Your back is the largest muscle group on your body, and one of the most important when it comes to giving you a powerful, muscular look. Young lifters and athletes often make the mistake of neglecting their backs in favor of other muscles like chest and shoulders simply because they can’t see their backs in a mirror.
They do smith machine deadlifts or smith machine squat or some other, more complicated, workout like the dumbbell pullover and forget about the T Bar which is a really simple exercise to perform and will yield great results.
They couldn’t be more wrong. Think about it this way, your body has four “sides”, the front, the back and both your right and left side. By having a developed back you can make yourself look bigger on 3 out of these 4 sides, so by just working one muscle group, you’ll look a lot more muscular.
How? Well your lats are responsible for making you look wide from the back, while also growing in thickness to make you look bigger from the sides. Your upper back also comes into play, these muscles create that thickness that is characteristic of a strong build
Even if you don’t care about looks, your back is crucial when it comes to performance. It is quite literally the support pillar for your body, a strong back means nothing will be able to take you down and you’ll be able to take whatever they throw at you.
Having a strong back is crucial to having a strong body especially in today's world where you would have difficulty finding time for a full-body workout every other day, let alone every day,
Why did I go on this rant about back development? Well because I wanna teach you guys one of the best back building exercises out there. The T bar Row. If you wanna build a MASSIVE back, read on!
What Is the T Bar Row?
While most of you should already know this, the completely uninitiated might be wondering what the hell we’re talking about when we mention rows.
Well the answer is pretty simple, it’s the same motion you’d make when rowing a boat - pulling something towards you - but instead of being a stick, it's a barbell or dumbell loaded with weights.
T Bar Rows
So, what sets the t bar row apart is hand position and grip. When you perform rows with a barbell, you can either have your palms facing up or facing down. Neither is optimal, since the first recruits the biceps too much, and the second is suboptimal for strength.
The T-Bar row fixes both of these issues by having you pull a special handle, placing your hands in a neutral position that is optimal for maximum strength output. So, in layman’s terms, you can load up more weight, which means more stimulus, which means MORE GAINS!
How to Do the T Bar Row
There are two ways to go about doing a T-Bar Row, it all depends if you have a landmine unit available at your gym or not. What’s a landmine unit? It’s a simple contraption where you can stick one end of a barbell to keep it secured to the ground, while you lift the other end to perform a T-bar row.
Without a Landmine Unit
If your gym isn’t equipped with a landmine unit, you’re gonna have to get a little bit crafty with your setup, but it should only take you a couple of minutes to get everything ready and start banging out rows.
What you need to do is place the empty end of a barbell into the corner of a room, then place the heaviest dumbbell you can find on top of it. The goal is to keep this end firmly on the ground.
And don't worry the weight of the barbell combined with the heavy weights you added will keep it from moving
Once that’s done, you can load weights on the other end, and use a V-grip handle on the weighted end to grab a hold of it and start the exercise.
With A Landmine Unit
With a landmine unit, things are a lot simpler, just stick one end of the barbell in there, load plates on the other end and you’re good to go. Depending on which model you’re dealing with, you might still need a V-grip handle, other have a permanent barbell with grips attached to it.
The T-Bar Row
Now that you’re all set up, its time to learn how to perform the exercise itself. No matter which kind of set up you’re using, the way you perform the exercise is the same, so pay attention.
- Stand over the barbell so that it rests in between your legs.
- Bend over at the waist, so that your chest is at a 45º angle.
- Extend your arms to grab a hold of the grip. It should be placed high up the barbell, even touching the weight sleeve
- Squeeze your shoulder blades together and pull up until your chest touches the grips, repeat for as many reps as desired
Visual illustration here:
Muscles Worked by The T-Bar Row
The T-Bar row targets a lot of muscle groups in the body here we list them.
The Latissimus Dorsi is the biggest muscle in your upper body and is responsible for things like rotation, extending your body and other actions.
The Trapezius (aka Traps) is a large muscle that connects your shoulder with your back and strengthen it helps you have a stronger back and also a better looking back.
The Posterior Deltoid are located at the back of your shoulders and help a lot with the extending and contracting movement of your arm and shoulder
The Rhomboids muscle group is located at the top of you back and helps with your posture and giving your back more definition.
Biceps are located in your upper arms and primarily help when lifting heavy objects, working them makes your body stronger and also they look good.
Spinae Erector is a muscle group located in your back, it spans your entire back from top to bottom and helps you get a stronger back and give it more definition.
Your glutes(butt) are located in your lower body, they help tremendously with movement and flexibility and working them gives you a stronger, more able lower body.
Your core muscles (aka Abdominal Muscles) are located in your upper body, they help you by holding your body together and making them strong and active will in turn make you more physically able and stronger, also you can get a nice 6-pack abs by working them
Alternatives to the T-Bar Row
Listed below are the alternative exercises that you can substitute in for the t bar row.
Bent Over Close Grip Cable Row
A great alternative for the T bar row if you wanna skip the hassle of setting up and fiddling with the bar when you don’t have a landmine unit, just use a power tower instead. It keeps the neutral grip and provides a similar motion to the one you’d get on a T-bar row. After you master this you should try more advanced workouts like cable crunches.
For this one, you’re still gonna need a V-grip handle, hook it up to the power tower and select a weight you’re comfortable with. I’d suggest starting out light and going heavier later if you need to.
Once again, you’re gonna bend over at the waist. Since all power racks & towers are different, I can’t give you an exact angle, what I like to do is grab onto the handle and see how low I can go while keeping it perpendicular to my chest.
That’s it! Once you’re in position, just rep it out. Remember to always keep your spine neutral, if you feel your back arching forward, lower the weight.
Chest Supported Dumbbell Row
If you’re struggling with keeping your back in a neutral position, then you should give this one a go. As you might have guessed, you use a bench to keep your chest supported, taking the load off of your lower back and allowing you to pack more weight safely.
Of course, the first thing you’ll need is something to support your chest. The easiest way to go about it is using a bench, so that’s the one I’ll explain. However, if you find some other way that suits you better, go for it!
What you’ll need to do is set up the bench at 45 degrees, that way you’ll have plenty of space to move the weights around, while still keeping you perpendicular to the ground.
Once you have the bench set up, the rest is simple, you just need a pair of dumbells and you’re good to go. Just grab a hold of them with your palms facing the bench to keep the grip neutral and pull them towards your body and slightly backwards at the same time, as if you were trying to touch your ribs.
You can also use a barbell for this exercise if you don’t have dumbbells at hand, but keep in mind that the range of motion will be slightly limited because the bar will collide with the bench.
This what the exercise looks like in motion:
Beginner Mistakes to Avoid when Performing the T Bar Row
While at first glance the T Bar Row looks like an easy exercise to perform, there are some mistakes that beginners should avoid if they want to get the most out of T Bar rows.
Using Too Much Weight
The T- bar row is a fun exercise for most of us, in part that comes from being able to lift a lot of weight. Since it's a compound movement that involves not just your arms, but also one of the strongest muscle groups in your body, you can really pack on the pounds.
While increasing the load is great and is a surefire way to build more muscle, it’s only worth it if your form isn’t breaking down because of it.
If you need to heave the weight up with your entire torso, you’re not just putting your back at risk of injury, you’re also making the exercise less effective. It’s not the number of plates that matters, it's the stimulus your muscles receive, so the more your form breaks down, the more muscles involved, and your lats will grow less because of it.
A mistake you see most beginners make when performing compound exercises, they either forget or straight up don’t know how to brace. If you don’t know what I mean, bracing is creating intra-abdominal pressure by contracting your abdominals.
This pressure keeps your spine straight, which is extremely important while it’s under load. Without this pressure, you’re more likely to hurt yourself when lifting, which would put you out of the gym for a long time, if not for ever.
Limited Range of Motion
This usually goes hand in hand with putting too much weight on the bar. Since they can’t lift the weight properly, they perform half reps. In most cases, it’s not worth the trade off. You should perform each rep in its entirety.
That means that you start out the rep with your arms fully extended, then work your way up until the weights or handle touches your chest, then back to full arm extension. That’s one rep. People who make this mistake should consider other exercises first like the hammer strength chest press, to get in shape before doing the T Bar.
Not Working the Negatives
Most beginners don’t know that there are two parts to every exercise, technically called the eccentric and concentric, it’s fancy talk for the part when you lift the weight, and the part where you lower it.
Everybody knows you put effort into lifting the weights, but not everyone knows that when you put it back down you shouldn’t let gravity do the job. You should slightly resist gravity and lower the weights slowly, that way, each rep will stimulate your muscles even more.
If you wanna take it a step further, you can even add a pause at the top of the rep, when the bar is touching your chest. Hold the bar up there for a second, then lower it, trust me it’s gonna feel like your lats are on fire.
T-Bar Row vs Barbell Row
Both of these exercises are great additions to your workout routines, and if you perform either, you’ll eventually develop a powerful back. I wouldn’t say that one is necessarily better than the other though, they both get the job done.
Both of these will recruit all of the major muscles in your back, however, due to differences in hand placement, there will be some variation. That coupled with a few other key differences might make one of them better suited for you than the other.
Let’s start with the most important, muscles worked. With a conventional, wide grip barbell row, your hands are in a supine position (palms facing up) which leads to higher recruitment of the upper lats, the rhomboids and the middle of your upper traps.
Compare that to the T-bar row, which thanks to the handles, allows you to maintain a narrow grip that recruits your lower lats a lot better. That’s why most people suggest T-Bar rows to add width to your back, Barbell Rows to add thickness.
Other than that, the T-Bar row is a little more forgiving when it comes to form, not that you should slack off and risk injury but thanks to the way the bar travels you can get away with a 30 degree incline instead of the much lower incline needed for barbell rows.
This is especially useful if you’re not quite comfortable with your form just yet, or if you have tight hamstrings which don’t allow you to bend over quite as much.
However, the T-bar row is a lot more demanding when it comes to equipment and even placement. If you’re in a crowded gym, it might be hard to find a spot where you can perform it, even more so if the gym doesn’t have a landmine unit.
Compare that to Barbell rows, which only require the basics, barbells and plates, and can be done anywhere where there’s enough space, you can even use cheap dumbbells as an alternative if you don't have a barbell.
FAQs About T-Bar Rows
Listed below are the most commonly asked questions that most beginners have when performing the t bar row.
Are T Bar Rows Good for Packing on Size and Strength?
HELL YES! Like I said above, it allows you to lift a lot of weight, which will translate into size and strength pretty quickly, even more so for beginners. Just be sure not to overdo it on the weights and only load as much weight as you can handle safely.
There’s no point in lifting hundreds of pounds if that’s gonna injure you and keep you out of the gym.
Is It Better to Use the T Bar Row Machine or Barbell?
While there isn’t that much difference between machines and free weights, I always suggest people go with free weights whenever possible.
It’s not that machines aren’t effective, it's just that by virtue of being “free” weights, they require you to stabilize the barbell throughout the whole movement. It may seem insignificant, but these tiny stabilizer muscles are incredibly important when it comes to building strength, and will translate to other exercises as well.
Machines on the other hand, have a path set by the manufacturer, a path that might not fit your body quite right, but even when it does it’s so stable that no stabilization is needed. This is great if you’re recovering from injury or want to have a super controlled motion, so it's up to you.
Can I Perform the T Bar Row with Dumbbells?
Of course you can! It won’t be a T-bar row exactly (Hint: There’s a reason “bar” is in the name) But you can perform the same motion with dumbbells to get pretty much the same result.
You can either go for bent over dumbbell rows, which are pretty much the same, with the added benefit that the dumbbells never touch the ground so you’re constantly under tension, or you can go with chest supported rows which I explained above!
Should I Use a Belt when Performing T-Bar Rows?
Many beginners are concerned when they see the position needed for T-Bar rows, and they’re right to be. Any load bearing exercise in a bent over position is inherently risky when done incorrectly. That’s why a lot of them instantly fall back on weightlifting belts to perform them.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with using a belt, in fact, I encourage it. If you’re piling on a lot of weight, it pays off to be safe. However, don’t use the belt as a crutch to avoid learning proper form, or one day you might forget yours at home and end up injured!
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