Most people tend not to consider their back very much until the day it lets them down and they’re forced to spend hours lying in agony on a wooden floor. Even regular gym-goers will generally focus on more glamorous muscles and spurn the opportunity to address the stress and strain a deskbound lifestyle can place on your back. The problem? Your shoulders internally rotate, and this results in tight pecs and a stiff neck.
This often leads to a weakness in the lower back – at best causing pain and discomfort, at worst risking serious injury – and the problem is only aggravated if you add further stress on the chest and shoulders with endless pressing exercises.
The solution is obvious: place greater emphasis on your back training. Step forward, the bent-over row.
Your back muscles are the primary beneficiaries of the bent-over row, and as they increase in strength your posture will also improve so you don’t slump as much. Directly stimulating your lats, traps, rhomboids and rotator cuffs works wonders for your body. A stronger back with better posture – what’s not to like?
If you’re a bench press obsessive, you should also find that adding this to your weights session helps balance out your upper body muscles – the bench press focusing on pecs and shoulders in contrast to the back-building row.
Form is all important with the bent-over row, and the best way to ensure you don’t get sloppy is to pick the right amount of weight. Slow, controlled movements are of far more value than jerking up a massive weight and twisting all over the shop.
Once you have your barbell loaded, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Bend your knees and lean forward from the waist. Your knees should be bent, but your back stays straight, with your neck in line with your spine. Grab the bar with your hands (palms-down), just wider than shoulder-width apart and let it hang with your arms straight.
Brace your core and squeeze your shoulders together to row the weight up until it touches your sternum, then slowly lower it back down again. There’s one rep. With a light weight, shoot for four sets of eight to 10 reps.
Once you’re set up for the move – leaning forward a bit, bar in hands – think about pulling your elbows behind you, not pulling the bar up. It’ll help to activate your lats and keep everything tight.
Most trainers will tell you that if you can’t stop at the top of each rep, you’ve picked a weight that’s too heavy. Touch the bar to your sternum, pause, and squeeze your shoulderblades together at the top of each rep. You’ll build better posture that way.
By reversing the grip, you place more of a load on your lats and lower traps.
An excellent variation on the bent-over row is to sub out the barbell for a set of dumbbells. Having two weights requires a little more coordination, and, more importantly, stops you relying too much on the stronger side of your body for the entire row. Opting for dumbbells instead will help you balance out your strength on each side. Start with the dumbbells just below your knees and allow your wrists to turn naturally during the movement.
This beginner row targets one arm at a time and is a good stepping stone to the full bent-over row if you’re struggling with the exercise. Put your right hand and knee on a bench, hold a dumbbell in your left hand and let it hang straight down, with your palm facing in. Row the dumbbell up, squeezing your shoulder blade in, then slowly lower it. Do all reps on one arm, then switch to the other side.
Once you’ve got the hang of the one-arm dumbbell row on a bench, you can increase the difficulty of the movement by supporting your body on an gym ball instead. This unstable surface will challenge your core muscle to keep your steady while you complete the movement, which should give you a stronger base when you attempt the barbell version.
If you want to (a) really target your lats with your rows, and (b) look like a bit of a legend in the gym, try the one-arm barbell row. You will need a loaded barbell and a fair bit of space to do this, but people will be impressed and copying you in no time so they won’t begrudge the room you’re taking up. Stand by the side of the barbell and bend over to grab one end near the plates. Staying in the normal bent-over position, row one end of the barbell up, then lower it slowly.
This particular variant is named after British bodybuilding icon Dorian Yates. The six-time Mr Olympia was renowned for sporting an impressive, dominating back and attributes that largely to his twist on the classic bent-over row. Keeping your back straight, adopt a more upright stance, with your torso at a 30-45° angle to the floor. Row the bar towards your lower abdominals, pausing at the top of the movement to squeeze your lats. This variation is also useful for mid-lower trap activation – crucial for improved posture.
This move uses lighter weights but produces a strong scapular retraction (the action of pulling your shoulder blades together). Keep a slight bend in your elbows, then raise the weights straight out to the sides until you reach chest height, without moving your upper body.
Written by Joel Snape for Coach and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.