages of strength enhancement training and with novice nonathletes because of its relative simplicity. Because of relatively higher compressive loads on some lumbar spine structures than other rowing exercises, proper teaching, posture, and exercise techniques are warranted (4). Lifters should be free of back pain, and those with a history of back pain should consider an alternative exercise to the barbell row (4). The barbell row exercise appears in Figure 1.

Figure 1

Figure 1

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PRIMARY MUSCLES ACTIVATED

The latissimus dorsi, teres major, rhomboids, middle trapezius, lower trapezius, posterior deltoid, infraspinatus and teres minor, erector spinae, biceps brachi, brachialis, and brachioradialis (1,4,5). Figure 2 depicts a posterior and anterior view of muscles activated during the barbell row exercise.

Figure 2

Figure 2

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TEACHING AND SAFETY POINTS

The barbell row is a two-phase exercise consisting of the upward pulling and downward lowering phases. The pulling and lowering phases of the barbell row are preceded and followed by the starting and ending positions in which the barbell is raised safely from and lowered to the floor, respectively, in a controlled manner. To enhance safety, and effective learning, lifters unfamiliar with performing the barbell row should use either unloaded or lightly loaded bars to learn the right body position and to develop proper exercise technique. The barbell row exercise is taught or coached with close supervision but generally not directly spotted like the biceps curl, barbell squat, or bench press exercises. Optimal viewing of the phases of the barbell row can occur when combining anterior (front), lateral (side), and posterior (back/rear) views. Clients should be screened for and free of musculoskeletal injuries before performing this exercise. Clients should demonstrate proper technique and control before increasing the amount of weight to be lifted.

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STARTING POSITION

Proper alignment in the starting position is fundamental to performing all lifting tasks from the floor and should be taught to novices engaging in all forms of resistance training. With feet in a shoulder-width position, squat down with hips lower than shoulders, knees slightly flexed, and grasp the bar with a wider-than-shoulder-width, closed, pronated grip. Elbows are fully extended, pointed outward slightly with feet flat on the floor, bar kept close to the shins and over the balls of the feet. The head and neck are aligned with the trunk by focusing eyes slightly ahead of the feet. While maintaining a rigid torso and neutral or flat back, the bar should be lifted off the floor by extending the hips and knees. Next, the torso is positioned slightly above a parallel-to-the-floor or horizontal position with the elbows fully extended and the bar positioned slightly above the ground. All repetitions begin and end in this position. Common errors include rounding the upper back, letting the hips rise ahead of or faster than the shoulders, letting the bar travel too far in front of the body, straightening or extending the knees before the hips, and lifting with the back instead of the legs. Verbal teaching cues for this stage of the exercise include “keep back flat or slightly arched,” “hold the chest up and out,” “squeeze the shoulder blades together,” “look straight ahead or slightly upward,” “keep the shoulders slightly in front of the bar,” and “push the feet through the floor while straightening the knees.” Figure 3A and 3B depict the starting position and the proper technique for lifting the bar off the floor, respectively. Please refer to digital content file no. 1 (http://links.lww.com/FIT/A53) for a video depicting proper technique for lifting the bar from the floor and getting into the starting position.

Figure 3

Figure 3

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THE UPWARD PULLING PHASE

Proper alignment and technique should be mastered before loading the bar. While the torso remains rigid and motionless with the knees and hips bent slightly and the elbows fully extended and turned slightly outward throughout the exercise, the head and neck are aligned with the trunk by focusing the eyes slightly ahead of the feet. All repetitions begin and end in this position. The torso remains slightly above parallel with the floor. Hips and knees remain slightly flexed, the chest is pushed upward and outward, and the scapulae (shoulder blades) are slightly retracted or adducted (pulled toward each other). Exhale while pulling the bar upward in a smooth, continuous manner by horizontally abducting and extending the shoulders and retracting the scapulae and flexing the elbows, respectively (5). Pause approximately 1 second before lowering the bar to the starting position. A duration of 1 to 2 seconds during the upward pulling phase is appropriate. Verbal teaching cues include “keep the hips and knees slightly bent and the back slightly arched,” “pull the shoulders and elbows upward and backward toward the ceiling,” and “pull the bar into the lower chest or upper abdomen.” Common errors include jerking the bar upward with momentum from the torso and lower back, rounding the upper back, failing to fully extend the elbows between repetitions, lifting the head and neck above or lowering below neutral position, respectively, and breath holding while pulling or pausing with the bar. Figures 4A and 4B depict the starting and pausing positions during the upward pulling phase of the barbell row. Please refer to digital content file no. 2 (http://links.lww.com/FIT/A54) for a video depicting proper technique for performing the barbell row exercise.

Figure 4

Figure 4

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THE DOWNWARD LOWERING PHASE

While the head, neck, and torso maintain the same alignment as during the upward pulling phase, the bar is lowered and returned to the starting position in a controlled manner. The erector spinae and abdominal muscles provide spine stability during the entire barbell row exercise (4). Verbal teaching cues include “keep the trunk motionless,” “lower the bar with control, don’t drop it,” and “straighten the elbows fully.” Figure 5 depicts the end of the lowering phase of the barbell row exercise.

Figure 5

Figure 5

Loading intensities expressed as percentage of the one repetition maximum, number of repetitions, and sets as well as rest period durations should reflect the specific objectives of the overall training program, which can include hypertrophy, strength, endurance, or power (9).

As an alternative, the barbell row exercise can be performed in a prone position from a training bench (1). Prone barbell bench rows are used as both a means of testing and developing upper body strength in rowing athletes (7,8,11). Figures 6A and 6B depict the start and finish and the end of the upward pulling phases, respectively, of the prone barbell bench row. Please refer to digital content file no. 3 (http://links.lww.com/FIT/A55) for a video depicting proper technique for performing the prone barbell bench row.

Figure 6

Figure 6

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SUMMARY

The barbell row exercise is one of a number of rowing exercises used to enhance strength and muscle development in the upper back, posterior shoulder girdle, and shoulder joint muscles, respectively. It often is taught relatively early in a strength and conditioning program because of its relative simplicity. Its utility as a safe and effective strength development tool is predicated on sound instruction, effective supervision, and proper execution.

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References

1. Caulfield S, Berninger D. NSCA’s Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. In: Haff GG, Triplett TN, editors. National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). 4th ed. Champaign, (IL): Human Kinetics; 2016. p. 362–3.
2. Chandler TJ, Brown LE (eds). Conditioning for Strength and Human Performance. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, (PA): Wolters Kluwer/Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2013. p. 244–6.
    3. Cowell JF, McGuigan MR, Cronin JB. Movement and skill analysis of supercross bicycle motocross. J Strength Cond Res. 2012;26(6):1688–94.
    4. Fenwick CM, Brown SH, McGill SM. Comparison of different rowing exercises: trunk muscle activation and lumbar spine motion, load and stiffness. J Strength Cond Res. 2009;23(5):1408–17.
    5. Floyd RT. Manual of Structural Kinesiology. 19th edition. New York (NY): McGraw Hill Education; 2015. 222 p.
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    7. Gee TJ, Olsen PD, Berger NJ, Colby J, Thompson KG. Strength and conditioning practices in rowing. J Strength Cond Res. 2011;25(3):668–82.
    8. Lawton TW, Cronin JB, McGuigan MR. Strength, power and muscular endurance exercise and elite rowing ergometer performance. J Strength Cond Res. 2013;27(7):1928–35.
    9. Ratamess NA, Alvar BA, Evetovich TK, et al. ACSM position stand: progression models in resistance training for healthy adults. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2009;41(3):687–708.
    10. Ratamess N (ed). ACSM’s Foundations of Strength Training. Philadelphia, (PA): Wolters Kluwer/Lippincott Williams and Wilkins; 2012. p. 277–8.
    11. Ualí I, Herrero AJ, Garatachea N, Marín PJ, Alvear-Ordenes I, García-López D. Maximal strength on different resistance training rowing exercises predicts start phase performance in elite kayakers. J Strength Cond Res. 2012;26(4):941–6.
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    Recommended Reading:

    Exercise Prescription on the Net. (cited 2016 Jun 28). Available from: http://http://www.exrx.net/WeightExercises/BackGeneral/BBBentOverRow.html.

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      © 2017 American College of Sports Medicine.