Last updated on February 8th, 2023 at 10:01 am
I’m just going to come out and say it, I’ve always had a loathing for barbell rows, simply because they feel so damn awkward.
Don’t get me wrong, I still regularly perform them, as I know they are one of the best upper back and lat-building exercises.
However, I always have a sense of resignation when I know it’s barbell row day.
Plus, I know there are many other people out there who feel exactly the same.
So, in this article I’d like to explain why barbell rows are so awkward and what you can do to make them a little more straightforward.
The main reason that barbell rows feel awkward is that you have to challenge your core, erector spinae muscles, glutes, and hamstrings simply to hold the “bent over” position. Furthermore, when rowing with too much weight it becomes difficult to maintain a neutral spine. However, use too little weight and you can’t feel the upper back and lats being activated.
Barbell Rows Feel Unnatural
I’m not sure whether this is just me, but it doesn’t feel very “natural” to hold the bent over position required for barbell rows.
In fact, it can actually feel quite difficult just to hold the bent over position with a loaded barbell, even without actually rowing.
Barbell rows and deadlifts are often compared to each other, simply due to the starting position, and some similar muscles being worked.
However, when it comes to deadlifts you only have to hold your back in this “awkward position” at the start, as you lift the barbell from the floor.
You obviously then straighten out by pushing your feet into the ground, while using the strength of your glutes and hamstrings to shift the weight.
But, when it comes to barbell rows you have to hold this “difficult back angle” for the duration of the set.
This will involve having to maintain a neutral spine, while challenging your core, erector spinae muscles, glutes, and hamstrings for as long as your set takes you.
There’s a lot going on here, which will explain why bent over rows can feel so uncomfortable.
Why Do Barbell Rows Feel Unnatural?
When you have to hold a static position for the duration of the set of barbell rows you’ll typically learn about your own strengths and weaknesses.
What I mean by this is that you’ll usually find the position uncomfortable in one or more areas of the body (your weaknesses).
As I’ve mentioned, the static starting position for barbell rows will challenge your glutes, hamstrings, core, and erector spinae muscles.
And typically where you “feel” this most could indicate your weakness.
Plus, don’t forget that holding this position requires balance, coordination, and having to stabilize your entire body.
So, as an example, if you’re really feeling rows in your hamstrings, this could indicate a hamstring weakness.
Then again, if you feel ever so slightly wobbly and as though you may topple over then this indicates that you lack core strength.
Therefore, you need to determine which area of your body is holding you back, and then work on strengthening and improving those muscles.
Core Strength Test
Barbell Row Torso Angle
Something else that can make barbell rows feel awkward is the angle of your torso.
For me personally, I like to maintain an approximate 45-degree torso angle throughout my set.
However, you probably know as well as me that this position can be quite difficult to hold.
This is especially true as the load on the bar becomes heavier.
Now, something that I often see with barbell rows is people trying to get their torso as horizontal as possible.
In effect, they’re trying to get their torso parallel to the ground.
I don’t believe you should be doing this with conventional barbell rows.
In fact, this parallel torso position should be left for when you’re doing Pendlay rows.
The Pendlay row entails the barbell touching the floor and coming to a dead-stop.
Essentially, the floor is providing extra stabilization for the movement.
Therefore, a lot of the stress is taken off the core and posterior chain muscles.
However, when you try to use a “parallel torso” for normal bent over rows you end up stretching the hamstrings much more.
So, often to compensate you end up bending your knees slightly more.
But, what happens when you do this?
That’s right, you frequently end up hitting your knees with the bar or having to “go around” your knees.
So, for me, try to maintain a 45-degree torso angle throughout.
I will also say that Pendlay rows are far more focused on building back strength and power.
Therefore, due to the increased stabilization from coming to a dead-stop you should be able to use more weight.
That being said, conventional barbell rows are far more about growing back musculature, so you should be using a lighter weight than Pendlay’s.
Should You Use Momentum For Bent Over Rows?
In a perfect world, while using perfect form, your body stays perfectly still during rows.
However, more often than not many of us use momentum to get the weight up.
And you’ll typically hear that using momentum during rows is “cheating”.
I have to say that I don’t 100% agree with this.
In truth, when performing a higher number of reps, therefore working on building muscle and endurance, I feel you should only use your upper back and lats to raise the weight.
Plus, during the negative portion of the lift the bar should always be lowered in a controlled manner.
It is this slow and controlled negative that actually builds muscle.
That being said, if you’re performing rows for strength or power, typically with heavier weights and fewer reps, then I see no issue with a little momentum.
For me, using your hips, glutes and hamstrings during rows is much the same as using leg drive on the bench press.
However, the use of momentum is only advisable when lifting heavy weights.
Realistically, if you don’t, your form will go out of the window and you’ll end up using your arms to lift the weight rather than your back.
And, in truth, this is probably more weight that your arms can handle, so your form typically falls apart.
So, you can use a version of leg drive to bring the weight towards your midsection, but you must control the descent.
What you’ll often find when rowing heavy weights without using momentum is that you don’t feel your lats being activated.
And this is simply because you’re using your arms and not your back to lift the weight.
Plus, you may find that your torso gets pulled down by the weight of the bar on the descent.
And this means that you’ll typically have to rock back onto your heels at the starting point.
So, no never feel bad about using a little bit of momentum to bring the barbell towards you, but always ensure that you control the negative.
Alternatives to Bent Over Rows
I know for a fact that some of you may feel that barbell rows are so awkward that you choose to avoid them.
And don’t worry, I totally get it due to my own disliking for bent over rows.
So, if this is the case, let’s look at some alternative exercises.
Single-Arm Dumbbell Rows
From a personal perspective, single-arm dumbbell rows are my favourite of all upper back rowing movements.
I find that I can really feel the target muscles being activated and worked.
Plus, a lot of the worries around stabilization are taken away as you have one hand and one knee on a bench to support you.
You can of course perform the one-handed dumbbell row without hitching your leg up and having it on a bench too.
However, you still have the comfort of stabilizing yourself by having your hand on a platform to support yourself.
There are a few variations of the chest-supported row.
But, my “go-to” is to perform the exercise on an incline bench with dumbbells.
I actually find using dumbbells for rows a little less awkward due to wrist position.
What I mean by this is that conventional barbell rows have your wrists hanging in an unnatural position.
Basically, performing any exercise with a neutral or hammer grip is much better for your wrist health.
Basically, your palms are facing each other, as opposed to an overhand or underhand grip.
You can also perform chest-supported T-bar rows, although this removes the element of “neutral wrists”.
That being said, the fact that you are once more being “supported” in some way will make this type of rowing movement feel far less awkward.
I’m a huge fan of bodyweight exercises and I think that inverted rows are one of the best.
Of course, pull ups and chin ups are probably at the top of the list when it comes to bodyweight back exercises.
However, you’ll be surprised at how fantastic inverted rows are.
Plus, you maintain the same torso angle as you would with barbell rows.
I’ve always viewed back exercises where your body is nearer to horizontal as being great for working on back thickness.
Whereas, when you maintain a vertical torso, e.g. pull ups, chin ups, lat pulldowns, etc. you are working more of back width.
Additionally, don’t forget you can add weight to inverted rows with a weighted vest, chains, or if you’re feeling brave, even placing weight plates on your chest.
Finally, another firm favourite for me is seated rows.
Once again, this is an exercise where I can really feel the target muscles working.
Plus, I find this is an exercise where I can maintain perfect form (as long as I’m not going too heavy).
Additionally, you have the option to use a variety of grips, which will hit your upper back and lats from a number of angles.
And, of course, you are being “supported”, as you’re sitting down, so there’s no need to worry so much about stabilization.
So, the main reason that barbell rows feel so awkward is that you have to hold yourself in an unnatural position for the duration of your set.
Furthermore, your core, erector spinae muscles, glutes, and hamstrings are being challenged by simply holding yourself in place.
Plus, the exercise can be made to feel even more awkward if you try to get your torso parallel to the floor.
This torso position is far more suited to Pendlay rows, although Pendlay’s provide additional stabilization as the barbell touches the floor and comes to a dead-stop.
You may also find rows uncomfortable when using heavier weights for strength training.
However, in this instance it is fine to use a little momentum to get the weight up, but ensure that you lower the weight in a slow and controlled manner.
Finally, if you really are struggling with the awkwardness of bent over rows you can try certain alternative exercises.
Some of the best include single-arm dumbbell rows, chest-supported rows, inverted rows, and seated rows.
Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.