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Bent-over rows are towards the top of my list of hardest exercises to teach clients. Simply because many of them haven’t yet developed the coordination to avoid putting the lower back in a bad position.
Bent-over rows can be bad for the lumbar spine when performed with a rounded lower back. This prevents the core and back muscles from properly engaging to protect the spine from the force of weight and gravity.
The bending forward component should take place through what’s called a hip hinge. I’ll explain how this is done below, along with more in-depth reasoning on why this exercise is often deemed bad.
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5 Reasons Why Bent-Over Rows Can Be Bad
Let’s get one thing straight. Bent-over rows are only a bad exercise if you’re performing them improperly, overtraining, or have a pre-existing injury or weakness in one of the target muscles.
As the name suggests, they require leaning forward with your torso roughly parallel to the floor. This is the biggest risk factor for most people. Instead of hinging through their hips, they round their lower back to achieve the forward angle.
When performed like this, the spinal erectors, or lower back stabilizing muscles are not properly engaged. This puts pressure on the spine with a lack of active muscular protection.
This issue typically stems from two things: lack of recovery time for the spinal erectors in between workouts or loading the bent-over row too heavily. Heavy loading causes excessive bicep involvement and shoulder instability in some cases as well.
1. Heavily Fatigues the Lower Back Muscles
The lower back muscles isometrically contract to protect the spine during the bent-over row. Essentially, they resist the weight from the barbell or dumbbells, on top of the downward pulling force of gravity.
If these muscles are weak or pre-fatigued, holding them in the bent-over position is difficult. The lower back may end up rounding, leading to spinal compression or possibly falling over.
Pre-fatigue in particular stems from inadequate rest periods between sets or workouts. For example, if you performed a squat or deadlift workout the day before, your spinal erectors were heavily stimulated.
They’ll be the limiting factor when performing rows the following day. So, pushing the lats and upper back close to failure is harder to do since the erectors will likely give out too quickly.
Give them at least 3-4 days between workouts where they are heavily recruited to maximize performance. They may need longer depending on how well you recover.
2. Improperly Leaning the Torso Forward
A study observed the technique of 39 trainees across two exercises that lean the torso via a hip hinge. Bent-over rows weren’t one of the two, but they do have the hip hinge component.
Trainees who rounded their backs to lean forward, rather than hinging, were unaware of their technical errors. They were able to correct the mistake by simply being informed.
Remember, rounding the lower back removes rigidity in the spinal erectors. This puts the lumbar spine in a bad position.
3. Hard To Maintain Good Form With Heavy Weights
“Ego lifters” in particular think moving heavy weight is the main goal with bent-over rows. They confuse the agonizing lower back pain as a sign of building muscle but never truly stimulate the target muscles enough to grow.
Of course, increasing the amount of weight you use over time is a good way to track progressive overload and build muscle. You should only progress in 5 to 10 LB increments after you’ve performed a stable 6-12 reps with the subsequent load.
4. Shoulder Injuries Caused by Unruly Descents
Going too heavy also tends to cause uncontrolled descension of the weight. Not controlling this phase can lead to excessive pressure on the spine and painful internal rotation of the shoulder joints.
Control of this phase for 1-2 seconds leads to greater muscle tension and growth.
5. Overuse of the Biceps and Forearms
As you get stronger, gripping the handles becomes harder, leading to increased bicep and forearm fatigue. This shifts tension off of the back and may lead to a bicep tear, especially when using an underhand grip.
How To Fix The Bent-Over Row
The bent-over row gets a bad rap for being a dangerous exercise, particularly for the lower back. However, as long as you don’t have underlying back issues there’s no reason you can’t safely incorporate it into your routine.
The bent-over row is not a bad exercise when performed by hinging the hips while bracing the core, glutes, and hamstrings. Use a weight that you can control without overly fatiguing the lower back to prevent rounding.
Here are a few pointers to prevent common errors during the movement:
- Use higher volume:
- Utilize the 10-15 rep range with weights you can control to focus on working the back muscles with less pressure on the spine.
- Practice hinging your hips without external weight:
- Mastering the hip hinge eliminates most of the inherent risks that come with bent-over rows.
- Hook the barbell in your fingers and press your pinkies inwards:
- Rotate your wrists to press your pinkies against the bar for a stronger grip position. This helps me tremendously whenever I forget chalk.
- Squeeze your glutes and core before hinging:
- Tightening your glutes and core helps keep your torso stable, which makes maintaining a flat back easier.
If you’re having trouble keeping your abs tight, hold up! I wrote an article that touches on how to engage them during bent-over rows, so give it a read.
The Inverted Row Is a Good Bent-Over Row Alternative
The inverted row is a bodyweight version of the bent-over row, but instead of facing down, you’re facing up. This prevents the gravitational pressure from pushing downward on your spine. You’ll also be able to work until failure without the detrimental risk of lower back rounding.
- Set a barbell in a squat rack to waist height.
- Lay facing the ceiling and grab the bar with your hands shoulder-width apart and arms extended.
- Squeeze your glutes and core to put your entire body in a straight line.
- Pull your chest to the bar and retract your shoulder blades.
- Reverse the motion under control.
- Repeat for 3 sets of 12 reps.
Just remember, any exercise performed improperly has risks. But when done right with small weight increases over time, the bent-over row is an effective backbuilder.