Bent-over barbell rows are a popular back exercise. Some of the best bodybuilders have used them to build backs that look like mountain ranges. But, bent-over rows have a downside, too, and they put a lot of pressure on your lower back. While some people can do bent-over rows safely, they’re an injury waiting to happen for others.
The problem with barbell bent-over rows is that there is a tendency to do them with a rounded back. This puts a tremendous amount of stress on the spinous ligaments and intervertebral discs.
These structures are avascular, which means they have a very poor blood supply. Avascular tissue takes a long time to heal and sometimes doesn’t heal at all. That’s why back injuries are often severe and are always best avoided.
The most obvious way to avoid problems with bent-over rows is to do them without rounding your lower back, but that’s easier said than done. Tight hamstrings, a weak core, using too much weight, and lack of postural awareness all mean that some exercisers cannot help looking like a hunchback when they do bent-over rows – even people who should know better!
That’s not to say that barbell bent-over rows are a terrible exercise – they’re clearly effective. However, when deciding what movements to include in your bodybuilding workouts, you should always consider the cost versus the benefits. With bent-over rows, the risk of injury may outweigh the rewards.
It’s also important to remember that even exercises as potent as bent-over rows can lose some of their benefits if you do them too often, so that’s another reason for using different movements from time to time.
In this article, we reveal the 12 best bent over row alternatives so you can build the back of your dreams without destroying your spine and keeping your workouts challenging and effective.
Bent Over Row Muscle Worked
Bent-over rows are a compound back exercise. Compound exercises involve multiple joints and muscles working together. So, while most people do bent-over rows for their back muscles, there are several other muscles working too.
The main muscles involved in barbell bent-over rows are:
Latissimus dorsi – known as the lats for short, this muscle is the primary agonist or prime mover during bent-over rows. In other words, it’s the reason most people do this exercise. The lats are located on the sides of your upper back, and their functions are adduction, extension, and medial rotation of the shoulder joint. Well-develop lats look like wings and contribute to a V-shaped torso.
Middle trapezius and rhomboids – located across and between the scapulae, the mid-traps and rhomboids work together to retract your shoulder blades. Developing these muscles will give your upper back thickness and could improve your posture.
Posterior deltoids – while barbell bent-over rows are most definitely a back exercise, your shoulders are also involved. Of the three deltoids, the posterior or rear head is most active during this exercise. Using a wide grip and pulling the bar into your chest increases posterior delt activation.
Biceps brachii – bent over rows give your biceps a good workout alongside your back muscles. Biceps activation is significantly higher if you use a narrow supinated (underhand) grip for this exercise.
Erector spinae – leaning forward to do bent-over rows means that your lower back gets a good workout as you train your upper back muscles. The erector spinae are the muscles that run up your spine. During bent-over rows, these muscles contract isometrically or statically to hold your upper body in position. Weak erector spinae muscles are one of the causes of a rounded back.
Core – this is the collective term for the muscles of your midsection, including your rectus abdominus, obliques, and transverse abdominis. Acting like a weightlifting belt, these muscles contract to create intra-abdominal pressure and support your spine from within.
Glutes and hamstrings – while barbell bent-over rows are an upper body exercise, your legs get in on the action too. Working with your erector spinae, your glutes and hamstrings must work to hold you in that all-important bent-over row position.
The 12 Best Bent Over Row Alternatives
Whether bent-over rows bother your back, or you are just looking for some different ways to work your lats, we’ve got the alternatives you need!
Bent-over rows are a horizontal pulling exercise, and while you COULD do things like pull-ups and pulldowns instead, those are vertical pulling exercises, so they aren’t the best alternatives.
So, in this article, we will focus entirely on horizontal pulls as they are the best substitutes for barbell bent-over rows.
1. T-Bar Rows
T-bar rows are every bit as popular as barbell bent-over rows. There is a little less stress on your lower back with T-bar rows, so it’s easier to avoid rounding your lumbar spine. That doesn’t mean it’s 100% safe, but the T-bar row may be a good option if you find that barbell bent-over rows bother your back.
Learn all about T-bar rows in our detailed guide.
2. Single-Arm Dumbbell Rows
While single-arm rows are great for developing a more muscular, stronger upper back, they’re also much easier on your lower back. With one arm free, you can support yourself on a bench, making this exercise a whole lot more lower-back friendly. As an added advantage, you can use this exercise to identify and fix any left-to-right strength imbalances you might have.
Find out how to do single-arm dumbbell rows here.
3. Kroc Rows
Kroc rows are a variation of single-arm dumbbell rows. Named after bodybuilder and powerlifter Mathew Kroczaleski, who after gender reassignment is now called Janae Marie Kroc, this exercise involves lifting heavy weights for high reps to build both muscle size and strength. If you want to kick your single-arm row workouts up a notch, this could be the exercise for you.
Learn all about Kroc rows in our in-depth article.
4. Body Rows
You don’t need a whole lot of equipment to work your upper back. In fact, body rows, also known as inverted rows and Australian rows, use your body weight for resistance, and you can do them anywhere you can find a waist-high bar. They work all of the same muscles as bent-over rows but put very little stress on your lower back.
5. Pendlay Rows
Pendlay rows are very similar to bent-over rows, but they’re a little easier on your lower back. With Pendlay rows, you set the bar down on the floor between reps, giving your back and grip a brief rest. Named after US weightlifting and powerlifting coach Glen Pendlay, this is an excellent exercise for building strength and muscle size.
Discover how to do Pendlay rows here.
Deadlifts might not look a lot like bent-over rows, but they work almost all of the same muscles. When you do deadlifts, you have to push the barbell back toward your legs, activating your lats. You also need to pull your shoulders down and back, working your traps and rhomboids. Many bodybuilders include deadlifts in their back workouts.
Learn how to deadlift the right way in this detailed guide.
7. Rack Pulls
Rack pulls are a deadlift variation where you lift the bar from the pins of a power rack. This reduces the range of motion, allowing you to lift more weight. Starting with the bar off the floor means less low back stress and not so much lower body work. However, like deadlifts, it’s still an effective upper back builder.
Check out our guide to rack pulls here.
8. Seated Cable Rows
Seated cable rows look a lot like bent-over rows. However, because you don’t have to support the weight of your upper body, they’re a little more lower-back friendly. However, to prevent injury, you still need to avoid rounding your lower back.
Learn how to do seated cable rows in this guide.
9. Chest-Supported Dumbbell Rows
While many of the exercises in this guide are easier on your lower back than bent-over rows, most still involve your erector spinae. This exercise is different because it removes your lower back entirely from your workout. Give your lower back a break with chest-supported dumbbell rows.
Learn how to do chest-supported dumbbell rows here.
10. Lawnmower Rows
Lawnmower rows are so-called because, when you do them, it looks like you are pulling on the starter handle of a gas-powered lawnmower. Using a low cable machine, this exercise workouts your upper back and biceps, as well as your core, especially your obliques.
How to do it:
- Attach a D-shaped handle to a low cable machine.
- Hold the handle and step back into a staggered stance for stability. Brace your abs and pull your shoulders down and back.
- From this position, bend your arm and pull the cable up and back to your ribs, leading with your elbow. Rotate your torso slightly to increase your range of motion.
- Lower the weight back to the starting position and repeat.
- Do the same number of reps on both sides.
11. Renegade Rows
While you probably won’t be able to go very heavy when you do renegade rows, it’s still a very effective back exercise. In addition, it’s excellent for building a stronger core and can easily be combined with push-ups to work your entire upper body.
Find out how to do renegade rows correctly in this in-depth guide.
12. Yates Row
Dorian Yates, a six-time Mr. Olympia winner, had one of the best backs in bodybuilding history. He did bent-over rows but didn’t lean over as far as many of his contemporaries. This allowed him to lift more weight and also reduce the stress on his lower back. Looking at Yates’ physique, it’s clear that this is a potent exercise. Try it; you might like it!
Learn all about the famous Yates row in this article.
Bent Over Row Alternatives – Wrapping Up
When it comes to bodybuilding exercises, many people are quick to ask questions like “what is the best back exercise” or “what is the best chest exercise.” And while some exercises are undoubtedly better than others, there usually isn’t a single answer that everyone can agree on. That’s because what works for one person may not work for another.
Bent over rows are a classic example of this. For some, they’re one of the best back builders around. For others, they are simply a source of back pain and injury.
Don’t feel that you are missing out because you can’t do a so-called best exercise. While it might be effective, that doesn’t mean it’s right for you.
Listen to your body and experiment with a range of exercises to find your own list of best movements. The exercises that provide the greatest results with the least amount of risk are the ones you should use.
Try these 12 bent-over alternatives to discover the best exercises for building the back of your dreams while minimizing your risk of injury.