Building a bigger, stronger back is something many strength and power athletes are after. When your back is stronger, you can deadlift more, make your squats more stable, and even bench more weight. Not to mention, a big and strong back is extremely noticeable and — if you’re chasing a certain aesthetic — is bound to help you feel more confident.
The T-bar row is accessible to newbies and also lets advanced lifters really load on the plates. It allows you to train your back heavy, with high reps, or anywhere in between in a supported, uncompromised position to ensure good form and safety. So if you’re after serious back growth, don’t neglect the T-bar row.
- How to Do the T-Bar Row
- Benefits of the T-Bar Row
- Muscles Worked by the T-Bar Row
- Who Should Do the T-Bar Row
- T-Bar Row Sets and Reps
- T-Bar Row Variations
- T-Bar Row Alternatives
- Frequently Asked Questions
The T-bar row requires a specialized machine that is plate-loaded. This can come with a supported bench or unsupported set-up. For the sake of this article, you’ll learn about the more popular supported T-bar row set up.
If you are performing the freestanding (unsupported) T-bar row, the angles of your body should be similar. However, when your chest isn’t supported, there are much higher demands on your lower back to maintain proper form. If you’re really looking to load up weight safely, this may not be ideal for your goals.
Step 1 — Set Up and Take Your Grip
Most T-bar row set-ups will have an adjustable foot plate. Customize it based on how tall you are. Set the foot plate so that your sternum is at the end of the support bench. Most T-bars will also have multiple grip options. One is usually wide while another is narrow. Sometimes you’ll have one that has an angled grip. Choose the one that suits your needs best.
Coach’s Tip: Spending a month doing one grip and progressively overloading it is a great idea for progress. Then, switch grips and repeat.
Step 2 — Drive Your Elbows Back
Lie face down with your stomach and sternum touching the pad. Flare your lats to get a big stretch in your upper back. From the fully-stretched position, drive your elbows backwards. If you’ve taken a wider grip, your elbows will go slightly out to your sides. If you’ve taken a closer grip, they’ll go toward your hips.
Coach’s Tip: Fight the urge to pull with your arms. Think about your shoulder blades moving together at the top, then flaring apart at the bottom.
Step 3 — Lower Under Control
After you lift the weights, pause slightly at the top to get a strong isometric contraction. Lower the load with control. Make sure to flare your lats out at the bottom.
Coach’s Tip: Lower the bar slowly to keep tension on the lats.
T-bar rows can work wonders for both your back size and strength. Unlike other rowing variations, the T-bar row makes it easier to lift heavy loads and train to failure. That’s because you’re not limited by how much you can support your own bodyweight.
Build a Bigger, Stronger Back
When you want to add serious muscle to your back, lifting a combination of both heavy, moderate, and light loads is key. Deadlifts might lend themselves to packing multiple plates onto the bar, but they’re often the only very heavy pull in a lifter’s program. That’s because your back goes through a lot of stress with deadlifting. So it can be hard to add even more back volume with heavy pulls like rows, which often require you to remain bent over in a compromised position.
Unlike other forms of rows, the supported T-bar row allows you to train your back heavy with high volume. You’ll be relatively safe doing so because you won’t have to worry about keeping your back flat or maintaining a good back angle. The design and angle of the bench places you in the proper position, and all you have left to do is train hard.
Train Around Soreness
There’s nothing worse than wanting to hit a heavy back workout with stiff hamstrings and a painful lower back. You don’t want those muscle groups to hold you back, but you also don’t want to significantly raise your injury risk. Enter the T-bar row.
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For example, let’s say you do heavy Romanian deadlifts and back extensions on Monday for leg day. On Tuesday, your hamstrings and lower back are super sore and tight. That’s pretty much all you can feel when you try to do your bent-over rows. The supported T-bar row will allow you to train heavy, target your upper back, and not add extra stress and fatigue to your lower back and hamstring muscles.
Harder to Cheat
The T-bar row, like most machine work, makes it tougher to change the angles to make your lift easier. While there’s a time and place for cheating your form, it’s all too easy to do this by accident when performing unsupported rows. Having the bench support makes it harder to move around to make the last few reps easier. At such potentially intense loads, that strict adherence to form minimizes injury risk.
The T-bar row is a back exercise that primarily targets the latissimus dorsi. Some variations can also add training volume to your spinal erectors and rear delts.
The lats cover the entire back side of your torso. The T-bar row targets precisely that. You can perform this lift to add both size and strength. You can aim for thickness when taking a narrower grip and width when taking a wider grip.
When doing the T-bar row, you can slightly pick your chest up off the pad at the very top of the movement. This helps you get some additional lower lat and erector training in without jeopardizing your lower back. This is an easy way to train the entire backside of the body all in one shot.
Most pulling movements will hit the rear delts to some extent. Especially when you perform it with a wider grip, the T-bar row can place more stimulus on your rear shoulders.
The great thing about the T-bar row is its versatility. You can use it as a main back exercise, train it heavy, or train it light and to failure. The supported T-bar row also is a great option to train your back at times when your hamstrings or lower back may be sore or stiff. Since it’s supported, it’s accessible to beginners, but also allows more advanced lifters to load it up heavily.
Strength and Power Athletes
Whether you want a bigger squat, stronger deadlift, or massive press, the T-bar row should find its way into your back training program. A stronger back will improve nearly every lift. Weightlifters can also benefit from the T-bar row, as it can add strength in the front squat, overhead squat, pressing, pulling, and classic competition lifts.
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Competitive strength and power athletes may find that the T-bar row allows them to pull heavy without having to support their body in the bent-over position. This is important when you may be sore from other sessions or when you want to train your back without adding stress and fatigue to your lower back and hamstrings.
When regular gymgoers and less-experienced lifters try to train their back, they risk performing rows with an excessively rounded back, unintentional cheating at form, and changing their back angles to be more upright. These things could help you lift more weight, but not necessarily target your back optimally.
The supported T-bar row takes all the guesswork out of it. It also doesn’t let you use momentum. This means you can focus on lifting heavy, training with intensity, and not worrying as much about controlling your body to avoid injury.
You can train your back with the T-bar row using a wide variety of sets, reps, and loading. You can train it heavy without adding risks to your lower back or stress to your hips. You can also use it for more general muscle-building and even to increase back and grip endurance in higher-rep training.
To Build Strength
The T-bar row can be used to build a stronger back, which can complement squats, deadlifts, and any other big strength movement. When looking to train the T-bar row for strength, aim to train in the five to 10 rep range for three to five total sets with heavy weights. Make sure to use the full range of motion, control the eccentric, and lift with intensity.
To Build Muscle
If you are looking to build muscle, you can train the T-bar row with a wide variety of rep ranges throughout the week to maximize growth. You can likely stimulate a lot of growth training in the six to 12 rep range for three to four total sets with moderately-heavy weights.
To Build Endurance
Because you’re not putting your lower back in a compromising position, you may choose to use the T-bar row to improve your grip and overall endurance. To do this, you can train with moderate rep ranges of 10 to 20, or even high rep ranges of 20 to 30 to bring your endurance to the max.
The key with training moderate to higher rep ranges is that you want to train close to failure in them. Avoid stopping short of having more than three good reps left in the tank. You can do anywhere from two to six sets.
If you’re looking to take your T-bar rows to the next level, try any of these variations below to develop more muscle and strength, or simply add variety to your training.
Banded T-Bar Row
Adding a resistance band to the T-bar row is a great way to incorporate accommodating resistance. By using a band that increases tension as you lift the weight, you can train harder during every portion of the lift.
This will boost pulling strength and muscle growth even more. You can train with a band with the same set and rep ranges as you would without.
T-Bar Row with Isometric Hold
Adding a longer isometric hold at the top of every row can be a powerful back-building T-bar variation. By adding an isometric contraction, you increase the time under tension and reinforce maintaining tension throughout the full range of motion.
To do these, you can add isometric holds at the top of every rep, counting two to three seconds per rep. Alternatively, you can add a long single hold at the end of your last rep in every set, counting five or 10 seconds.
T-Bar Row Drop Set
The T-bar row lends itself well to muscle-building drop sets with. Drop sets allow you to train a muscle to complete failure. The T-bar row drop set lets you train with a heavy load to failure. Immediately drop the weight immediately by 10 to 20 percent and perform more reps to failure.
Then, do another set to failure with even less weight. Because the T-bar row supports your body and places you into a fixed position, you only have to focus on how much effort and intensity you are putting into a set.
In the event you don’t have access to a T-bar row, there are alternative movements to promote back hypertrophy. Unlike the bent-over row, these alternatives do not require a ton of lower back stamina or hamstring flexibility. They are therefore not limited by your ability to maintain the bent-over position under load.
The seal row is one of the best alternatives for many of the same benefits of the T-bar row. You only need a bench and some weights. First, make sure that when you’re lying prone on the bench, you’re far enough away from the floor that you can fully extend your arms with weights in hand.
This exercise will isolate your back muscles. It does not require you to support yourself while rowing. That means you can fully target your back with all the energy and focus you can muster up.
Chest-Supported Incline Dumbbell Row
The chest-supported incline row is a T-bar alternative that nearly matches all the benefits of the T-bar. However, you perform this version with dumbbells.
You can train this move with a sore lower body and can use a wide variety of reps and loads to get the stimulus you desire. Plus, working with dumbbells means you’re even out some strength imbalances while you’re at it.
Bodyweight rows can be tough enough, and performing them well can be a huge accomplishment for many lifters. But for those looking to up the ante, you can also add plates to your chest for added resistance.
The T-bar row is an iconic back exercise seen throughout the Golden Ages of bodybuilding, powerlifting gyms, and everyday training. With the proper set up, you can use the T-bar row to build stronger lats, add size to your back, and boost back strength for heavy lifts like squats, deadlifts, bench presses, and carries. The T-bar row should arguably be a mainstay of every back-building program out there.
The T-bar row set-up is pretty straightforward. However, you may still have some questions about exactly how to fit it into your program.
Is the T-bar row safe to do with a sore lower back?
One of the great things about the T-bar row is that it allows you to train your back without hitting your lower back too much. No matter your lifting experience level, your lower back gets beat up at times. The T-bar row is one exercise that you can use to train around lower back soreness and still get killer back workouts in.
Is it OK to use lifting straps with T-bar rows?
Totally. Lifting straps can aid your grip strength during heavy rows. While using them all the time won’t help your grip strength, there are times when your goal is to blast your upper back so much that your grip may become a limiting factor. In those moments, you may want to use straps to let you target the back muscles to the fullest.
How many times a week can you do the T-bar row?
Since it’s less demanding on your full body than deadlifts, many athletes can fit it into their program more often than once a week. You might opt to train this move with heavier loads at five to 10 reps one day each week, and on a second day perform it with lighter loads for higher volume.
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