Barbell Row Muscles Worked – Which Row Variation Is Best?

April 7, 2022 2 Comments


In this article I will be exploring the barbell row muscles worked and coming to a conclusion on which variation of the barbell row is the best. The barbell row is a classic compound movement for the back and is a great exercise for building back thickness.

For each variation of the row I will discuss which muscles are targeted the most. There are three main variations that I will be looking at for the purposes of this article; I will analyse the pros and cons of each as well.

Variation One – “Classic” Barbell Row

The classic barbell row is the variation that immediately springs to mind when people think of a barbell row. It is the variation that is shown in most bodybuilding articles and videos. 

It is performed fairly strictly. It is advisable to take the barbell out of a rack and then step back out of the rack and begin performing the exercise from here. This is to conserve energy mainly. Once you are holding onto the barbell in an upright position you would bend over at the waist with your lower back in extension and maintain this position. Then you would simply use your arms to row the weight into your belly button area. This exercise can help to strengthen the lower back significantly over time when performed properly as well as adding thickness in the traps and mid back.

The main muscles worked in this variation are as follows:

  • Biceps and forearms – If you perform the exercise without straps then the forearms will be heavily worked, the biceps come into play as you are using your arms a lot in this stricter row variation. 
  • Erector spinae – Is worked hard to maintain the lower back in extension. You don’t want your lower back to enter flexion. 
  • Glutes and hamstrings – These muscles are hit indirectly as you have to keep tension in the posterior chain to maintain position bent over.
  • Lats – The lats are worked hard when rowing the bar in towards the belly button. 
  • Traps – The traps are hit hard when the weight gets heavy. 
  • Rhomboids – Assist the movement when lowering the barbell and pulling it back in. 
  • Rear delts – Are worked hard in this pulling movement. 

The main benefit of this exercise is it hits a large amount of musculature in the body. By performing the movement in a strict fashion you can isolate each of the supporting muscles better. 

However from my own experience, I don’t recommend performing the classic barbell row very heavy. This is simply because it is virtually impossible to perform this variation super strict with really heavy weights. Trying to do so can actually increase the likelihood of a lower back injury.

Personally I wouldn’t recommend the classic bent over barbell row if your plan is to induce progressive overload with very heavy weights. I would use this as a lighter, strict bodybuilding type movement. 

classic barbell row

Variation Two – Pendlay Row

The next variation is the Pendlay Row named after the weightlifting coach Glenn Pendlay. This row is very good for increasing your back strength and can be performed pretty heavy. You don’t want to cheat this row too much though so there is a fine line there.

Essentially with this rowing variation, your back angle will be more or less 90 degrees. So you are bent over a lot more, the bar will be in line with the mid-foot and you want to have your shins fairly vertical. Push the bar slightly forward from the midfoot and get into the starting position. Get your back tight and your lower back in extension and using your arms and pushing the floor away with your feet, row the barbell to the mid chest area. Then return the bar fast back to the floor and reset for every rep. 

This is a great exercise from my experience and will really strengthen the mid back a lot. At the same time it will engage all the same muscles as the classic barbell row. This exercise will hit the musculature of the back harder than the classic barbell row as it is more power focused, there isn’t a need to maintain the back angle for many reps. This is due to the nature of resetting every rep from the floor. 

pendlay row

Variation Three – Barbell “Cheat” Row

The last variation I am going to look it is a barbell cheat row. As counter intuitive as it may sound, I feel this variation of the barbell row gives you the best bang for your buck. Different lifters have different ways of performing it. Pete Rubish for instance likes to do a barbell cheat row where he resets the bar after every rep. 

I personally prefer the variation that is advocated by Cailer Woolam. This is where you approach the bar with your standard narrow conventional deadlifting stance. The only difference from the deadlift is your grip width will be a thumb length wider than normal.

From there you will go through the following steps:

  1. Hinge at the hips to lower the bar.
  2. Once the bar goes past your knees bend your knees slightly.
  3. Let the bar travel a few inches past your knees.
  4. Using your whole body drive, drive your feet into the floor and pull the bar at the same time. 
  5. The bar should travel to the belly button region when rowing up. 
  6. Perform each rep in a continuous fashion with no reset. 

This exercise is a tremendous power movement and has a high degree of carryover to the conventional deadlift. The exercise will work the same muscles as in the conventional barbell row but you can hit your back a lot harder with very heavy weights. The calves and quads will also come into this movement more to generate the total body drive to propel the bar back up when rowing. You will notice the finishing position will be a lot more upright than the previous variations so you will also hit the traps a lot harder and the upper back.

cailer rows


To conclude, in this article I have gone over three different barbell row variations, looked at the muscles worked and the relative merits of each one. From my experience, the best variation is to perform your rows with more body english like Cailer Woolam or Pete Rubish. It is then a personal preference as to whether you reset every rep or not. 

The pendlay row also has it’s place, but I think that the cheat row will give you the best bang for your buck for overall back strength and thickness. With the pendlay row you can’t use excessive cheating, with the standard strict barbell row you can’t go heavy enough without increasing the risk of injury significantly. 

As funny as it sounds cheat rows are actually safer when performed very heavy than doing very strict rows with heavy weight! 

If you have any comments or questions on anything I have written in this article please leave me a comment below. 

As always, stay safe and enjoy your training!

2 thoughts on “Barbell Row Muscles Worked – Which Row Variation Is Best?”

  1. I been doing the   Variation Two – Pendlay Row For couple of weeks I and I really enjoy this type of exercise, I was doing the classic barbell row but I stopped because it was too much for my back. I didn’t want to risk my back and get injured, so now I go easy and calm with the Pendlay row.

    I want to start working on my legs, do you have any recommendation?

    Great post thank you very well explained.

    1. that’s great. as you are getting started I would recommend goblet squatting with dumbbells for you to learn how to squat and induce some hypertrophy.

      For legs I would recommend doing a squatting variation (could be a barbell back squat, front squat or hack squat or bulgarian split squat). A heavy accessory like a leg press variation and then isolation movements like leg extensions, leg curls, calf raises.

      Notice that if you are doing a hack squat or high bar barbell back squat that the emphasis is more on quads, so if doing those variations you would need to incorporate a bit more hamstring work. This could be in the form of a romanian deadlift or even a back extension using a 45 degree hyperextension bench.

      For more information about leg training check out my articles! CLICK HERE

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