Bodybuilders have a saying; if you want your back to grow, you gotta row! While a lot of exercisers do endless sets of pulldowns and pull-ups to build bigger lats, more knowedagble lifters also dedicate a lot of time and energy to rowing exercises.
It’s commonly accepted that while vertical pulls (pulldowns and pull-ups) are great for building back width, it’s horizontal pulls (all rowing variations) that give your back its thickness. After all, if you really want a back to be proud of, you need both width AND thickness, right?
With so many rowing exercises to choose from, you may be wondering which one is best. The reality is that they all deserve a place in your workout. However, if we really had to choose the best rowing exercise for back building, we’d probably go with T-bar rows.
In this guide, we are going to cover everything you need to know about this classic back builder so that you can enjoy all the benefits it has to offer.
Muscles Worked During T-Bar Rows
T-bar rows are a compound exercise. That means they involve two joints or more and multiple muscle groups. Bodybuilders class T-bar rows as a back exercise, but other muscles are also involved. The main muscles are (1):
- Latissimus dorsi – located on the side of your back, this muscle is responsible for shoulder extension and adduction. When well-developed, the lats as they are commonly known, look like wings. Big lats are visible not just from the back but from the front too.
- Middle trapezius – also known as your traps, this is the diamond-shaped muscle that covers much of your upper back. Its primary function is the retraction of the shoulder girdle. The mid-traps give your upper back thickness.
- Rhomboids – located beneath your mid-traps, the rhomboids are also involved in the retraction of the shoulder girdle.
- Posterior deltoids – one of three deltoids or shoulder muscles, this muscle is responsible for horizontal extension and external rotation of the shoulder joint.
- Biceps brachii – generally shortened to just biceps, this is your main elbow flexor. You can’t perform T-bar rows without giving your biceps a workout too.
- Forearms – there are lots of muscles in your forearms, many of which are involved in T-bar rows. You’ll need a strong grip to perform this exercise, and some lifters use straps to help improve their hold on the bar.
- Erector spinae – the collective name for the muscles that make up your lower back. The erector spinae work isometrically or statically during T-bar rows to hold your spine in a stable position and prevent your back from rounding dangerously.
- Glutes, hamstrings, and quadriceps – while T-bar rows are most definitely an upper body exercise, they also involve your legs, albeit indirectly. Your glutes and hamstrings contract to hold your hips in place while your quadriceps work hard to stabilize your knees. If you do cheat reps, these muscles can help you lift the weight.
How to Perform T-Bar Rows
To get the greatest benefits with the least amount of risk from any exercise, you must do it correctly. T-bar rows involve unsupported forward flexion, and that can put a lot of strain on your lower back muscles and spine. Done improperly, this exercise could cause serious injury. Here’s how to do T-bar rows the right way!
1- Step onto the T-bar row platform and stand with one foot on either side of the bar. Your feet should be between shoulder to hip-width apart.
2- With your feet flat, bend your knees slightly and hinge forward from your hips. Keep your back slightly arched.
3- Grasp the handles with both hands. With your arms straight, lift the weight up until your torso is between 45 degrees and parallel to the floor.
4- Bend your arms and pull the handle into your chest. Lead with your elbows and keep your wrists straight. Do not allow your lower back to round.
5- Fully extend your arms and repeat.
6- If you DO decide to do some cheat reps, make sure your use your legs for assistance and avoid rounding your lower back as this can lead to serious injury.
The Benefits of T-Bar Rows
There are lots of reasons why we LOVE the T-bar row. Here’s a list of the main ones:
It’s a total back exercise: T-bar rows are much more than just a lat exercise. In fact, it works your entire posterior chain. This makes it a very efficient exercise. If you only have time for one back exercise, the T-bar row would be a good choice. It also gives your biceps a good workout too.
Easier to learn than barbell bent-over rows: Barbell bent over rows are a good exercise, but they can be tricky to master. With bent over rows, you have to decide for yourself where to place your hands on the barbell, and whether you should use an underhand or overhand grip. You also have to lift the bar from the floor before you even start your first rep, and then do a sort of Romanian deadlift to get into your starting position.
T-bar rows are much simpler. The machine guides the weight, and getting into your starting position much easier. All this means T-bar rows are easier to learn. You still need to pay attention to your technique, but T-bar rows are the more straightforward back exercise.
Versatility: Most T-bar row machines allow you to use different hand positions to work your back from a variety of angles. The most common grips available for the T-bar row are:
- Shoulder width-neutral
With four hand positions to choose from, you can add plenty of variety to your workouts.
Safety: With T-bar rows, the weight is directly below your center of gravity (COG), which means it should put less stress on your lower back. Bent over barbell rows and Pendlay rows put the weight out in front of your COG, which can pull you forward and increase lower back strain.
Adaptability and loading: The T-bar row is a good exercise, whether you are as strong as an ox or as weak as a kitten. You can use as little or as much weight as you like and can safely handle. Adding or removing weights takes mere seconds, so you can adjust the load without interrupting or delaying your workout. Because most T-bar rows are plate-loading machines, you can also use low denomination weights to increase your workload in small increments, e.g., 2.5 pounds.
T-Bar Row Tips
Get the most from T-bar rows with these useful tips!
Keep your shoulders pulled down and back: This not only increases mid-trap and rhomboid activation; it also protects your shoulders too. Keep your shoulders down and back from your first rep to your last.
Keep your wrists straight: Flexing your wrists won’t help you lift more weight or do more reps. In fact, it may cause your grip to fail prematurely. Keep your wrists straight throughout your set.
Lead with your elbows: Whichever hand position you use, make sure you lead with your elbows to maximize muscle activation and recruitment. Imagine you are trying to drive your elbows into a wall behind you. This will also help you keep your wrists straight.
Use straps if you need them: If your grip fails before your back, you won’t get as much benefit from this exercise as you could. Use lifting straps to eliminate the weak link that could end up undermining your back growth.
Wear a weightlifting belt if required: A weightlifting belt increases intra-abdominal pressure, which helps support your spine from within. If you know how to use one correctly, a weightlifting belt may be useful for T-bar rows. Weightlifting belts don’t support your back all on their own – that’s not what weighting belts do – but wearing one may allow you to maintain proper back alignment more easily by giving you something to brace your abs against.
T-Bar Row Variations and Alternatives
No T-bar row machine at your gym? Or just looking for a similar exercise to do in place of T-bar rows? Don’t worry; we’ve got you covered. Here are SIX T-bar row variations and alternatives.
1- Chest Supported T Bar Rows
Regular, unsupported T-bar rows can be hard on your lower back. A weak lower back will also limit the amount of weight you can use. To get around these problems, some gyms have chest supported T-bar row machines. Use this exercise as a spine-friendly alternative to regular T-bar rows.
How to do it:
- Lie face down on the bench and reach down to grasp your chosen handle. Pull your shoulders down and back.
- Bend your arms and pull the weight up to your chest.
- Extend your arms and repeat.
2- Barbell T-Bar Rows
No T-bar row machine at your gym? Good news; you can replicate this exercise with nothing more than a barbell and some weight plates.
- Place the end of a regular Olympic barbell in the corner of the gym. Load the other end with the required weight plates.
- Stand astride the bar and hold it below the weights with a narrow, overlapping grip.
- With your back slightly arched and knees bent, lift the weight off the floor. Your torso should be between 45 degrees and parallel to the floor.
- Leading with your elbows, pull the bar up and into your body.
- Extend your arms and repeat.
Some gyms have handles that slot onto barbells for this exercise, and you can also do T-bar rows using a landmine device.
3- Pendlay Rows
While T-bar rows are one of our favorite back exercises, Pendlay rows come a very close second. Named after weightlifter and powerlifter Glen Pendlay, this exercise is an excellent alternative to T-bar rows that gives your lower back a brief rest between reps.
How to do it:
- Start with your barbell on the floor. Stand with your feet about hip to shoulder-width apart, toes under the bar.
- With your knees slightly bent, hinge forward from the hips and bend over until your upper body is parallel to the floor. Keep your lower slightly arched.
- Grab the barbell with an overhand, slightly wider than shoulder-width grip. Tuck your chin in and lengthen your neck; do not lift your head or look forward.
- Brace your core, squeeze your shoulder blades together, and pull the bar up into your abdomen. The bar should touch your stomach. Lead with your elbows, keeping your upper arms tucked in close to your sides. Your upper body should remain stationary throughout.
- Lower the barbell back down the floor and allow it to touch down. Reset your core and repeat.
4- Inverted Rows
No T-bar row? No barbell? That’s okay; you can still work your lats, mid-traps, rhomboids, posterior deltoids, and your biceps using little more than your body weight and a low bar or TRX.
How to do it:
- Adjust your bar or TRX, so it’s about waist-height. Sit on the floor below it. Reach up and hold on using your preferred grip, i.e., overhand or underhand if you are using a bar, or neutral if you are using a TRX.
- With your arms straight, lean back and extend your legs. Lift your butt off the floor, so your knees, hips, and shoulders form a straight line. Pull your shoulders down and back.
- Bend your arms and, leading with your elbows, pull yourself up until your chest is roughly level with your hands.
- Slowly and smoothly extend your arms and repeat.
5- Single Arm Dumbbell Rows
Like T-bar rows, single-arm dumbbell rows allow you to work your lats with a neutral grip. All you need to do is rotate your wrist. You can use this exercise to identify and fix left to right strength imbalances. And, as an added advantage, your free arm will provide you with some welcome support, taking stress off your lower back.
How to do it:
- With a dumbbell in one hand, lean forward and place your other hand on a knee-high exercise bench. Bend your knees slightly, make sure your lower back is slightly arched, and allow the weight to hang down from your shoulder. Tuck your chin in and extend your neck.
- With your abs braced and your shoulder pulled down and back, row the weight up and into your ribs.
- Extend your arm and repeat.
- Some people prefer to do this exercise with one knee resting on a bench. That’s okay providing you can keep your hips level and avoid rounding your lower back. Taller exercises may find it better to keep both feet on the floor.
6- Meadows Row
The Meadow’s row, named after bodybuilder John Meadows, is a one-armed version of the T-bar row. It can be done using a regular T-bar machine, a landmine device, or a barbell placed in the corner of your gym. It’s a unique exercise and provides a great way to build your lats while being easier on your lower back than standard T-bar rows.
How to do it:
- Stand at the end of your T-bar row machine, so you are perpendicular to the bar. Reach down and grab the bar with your nearest hand. Keep your knees slightly bent.
- Without rounding your lower back, row the end of the bar up and into the side of your ribs.
- Extend your arm and repeat.
- You can create a Meadow’s/Pendlay row hybrid by resting the weight on the floor between reps.
Common T-Bar Row Mistakes to Avoid
Get the most from T-bar rows by avoiding these common mistakes.
Using too much weight: As a compound exercise, T-bar rows can be done with substantial weights, but using too much could make this exercise less effective. If you have to cheat to complete all your reps, round your back, or are unable to use a full range of motion, you are probably going too heavy. Reduce the weight and focus on your technique. In time, you’ll get stronger, and your weights will increase.
Standing too upright: Bending over increases the stress on your lower back but, to make this exercise as effective as possible, you must lean forward to hit your lats, rhomboids, and mid traps. Some exercisers don’t bend over far enough doing T-bar rows, turning it into more of an upright row. Upright rows work your upper traps and deltoids, and not your lats. If you cannot lean forward and maintain the proper position, you may be using too much weight. Reduce the load or, alternatively, use a chest-supported T-bar row machine.
Don’t round your lower back: We’ve mentioned this before, but it’s such an important thing to remember that we’re going to say it again! Rounding your lower back puts a lot of extra stress on your spine and could lead to serious and even permanent injury. If you aren’t sure about the position of your back, ask a training partner to watch you and give you feedback. Alternatively, video yourself during your workout.
Frequently asked questions
Do you have any questions? We’ve got the answers! If you can’t find the answer you are looking for below, drop us a line in the comments section, and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can.
T-bar rows hurt my back - why?
Without watching you do this exercise, it’s impossible to pinpoint the exact problem, but back pain during T-bar rows is usually the result of one or more of the following:
- Rounding your lower back
- Using too much weight
- Weak core or erector spinae
- Standing too far back from the handle
Fix these problems, and you may find that your back pain disappears. Alternatively, if T-bar rows continue to aggravate your back, swap to one of the alternatives listed above. If your back hurts during other parts of your workout, you should consider seeking medical advice
What weight and reps should I use for T-bar rows?
Don’t just load up the T-bar row with any old weight and hope that you reach your training goals. Instead, use the following guidelines to help you choose the right rep range and loading parameters:
- For strength: 3-5 reps using 85%+ of your one-repetition maximum (1RM). Rest 3-5 minutes between sets.
- For hypertrophy (muscle growth): 6-12 reps using 67-85% of your 1RM. Rest 60-90 seconds between sets.
- For muscular endurance:13-20+ reps using less than 67% of your 1RM. Rest 30-60 seconds between sets.
Not sure what your 1RM for the T-bar row is? Don’t worry; just make sure the weight you are using fatigues your muscles within the specified repetition range. If you can’t hit the lower number, the weight is too heavy, but if you can do more than the upper number, the weight is too light.
My trainer says T-bar rows are dangerous, is he right?
Any exercise can be dangerous if it isn’t done correctly. Because you have to lean forward to do them, T-bar rows do put stress on your lower back but, providing you maintain an arched lumbar spine and brace your core, this is no more dangerous than deadlifts, squats, or almost any other standing free weight exercise.
Keep your risk of injury to a minimum by starting with light weights, perfecting your technique, and increasing the load gradually. You should find that T-bar rows are not all that dangerous at all.
Which is the best handle for T-bar row?
One of the best things about T-bar rows is that they allow you to position your hands in one of four (or more) ways. This provides your workouts with some extra variety that you won’t get from barbell and dumbbell rows. But, while these variations are useful, one grip is not better than the others, and they all have advantages and benefits.
Most people find the narrow, parallel grip the most comfortable and also the grip that allows them to lift more weight. However, for hitting the mid-traps and rhomboids, the wider but weaker overhand grip is usually better.
Instead of trying to pick just one grip, why not use them all? You could do one set with each during your back workout or use one grip for a month before changing. Either way, don’t write off one grip when they can all be useful.
Now you’ve read our guide to T-bar rows, you have everything you need to know to get the most from this exercise. It might not be the quickest exercise to master, and things like chest supported and seated rows are undeniably easier, but it’s one of the best moves for packing slabs of powerful muscle onto your entire back. From top to bottom and side to side, the T-bar rows are an awesome back-building exercise.
1- Encyclopedia Britannica: Back Anatomy https://www.britannica.com
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