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Barbell row vs. Dumbbell row & Which Is Superior?

A well-rounded muscle building workout plan isn’t complete without a basic horizontal pulling movement thrown into the mix.

Free weight rowing exercises are a great way to build up the size and strength of the lats and mid-back, as well as providing secondary stimulation to other smaller muscles such as the biceps and rear delts.

But which is the superior choice when it comes to a barbell row vs. dumbbell row for muscle building purposes? Are they both equally effective or is there any reason to favor one over the other?

In this post I want to give you a few reasons why the dumbbell row is actually the better option between the two when it comes to stimulating the back for hypertrophy as well as minimizing the risk of injury…

Barbell Row

To perform a barbell row, begin by standing with your feet hip width apart and the barbell in front of you. Keep your back straight as you hinge from the hips, pushing your butt back, to pick up the barbell with an overhand grip. Maintain a straight back and brace your core as you row the barbell to your upper waist with your elbows pointing up. Lower the arms back down until they are straight to complete one rep.

The barbell row can also be performed with an underhand grip for a different variation that targets other back muscles.

Dumbbell Row

The dumbbell row is similar to the barbell row, but instead of using one bar you are using two dumbbells. With a dumbbell in each hand and palms facing each other, hinge at the hips as you bend forward and push your butt behind you. You back should be straight and head should be in a neutral position. Let your arms drop straight out in front of you. Exhale as you pull the dumbbells up, keeping your arms and elbows tucked tightly into your body. Inhale as you lower the dumbbells back to the starting position.

Due to being performed with just a single dumbbell, the dumbbell row can also be turned into a single arm row. While this version of the row allows for there to be focus on one side of the upper back region at a time, it also requires less stabilizer muscles. This exercise is preformed by bracing oneself on a bench with one arm and one leg with the other arm grasping the dumbbell. Since you are supporting more of your weight and body during this row exercise, your lower back is more protected than a basic standing row.

Effectiveness of Dumbbell Rows

The dumbbell row works your lats, rhomboids and trapezius without the stress on your lower back associated with barbell rows, and your body position requires less activation of your stabilizer muscles. You are able to focus more on the target muscles and achieve a greater range of motion, particularly the scapula retraction and depression that is essential for fully engaging your lats and rhomboids.

Effectiveness of the Barbell Row

The barbell row, also known as the bent-over barbell row, is a challenging movement that engages your latissimus dorsi (or lats), rhomboids and trapezius. Your body position forces the erector spinae of your lower back, as well as other stabilizer muscles such as your hamstrings, glutes, abs and obliques, to kick in to stabilize your body. According to strength coach Charles Poliquin, this reduces the effectiveness of barbell rows in developing your upper back, because energy and focus is diverted from the target area while firing your stabilizer muscles. On the other hand, Mehdi Hadim, the founder of Stronglifts, believes the barbell row is crucial to gaining muscle and strength because you are able to easily apply the principle of progressive overload by adding extra weight to the barbell each workout.

Is One Better than the Other?

The variety of row that you choose, whether it is a barbell row or a dumbbell row, depends on your goals and preferred method of training. A barbell row, performed both underhand and overhand, is used most often in bodybuilding for strengthening and growing the upper back. The dumbbell row is also a beneficial exercise to include in a training regimen, especially the one-arm dumbbell row exercise. One isn’t necessarily better than the other – it often comes down to what exercise ‘feels’ better depending on form and technique. Otherwise many people change them up every few weeks.