The T-Bar Row: A Classic Bodybuilding Exercise
The T-bar row, better called the leverage row for the variation described here, is a classic bodybuilding exercise often performed with a plate-loaded machine.
A platform to stand on facilitates enough range of motion. A landmine setup for the long bar enhances stability. Nonetheless, they definitely aren’t needed.
Machine-based T-bar units also force wider grips, making them less suited for the lat-focused variant here.
With free weights, the bent-over barbell row, sometimes referred to as the Pendlay row, is not as effective despite its popularity.
Done as a pure lat exercise, the bent-over barbell row depends too much on rounding the lower back. This is necessary to achieve that vital, growth-inducing stretch for the lats.
The bent-over barbell row is also unwieldy for a close grip, requiring a wider overhand or underhand grip emphasizing scapular retraction for the trapezius and rhomboids.
The T-bar row, with proper form, is best done simply to hit the central lats. It’s also the best option for most trainees lifting at home.
With an Olympic barbell, weight plates, and a corner to wedge one end of the bar, you are ready to master the T-bar row.
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Proper T-Bar Row Form
If you keep your lower back arched you’ll contract upper-back muscles, but you won’t target your low central lats. You have to stretch the lats to ensure full development.
– Frank Zane
Establish a stable base.
After wedging the barbell, straddle it at the opposite end so it’s between your legs. Bend your knees slightly in a comfortable stance about shoulder-width apart. You’ll grab the barbell using the interlocked grip described further below.
You don’t need to be parallel with the floor, but ensure you to bend forward at the hips enough. Remember, the barbell itself is on an angle similar to the plane of your body, so don’t flex the hips excessively.
Grip as close to the collar as possible. You should look down, finding your gaze aligned ahead of your grip.
Step neither too far ahead nor behind your grip. Ensure you step back enough to get a good stretch from shoulder flexion, so hands and arms as high as possible yet staying balanced.
Use weight plates neither too large nor too small. Too small will elevate the barbell from the corner as your body rises during the most difficult reps. Too large will limit the range of motion when active tension increases at the top. 25 lb. weight plates maximum are a good compromise.
Use an interlocked grip.
An interlocked grip has your fingers criss-cross, overlapping each other so that each hand grips at roughly the same spot, so the barbell resting where your fingers meet.
This allows a narrow, neutral grip that focuses on shoulder extension over scapular retraction while externally rotating the shoulder. This helps to stretch the central region of the latissimus dorsi. The stretch reached at these joints therefore requires less rounding of the lower back.
This also prevents hyperextension of the shoulder, which transfers stress to the rear deltoid, trapezius, and rhomboid muscles when occurring.
Round the lower back at the bottom.
This aspect of proper back training is controversial yet important. It’s yet another reason to avoid machines, which often have a pad for chest support, preventing the rounding needed for more overall lat tension.
Since the lats attach to the spine, flexing the lower back elongates them. Proper T-bar row form requires less flexion though, due to the interlocked grip which stretches out the lats at the shoulder yet maintains a favorable moment arm to target this muscle at lower angles.
Shoulder extension at higher angles instead favors the lower chest fibers and the long head of the triceps versus the lats such as on a dumbbell pull-over.
Due to the angle of the barbell, the lower back will extend to naturally flatten as you lift the weight, aligning with the bar’s angle. This allows more range of motion while addressing other upper back muscles. This increases the possibility for excessive cheating though, if you extend the hips too greatly.
For some trainees, rounding the back even a bit is just too risky. The lats will still receive the brunt of the work, just not as optimally due to less tension when a muscle shortens too much. That’s okay… the other practices here will still help.
Pull back through the elbows.
Imagine the arms as hooks, pulling back through the elbows. This emphasizes shoulder extension. It helps to avoid the possibility for brachialis & brachioradialis dominance, since more elbow flexion is possible with the close grip.
T-Bar Rowing for the Central Lats
I’ve made a few adjustments in the things I consider “the most important,” but the fundamental notion is unchanged: they’re all important.
– Howard Marks
So to fully work each major internal moment arm toward fuller lats, include a wide-grip pull-up or pull-down, a one-arm dumbbell or cable row, and the T-bar row.
Many bodybuilders, leveraging a fully-equipped gym, select the low seated cable row with a long pulley instead of the T-bar row. This facilitates rounding the lower back, by allowing you to stay hunched, to get a deep stretch. You can also choose a neutral close-grip handle attachment that works quite well.
The cable row has a more even strength curve versus the T-bar row, with the latter growing slightly easier as the weight is lifted, though the difference isn’t great.
The standing position on the T-bar row can also be tough on the lower back.
Still, the T-bar row achieves a similar effect, perhaps with less rounding of the lower back if heeding the advice here. Both options, the T-bar row and the low seated cable row, are viable to work the central lats. Try both and perhaps rotate them in and out for variety, if desired.
The T-bar row remains an excellent choice to bring out the central lats, especially for those with limited equipment. Complement this then with other classic pulling exercises to build truly impressive lats.