The barbell row is one of the most popular back-strengthening exercises, particularly among advanced weightlifters, bodybuilders, and powerlifters.
However, even recreational lifters can benefit from adding barbell rows to their strength training routines in addition to, or instead of, dumbbell rows.
But, what muscles do barbell rows work? What muscles do rows work in general? Are the barbell rows muscles worked different than the dumbbell rows muscles worked?
In this guide, we will discuss how to perform barbell and dumbbell rows and discuss the muscles worked by rows, comparing and contrasting the barbell rows muscles worked vs dumbbell rows muscles worked to help you decide which row exercise is best for you.
We will look at:
- How to Do Barbell And Dumbbell Rows
- What Muscles Do Rows Work? Barbell Rows Muscles Worked
Let’s jump in!
How to Do Barbell And Dumbbell Rows
Barbell rows and dumbbell rows are two of the most common exercises found in back workouts.
Any version of a row exercise is a great way to target most of the muscles in the back, but the particular muscles worked by rows vary based on not only the type of weight or resistance training equipment you are using, but the body positioning you are in for rows.
For example, the muscles worked by bent-over barbell rows will be somewhat different than the muscles worked by seated rows on a weight machine.
Before we look at the muscles worked by barbell rows and the muscles worked by dumbbell rows, let’s cover how to do barbell rows.Understanding how to perform the row exercise will make it much clearer to understand the answer to questions like: “Dumbbell rows work what muscle groups?” and “What muscles are worked by barbell rows vs dumbbell rows?”
Here are the steps for how to perform a bent-over barbell row:
- Place the loaded barbell in front of your feet.
- Keeping your core tight, sit your hips back and hinge from your hips to bring your torso parallel to the floor. Make sure to keep your back straight by engaging your core muscles and thinking about keeping your chest up and proud.
- Reach down and grip the bar with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, using an overhand grip (palms facing down). As you reach down for the barbell, protract your shoulder blades as much as possible, which means that you should feel them separate in the back and rotate slightly forward. This will help you engage more of your rhomboids and trap muscle groups with this row exercise.
- Bend your elbows, driving them up and back as you pull the barbell up towards the bottom of your ribs. Make sure you are retracting your shoulder blades as much as you can, squeezing them together as if you are trying to hold a pencil between your scapulae. Your elbows should flare out at about a 45° angle from your body with the point of your elbows. (This is in contrast to the bent-over dumbbell row, in which you want to keep your elbows and backward and your arm tucked into your side rather than flared out halfway.)
- Pause and hold the top position, squeezing your lats, traps, and rhomboids.
- Slowly lower the bar back down by extending your elbows.
Here are the steps for how to perform a bent-over row with dumbbells:
- Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart.
- Hinge at your hips, keeping your core and glutes tight to maintain a flat and neutral spine.
- Reach down and grab the dumbbells with your palms facing one another.
- Pull the dumbbells up to either side of your ribs between your armpit and hip by bending your elbows and retracting and dropping your shoulder blades, maintaining the hinge at your hips throughout the exercise. Keep your elbows glued to your sides rather than flared out to the sides at an angle.
- Pause at the top position for a full breath, squeezing your shoulder blades together by using the muscles in your back.
- Slowly lower the dumbbells back down until your elbows are fully extended.
You can also perform the bent-over dumbbell row as a unilateral exercise to help correct muscle imbalances in the muscles worked by rows.
Single-Arm Dumbbell Row
Here is how to do a single-arm dumbbell bent-over row
- Stagger your stance and brace your body by placing the non-working arm on the end of a weight bench.
- Hinge at your hips, keeping your core and glutes tight to maintain a flat and neutral spine. Keep your hips square.
- Reach down and grab the dumbbell.
- Pull the weights up alongside your torso by bending your elbow but keeping it tucked into your sides, almost grazing the dumbbell on your rib cage until you can’t retract your shoulders any further.
- Pause at the top position for a full breath.
- Slowly lower the dumbbell back down until your elbow is fully extended.
- Complete all of your reps and then switch sides.
What Muscles Do Rows Work? Barbell Rows Muscles Worked
The muscles worked by barbell rows are similar to the muscles worked by dumbbell rows, but as you get into more drastic variations of rows such as upright rows, seated rows, Yates rows, seal rows, or Meadows rows, the rows muscles worked will vary more significantly.
Depending on how you perform barbell back rows in terms of your body positioning and grip, you can target different muscles in your back.
The back muscles worked by rows primarily include the rhomboids, traps, lats, and posterior deltoids in the mid and upper back, with assistance from the rotator cuff muscles, the levator scapula, and the erector spinae in the back.
The standard grip barbell bent-over barbell row is a key exercise for the mid-and upper-back muscles because your scapula can fully protract and retract.
One of the main muscles worked by barbell rows (and all rows) is the trapezius, or traps, which are a pair of large, bilateral, flat, triangular muscles that originate at the back of your skull and then fan downward through the neck to attach down the upper back in three different locations.
By remaining in the hip hinge throughout the duration of your set, you will work the erector spinae in the lower back.
In this way, one of the secondary muscle groups worked by barbell rows in the bent-over position are the spinal extensors such as the erector spinae, multifidus, and even the other posterior chain muscles, including the glutes and hamstrings.
These muscles have to contract isometrically throughout the entire set of your bent-over rows to hold the proper body positioning.
This helps make this bent-over barbell back row a great exercise for improving lower back muscular endurance.
Dumbbell rows work what muscle groups? Barbell rows and dumbbell rows also work the lats, which is short for the latissimus dorsi muscles.
The lats span the entire back, tapering down in a V shape from the shoulders all the way down to the lower back; the lats are the largest and strongest muscles in your back.
Although bent-over rows are primarily a back exercise, other muscles worked by rows include the biceps, brachioradialis, and grip muscles in the forearms, hands, and fingers.
To better target the biceps muscles with rows, you can use a reverse grip with your barbell bent over rows so that you supinate your hands rather than pronate them.
This will better activate the biceps, and lessen the workload on the lats, traps, rhomboids, and posterior delts to some degree.
The close-grip barbell row hand positioning helps to recruit the lats because it forces your elbows to remain tucked by your side.
This makes the narrow-grip barbell row more like a dumbbell row, such that it requires more shoulder extension and shoulder adduction than a standard bent-over barbell row.
These muscle actions are functions of the lats, so you will get more activation of the latissimus dorsi with dumbbell rows or narrow-grip barbell rows than standard barbell rows or wide grip-barbell rows.
The wide-grip barbell row muscles worked list will include all of the same muscles previously discussed for the muscles work by rows, but the wide hand spacing minimizes the recruitment of the lats and better isolates the rhomboids, traps, and posterior deltoids.
This is because your elbows flare out to 90°, which targets different muscles worked by barbell rows and different portions of the same muscles.
Finally, the unilateral dumbbell row will also activate your core, glutes, adductors, and middle and anterior deltoids more than barbell rows due to the body positioning, unilateral load across the trunk (which activates the core), and the split stance.
For more back exercise ideas, check out our complete back workout with dumbbells here.