ROWS – BARBELL VS. DUMBBELL

I initially set out to write a simple little blog post about the Bent-Over Barbell Row, a great compound lift for training the back. Having already written a post about Dumbbell Rows, I started thinking about what differentiates these two brutal exercises and how knowing these differences can help you make better choices when selecting exercises for your own training routine.

Before we get too deep into the comparison, lets take a close look at the Barbell Row and its benefits.

BENT-OVER BARBELL ROW

The Bent-Over Barbell Row is a compound, multi-joint exercise that primarily works the mid and upper back muscles including the latissimus dorsi (lats), trapezius (traps), teres major/minor and rhomboids. Assistance muscles include the rear deltoids and biceps, and stabilizing muscles include abs, lower back, hips, glutes and hamstrings.

The above video demonstrates how to perform the Bent-Over Barbell Row. Click here for more detailed instructions on executing the Bent-Over Barbell Row: Barbell Rows

Here are a few METALBOB notes and tips:

  • In the above video, I am using a platform rack designed for Barbell Rows. If your gym does not have this, set the bar on the floor and Deadlift the bar to the starting position, standing straight up with barbell held at your waist using a medium wide grip (just wider than shoulder width).
  • Lean forward bending at hips and knees until the torso is almost parallel to the floor, arms fully extended and hanging perpendicular to the floor.
  • Pull the barbell into your upper abdomen and keep your elbows close to your body.
  • Use a pronated grip (overhand/palms facing down) or a supinated grip (underhand/palms up). A pronated grip is easier on the wrists and better engages the mid-traps on heavier sets. A supinated grip will  engage the biceps and lower lats. I prefer a pronated grip but either is fine, depending on your goals and preferences.
  • Use straps for heavy sets. Try to lift as heavy as you can without straps to improve and strengthen your grip, but don’t let failing grip limit how much weight you can row. Once your grip starts giving out, use straps and keep going heavier.
  • Keep your head up and your back straight. No back slouching or rounding. If you find you can’t hold a straight back, you are using too much weight.
  • Use a lifting belt for heavy sets.
  • Beginners, keep the weight manageable so that you can work on correct form and building core strength without a belt.
  • Avoid this exercise if you have lower back problems. Dumbbell rows provide more stability and would be a better choice as would seated rows or machines.

BARBELL ROWS VS. DUMBBELL ROWS (BILATERAL VS. UNILATERAL)

To understand the differences between a barbell row and a dumbbell row, or any barbell vs. dumbbell exercise, it helps to know the difference between bilateral and unilateral exercises.

BARBELL ROW (BILATERAL)

The Bent-Over Barbell Row, as with most barbell exercises, is a bilateral exercise. Bilateral means that both sides of the body are being used at the same time toward pushing or pulling against the same source of resistance (barbell or body weight). Both sides of the body working together recruits more muscles, allows you to use heavier overall weight and imposes greater neuromuscular demand.

The greatest advantage of the Barbell Row is that it allows you to handle heavier weight, resulting in greater strength and muscle growth.

Disadvantages include a limited range of motion where the barbell can only be pulled back as far as the abdomen. The greater demand for stability control can cause problems with form and put stress on the lower back, especially for beginners with less core strength.

DUMBBELL ROWS (UNILATERAL)

The Dumbbell Row is a unilateral exercise, meaning it is performed on one side of the body at a time. Exercises performed with dumbbells are either unilateral or isolateral. Isolateral exercises are performed on both sides of the body at the same time but each side handles its own weight.   Unilateral or Isolateral, the use of dumbbells requires each side of the body to work independently, as opposed to using a barbell in which both sides work together against the same weight.

The advantages of Dumbbell Rows include greater range of motion and better isolation of the lats. Being able to pull back further than with the barbell, Dumbbell Rows allow for deeper contraction and better engage the lower lats.

For beginners, working one side of the body at a time addresses muscle imbalances and ensures balanced strength development and coordination.  Using a bench for support and stabilization allows beginners to focus more on using the muscles of the back, instead of struggling with core stabilization as required for the Barbell Row.

The main disadvantage of the Dumbbell Row is that you use less weight overall. Although you can still use very heavy weights when doing Dumbbell Rows, the Barbell Row usually allows you to handle even more total weight.

THE VERDICT

The Barbell Row is the better choice for overall strength and size. It allows you to work with heavier weight and works more muscles in the body at once for greater systemic demand.

If your goals are focused on maximum strength and gaining mass (powerlifting), stick with full body compound lifts like the Barbell Row or Deadlifts. You can build an entire routine of compound bilateral exercises, hitting the whole body in 1-2 workouts for maximum strength and mass building.

Dumbbell Rows are better at isolating the lats and are a good choice for those who do higher volume training (body building) or beginners seeking to build back strength and correct muscle imbalances. Also a better choice for those whose lower back cannot handle deads or barbell rows.

Dumbbell Rows are best used as a secondary exercise in combination with a bilateral exercise for the back. For example, Deadlifts or Pull Ups followed by Dumbbell Rows.   Back training benefits from variety so it is my recommendation that you incorporate both exercises periodically in your training.

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Heavy lifting is best accompanied by heavy music.  If you liked the tune blasting in my demo video, it is “Will, Wish & Desire” by Abigail Williams, one of my favorite lifting tunes and a featured track in my BRUTAL GYM MIX V.  Check it out.

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