Last updated on August 26th, 2023 at 09:45 am
Bent over rows are one of the big, heavy, barbell, compound movements.
However, for some reason exercises like squats, deadlifts, and bench press get all the glory.
With that being said, if you really want to fill out your t-shirt or look impressive on the beach then you need to be training your back.
And of course, there are few better exercises to do this than bent over rows.
So, allow me to answer some of your burning questions about bent over rows.
Bent Over Rows target various muscles in the back. You can focus on different back muscles, depending on which variation you use. You will also recruit the core, hamstrings, and glutes in order to stabilise the body. Bent over rows are a fantastic exercise for increasing both muscle and strength.
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What Muscles Do Bent Over Rows Work?
Bent over rows are mainly viewed as a back exercise.
However, they also happen to be a compound movement, so they do actually work a wide variety of muscles.
Bent over rows will mainly hit the latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, trapezius, and spinae erectors.
However, simply because of the movement pattern and your body positioning you’ll also hit many secondary muscles.
These include the rear deltoids, biceps and forearms, core, plus the hamstrings and glutes.
I’m sure most of these muscle groups seem fairly obvious, although you may be somewhat surprised at the inclusion of the hamstrings and glutes.
This simply comes down to your “bent over” body positioning, which is fairly similar to a more familiar bent over exercise, namely the Romanian deadlift.
So, as soon as you assume the bent over position you will automatically activate the hamstrings and glutes.
With that being said, the hamstrings and glutes merely play a supporting role, so they will not be stimulated enough for muscle growth.
However, all the other muscles mentioned will be worked fairly hard during bent over rows, so this will help with strength and hypertrophy.
I will also say, depending on the amount of weight you’re rowing or number of reps you’re performing, you will also be working your grip to great effect.
How Far Should I Bend Over For Bent Over Rows?
You should bend over until your torso is approximately at a 45-degree angle, or even slightly lower.
This angle will ensure that you work the main muscles, i.e. lats, rhomboids, and spinae erectors.
Now, even though the traps will always be worked when you perform bent over rows, you certainly don’t want to activate them more than the lats.
Unfortunately, this will typically occur when you perform overhand grip bent over rows with a more upright torso position.
This is actually why many people complain of feeling bent over rows in their traps, as opposed to their lats.
With that being said, there are bent over row variations which require a more upright torso, and I’ll explain these in a moment
In addition to having your torso at a 45-degree angle you should also sit back slightly and push your hips back (video below)..
This actually provides you with a much more stable base, which ensures that you work the target muscles rather than simply using momentum to move the barbell.
How Wide Should My Grip Be For Bent Over Rows?
The standard grip for bent over rows is to have your hands slightly wider than your knees.
However, in truth, you can experiment with differing grip widths depending on your training goals and which muscles you wish to hit harder.
Furthermore, many people tend to have their grip exactly the same width as when they bench press.
This works especially well when using barbell rows as the opposite movement to the bench press, say if you wish to perform the two exercises as a superset.
With that being said, a slightly wider grip will enable you to pull the bar slightly higher up the body, while also allowing you to flare your elbows out more.
This slightly wider grip will target more of the upper back.
Then again, having a narrower grip has the opposite effect.
So, you can keep your elbows tucked and pull the bar slightly lower down your body.
The narrower grip will target your lats more.
Are Bent Over Rows Good For Posture?
Bent over rows are actually fantastic for improving your posture.
The muscles of the posterior chain, such as the upper back, lats, spinae erector, and hamstrings are extremely important for maintaining good posture.
So, if these muscles are weak and unused, they can eventually shorten.
Unfortunately, the knock-on effect from this is that your vertebrae can become compact, which of course can lead to poor posture.
Furthermore, when it comes to exercise, focusing too much on the muscles on the front of the upper body can have a terrible impact.
In fact, many regular gym-goers typically focus much more on pushing and pressing exercises, such as bench press, push ups, and overhead presses.
The overuse of these muscles can lead to rounded shoulders and weak posterior chain muscles.
So, in order to counteract this, while ensuring that you maintain good posture, you’ll want to regularly perform bent over rows.
What Grip is Best For Bent Over Rows?
There’s no specific “best” grip for bent over rows, as this largely depends on which muscles you wish to focus on.
The main two grips are the overhand grip and the underhand (or reverse) grip.
As I’ve alluded to earlier, the width of your grip will typically mean that you’re focusing on different muscles, and the same can be said for both the overhand and underhand grip.
The most common bent over row involves using an overhand grip and will target the muscles of the upper back, rhomboids, and traps to much greater effect.
Plus, this also typically involves a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip.
With that being said, the underhand grip will see you use a slightly narrower grip and you’ll hit the lats and biceps much more.
So, which version you use largely depends on which muscles you wish to target most.
But, of course, there’s nothing wrong with hitting both variations regularly.
Furthermore, there is a variation of the underhand grip known as the Yates Row, named after renowned former bodybuilder, Dorian Yates.
The Yates row involves a slightly more upright stance, while focusing more on the upper back, traps, and biceps than the traditional bent over row.
Something else to note is that using an underhand grip will allow you to lift slightly more weight, as there is more bicep involvement.
What Exercise Can Replace Bent Over Rows?
There are actually a number of exercises that can replace bent over rows.
And the great thing about many of these exercises is that they take the hamstrings and lower back out of the equation.
This means that you focus solely on increasing muscle and strength in the back.
If you have access to a T-bar row machine, this is a fantastic alternative.
If not, you can actually create your own, although this will typically require a landmine post or accessories, and a separate handle attachment.
Personally, I use a barbell, landmine attachment, and a V-handle cable attachment.
Another great alternative that doesn’t involve the hamstrings and lower back is a chest supported row, typically done with dumbbells and a hammer grip (palms facing each other).
You also have the option of using your own body weight with inverted rows and TRX rows.
Finally, you can of course use the one-arm dumbbell row, a superb exercise in its own right.
Do Bent Over Rows Work Biceps?
Bent over rows may be one of the best back exercises going, but they definitely hit the biceps pretty well too.
As I’ve mentioned when talking about different grip positions, the underhand bent over row targets the biceps much more.
With that being said, you will still get plenty of bicep activation from the conventional overhand grip too.
Realistically, the bent over row is an exercise that primarily works the upper back, lats, rhomboids, and traps.
However, if you’ve ever performed rows with heavy weights or high reps you’ll typically feel like you’ve had a great bicep workout too.
To be honest, we all react differently to different exercises.
There will be some people who simply perform rows, never do any direct bicep work, and yet have a hugely impressive set of guns.
Then again, there are those of us mere mortals who target the biceps regularly, and yet hardly see any significant bicep development.
You’ll know yourself exactly which camp you fall into.
For me, this comes down to which specific muscle groups you wish to focus on.
So, if you’re looking to build your biceps, as well as your back, then you may be better off also performing bicep-specific exercises too.
Can You Do Bent Over Rows With the Smith Machine?
You can indeed do bent over rows with the Smith machine.
In fact, if you have a weakness in the stabilisers muscles, i.e. spinae erectors, then this is the ideal way to row.
Weak spinae erectors will typically mean that they become fatigued before your lats or traps, which is something you definitely don’t want.
Plus, this is a good opportunity to set the Smith machine barbell up first without having to actually bend all the way down to the ground.
So, you’ll initially want to start off with the Smith machine bar at approximately mid-thigh level.
Then you can place the desired weight plates onto the bar.
You should stand back ever so slightly and place your feet slightly wider than shoulder width.
The reason that you stand back a little bit is to ensure that your knees don’t go past your toes when you bend over.
This will provide you with a far more stable base from which to row.
You’ll also want to make sure that you stay on your heels throughout the entire movement.
You can then perform the exercise in exactly the same manner as the free-weight version.
Do Bent Over Rows Make Your Back Wider?
Bent over rows are an awesome all-round back exercise, although they may not be the best for making your back wider.
Basically, when performing back exercises your torso is typically in one of two positions – horizontal or vertical.
In other words, your torso is either (almost) parallel to the ground or it remains in its standard, straight-up position.
Now, although most compound back exercises will work on both width and thickness, there is a preferred method based on your goals.
When your body is vertical you’ll typically hit the teres major, as well as the mid and outer lats.
It is these types of exercises that will give you a wider back.
However, when your body is horizontal you’ll generally hit the upper back, rhomboids, traps, and lat thickness.
So, horizontal back exercises are best performed to increase the thickness of your back.
You clearly want to work on both width and thickness.
With that being said, if a wider back is your goal then exercises like pull ups, lat pulldowns, seated low cable rows, and straight-arm lat pulldowns are the best options.
Should You Go Heavy on Bent Over Rows?
If you want a big and thick back then there are few better exercises than heavy bent over barbell rows.
In fact, regardless of which body part you’re training, the best exercise will typically be the big compound lift we most associate with that muscle group.
And the aim is to perform that lift with as much weight as possible.
With that being said, you’ll obviously want to ensure that your form stays true with each rep and every set.
Okay, there is a time and a place for cheating, half reps, negatives, etc. but you’ll still always attain the best results by using strict form.
Plus, you’ll want to train by using the progressive overload principle, so you’re literally building yourself up by lifting heavier weights on a regular basis.
When it comes to bent over rows the most important factor is that you’ll always want to maintain a strong posture.
Quite often if you’re rowing too heavy your back will round.
Not only is this a potential precursor for injury, but you’re also not getting the best out of the exercise.
So yes, you should go heavy on bent over rows, but only as much as you can handle while maintaining good technique.
How Many Bent Over Rows Should I Do?
The basic principles of strength, hypertrophy, and muscular endurance all apply to bent over rows.
So, in effect, you’ll want to perform 3-5 reps for strength, 8-12 reps for hypertrophy, and 15+ reps for muscular endurance.
Plus, irrespective of which training protocol you’re following, 3-5 total sets is more than ample.
With that being said, I personally find that performing bent over rows in the higher rep ranges produce the best results.
So, I would always aim for 10-15 reps with each set.
In fact, my strength and muscular endurance training is often performed with bodyweight exercises, such as pull ups, chin ups, and inverted rows.
Obviously, this involves wearing a weighted vest when training for strength, and then just pumping out as many reps as possible with the conventional “no weights” variations for muscular endurance.
I’m not saying that you can’t train bent over rows for strength, but I prefer the results I get from deadlifts and rack pulls.
Are Bent Over Rows Enough For Back?
I obviously think that bent over rows are a fantastic exercise, but I honestly think that you should be doing a little bit more when training your back.
As I’ve alluded to above, you’ll generally want to work your back with exercises where your torso is in a horizontal position, as well as a vertical position.
Once more, as I’ve mentioned, a vertical torso generally works on back width, whereas a horizontal torso, such as with bent over rows, focuses more on back thickness.
So, as a bare minimum you will want to do at least one exercise that trains both torso positions.
If you’re looking to keep things simple then I would suggest that performing rows and pull ups would give you a much better all-round back workout.
I know that this may come down to how much time you have per training session, as well as how often you can get to the gym.
However, you could still easily train bent over rows and one vertical torso back exercise in around 20 minutes.
With that being said, if your time is extremely limited, then yes, bent over rows will give you the biggest bang for buck when it comes to training back.
So, there you have it, hopefully everything you ever wanted to know about bent over rows.
As I mentioned all the way back in the introduction, training your back will yield some of the best results for your physique.
And you’ll be hard-pushed to find many better back exercises than bent over rows.
You’re going to be hitting your upper back, lats, rhomboids, spinae erector, and traps.
Let’s not forget, you’ll also be activating your rear delts, biceps, core, hamstrings and glutes.
Now that’s what I call a compound exercise.
If you’re looking to take your muscle-building and strength gains to the next level, while also keeping body fat to a minimum, then you’ll want to check out one of my favourite workout programs Massthetic Muscle.
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.