Once upon a time, T-bar rows were the king of exercises for building a wide back. Has the barbell row replaced them? Not necessarily; the exercise you choose depends on the equipment available and which parts of your back you're looking to develop.
Meet the Barbell Row
Bent-over barbell rows give you an easy, flexible apparatus for lifting a lot of weight and working all your major back muscles at once — just pick up a properly weighted bar, and go. That said, form is critical for this and any other exercise that puts you in a bent-over position. So always start with lighter weight that allows you to maintain good form, and then work your way up as you build strength and coordination.
- Load the bar equally on both sides, using weight collars to secure the weight plates in place. Stand just behind the bar, feet hip-width apart, and take the bar in an overhand (palms down) grip.
- Press your feet down into the floor (or platform) to lift the bar up; think of keeping your back flat as you press your hips forward and pull your knees back.
- Hinge forward from the hips, softening your knees as necessary so that you can keep your back flat as you lean forward. Your torso should be as close to horizontal as you can get it without rounding it or jerking as you lift; imagine that your chest is up and open and your butt points back behind you, like the headlights and taillights on a car.
- Row the bar up against gravity, pulling it toward your upper waist. Squeeze your core to keep your torso stable as you do this; don't jerk your back up to help lift the weight.
- Maintain that stable core position as you extend your arms, lowering the bar to around ankle level to complete the repetition.
As ExRX.net notes, shifting your hand position modifies the focus of this exercise somewhat — and that can change how much weight you're able to lift. Using a wide, overhand grip tends to emphasize overall back development and the smaller muscles of your upper back and shoulders, which might mean you have to lift a little less weight. Using a narrower (shoulder-width) grip and keeping your elbows closer to your body emphasizes involvement from your powerful latissimus dorsi.
Now, the T-Bar Row
The T-bar row, by comparison, requires either a special piece of equipment or a DIY solution with a barbell: Go old-school and trap one end of the barbell in a corner of the room to create your own DIY T-bar row machine. The end of the bar in the corner stays stationary and acts as a hinge as you lift the far end of the bar.
Because this exercise typically places your hands close together, it emphasizes involvement of your lats over your upper back muscles.
- Load the protruding end of your bar (or T-bar machine) with weight plates. Stand over the bar, facing its free end.
- Bend down, hinging forward at the hips and keeping your back flat; an angle of 20 to 30 degrees off the horizontal, or parallel to the bar's position at the end of its range of motion, is ideal. Grasp the bar in a narrow grip, palms facing each other.
- Press down against the floor with your feet, driving your hips forward and pulling your knees back to deadlift the bar into position.
- Maintain a flat-backed position, chest up and open and hips pointing back, as you pull the bar toward your body. Slowly extend your arms, lowering the bar without releasing that flat-backed position.
If you're already conditioned and coordinated enough to lift heavy weights, skip the 45- or 100-pound weight plates; they'll bang you in the chest or knees. Instead, opt for a higher number of smaller weight plates.
Key Commonalities and Differences
Both the T-bar row and the barbell row work every major muscle in your back — although often, different muscles bear the brunt of the load. That's because of shifts in your arm position, not the equipment itself — so if you have access to a T-bar row machine with several different handles to choose from, you can fine-tune the focus on your back muscles more than you'd be able to with a barbell.
When you do a wide-grip row (a la the conventional barbell row), you're primarily working your upper lats, rhomboids and the middle fibers of your trapezius muscle. Using a T-bar with narrow handles, or an improvised T-bar using a barbell, allows you to maintain a close grip and focus the effort on your lower latissimus dorsi.
But that's not all: The T-bar row also gives you a little more flexibility in your back position without compromising lat involvement; a back angle of 20 to 30 degrees off the horizontal is considered fine. Or, to think of it another way, roughly parallel to the bar's angle at the end of the range of motion.
Some dedicated T-bars in the gym go one step further by offering a chest pad and leg pads that support you in a near-horizontal, Superman-like position. This makes it dead easy for you to maintain what is otherwise a challenging body position, especially if your hamstrings aren't flexible enough to let you bend over to a near-horizontal position.
On the other hand, barbell rows don't require a specialized piece of equipment, and they give you a lot more flexibility in where you do your back exercises.
Three Easy Alternatives
Depending on the equipment at your disposal, you can do multiple variations on the barbell row or T-bar row.
Move 1: Reverse-Grip Barbell Row
If you'd like to stick with barbell rows but want to train with a closer grip that hones in on lat thickness in your back, solve that problem by doing a reverse-grip or underhand row. Holding the bar with your palms facing up and hands a little narrower than usual allows you to bring your elbows closer in, ensuring that your latissimus dorsi is the primary mover behind this exercise.
- Stand over the bar and grasp it in an underhand grip, hands about shoulder-width apart.
- Soften your knees and hinge forward at the hips, squeezing your core muscles to stabilize your back.
- Keep your chest up and open as you row the bar up toward your navel, keeping your elbows tucked close to your sides.
- Maintain your flat back and body position as you extend your arms, lowering the bar to complete the repetition. Keep the bar off the floor, and maintain tension in your muscles until you've completed the set.
Move 2: Wide-Grip T-Bar Row
If you prefer the upper-back focus of a standard (overhand) barbell row but like the relatively limited mobility of a T-bar, check to see if your gym has a dedicated T-bar with wide handles. If it does, you can enjoy the best of both worlds in one piece of equipment.
- Stand over the T-bar; squat down, and grasp the wide handles in an overhand grip. Deadlift the bar, if necessary, to safely get it up off the floor.
- Soften your knees as needed so that you can hinge forward at the hips, tightening your core muscles to maintain a flat back. Your back should be close to horizontal, although this exercise gives you more flexibility than a barbell row; think "Chest out and up."
- Maintain core tension and keep your back steady as you draw the handles up and toward you, letting your elbows naturally wing out at, or just below, the level of your shoulders.
- Keep that flat-backed body posture as you extend your arms to complete the repetition.
Move 3: Dumbbell Row
If you don't have access to a barbell or T-bar, or simply want the ultimate in versatile exercise equipment, using dumbbells gives you the most options possible. Also, if your strength or technique are lopsided at all, it'll become immediately apparent when you use this type of equipment.
- Stand in front of a mirror, if possible, holding a dumbbell in each hand.
- Soften your knees and hinge forward from the hips, keeping your back flat and chest open.
- Adjust your hands as needed to emphasize the correct muscles: Keep your palms facing in and your elbows close to your body to focus on your lats, or let your elbows naturally wing out to about shoulder height.
- Row the dumbbells up against gravity, aiming for a line of movement that's roughly perpendicular to your trunk. If you've chosen the wide grip with your elbows winging out, make sure your hands follow your elbows through the line of the movement.
- Maintain that stable, flat-backed torso position as you slowly return the weights to their starting position.
Although these are the most common ways to do heavy rows, they're just the beginning of your options. Other choices include inverted body rows (pulling your body up underneath a secure bar), cable rows, lever row machines, single-arm dumbbell rows and kettlebell or dumbbell rows from a plank position.
What If I'm Not Powerlifting?
In general, powerlifters, bodybuilders and athletes training for specific movements will be more concerned about which arm angle targets which muscles in your back. If you're more interested in lifting weights for health, either the barbell row or T-bar row — or any of the variations described — will help you meet the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services guidelines for physical activity.
The guidelines recommend working every major muscle group in your body at least twice a week; one to three sets of eight to 12 repetitions, per exercise, is a good target. Any of these row variations will target your back, although you should be sure to include at least one "elbows-in" variation if improving overall pulling strength is a priority for you.
That leaves your chest, arms, shoulders, core and legs. For your chest, effective exercises include push-ups, dumbbell chest presses and cable flies. The first two involve your arms and shoulders, as do rows, so you don't necessarily need to add separate exercises for those muscle groups, although you can; think reverse flies, shoulder presses and biceps curls.
For your legs, tackle compound exercises such as leg presses, squats, deadlifts and lunges. All of these work your core too — that simultaneous muscle recruitment is one big advantage of doing compound exercises — but you can also target your core with exercises such as planks, side planks, crunches, bicycle crunches, reverse crunches and so on. The American Council on Exercise has sponsored some interesting research on which ab exercises are really most effective.
- ExRx.net: "Lever Close Grip T-Bar Row (Plate Loaded)"
- ExRX.net: "Lever Seated Read Delt Row"
- ExRx.net: "Barbell Bent-Over Row"
- Health.gov: "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020: Appendix 1. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans"
- American Council on Exercise: "New Study Puts the Crunch on Ineffective Ab Exercises"
- ExRX.net: "Barbell Underhand Bent-Over Row"