Rowing is a strength training exercise for the back that is often etched into lifters’ minds in three forms: You can pull an object perpendicular toward your chest, you can pull something directly downward from high above, or you can pull something straight up from down below. All of this begs a question: What would happen if you pulled along a less-traveled path?
Well, when you apply a bottom-up approach to the barbell’s movement while standing at an obtusely-angled position, the product is a barbell high row. There’s no mistaking the fact that this movement isn’t on most people’s lists of essential back-training movements, and that’s a crying shame.
This is because the barbell high row is one of the most functional tools for exercising your back by mimicking a movement that you likely utilize in everyday situations, and just about every place other than in a weight-room setting.
- How to Do the Barbell High Row
- Barbell High Row Variations
- Barbell High Row Alternatives
- Barbell High Row Tips
- Barbell High Row Sets and Reps
- Benefits of the Barbell High Row
- Muscles Worked by the Barbell High Row
- Who Should Do the Barbell High Row
- Common Barbell High Row Mistakes
- Frequently Asked Questions
If you already know how to do a bent-over barbell row, transitioning to a barbell high row will probably be a piece of cake. Nevertheless, if you’re unfamiliar with either variation of a barbell row, there’s no time quite like the present to learn how to row with one of the most conventional devices in the fitness world.
Step 1 — Set Yourself Up
Stand with your feet spread slightly wider than shoulder width apart, your knees bent, and with your waist angled so that your body forms an angle or 45 degrees compared with a fully upright position.
Hold the bar with a slightly wider than shoulder width grip and relax your arms so it suspends directly beneath your shoulders.
Coach’s Tip: The high row requires a more upright posture than your standard barbell row.
Step 2 — Row the Weight Up
Bend at your elbows and pull your shoulders back to lift the bar to the point where it makes contact with your lower sternum. Pause briefly when the bar connects with your sternum.
Coach’s Tip: Make sure that your elbows flare slightly outward as you lift the bar up as opposed to pulling them along the sides of your body.
Step 3 — Lower the Bar
Slowly lower the bar in a controlled fashion to return it to its starting position.
Coach’s Tip: Although you begin the rowing movement from a dead hang, don’t allow the act of lowering the barbell to tug you into a bent-over body position.
While the angle of the barbell high row may be atypical, the basic execution of the movement is quite elementary. This makes the barbell high row a simple exercise to replicate with different apparatuses around your favorite commercial gym, or within your own home exercise environment.
Dumbbell High Row
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- Grab a pair of dumbbells and bend at the waist to set your upper body at a 45-degree angle.
- Lift the dumbbells until your hands reach the level of your lower sternum area, and briefly pause.
- Return the dumbbells to their starting position.
Smith Machine High Row
- Grab onto the bar of a Smith Machine and bend over slightly to set your body at a 45-degree angle.
- Unlatch the bar, lift it until it makes contact with your lower sternum area, and briefly pause.
- Return the bar to its starting position.
When you distill rowing exercises down to their essence, the majority of them will work several muscles throughout the posterior side of your body.
While it’s true that your angles of approach may vary depending on your area of focus, the fundamental objective of the movements remains consistent. This means there are several alternative exercises that capture the essence of what the barbell high row attempts to accomplish, one way or another.
Bent-Over Barbell Row
- Grab onto a barbell while your body is at an angle slightly greater than 90 degrees.
- Bend at your elbows and lift the bar up to your sternum, pausing briefly at the top of the movement.
- Return the bar to its starting position.
Chest-Supported T-Bar Row
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- Grab onto the T-Bar rowing handles while your chest is positioned comfortably on the chest pad.
- Bend at your elbows to pull the handles, driving your elbows back behind your body, and the handles toward your chest.
- Return the handles to their starting position.
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- Sit on the floor beneath a racked weight bar (or a Smith Machine bar) placed a few feet off the ground.
- Grab onto the bar with your hands slightly wider than shoulder width apart.
- Brace your body and elevate yourself from the ground so that only your feet rest on the floor, and your body forms a straight line from your shoulders to your heels.
- Bend at your elbows to pull your chest upwards toward the bar. Pause for a one-count at the peak of the movement.
- Straighten your arms to lower yourself back to the starting position.
The barbell high row may not be as intricate as perhaps an acrobatic barbell movement like the snatch or clean, but that doesn’t mean you can’t optimize it by employing a few simple tips and tricks. Try these out to ensure that your barbell high row sessions are squeezed for all they’re worth:
Make Consistent Contact
As you row, strive to touch the center of the barbell to the exact same position on your body every time you complete a repetition. This will ensure that you develop sound and consistent technique, and all but confirm that the intended musculature is doing the work rather than giving way to unwanted supportive structures.
Stand a Bit Wider
During the barbell high row, you may find yourself tempted to list back and forth as you perform your repetitions. After all, you’re rowing a loaded object in front of your midline — some swaying is to be expected, especially if you don’t brace your core or use a weightlifting belt.
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Standing with your feet wider than hip-width apart will broaden your base of support. This should help you keep your torso steady so you can focus hard on quality muscular contractions.
Despite calling for an ever-so-slight difference in your upper body’s tilt, the barbell high row’s methodology for muscular stimulation is identical to that of similar rows. As such, you can program it the same way you would for any other movement, depending on your goal:
- For Muscle Mass: Like other rows, the barbell high row can be trained like any other classic muscle hypertrophy movement. Three sets of eight to 12 reps with a moderately heavy weight is adequate.
- For Strength: To rapidly boost the strength of your upper back, try pulling through five very heavy sets of five barbell high rows.
For Endurance: To use the barbell high row to train your upper back for endurance, try two or three sets of 15 to 20 reps with fairly light weight.
If you believe that nearly all rows are fundamentally the same, you would be correct; they all activate the muscles of your posterior chain, and primarily the contributing muscles in your mid-back.
Despite this, the superficial differences between the barbell high row and other rows are distinctive enough that you’ll discover some extraordinary advantages to training with the barbell high row.
Well-Rounded Pulling Strength
Although its angle might be one that you don’t ordinarily assume during rowing sets, the barbell high row engages all of the muscles of your back, from your spinal erectors and lats to your rhomboids and trapezius. If you’re looking for a back-training exercise that stimulates muscle mass relatively equally, this is the one.
Powerful Posterior Delts
Weak rear delts are often a limiting factor to the overall development of shoulder muscles and corresponding improvements in their strength. Barbell high rows incorporate your rear delts in their pulling pattern, drawing them into a movement capable of involving more weight than your rear delts can ordinarily lift on their own. As a result, you may finally be able to craft the well-formed delts you’ve been pursuing for years.
A Capped Physique
The muscles of your upper back and rear shoulders tie directly into your neck and triceps. As a result, targeting the uppermost portion of your posterior chain can thicken a section of your body that links other portions of your anatomy, thereby making all of them appear to be thicker in the process.
Most rowing exercises systematically engage the muscles of your back, and the barbell high row is no exception. Exercising with the barbell high row will strengthen all of your pulling muscles, with much of that burden distributed throughout the topmost portion of your back, and with a considerable contribution provided by your shoulders.
While not as involved as it is during down-and-back pulling movements like the pull-up or lat pulldown, the largest muscle group in your back still assists during the barbell high row to help you lift the barbell upward.
Running from your glutes all the way up to your neck, the uppermost portion of your trapezius muscles is amongst the primary targets of the barbell high row, which can help to build them up.
All rowing movements involve scapular motion to some degree, and the “high” aspect of the high row will get your upper traps into the game more than most alternatives wherein you’re working from a hinged position.
Located beneath your trapezius muscles and located in your upper back, your rhomboids are a key contributor to upper-limb movement. They are also a stabilizer of your shoulder girdle, and are in the direct path of the barbell high row’s trajectory.
As the most rearward portion of your shoulders, your posterior delts are ideally positioned to assist with the barbell high row’s up-and-back motion, especially if you float your elbows out to the side during the lift.
While the underlying premise of all rows is the same — they improve your capacity to pull an object toward you — some rowing varieties are more effective than others at effectuating specific outcomes.
Trainees With Shoulder Impingement
One of the downsides to a standard upright row is that it has an unfortunate reputation for internally rotating lifters’ shoulders and exacerbating shoulder impingement. Because of the angle of the barbell high row, the width of the hand placement, and its low point of contact with the chest, it will provide you with the capability to target the muscles of your upper back along with your posterior delts. What’s more, it does so without excessive internal rotation at the shoulder, if that’s a posture you are attempting to avoid.
If you take a seat inside of a rowing shell for the first time, it might surprise you to learn that the overwhelming percentage of the propulsive work performed during competitive rowing — approximately 70 percent — is produced by your legs. (1)
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When your arms do contribute, the form of the rowing stroke requires the bar to connect with your sternum while your body is at a 45-degree angle. Therefore, the barbell high row will help you to increase your functional power on a path of resistance that mirrors the motion of a competitive rowing stroke.
Anyone Desiring Practical Pulling Power
Despite the temptation to primarily train your back by using rows that are performed at right angles, the real-world lifting environment is far different. From reaching down to pick up a package to lifting a toddler off the floor, several of the most common lifting motions executed in the real world occur when you are reaching down and pulling something up towards you.
In short, the orientation of your body during a bar bell high row comes closer to approximating true-to-life lifting circumstances than most other rowing variations.
Uncommon exercises often come with rarely-encountered sets of problems. That is to say that some of these issues are frequent during the performance of the barbell high row while remaining infrequent during most other exercises.
In fact, you’ll need to be extra cautious during barbell high rows, as the incorrect enactment of a barbell high row often results in the correct execution of a separate exercise that you don’t intend to be doing.
Standing Too Upright
If you straighten your body too much during the barbell high row, you run the risk of wandering into upright rowing territory. If you’re prepared for the internal shoulder rotation that might accompany that exercise, that’s one thing, but the overall focus of the two movements is different enough that you’ll want to be certain you stand at roughly a 45-degree angle.
Bending Over Too Far
Leaning too low and too far forward will shift the stress of your barbell high row toward the middle portion of your back. When this happens, you’ll end up with very little difference — if any — between your intended barbell high row and a well-executed bent-over barbell row.
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Not that there is anything at all wrong with bent-over barbell rows, but doing them in this instance won’t provide you with the developed upper-back that you’re craving.
Keeping Your Hands Too Narrow
If your hands remain at approximately shoulder-width on the bar or narrower, lat engagement increases while rear delt activity drops somewhat. Targeting your lats is certainly a worthwhile endeavor, but there are several exercises that can scratch that itch more effectively.
In the meantime, widening your hands can place more of the focus on your rear delts, rhomboids, and upper trapezius, which are areas of your anatomy that often receive less direct attention during training in comparison to the lats.
If the uppermost portion of your back is in need of some overdue attention, the barbell high row will quell any fears you might have that this section of your anatomy is going unaddressed. On an aesthetic level, the barbell high row enables you to appear more physically impressive as your shoulders and upper back fill out and begin to protrude.
On top of that, it will also allow you to pull more confidently at an angle that might be rare in the gym, but quite ordinary everywhere else. So in the end, your exceptional upper back muscles and pulling power will stick out just as glaringly as your new rowing technique.
An unconventional movement like the barbell high row is bound to spark a question or two. Here are your answers:
What does a barbell high row work?
A barbell high row will train all of the muscles in your back responsible for pulling, and the wide-elbow pulling motion includes your posterior shoulders muscles in the process.
Are high rows good for the upper back?
Not only are high rows good for developing the muscles in your upper back, but they are safer for your anatomy than other upper back exercises that have a tendency to internally rotate the shoulders and cause joint injuries.
- Jones, D. I. (2011). Upper versus Lower Body Contribution to the Rowing Stroke [Master’s thesis, Cleveland State University]. OhioLINK Electronic Theses and Dissertations Center.
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