Overhand or Underhand Barbell Row: What's Best?

by Gareth Sapstead

How to Build Your Back

Both are great variations for back size, but they hit different parts of the musculature. Here’s what you need to know.


Do you use an underhand or overhand grip when you do barbell rows? Don’t worry, there’s no wrong answer. But each variation has a different effect. You need to choose the right row for your goals.

Let’s Review

Here’s IFBB Pro James Walters doing a standard overhand-grip barbell row:

But what happens when you use an underhand grip? We’re not talking about changing anything besides turning your grip around so your palms are now facing up instead of down.

To gain a better understanding, try this:

Get the bent-over row position without the barbell, focusing on the hinge, buttocks pushed back, and chin down. Visualize pulling an imaginary barbell towards you using an overhand grip. You can even practice this with a wooden dowel or broomstick. Notice how your humerus (upper arm) angles and your elbows flare as you row.

Next, repeat the exercise using an underhand grip. Notice how using the underhand grip naturally keeps your elbows closer to your lats and reduces elbow flare.

The direction in which your humerus moves during the rowing movement, as indicated by the angle of your elbows, determines the targeted areas of your back. Generally, the line your elbow follows indicates the targeted muscles.

For instance, if your elbow points towards your lower lats, it prioritizes that area. Conversely, you’ll target your rhomboids and upper traps if your elbows are significantly flared out (as in an elbows-out row variation).

What Does This Mean?

  • Rowing with elbows tucked closer to your sides, driving inward, prioritizes your lats, particularly the lower portion. This is more easily achieved with an underhand grip.

  • When your elbows flare further away from your sides, as is the case with an overhand grip, the row targets your upper back muscles, like the mid and upper traps and the rhomboids.

Based on this, you could argue that an overhand grip is optimal for targeting the upper back, while the underhand grip is more effective for the lats. However, the angle of your torso and how much you arc the barbell back into your hips also impact muscle emphasis. Nonetheless, it’s easy to see how a simple grip change affects the exercise.

Now, the underhand grip row may put more stress on your elbows. If you experience elbow discomfort, use the underhand grip with an EZ-bar or dumbbells. Here’s what that should look like:

Also, due to increased biceps activation using an underhand grip, be cautious of potential biceps tears when going heavy.

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7 Likes

Very interesting and informative article. I have programed underhand barbell rows in the past, and I think I’ll add them again. I will say that a great follow up article or collaborative article would be an actual barbell row form. If you just do a search on this site for actual barbell row form, you will find very different opinions and contradictory recommendations from several contributors.

I would also be curious to see a perspective on neutral grip (hands parallel to each other) barbell rows when done using something like a Swiss / Football bar.

I think you mentioned a little about where the bar rows to has an impact (chest vs stomach). I would imagine rowing to chest is less of an option with an underhanded grip. Curious to know how you see that effecting the muscles worked.

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I did heavy bent-over rows for back thickness. The lats just don’t get a full stretch doing bent-over rows. Seated long pulls get a better lat stretch, and if using a narrow grip pulling low, you minimize the middle of the back contribution. Plus pulldowns and pullups better stretch the lats.

2 Likes

This article is spot on. Overhand for the upper back and lats. Reverse grip I definitely feel more in my lats. Especially lower lats. For me the overhand grip barbell row is the king for thickness. Always use it.

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I like the barbell row and Im good at it, I go heavy on it as a primary back exercise but it barely feels like it builds anything in reality

Vertical pulling builds so much more, my back go really better when I started doing a 60/40 or 70/30 ratio of vertical vs horizontal effort on back day

I do think my back would be flimsy even if wide if I didnt do heavy barbell row so they are mandatory

I think that’s a good idea. Although you’ll see different descriptions from coaches on exactly how to do them, I think what you’d find is that if we all came together we’d agree on the same things. Differing descriptions can come about what a coach has a certain goal or client in mind.

The downside with neutral grip is that due to the fixed grip widths on those bars then each person has a slightly different looking row and arm path. As an example if you’re wide and the handles are narrow for you then you’re able to really tuck your elbows. On the other hand if the opposite were true then the elbows would obviously travel much wider.

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There’s no arguing that if you were to pick just one exercise for lats growth then underhand grip barbell rows probably wouldn’t be it. But that’s not the case, and we have the luxury of using/programming different exercises that load the lats through different positions and ranges :slight_smile:

It’ll forever be a meat and potatoes lift for many. For good reason.

Completely agree. Generally speaking something like an underhand grip pull-down would be a better choice for lats development if you could only pick one movement. But there are some unique differences with using certain rows for lats development, and compliment those pulldowns etc nicely :ok_hand:

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Lats aren’t really prone to SMH though

All muscles respond to SMH, but to different degrees. It’s a scale, not an absolute.

And, we actually don’t know much from the research about SMH in general. Let alone for specific muscles.

Seen some pretty conclusive studies stating otherwise. Tension to length ratio, etc… obviously they have to be lengthened to a degree but FROM on every body part doesn’t seem necessary

I’d enjoy reading the studies that specifically show that the lats “arent prone to stretch mediated hypertrophy” so please drop some links or references below :slight_smile:

Let me start by saying that the bent over barbell row is my favorite exercise of all exercises, and I give it credit for most of the thickness in my upper back. Once I learned how to, what I call “locking my hips”, so that my erectors didn’t act as a damping affect when pulled, my strength went up about 60%.

Are you saying that you would purposely avoid FROM on your lats?

I took the shotgun approach and hit my back from all angles. The old plate loaded Nautilus Pullover Machine (my back arched through the full movement) was great for FROM, that I did following bent-over barbell rows and deadlifts.

Through the years I have acknowledged that the Scientific Method is a systematic test looking for truth. Even if we think we have arrived at truth, we soon find out there is more “truth” being discovered. The “best” science is not the truth. Hopefully, it is just a little closer to the truth, and not a step backwards. (Crisco comes to mind. The best science said Crisco was better than saturated fat. We know today that was vastly in error.)

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Give me few… headed to business dinner

I’d say a more effective ROM. Pulldowns… the lats lose leverage and tension at higher humeral elevation. Most of my back work is sagittal plain anyway. Love chest supported row variations. Panatta and some other companies are putting out some great equipment. Did barbell rows for years… up to 315 with solid form. Noticed much better growth when stability was maximized with different machines. But still an awesome back builder. Probably have done over 50,000 pull ups at this point. Beyond burned out.

Completely agree. Targeting the back using a variety of angles and working at different muscle lengths AND working HARD within that approach will always guarantee good development.

Oftentimes, those that are arguing the science forget how important the hard work and consistency part is within the overall equation.