What You Should Do If You Find Barbell Rows Difficult To Do

July 16th 2019

Have you been experiencing trouble with bent-over barbell rows? Or have you been seeing other weightlifters in your gym doing them? Look no further! For some folks, performing a bent-over barbell row can be difficult and can cause an immense amount of lower back pain. The initial pain and frustration from the first few sets can get lifters to eliminate the exercise from their workout routine altogether. The real question still remains. Why is it so difficult to perform bent-over barbell rows? Is it an issue with mental determination? Or is it relating to a problem with the form and technique of the exercise? Luckily for you, the explanation is located in this article! 

What is a Bent-Over Barbell Row? 

The barbell row is a compound exercise that focuses on pulling forces. There are many other variations such as the pendlay row, deadlift row, etc. It is extremely popular among powerlifters and Olympic weightlifters as a warm-up, back-building, or assisting exercise to other exercises like deadlifting or barbell squats. Eric Hannah, a certified personal trainer and kinesiologist stated that it is a great exercise “for posture, both seated and standing.” The exercise is perfect for beginners or simply-equipped gyms because it only requires a barbell. It is known as a back-blasting exercise because it synergistically targets the arms, legs, and back to work as one unit. Some examples of the exercise can be found in daily life like when you lift a heavy object off of the ground. 

When executing a bent-over barbell row, it is essential that the torso is kept semi-horizontal, similar to a 45-degree angle for strict completion. To begin, start by gripping the barbell with both hands. Try to use a wider overhand grip, just outside of shoulder-width length with the palms facing towards the body. Allow the knees to bend slightly over the bar with the back straight. Be sure to only bend forward at the waist as far as flexibility allows for, and do not round the back during this exercise. Inhale, and pull the barbell until it makes contact with the ribcage. Keep the elbows close to your sides and make sure the thoracic cage is kept still and steady. Breathe out and lower the barbell down in a slow and controlled manner. 

This back-blasting exercise has a strong emphasis on the synergist muscles which allow for the muscle contraction to occur. This includes the inferior and medial fibers of the trapezius, the rhomboids, the latissimus dorsi, the teres major, the posterior deltoid, infraspinatus, teres minor, the brachialis, brachioradialis, and the sternal head of the pectoralis major. The dynamic stabilizers which hold the body in place during the movement include the biceps brachii and the long head of the triceps. The other stabilizers include the erector spinae muscles (iliocostalis, spinalis, longissimus), hamstrings, gluteus maximus, adductor magnus, and quadriceps. The antagonist stabilizers which counter the force occurring from the dynamic stabilizers are the rectus abdominis and the obliques. 

The bent-over barbell row is ideal for sports athletes and other occupations that require bending. lifting, or pulling. It can be performed in either a gym or at home which increases its accessibility and ease of setup. Variations include using two free-weight dumbbells, a barbell row, or different types of grip. For example, the bent-over row when using dumbbells can make the exercise more comfortable when gripping the dumbbells and allows the weight to shift without the knees getting in the way of the movement. 

Just as the normal bent-over barbell row is performed, it is crucial that the elbows are kept close to the sides and lowered again in a smooth, controlled manner. Another way of making the exercise more difficult could be to include placing the hands on the barbell shoulder-width apart and facing the palms away from the body. This allows for strong latissimus dorsi activation and provides a challenge for the biceps brachii. Again, pull the barbell up towards the ribcage, exhale and lower the barbell with a stable approach.

Why Are Barbell Rows So Hard To Do?


  • Your Form Sucks
  • You are doing rows with a rounded back, which is causing you pain
  • You have not used your muscles this way before


Why You Are Experiencing Pain When Performing A Bent-Over Barbell Row

Weightlifters and other people alike may comment that the bent-over barbell row causes pain and is difficult to perform. This could be produced by a myriad of factors. For example, many lifters claim that lower back pain happens immediately during or after a workout that includes the bent-over barbell row. The muscles that could be in pain are most likely the quadratus lumborum, erector spinae muscles (iliocostalis, spinalis, and longissimus), latissimus dorsi, and external/internal obliques that all assist in stabilizing the body during the movement. The explanation behind the pain is heavily due to the form and technique of the individual. Nevertheless, there are always adjustments that can be made in order to fix your form and decrease the amount of pain you are experiencing. Here are some solutions.

Lower Back Pain From Barbell Rows

Lower back pain is extremely popular among beginners or even intermediate weight lifters who perform the barbell bent-over row with inexperience and incorrect form. If you are experiencing lower back pain, it is most likely that your lumbar area is too rounded. This can be caused by tight hamstrings. 

To fix this, work on keeping a straight, neutral spine and try bending the knees more. If you decide to apply more resistance on the knees, the movement of the latissimus dorsi will be compromised as it forces shoulder transverse extension and less shoulder extension range of motion. If you are trying to isolate certain muscles such as the latissimus dorsi, you can increase its involvement by integrating a shoulder-width or underhand grip. These adjustments will accentuate the shoulder extension from the glenohumeral joint over transverse extension.

Lastly, a wide, overhand grip can incorporate the general muscles of the back, while highlighting the posterior deltoid, infraspinatus, and teres minor activation. If you are experiencing excruciating lower back pain, it is recommended that you consult a physical therapist or physician before performing any additional physical activity.

Furthermore, do not forget to brace the core to create intra-abdominal pressure when inhaling and pulling the barbell up towards the ribcage. This allows for the diaphragm to work more efficiently by breathing through the stomach and not the chest.

Solution 1 - Start to row more

If you are like me, you have never lifted weights until recently. For me, this was in my last year of high school. While I am eternally grateful for not having to work a manual labor job prior to college, lifting weights did expose a lot of weaknesses I had. One of these was doing rows.

For years, barbells rows never felt right. I would try to do heavy rows, light rows, dumbbell rows, etc. I would switch up the grips, intensities and rest intervals. I would still do not much improvement. Until I started to do this…

I just kept trying different things while staying patient. If something is not working after you gave it some period of time, you may want to try something else. Again, lifting weights is not like solving a calculus equation. There is no right or wrong in strength training.

So, if you are doing 3 sets of 10 reps for a close grip barbell row for the last six months with no results, why not try 3 sets of 10 reps with a wider grip. Give it about a month or two this time. If you are super patient, you can keep going months while doing the same exercises. But we all have goals and we are all human. 

So, depending on your goals for the barbell row, you may want to decide how long you try different rep schemes. 

Solution 2 - Start to eat more

If you learned anything from your beginner programming, for instance in Starting Strength, you will know that one of the keys to unlocking your new potential is to gain more bodyweight. If you have not filled out your frame yet, this is a great way to add more strength and weight to your barbell row.

Chances are, you are a beginner or early intermediate lifter. For a lot of lifters, you can gain an additional 5-10lbs, depending on your physique goals. So, just be aware that this is one alternative way in order to make barbell rows much easier.

Let us wrap this up

To conclude, the bent-over barbell row and other variations of it provide an immense amount of benefits such as muscular strength and hypertrophy, as long as the risk of injury is lowered, and the exercise is performed with good form and technique.


“Bent-Barbell Rows Muscles Worked - Google Search.” Accessed July 10, 2019. 

 “ExRx.Net : Barbell Bent-over Row.” Accessed July 10, 2019.

Wuebben, Joe. "What's the difference? Benefit from the subtle differences among the one-arm dumbbell, bent-over barbell and seated cable row and sculpt a beautiful back." Muscle & Fitness/Hers, Sept.-Oct. 2003, p. 100+. General OneFile, Accessed 10 July 2019.

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