How to do bent-over rows to get the most out of the exercise

bent over row
A bent-over row should be in everyone's routineGetty Images

Bent-over rows are unmatched when it comes to building upper-body strength. They're one of the best ways to target the often underused muscles in the back – but only if you get that bent-over row form spot-on.

You’d be forgiven for thinking bent-over rows only work only your arms, but the pulling movement is actually one of the best things you can do for your neglected back muscles – namely, your lats, traps and rhomboids. Bonus: you’ll work your biceps, too.

Bent-over row benefits

  1. Bent-over rows work your upper back and arms

  2. Bent-over rows improve functional fitness

  3. Bent-over rows can be done with a dumbbell, kettlebell, resistance band or barbell

  4. Bent-over rows strengthen muscle to support good posture and reduce back pain

  5. Bent-over rows don't require much space

Bent-over rows are a compound movement, explains Tim Benjamin, former Olympian and co-founder of audio coaching app, WithU, meaning it works more than one muscle group at a time.

'The key benefit of bent-over rows is the ability to work your upper back and bicep muscles through dynamic movement, while at the same time developing your posterior chain (glutes, hamstrings and lower back) through a static contraction,' he says.

And, if your job requires you to spend much of your day hunched over a computer, it's likely that your posterior chain could do with some TLC.

‘Bent-over rows are a fantastic way of strengthening the posterior chain muscles, an area that supports posture and core stability,’ says Orangetheory coach Rachel Skinner. This is why building strength in the muscles in your back body can help improve your posture and reduce back pain.

Perhaps this is why former WH cover star Vogue Williams has been spotted rowing in the gym several times?

Skinner recommends adding a rowing move like bent-over rows (or one of the variations below) into your routine once or twice a week.

What muscles do bent-over rows work?

To recap: bent-over rows offer serious bang for your buck when it comes to targeting the back, as well as other 'pulling muscles', including the:

  • Latissumus dorsi (run down the sides of your back)

  • Rhomboids (upper and mid-back)

  • Trapezius (upper back)

  • Biceps

How to do bent-over rows

You have some options when it comes to bent-over row stance:

  1. Split stance: You can go for a split stance, (as in the image at the top of this article): holding a dumbbell in your right hand, take a big step back with your right leg. Bend both knees and lift your right heel, keeping your toe planted for balance.

  2. Feet hip-width apart: You can perform bent-over rows with both feet planted on the ground hip-width apart, as in the video above.

  3. With a bench: If you're battling with balance, or rounding or arching your back, using a bench might help. Simply pop your left hand (or whichever one is not holding the weight, obvs) and left knee on a bench, as shown below.

Whichever option you choose, be sure to brace your core, keeping your back straight and your chin tucked.

Then draw the dumbbell towards your waist, keeping the elbow tucked into your side.

To complete the rep, extend the arm back to the starting position. Aim to complete three sets of 10 to 12 reps on each side.

Too easy? ‘Go heavier,’ she says. ‘As long as you don’t sacrifice form.’ Got all that?

How many reps of bent-over rows should you do?

An ideal rep range for bent-over rows is between 8 and 15 reps, Benjamin says. 'Going beyond this range may compromise your lower back health as you start to fatigue and reduce the ability to support your weight pivoted forward.'

No matter where on that rep scale you land, make sure you use a weight heavy enough to make the last few reps challenging, to help you build strength.

Bent-over row form mistakes

Hey, sometimes you're going to get things wrong. It happens. Here are two common mistakes to be aware of, plus how to fix your bent-over row form.

1. Your back is rounded

Do you want to end up injured? Then stop that right now. Use a mirror to spot yourself and make sure your lower back is straight and you’re not hyperextending – that means no arching either.

2. You can’t maintain good form

If your form is failing before you finish your set, it’s a sign that you need to decrease the weight you're using. Don’t feel pressure to row the same gargantuan weights that the person on the next bench over is using. Form and time under tension (aka how long your muscle is working for) will serve you far better than rushed, wrong reps.

3 bent-over row variations to try

Target multiple muscles with these variations – pick whichever you have home gym equipment (or gym equipment) for!

1. Kettlebell bent-over rows

Follow the steps above, just use a kettlebell instead of a dumbbell. Easy peasy lemon... Yep, squeezy.

2. Barbell bent-over rows

The move can also be performed with a barbell (sometimes known as a barbell row) – demonstrated here by strength coach and Nike master trainer Joslyn Thompson Rule. Watch as many times as you need to make sure you get the barbell row form down pat.

3. Seated cable rows

Got access to a gym? Test your rowing skills with a seated cable row machine (usually a low bench in front of an upright weight and pulley system, with a double-handled grip). Be sure to keep your back upright.

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