Master the Pendlay Row for More Back Size and Stronger Lifts

The Pendlay row increases your range of motion and reinforces good form for serious back gains.

If you’ve never heard of the Pendlay row — which is a close variation to the bent-over barbell row — you may well be skimping on your back gains. Innovated by USA Weightlifting coach Glenn Pendlay, this row variation specifically targets back strength and muscular development for pulling movements, such as snatches, cleans, and deadlifts. Additionally, the strict form of this row reinforces better form, carrying over to weightlifting-specific movements and pulls.

A person wears a sports bra and training pants as they set up to lift a loaded barbell from the floor.
Credit: BigBlueStudio / Shutterstock

This comprehensive guide will explore how the Pendlay row can be a useful exercise across various strength and power sports, alternatives, variations, and programming suggestions. 

Editor’s note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it shouldn’t take the place of advice and/or supervision from a medical professional. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. Speak with your physician if you have any concerns.

How to Do the Pendlay Row

Whenever you’re flirting with an unfamiliar exercise, knowing the proper form is first and foremost. Below is a step-by-step guide on how to perform the Pendlay row.

Step 1 — The Set-Up

Pendlay Row Set Up

With the barbell on the floor, set up with a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip. Set your hips as you would for a deadlift, but a little higher.

Form Tip: Be sure to maximize lumbar extension, imagining stretching your back long, to force greater back and hamstring tension.

Step 2 — Brace and Pull

Pendlay Row Row

Brace your core and use your lats to explosively pull the barbell to the base of your chest. Make sure not to elevate your shoulders or allow your hips to come forward.

Form Tip: Drive your feet into the floor and think about pulling the barbell to your hips.

Step 3 — Lower and Repeat

Pendlay Row Lowering Phase

Under control, return the barbell to the floor. Reset and repeat for controlled, strict repetitions.
 
Form Tip: Focus 100 percent on feeling your back doing the work. If you’re feeling it more in your arms, odds are you are performing this incorrectly or going too heavy.

Pendlay Row Reps and Sets

Even though it’s a solid compound movement, the Pendlay row is ultimately an accessory exercise. As such, you’re not going to aim to load it to the max. You can still use it to build up your strength, though. Since you’ll generate maximum force on each rep — pulling from a dead stop every time will do that — it’s also a great option when you want to build muscle and boost muscular endurance.

  • For Strength: Do three to five sets of four to eight reps with heavy (but submaximal) weight.
  • For Muscle Mass: Perform three to four sets of eight to 15 reps with moderately heavy weight.
  • For Endurance: Perform three to four sets of 15 to 20 reps with challenging but light weight.

Common Pendlay Row Mistakes

The Pendlay row is meant to be challenging — you’ll have to maintain a strong hip hinge throughout the lift. Plus, you won’t have the benefit of momentum to help you kick off each rep. Whenever an exercise is designed to make up the ante of a classic (in this case, the bent-over row), you’re bound to run into some common mistakes.

Back Angle

There are definitely times when cheating your form can boost your gains — but an unsupported hinge generally isn’t that time. Just as you might be tempted to partially stand straight up during the Pendlay row, you might try to yank with your arms. You may also try to tug up with your back by raising your shoulders relative to your hips. This will likely result in your back jerking upright from momentum before sneaking back into its ideal position. You also won’t be maintaining the integrity of your hip hinge, which is an important part of keeping the Pendlay row as effective as possible.

A person wears a sports bra, training pants, and pink shoes while preparing to lift a loaded barbell off the ground.
Credit: Rocksweeper / Shutterstock

To avoid this, lock down your Pendlay row form with light weight before advancing your load. Set up for each rep by packing your shoulders back and down. Then, squeeze your shoulder blades together to initiate the pull. Focus on keeping your hips pushed back, too.

Flaring Your Elbows

It’s okay if your elbows don’t stay tucked completely by your sides throughout this lift. This is especially the case for lifters with longer arms, who may need to angle their elbows out a bit wider to accommodate the pull. But completely “chicken-winging” your elbows out to the sides can put your shoulders in a compromising position. It’ll also put more emphasis in your arms and shoulders than your lats.

If you feel yourself yanking the bar and splaying your elbows out to the sides, lighten the load until the problem diminishes. You can also try cueing yourself to put your elbows in your pockets or to pull the bar to your hips. Experiment a bit to find a cue that works for you.

Going Too Heavy

If you feel like you have to dramatically raise your back angle or yank the weight up, you’ve probably slapped too many plates on the bar. It’s not a bad thing that the Pendlay row is a humbling experience. By concentrating on moving less weight with perfect form, you’ll be able to build up to more plates, more quickly. Instead of focusing on increasing your load, try to stick to the same load and increase the number of quality reps you can perform. When you hit your target number, then go back and gradually add more weight.

Pendlay Row Variations

Not all Pendlay rows look the same. Just like you can get creative with deadlift variations, there are multiple types of Pendlay rows to add to your V-taper tool box.

Pendlay Row from Blocks

By raising the bar off the ground, you’re reducing the range of motion that the barbell needs to travel. If you don’t have the greatest mobility, this adjustment can help you achieve a more comfortable starting position.

You can also improve any specific sticking points your pull might have. For example, if you’re weaker at the top of your rows, this will let your lift more weight to get you stronger in that specific range. 

Tap and Go Pendlay Row

Tap and go reps are beneficial if and only if they you use them to help you crank out more reps while maintaining great form. They can help you increase the number of reps you do each set for more overall growth.

However, if you bounce the bar off of the floor — rather than a light tap — you might be potentially risking injury with haphazard form. You’re also unlikely to get anything extra out of the movement.

Deficit Pendlay Row

Performing the Pendlay row from a deficit grants you all the back-building benefits, but with the bonus of an increased range of motion.

For lifters who want to increase muscle growth, the lengthened range of motion allows you to stretch the muscle and increase the muscles’ time under tension

This complex — meaning two or more moves are paired together in one set — is a great way to warm up for a deadlift session. By performing a few Pendlay rows before deadlifts, you can accumulate good volume as you build in lighters sets of deadlifts.

You’ll warm-up your hamstrings, lower back, and upper back, too. When your deadlift warm-up sets are still below 50 percent of your one-rep max, do three to five reps of Pendlay rows in the first few sets of warm-ups (below 50 percent of deadlift max).

Pendlay Row Alternatives

Looking for more ways to improve back strength and hypertrophy? Check out these alternatives to Pendlay rows that can make your back gains really pop.

Seal Row

The seal row is key for lifters looking to grow their back muscles while minimizing hamstring and low back stress

To do it, lie face down on a weight bench that is securely sitting atop two stacked 45-pound bumper plates. You should be able to extend your arms fully without your hands touching the floor. Then, row either barbells or dumbbells to your chest. 

Bent-Over Row

This rowing variation is nearly identical to the Pendlay row except that you don’t rest the weight on the ground after each rep. Because you’re supporting the weight fully for the duration of your set, your lower back is even more taxed in this variation.

Because this move puts more stress on your low back and hamstrings, you’ll want to use less weight and perform more reps, which makes this a great muscle-building alternative.  

Double Kettlebell Pendlay Row

This double kettlebell Pendlay row frees up your body from the constraints of a barbell. This is a more accessible alternative because the weights will be pulled along your sides instead of up to your body’s midsection like a barbell.

This lift also allows for greater unilateral strength and positional awareness, since you’ll be working both sides of your body independently.

Muscles Worked

The Pendlay row targets large muscle groups across your body. That’s bound to assist you in more complex movements like deadlifts, squats, and weightlifting exercises.

Latissimus Dorsi

Your lats are a large slab of thin, triangular muscle that spans pretty much the entire length of your back. They are involved in scapular depression as well as the flexion (or pulling) of your arms. Anytime you pull something to you, you’re engaging your lats.

Hamstrings

No, your legs won’t be moving — but that doesn’t mean they won’t be working. Your hamstrings work isometrically to support you as you assume the bent over position in the Pendlay row. They’ll get a small break when the bar touches the ground between reps, but your hamstrings will still get hammered when you’re going heavy or to high volume.

Spinal Erectors

Your spinal erectors work to stabilize your spine during this bent-over row variation, as you’re hinged over for the entire movement. Strengthening your back with isometrics like this can directly correlate to a more powerful deadlift setup and pulling position in the deadlift or any movement in which a load is lifted from the floor.

Benefits of the Pendlay Row

The Pendlay row might “just” be an accessory move, but there’s nothing little about the gains it can help you achieve.

Bigger, Stronger Back

When looking to build a strong back for either aesthetic purposes or to carry over to other lifts, it’s important to train with volume, load, and focused contractions. The Pendlay row allows you to load the bar with relatively heavy weight compared to other back-specific movements, yet it still forces full ranges of motion (if done correctly) to maximize back hypertrophy.

Better Deadlifts and Squats

The ability to contract and brace your back is essential for maintaining proper posture during moves like the deadlift, back and front squat, and the bench press. As you lift more weights in those movements, the demand on your back will be greater.

A close up image shows a persons legs, blue sneakers, and hands clapping chalk together while preparing to pull a loaded barbell off the ground.
Credit: baranq / Shutterstock

To ensure your ability to brace your back stays up to speed with the rest of the lift, you should add Pendlay rows to your routine. Because each rep is done from a dead stop on the floor, you’re forced to brace each time you lift the bar. That’s great practice for even bigger lifts.

More Pulling Prowess

For strength athletes, performing the Pendlay row can be a top priority. This is especially true is you lack positional strength in your hamstrings and back. The Pendlay row does a great job of increasing static and concentric strength, and both are needed during the snatchclean & jerk, and breaking through sticking points in those specific lifts. Pendlay rows can aid in the squat and deadlift for powerlifters, as they increase lower back strength and upper back strength.

Who Should Do the Pendlay Row

You don’t have to be an elite athlete to reap elite benefits from the Pendlay row. And just because it’s accessible to intermediate lifters doesn’t mean seasoned lifters won’t get a lot out of it.

Strength and Power Athletes

Strength and power athletes can benefit immensely from including the Pendaly row into their strength and hypertrophy training:

  • Powerlifters and Strongmen/Strongwomen: This assistance exercise allows for more specific training of your hips and back, both of which play a crucial role in deadlifting. Additionally, lifters can improve your lumbar spine’s stabilization in a hinged position, helping develop a healthier, stronger deadlift.
  • Olympic Weightlifters: This exercise’s main goal in weightlifting training is to develop and increase lat and lower back strength and muscle, similar to the pulls in both weightlifting movements. Increasing the hips and back isolation allows lifters to apply additional stress to promote muscular hypertrophy under a full range of motion.

General Population

For general population lifters — meaning anyone who isn’t planning to compete —  adding in back-specific exercises is excellent for improving your posture, gym performance, and minimizing injury risk.

However, the Pendlay row is more advanced for most beginners, as it requires flexibility and proper hip hinge mechanics (which doesn’t always come naturally to people). If you’re new to lifting, start with seated row variations, such as the cable row or chest-supported rows

Get Rowing

Momentum who? Pendlay rows will take momentum out of the equation by coming back to the floor between each rep. They’ll force you to maintain a strong hip hinge and generate full force each time you pull. Pendlay rows reinforce the kind of discipline and positional strength you need to do pretty much any lift that requires a powerful back and rigid torso. In other words, you might want to toss them into your pull workouts if you’re serious about building the back of your dreams.

FAQs

Thinking about bedazzling your back training with Pendlay rows but have some last-minute questions before you do? Get your answers here.

What is the difference between a Pendlay row and a bent-over row?

The main differences between the two are the set-up position and specificity to pulling movements. In the Pendlay row, you’ll set up with your back roughly parallel to the floor. This makes it much more difficult to assume a proper start position than with other types of rows.

The Pendlay row also has great application to movements like deadlifts and cleans. That’s because the barbell starts from a static position on the floor. You’ll pull it upward without allowing your hips to move up or down. This reinforces a strong setup and start position for those more advanced movements.

Can you do Pendlay rows with dumbbells or kettlebells?

While the Pendlay row was originally meant to be used with a barbell specific to Olympic weightlifting and strength, it has evolved over the years to become a movement in and of itself. For that reason, you can certainly use dumbbells or kettlebells. However, some circles may insist that the Pendlay row is exclusively with a barbell, and anything else is just a bent-over row.

How do I stop my hips from moving during the Pendlay row?

If you have issues keeping your hips still, focus on locking your knees and hips in a bent position. Push through the floor prior to lifting and brace your core. From there, you may also need to simply use less weight.

Featured Image: BigBlueStudio / Shutterstock