Bent over barbell rows are one of the most old school back exercises you can do. While many lifters often opt for machine, cable, or dumbbell rowing movements, bent over barbell rows should not only not be overlooked, but are often preferable. Below are three reasons why.
Unlike most other back exercises, bent over barbell rows need no special equipment, cables, or anything else. All you need is a barbell, plates, and a little bit of space. This means they can be done in any gym or weight room.
While machines and dumbbells can still let you train heavy, it’s not totally uncommon to see these getting maxed out by stronger lifters. As a result, they have to either try to affix external weight plates to the apparatus, build their own custom dumbbells, or utilize sets of higher reps to fatigue the back.
However, barbells can be loaded as heavy as you like. This means there’s no chance that you’ll get so strong that you won’t be able to train heavy. This is important because while higher volume can have it’s place, it’s the really heavy weights used for sets of 6-8 reps that builds superior thickness throughout the rhomboids and and upper back.
Outside of the strength and extreme back thickness that heavy bent over barbell rows can build, perhaps the best reason to add them to your routine is that they can be done with near endless variations. As such, you can target specific areas of the back and vastly improve overall development.
For instance, if you utilize a grip width just outside your torso and pull the bar to the middle of your abdomen, you’ll get quite complete development of both the rhomboids and lats, middle back and upper back. However, pulling the bar up closer to your nipples will shift almost all the emphasis to your upper back and lower traps. Spreading the hands out wider will also involve the rear delts much more.
If you wanted to emulate a famous pro bodybuilder, you could narrow your stance (more like a romanian deadlift), and grab the bar with a palms facing away / curl grip. This variation was a known favorite of six-time Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates. He preferred it as it allowed him to rotate the upper arm around the shoulder socket more, almost mimicking a pullover. As a result, Dorian was able to build some of the best lower lats in all of bodybuilding at the time.
However, if you wanted to go a little old school, stick one end of the the bar in the corner, load up the other end, grab the bar in “hand-over-hand” position just below the inside collar, and do t-bar rows. This was a favorite of seven-time Mr. Olympia Arnold Schwarzenegger, who used to regularly do this exercise with 5, 6, and even 7 plates on the bar. He often credited his prominent back thickness to his liberal use of t-bar rows with a barbell.
If you do decide to try t-bar rows in this fashion, one tip to keep in mind is to not use 45 pound plates. This is because the plates bump into your chest and can restrict your range of motion. While many lifters have still gotten great results with the t-bar version of barbell rows, using 35 pound or even 25 pound plates will let you pull higher and contract the muscles more. It’ll be more of a pain as you’ll need more plates, but the increased results are usually worth it.
Bent over barbell rows aren’t completely necessary to build a strong and muscular upper back. However, they can make building one happen much quicker. This is because they can be done in any gym atmosphere with as much weight as you can handle, and with virtually any variation you want to hit the back how you best need. Add heavy rows to your schedule, and you’ll see your rhomboids and lats getting thicker in pretty short order.