Bent-over barbell rows and T-bar rows: both renowned rowing exercises with the large barbell. But why choose T-bar rows over the classic horizontal bar version? Or should the exercises just be both in your program?
1. The T-bar row is an effective compound exercise for the entire back.
2. In the classic T-bar row with V-grip, this grip limits the range of motion (ROM), which is not compensated by the fact that you can use a little more weight. It is therefore usually better to use separate one-hand grips or an attachment with long handles.
3. The V-grip though does keep your elbows close to your body, allowing you to engage the bottom of the lats more than bent-over barbell rows.
4. If you mainly want to train your lats, do the T-bar row as parallel as possible. As you do the exercise more obliquely, the muscles in your upper back (including traps) come more into action. However, do not stand too upright, because that will limit the ROM too much.
5. Use 10 kg discs; 20 kg disks limit the ROM.
6. Bent-over barbell rows are strictly superior to T-bar rows because of their range of motion. But bent-over barbell rows demand more (read: too much for many people) from technique, stabilization and lower back.
7. Proven alternatives to the classic T-bar row and the bent-over barbell row are chest-supported T-bar rows, other chest-supported rowing exercises, cable rows and dumbbell rows.
8. A back training program includes at least one horizontal pull (for example, the T-bar row) and one vertical pull (for example, the pull-up). Depending on your volume needs, you can program multiple rowing exercises to take advantage of the specific benefits of each variant.
9. Do T-bar rows in the range of 6 to 12 reps and avoid muscle failure – keep 1-2 reps in the tank (1-2 RIR) towards the end of your sets.
With the T-bar row, a compound exercise, you train practically all the muscles in your upper back. These are, in addition to smaller muscles: the trapezius, rhomboids, teres major, back of shoulders, and the lats. Your biceps, responsible for bending your elbows, help your back muscles during the exercise. Your erector spinae keeps your spine (spine) in a neutral position and is thus trained isometrically. The same goes for your glutes and hamstrings.
EXECUTION (WITH V-HANDLE)
Not all gyms have a (chest-supported) T-bar row device (see photo later in this article). That’s okay. All you need are a core plate (also known as a landmine), a barbell, enough weights and a V-handle (the same one you use with seated cable rows) or a double handle. These days you can also find them in the ‘functional areas’ of the well-known fitness chains. A V-grip increases the engagement of your lats over the signature double handle. A third option is two separate nylon one-handed handles that you attach to each other (see video below). This way you increase the range of motion.
- Place a barbell in the landmine and apply the desired number of weight plates. (Tip: Use 10 kg discs; 20 kg discs limit the range of motion.)
- Step over the bar with one leg and place a V-handle under the bar, as close as possible to the sleeves, the thicker ends of the bar. The further back you place the handle, the harder the exercise becomes due to the leverage.
- Bend your hips and grab the handle with both hands. (Tip: use wrist straps for more grip strength.)
- Now bring your upper body into the correct position – about 30 degrees from the floor – by stretching your hips.
- Row the weight toward your chest or move the V-handle toward the area just above your navel, contracting your shoulder blades.
- Lower the weight in a controlled manner until your arms and shoulder blades are fully extended again. Do the desired number of reps. Do not let the discs touch the floor in between.
As mentioned, you can increase the range of motion a bit by using two separate nylon one-hand grips instead of a V-grip. You do that as follows:
POINTS OF ATTENTION
- During the performance, maintain a slight bend in your knees.
- Keep your lower back straight (do not overextend) during the whole exercise.
- In principle, your upper body remains in approximately the same position during the performance, although it is allowed to fluctuate a bit during those last heavy repetitions (a degree or 10, 15).
THE MORE PARALLEL, THE BETTER?
Many coaches preach that you should keep your upper body as parallel to the floor as possible during the T-bar row. That is indeed the strictest execution of the exercise. But is it also the best execution? That depends a bit.
If you mainly want to target your lats with the T-bar row, to create a broad back, you should indeed bend forward as far as possible. Let’s say parallel to at most an angle of 30 degrees with respect to parallel.
If you keep your upper body more upright, as we usually see in our gym with this exercise, that’s not necessarily a bad thing: it puts more focus on the muscles in the middle of your upper back, including the trapezius. That’s fine if back thickness is your primary goal at the T-bar row. However, we suspect that the exercise is usually performed quasi-upright because it is more comfortable.
WHY THE T-BAR ROW (OR NOT)?
What determines the choice to do T-bar rows instead of the classic bent-over barbell row, or vice versa?
- When performing T-bar rows with a V-grip, you can use a narrow, neutral grip. This way you are at your strongest and you can perform the exercise more heavily than, for example, barbell bent-over rows, which you can only do with an over or underhand grip. However, it is questionable whether that is really an advantage, since there is a shorter ROM (see cons).
- With the T-bar row, your elbows are closer to your body, giving you more of an impact on the bottom of your lats, an area that’s relatively difficult to stimulate.
- With the T-bar row, the bottom of the bar rests on the floor. As a result, there is less pressure on the lower back and it is easier to maintain the correct posture during the exercise, with a straight lower back and a neutral spine.
- T-bar rows have a shorter range of motion (ROM) than bent-over barbell rows, unless you’re using two single-handle grips or a long-handle attachment. With a V-grip, the bar with the weight already comes against your chest when your elbows are not yet fully back. This allows you to use more weight, but that is not strictly speaking an advantage (after all: effort is more important than load). The shorter ROM means you can’t fully contract the muscles in your upper back like you can with other rowing exercises. For this reason, Stronglifts recommends doing bent-over barbell rows instead of T-bar rows whenever possible.
- With the bent-over barbell row you have control over the path of the bar upwards, which should be obliquely vertical. According to Stronglifts, this is safer and more effective than the route taken by the bar at the T-bar row.
- For bent-over barbell rows, a barbell bar with weights is sufficient, with T-bar rows you also need a handle and you must be able to station the bar. So more hassle.
CONCLUSION AND ADVICE
The bent-over barbell row and the T-bar row are both effective compound exercises for the entire back. The bent-over barbell row is probably slightly better, mainly because of the larger ROM. That you can use a little less weight as a result probably doesn’t change that – for muscle growth, the range of motion in combination with the effort counts.
However, not everyone is able to maintain a good position on the bent-over barbell row, especially if the exercise is performed heavily. It takes a lot from your technique, your stabilizing muscles and last but not least your lower back, which is basically trained isometrically, or statically. That’s why you usually see gym goers doing different rowing exercises (see also next section).
The T-bar row is such an alternative. Especially when you do the chest-supported version, hip hinge (the position of the hips and the back) and lower back no longer play a role in the exercise. The V-grip version requires you to stabilize and engage your core a bit more, making the exercise a bit more compound, but not as much as the bent-over barbell row.
If you want to accentuate the bottom of your lats, the T-bar row, with V-grip, is worth considering.
Of course there is nothing wrong with including both exercises (barbell en T-bar row) in your training program. But only do this if your volume needs ask for it. For example, if you only need 10 sets per muscle group per week to grow, it is best to limit yourself to two pull exercises for your back (horizontal and vertical, so for example T-bar rows and pull-ups) and make progress with them.
In addition to the T-bar row and barbell bent-over row, there are many other rowing exercises for your back, each with their own small specific benefits.
- (single-arm) dumbbell rows: allow a slightly greater range of motion by allowing you to move the bar past your torso.
- seated cable rows: somewhat less compound and more insulating, but still with enough freedom of movement to accentuate specific parts of the back.
- chest-supported rows (bench or machine): for a very strict execution that leaves the lower back untouched.
- one-arm barbell rows: alternative to the single-arm dumbbell row where it is a bit easier to control the weight and where the emphasis is slightly more on the lats.
As already mentioned, the basis of a back training is formed by a horizontal and a vertical pull. You don’t necessarily have to do both pulls in one workout. If you train full body, you can spread your training volume over several sessions per week and so can your exercises.
VOLUME AND FREQUENCY
According to coach Mike Israetel, an average natural bodybuilder needs at least 10 direct sets per week for his back to grow, with a maximum of 10 sets per training (session volume). For intemediates, we recommend a training frequency of two or three times a week (per muscle group, so you train your back two or three times a week). Their volume need is around 15 sets per week.
T-bar row, 2 sets
face-pull, 3 sets
pull-up, 3 sets
seated reverse fly, 2 sets
T-bar row, 2 sets
lat pulldown, 2 sets
Because of the continuous strain on your lower back, we don’t recommend doing the T-bar row too hard. We recommend a reprange of 6-12 reps.
With relatively heavy compound exercises such as the T-bar row you should not train to the hole. So stay somewhat away from muscle failure and keep roughly 1-2 reps in the tank for each set (1-2 RIR).
If you train at home and only have access to a barbell, purchasing a core plate/landmine and V-grip is the best investment you can make. In addition to the T-bar row, you can then do many new exercises, such as landmine presses, one-arm barbell rows and Russian twists.
You can also place the barbell, against a towel, in a corner of a room, but in practice this does not work very well, our experience has shown.