Barbell rows are a staple for building a big back and an overall stronger body. And using an underhand grip makes them even better. Here’s why.
- Supinated grip (underhand) bent-over rows require significant work from the biceps and allow higher direct loading than any biceps isolation exercise.
- The underhand grip makes you as much as one-third stronger due to increased activation of the biceps.
- Supinated-grip rows build a powerful core, as you need to brace the abs and hold position while pulling the bar to your torso.
- Rows allow you to reinforce technique under load and hold position, which reinforces deadlift performance.
- Rows reinforce the ideal hip hinge position, helping you load the glutes and hamstrings for hypertrophy and develop explosive hip extension for exercises like sprinting, jumping, and cleans.
Barbell bent-over rows are a great exercise to address common technique weaknesses and flaws such as trunk stability and strength in the hinge position.
However, when you do them with a supinated (underhand) grip, there’s a greater overload stimulus on the biceps and you turn conventional barbell rows into an exercise that truly has a strong purpose.
Here’s why you need to be doing the barbell row, including why the underhand row is superior for most people:
The lats have a unique muscle fiber orientation that’s neither completely horizontal nor completely vertical. Instead, they have a diagonal muscle fiber orientation good for both vertical and horizontal pulling.
To maximize development of the lats, it’s best to pull vertically (chin-ups, pulldowns, etc.) andhorizontally with row variations for maximum hypertrophy. So by rowing with both volume and load, you’ll maximally develop thickness in the lats.
The hip hinge is a primal movement pattern that deserves a place in every good training routine. The hinge is vital to maximize lifting performance on deadlifts, swings, Olympic exercises that build high performance muscle, and strength in general.
Unfortunately, lifters often butcher the hip hinge, which keeps them from holding solid trunk position under load with the hips loaded.
The supinated or underhand grip bent-over row, however, reinforces the ideal hip hinge position, helping you load the glutes and hamstrings for hypertrophy and developing explosive hip extension for maximum power in exercises like sprinting, jumping, and cleans.
The most common sticking point in the deadlift is below the knee, which is the same position you hold while performing barbell bent-over rows.
During the deadlift, most lifters that get stuck below the knee are either using too much weight or they lack the trunk and core stability to hold the position. They end up rounding the spine and collapsing into a ball of fail.
It’s not worth the risk to miss a lift and risk a flexion-based back injury due to lazy technique. Instead, use rows in general to reinforce technique under load and hold position to keep the lumbar spine out of excessive flexion.
Not only will you protect your spine, you’ll turn a previous weakness into a strong point and develop a bigger deadlift.
You have to maintain a flat back position when you row. In most cases, this means the bar is situated close to the body and slightly below the base of the knee from the hinge position to reduce shear stress.
To prevent lumbar flexion, you’ll need to brace the abs and hold that position while driving the elbows back and pulling the bar to your torso, building a resilient core in the process.
You want bigger arms? The underhand grip requires significant work from the biceps and provides higher direct loading than any isolation exercise. Since most guys train the biceps with lighter, higher-rep sets, they’re not placing the muscles under a lot of tension to spur new growth.
While metabolic stress and long-duration sets play a role in hypertrophy, it’s important to stimulate fast-twitch fibers with heavy loads. The underhand bent-over row does a good job of this.
The supinated grip makes you as much as one-third stronger due to increased activation of the biceps. Using heavier weight will provide greater overload in the primary pulling muscles.
In other words, you’ll build greater strength in the traps, rhomboids, lats, and biceps due to greater training loads.
- Grab the bar with a double underhand grip, slightly outside shoulder width.
- Hinge over by pushing your hips back with the abs braced and shoulders retracted to weld your spine. The bar should sit slightly below the knee as long as the lower back stays flat and the trunk engaged.
- Drive the elbows back until they’re even with your body and the bar nears your abdomen. Remember to stick your chest out while pulling the shoulders down and back.
- Squeeze for maximal muscular contraction for a one-count, and then slowly lower the weight under control to the starting position.
- Overall, it’s imperative to hold position with eccentric control and stability through the trunk while the limbs are moving – a true function of a strong core.
- Shear stress on the spine. Lifters with flexion-based back injuries may struggle to hold a pain-free position with a loaded barbell in front of the body. It’s essential to pull the bar tight to the body, brace the abs to ensure neutral spine, and eliminate body English to minimize problems due to shear stress. Also, be conservative if programming heavy rows with squats and deadlifts in the same workout.
- Pulling the body to the bar instead of pulling the bar to the body. Let your muscles lift the weight, not your ego. Most lifters have a tendency to excessively load the bar and end up using way too much momentum to move weight. While their intentions may be good, losing position, raising the chest, flexing the spine, and doing total body convulsions to complete the lift do more harm than good. Hold solid joint position, drop the weight a bit, and train what you mean to train!
- Pulling the elbows too far back. When rowing in general, some lifters pull the bar too far past mid-line. While you might feel a better “squeeze” in the muscles, the humerus may migrate forward into the anterior socket of the shoulder, potentially causing impingement and dysfunction.
Rather than driving the elbows as far as possible, aim to break the plane of the body, but no further if the shoulder caves forward. This way, you’ll optimize muscular recruitment for gains in strength and size without compromising the integrity of the shoulder joint.