Bent-Over Rows Are Worth Doing for Your Back (When and Why)

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Man performing bent-over rows with an EZ curl bar.

Some trainees do bent-over rows in every back workout while others avoid them altogether. Because of the unsupported torso, there is a fear of injuring the lower back. But if you’re performing them properly the reward can outweigh the risk.

The bent-over row is worth doing to target a large amount of back musculature in a time-efficient way. This exercise is highly effective at developing the trapezius, latissimus dorsi, spinal erectors, core, and rear deltoids.

If you’re uncertain about adding bent-over rows to your workout program read on to see why they’re a suitable back-building exercise. I’ll also explain when and how to implement them into your training.

Why Bent-Over Rows Are Beneficial

When trying to build a massive back, many people overcomplicate their exercise selection. They’ll do an exercise for each muscle to make sure they hit them all. Throughout my training, I have found bent-over rows to be efficient and effective, which has helped me build a decent-sized back.

Bent-over rows do build overall back mass because they’re a compound exercise. This means multiple back muscles including the lats, erectors, traps, and rhomboids work together to stabilize the joints throughout the motion.

In a study comparing them against two other rowing exercises, standing bent-over rows elicited the most consistent engagement of the entire back. However, they did not elicit the greatest amount of lat or upper back involvement, the inverted row did.

Although this doesn’t sound promising, bent-over rows do still engage the lats and upper back quite well.

Another study comparing 6 back exercises found them to elicit the highest activation of the lower back and lower trapezius muscles. They came a close second to the inverted row for activating the lats and middle traps.

So why not do inverted rows instead to target the lats and middle traps? The downside to this is unlike bent-over rows, they’re generally a bodyweight exercise.

Therefore progressive overload may be harder to accomplish over the long term. Conversely, with bent-over rows, you can make weight increases of 2.5 LBs each week depending on what equipment you’re using.

Another important note is the high level of erector spinae and multifidus activation you get from bent-over rows. This might sound frightening as many people hurt their lower back with this exercise.

If you’re recovering from a lower back injury, hold up. You should read my article on why chest-supported seated rows are a safer alternative.

However, when performed properly without rounding the lumbar spine, they are tremendous for strengthening those two muscles. I agree with Geoffrey Schofield when he says the reasons people have for not doing bent rows are the reasons they should do them.

Essentially, you’ll improve your lower back and core strength by practicing this complex exercise and learning the proper mechanics. If you want to develop lower back strength and muscle mass, you can’t rely on dead bugs or bird dogs alone.

Not only are bent-over rows a back developer, but they also develop the posterior deltoids and promote lower body bracing. You could categorize them as a complete posterior chain developer.

Here are the muscles that are engaged while performing bent-over rows (primary muscles are bold):

  • Spinal erectors
  • Multifidus
  • Latissimus dorsi
  • Rear deltoids
  • Trapezius
  • Rhomboids
  • Core
  • Forearm Flexors
  • Hamstrings

This means you don’t have to pick separate isolation exercises for each upper and lower back muscle. Instead, you could do bent-over rows to hit them all at once, then do one or two accessory exercises to prioritize your weakest links.

For example, your workout could begin with heavy bent-over rows. Then if your lats and traps are weak points, you’d do lightweight lat pullovers and shrugs to accentuate those muscles.

The rows would target their fast twitch fibers while the latter exercises would focus more on the slow twitch muscle fibers. The workout would be quick and efficient since you’re hitting the entire back with three exercises.

Interested in doing this at home? Go read my article that has a workout with dumbbell bent-over rows, lat pullovers, and shrugs.

I’m not saying that bent-over rows are necessary for complete back or posterior chain development. That would simply be untrue. If you perform barbell squats or deadlifts, you won’t have to do bent-over rows. This is because the spinal erectors and core are already heavily engaged with those movements.

Pros and Cons of Doing Bent-Over Rows

These are the pros of performing bent-over rows:

  • Convenient for home gyms:
    • Bent-over rows are typically performed with a barbell or dumbbell.
    • These are widely available and affordable on Amazon or Facebook Marketplace.
  • Highly variable:
    • The grip position, torso angle, and symmetry of pull can be adjusted easily.
      • Use an underhand grip for more bicep involvement.
      • Angle your torso more upright to reduce lower back strain.
      • Do single-arm dumbbell rows to prevent imbalances in your back.
  • Safe for progressive overload:
    • Since bent rows are multi-joint, a large amount of muscles work together.
    • This provides better protection to the joints and ligaments when increasing weights are used over time.
  • Grip strength:
    • Unless wearing wrist straps your forearm flexors will have to get stronger as you increase the weight so your hands don’t lose their grip.

Take these cons into consideration before doing bent-over rows:

  • May inhibit the lower back’s ability to recover:
    • Having a job or injury, or doing exercises such as squats that cause a lot of soreness, may prevent your lower back muscles from recovering if you do bent rows as well.
  • Won’t isolate a specific muscle:
    • With regular bent rows, it’s difficult to focus on contracting one specific muscle.
    • Doing so would be dangerous anyways as you’d sacrifice support from the surrounding muscles if you tried to only engage the lats or rear delts for instance.

Take a look at my article explaining when to train your rear delts directly rather than relying on rows to build them.

Effective Variations of the Bent-Over Row

Contrary to what I said directly above, you can emphasize areas of the back with bent-over rows. However, you will need to make tweaks to your equipment and technique to avoid injury.

  • Yates row: Performed with the torso angled between 45-70 degrees to limit lower back strain and focus on the lats and traps.
  • Dual dumbbell row: Allows you to pull freely with each arm to prevent asymmetries.
  • Barbell row: The standard version where the torso is angled parallel to the floor, eliciting great lat and erector stimulation.
    • Pendlay row: Similar to the barbell row except the weight is stopped on the floor between reps to practice rebracing.
  • Helms row: The head/chest is supported to reduce spinal loading.
  • Flexion style row: Performed with small diameter, lightweight plates, focusing on technique and accentuating the spinal erectors.

When To Include Bent-Over Rows in Your Training

In a training program, bent-over rows are effective on back or pull days as the first or second exercise in the workout. Perform them once or twice a week for moderate reps (8-15).

If you only have a few hours to work out each week, consider including them as they target the entire back, saving time. Another reason is if you’re not doing another exercise to emphasize the erector spinae and multifidus. These muscles are detrimental to protecting the lower spine.

Do you get lower back, shoulder, or bicep pain from doing them? I wrote an article on why bent-over rows are bad in certain scenarios that you should read.

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!