Bent-Over Rows Are Good for Your Abs (This Is Why)

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Demonstration of bent-over rows with good ab engagement.

When someone mentions bent-over rows, I automatically think of them as strictly being an exercise for back development. Although that’s their primary purpose, they are good for the abs too.

Bent-over rows are good for your abs as they contract isometrically which improves abdominal hypertrophy and stabilization. This contraction is important for securing the upper body in the hinged position, while under external loads.

However, the abs aren’t just a single muscle, but rather a group of muscles that comprise the mid-section. Below I’ll explain which areas, in particular, are primarily engaged during bent-over rows.

Why Bent-Over Rows Are Good for Your Abs

Properly performed bent-over rows require the lower spine to be held in a neutral position. To enable this, the core muscles in the lower back and abdominal region contract hard throughout the movement.

This contraction takes place isometrically, meaning the abs are flexed nearly the entire time. In doing so, they are stimulated through high levels of time under tension. Tension drives hypertrophy (muscle growth) and improves your ability to control the abdominal region.

Abdominal control is an important performance component for strength training exercises like rows, squats, deadlifts, and bench presses. They also promote proper posture during daily activities such as walking and sitting.

If these muscles were to lose their contraction or tightness, the spine would be compromised, causing the lower back to round. In turn, the back muscles would not be able to execute the bent-over row effectively.

The abs consist of the following muscles:

  • External obliques
  • Internal obliques
  • Pyramidialis
  • Rectus abdominis
  • Transverse abdominis

Barbell bent-over rows provide a high stimulus to the anterior abdominal region. Particularly to the transverse abdominis (TA) with assistance from the pyramidialis. While unilateral variations such as with dumbbells are shown to elicit better recruitment of the external obliques (EO).

Although the entire abdominal region is working during rows, the TA and EO are the notable muscles recruited. The transverse abdominis is the main support muscle, while the obliques are the muscles used when twisting the waist. You can mix and match between the two variations to accentuate one over the other.

A study tested the EMG activity of the core muscles across many strength training exercises. From the results, they concluded that stability exercises provide a high stimulus for the transverse abdominis.

Keep in mind that bent-over rows are a stability exercise since the core contracts to stabilize the trunk. When performed with proper breathing and bracing, the transverse abdominis is highly active in securing the abdominal area. The pyramidialis also contract to hold the organs in place.

Breathing and bracing is accomplished by sucking air into your stomach as if you have a beer belly, then tightening your core muscles. This type of isometric tightening also conditions your obliques to provide stability for longer durations.

What’s more, the abs are slow and fast twitch muscle fibers. Bent-over rows can be performed with heavy and light loads for 5-10 reps or 10-20 reps to work both fiber types.

The fast twitch fibers are mainly active with heavy-weight, low-rep sets. The slow twitch fibers are better stimulated with prolonged sets using a controllable weight. To make your abs bulge, utilize heavy rows. If you want to condition them to stabilize for prolonged periods, low-weight sets are more optimal.

Primary Ab Muscles Worked With Bent-RowsFunctions of those Ab Muscles During Bent-Rows
Transverse AbdominisContract isometrically to maintain a flat lower back.
External ObliquesContract in one arm dumbbell rows as the torso twists slightly during the pulling phase.

As I mentioned, all of the abdominal muscles will engage during bent-over rows of any sort. I should note that the rectus abdominis is most active in movements that involve spinal flexion, or rounding. Rounding the lower back is generally not safe during bent rows unless, of course, you’re performing them flexion-style.

Your rectus probably won’t receive as much stimulation as its transverse counterpart during normal bent-over rows. I’ll discuss how to maximize the involvement of the transverse muscles without endangering your spine below.

How To Engage the Abs During Bent-Over Rows

If your abs are not working properly, bent-over rows, especially with a barbell are difficult to perform. These muscles are detrimental to assisting proper pulling leverage of the back muscles throughout the exercise.

The barbell row works your abs by contracting them in the bent-over position to maintain proper spinal posture. They remain engaged throughout the entire exercise to prevent the lower back from rounding.

To work your abs harder, lean further forward to increase the amount of isometric contraction. If you have strong abs position your torso nearly parallel to the floor. Conversely, reducing the angle of forward lean to 45 degrees will take some tension off of your abs without compromising your spine.

Breathing is another important factor to ensure the abs are recruited properly during bent-over rows. Breathe into your stomach while lowering the weight, and let the breath out as you lift.

1. Brace Your Core in the Standing Position

Before bending over and initiating the first rep, stand upright and squeeze your glutes to help pull air into your stomach. This will create a beer belly appearance and engage your transverse abdominis.

Essentially, you’re performing a concentric deadlift before getting into the bent-over row position.

2. Exhale in the Pulling Phase

Once you’ve bent over, make sure to hold the air into your stomach. Then exhale as you pull the bar toward your stomach. This releases some of the abdominal pressure and keeps you from passing out.

3. Inhale in the Lowering Phase

Breathe into your stomach and rebrace your abs as you lower the weight back to the starting position. This prevents the weight from pulling you too far forward and rounding your spine. It also reestablishes abdominal pressure and retains solidity.

Abdominal stability is crucial for daily life and exercise performance and can be improved with bent-over rows. Do them for high and low reps utilizing these breathing techniques to simultaneously build a stronger mid-section and back.

Eric De Cremer
Eric De Cremer

Eric is an NCCA-accredited Certified Personal Trainer and competitively trained powerlifter. Feel free to contact him anytime at!