How to Do a Barbell High Row

Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

Woman and man preparing to lift barbells in gym
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Also Known As: Bent over high row, barbell bent over row

Targets: Total body with a primary focus on the middle and upper back

Equipment Needed: Barbell, weight plates

Level: Intermediate

The barbell high row is generally considered a back exercise, but muscles throughout the body are active during this move. The muscles in the middle and upper back (latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, trapezius, posterior deltoids) along with the biceps enable the pulling movement. But the core, glutes, erector spinae, and hamstrings must also work to stabilize the body during the barbell high row.

This exercise is most often performed in a gym because the equipment is readily available, but it can be included in your home workout if you own a barbell and weight plates. It can also be performed with dumbbells if a barbell is not available. But it is easier to add more weight with a barbell.

Benefits

The barbell high row provides benefits for bodybuilders, strength training athletes, and everyday folks who want to move through their day with greater ease and stability.

Trains the Body for ADL

Pull exercises, such as the barbell high row, are exercises in which the focus is on the concentric contraction. Concentric contractions involve shortening of the muscle and generally are those exercises that involve pulling resistance toward the body. Most exercises include both a concentric and eccentric phase. But some movements, like the barbell high row, emphasize pulling more than pushing. It's important to include both pulling movements and pushing movements in a comprehensive training program.

Throughout activities of daily living (ADL) your body needs strength for typical pulling activities. The more you can build strength with eccentric (pull) training, the better equipped you will be for activities like pulling a heavy door open, picking up a child, or lifting groceries out of the trunk of your car.

Builds Upper Body Strength and Size

If your focus is bodybuilding, the barbell high row will help you to build a bigger back effectively because it helps to increase the size of the large, wing-shaped latissimus dorsi, commonly called "the lats." The lats are the largest muscle in the upper body. The lats are involved in movement through the shoulder joint. Strong lats also help provide stability during arm and torso movements.

Well-developed lats also give your back a wide V-shape that is often desired by bodybuilders. While many bodybuilders focus on concentric training to increase muscle size (hypertrophy), studies have shown that eccentric training is just as effective for building bigger muscles.

Promotes Spinal Stability

There are many different muscles involved in maintaining core and spinal stability. Researchers have identified two muscle groups including a "local" system and a "global" system that work together to stabilize the spine during dynamic movements.

The local system (multifidus, transversus abdominis, diaphragm, and pelvic floor muscles) includes muscles that insert directly into the vertebrae. Muscles in the global system transfer load directly to the thoracic cage and pelvic girdle to promote stability.

The latissimus dorsi, along with the erector spinae, rectus abdominis, internal and external obliques, quadratus lumborum, and gluteus maximus are included in the global system. These muscles must be active to properly execute the barbell high row. By strengthening them with this exercise you promote greater spinal stability and neuromuscular control.

Balances the Body

When you train at the local weight room, it's easy to focus just on the muscles in the front of the body—especially when you first begin weight training. Sometimes called "vanity muscles" the chest, abs, shoulders, and biceps are most apparent when you look in the mirror. So it can be tempting to build those areas first. But building a strong back with exercises like the barbell high row helps to balance the body both visually and functionally.

Step-By-Step Instructions

If you are new to exercise or to a strength training routine, you should check with a healthcare provider to make sure that there are no special modifications that you should follow. If you have been sedentary, injured, or returning to exercise after pregnancy, get clearance from your doctor first.

Prepare for the barbell high row by standing in front of a barbell with your feet about hip-distance apart. Try the move with no weight plates first, just to get a sense of proper form. When you add weight, begin with less than you think you'll need and add weight as you get comfortable with good form. Always secure weight plates with a barbell collar.

  1. Bend the knees slightly and tilt forward, hinging at the hips and pulling the glutes back.
  2. Reach down and grab the barbell with an overhand grip to prepare to row. The back should be strong and flat, knees should be bent, the focus is towards the floor. Hands should be placed on the bar about shoulder-width apart. In this starting position, your shoulders should be just a few inches higher than your hips
  3. Exhale and engage through the shoulder blades and middle back to pull the barbell up towards the torso. The elbows will lift up and diagonally back. The core stays strong. At the highest point, the bar lightly touches the area at the bottom of your ribcage.
  4. Slowly release the bar back down until the arms are fully extended and repeat.

Do 2-3 sets of 8–10 repetitions per set.

Common Mistakes

Watch for these common form blunders when performing the barbell high row. You may want to ask a friend or trainer to watch you do the exercise a few times as it may be hard to watch your alignment in the mirror.

Rounding the Back

One of the most common errors when performing a barbell high row is curving through the spine or rounding the back. If you are lifting too much weight, it's easy to curve the shoulders forward and tuck the hips under to gain leverage when pulling. But this is a mistake.

Make sure that your back is flat and the core is engaged throughout the entire sequence. If you feel that you can't keep the back flat, decrease the weight, and try again.

Improper Elbow Placement

Your elbows should not stay tucked into the ribcage for this move. That is, when the elbows bend, they should not brush against the side ribs. Keep several inches of space between the side of the body and the arms to allow them to move freely.

On the other hand, you don't want the elbows flared out to the side either. This generally happens if you place the hands too wide on the bar. Hands should be about shoulder-width apart. That way when you lift, there is about a 45-degree angle at the shoulder joint, and elbows are directed back on a diagonal and away from the body.

Rowing Too High

The barbell high row is similar (in some ways) to the upright row in which you pull a barbell up along the body to shoulder level while in a standing position. Sometimes people mistakenly combine elements of the two moves and lift the barbell up towards the shoulders when doing a barbell high row.

Instead, you want to be sure to engage the middle back as well as the upper back and pull the bar to the lower part of the ribcage. You don't want the bar so far down that it is near your belly button, but if it hits the upper chest or above, then the bar is too high.

Bouncing

Some people add a bounce at the bottom of this move in order to get enough momentum to lift during a barbell high row. But this is not an exercise where you want to use any momentum at all. Both the pulling phase and the release phase should be slow and controlled. If you find yourself adding any bounce or notice your feet lifting off the floor at any point, decrease your weight until you control each phase of this exercise.

Forward Focus

If you are tempted to watch your form in the mirror, you might lift the head and arch through the cervical spine during this exercise. But in order to keep the spine in alignment, there should be no bend in the neck area. Instead, keep the focus on the floor a few feet in front of your toes. This allows you to maintain spinal integrity from the top of the head to your tailbone throughout the move.

Upright Torso

You should make sure that the torso is not too upright during this movement. If you are standing too tall, you'll overwork the upper back and shoulder area and underwork the middle and lower back.

Some people perform this move with the back perfectly parallel to the floor which requires flexibility and strength in the lower back. In most cases, you should definitely feel like you are tipped forward but you don't need to be completely parallel. The level of the shoulders should only be a few inches higher than the level of the hips.

Modifications and Variations

There are several different ways to modify the barbell high row or to add challenges to make it harder

Need a Modification?

The easiest way to make this exercise easier is to use less weight. You can do this by using dumbbells instead of a barbell—which already weighs about 45 pounds. When you use dumbbells, make sure that proper form, especially a flat back, is your top priority.

Dumbbell Row

To do a dumbbell high row, follow the same instructions as the barbell version. Make sure that the palms are facing your legs when you begin the exercise and that you lift both weights up to the torso and release with control. If you find that rowing both arms at the same time is too challenging, consider building strength in the back with a single-arm row.

Inverted Row

Another option if you don't have a barbell (or if you don't want to use a barbell) is to do an inverted barbell high row with a bar. This variation uses your body weight as resistance and you can change the difficulty of the exercise by changing the bar height.

You'll need a steady horizontal bar, such as the bar on a smith machine. You'll situate your body under the bar (face up) and grab it with an overhand grip so that you are hanging beneath it. Your feet are firmly planted on the floor, knees bent, and hips lifted (in line with the chest and knees). Pull the body up towards the bar, touching the bottom of the rib area to the bar, then slowly release and repeat. If this is too hard, place the bar higher. If it is too easy, lower the bar.

You can also do the inverted row with TRX straps. The set up is the same, but instead of holding on to a bar, you'll have one TRX handle in each hand. Pull the body up so the chest is in line with the handles, then lower back to the starting position in a slow, controlled manner.

Up for a Challenge?

The simplest way to make this exercise harder is to add more weight. But there is another variation called the Pendlay row that adds intensity to the barbell high row. When you first try this variation, use less weight than you would typically use during the standard barbell high row.

Pendlay Row

Begin in the same position as the barbell high row. You will still engage through your core and middle back to lift the bar to the torso, but on the way down you lower the bar all the way to the floor. Your next rep begins by picking the bar up from the floor to pull it towards your chest. You lower the bar to the floor after every repetition.

Safety and Precautions

If you have lower back issues or shoulder issues, you may want to check with your healthcare provider before attempting the barbell high row. They may have modifications or suggestions to keep your body safe.

Sometimes, those with shoulder issues will modify the grip to make the exercise more comfortable. An underhand grip takes some pressure off the shoulder area and is often recommended.

Try It Out

Incorporate this move and similar ones into one of these popular workouts:

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Article Sources
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