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How To Do T-Bar Rows (Proper Form & Benefits) 

Isaac Robertson
Published by Isaac Robertson
Fact checked by Donald Christman, BHSc FACT CHECKED
Last updated: May 25, 2022

T-bar rows are possibly one of the most classic bodybuilding exercise setups to perfectly sculpt your upper back and shoulders. But as a personal trainer, I often see people make common mistakes.

And those mistakes can at best make the exercise less effective, but it also often leads to repetitive strain injuries that you can completely avoid.

So, I put together this guide to help you avoid such mistakes and get maximum muscle activation.

Here’s what you need to know.

Quick Summary

  • The T-bar row has been one of the most popular compound exercises to get bigger lats and sculpted shoulders. 
  • Because of the body position and potentially heavy weight, it’s easy to make mistakes and end up with an injury. 
  • With some simple variations, you can further target individual back muscles.

The Right Setup For T-Bar Rows

man in a gym

If you go to a modern and well-equipped gym, then there should be a T-bar row machine.

They are generally safer to use than just taking a barbell and attaching weight plates to one end.

This does work, but with barbell rows, the setup can slip and put a lot of strain on your shoulder joint.

If this is your first time doing a T-bar row, then get set up with a bar that has a light plate on it.

You need to get used to the movement first. The starting position will be one foot on each side of the bar with your knees bent. Lean forward and let your hands hang down to grip the handles.

If you can’t grip the handles directly below your shoulders, you need to adjust the foot plates to get into the proper position.

You should only start the T-bar row once you have the ideal setup for your height.

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T-Bar Row Instructions For Maximum Effect

OK, you have the machine set up; now it’s time to get the T-bar row movement right.

Step 1: Starting Position

  1. Stand with your knees slightly bent and feet shoulder-width apart on the T-bar row platform.
  2. Hinge forward until your upper body is parallel to the ground, and pay attention to a neutral spine alignment.

You should be able to use a neutral grip with your arms straight. If you can’t reach the handles or your arms are already bent when you grip it, you need to adjust the bar height up or down.

Otherwise, you won’t get the full range of motion.

Step 2: The Pull Movement

  1. Now it’s time to slowly pull the bar up towards your chest.
  2. Count to two on this part of the movement and focus on your shoulder blades. They should glide over your rib cage and squeeze together.

Imagine trying to crack a walnut between your shoulder blades.

Step 3: The Hold

Once you get to the top position, hold it there for about one second. This increases the time under tension and will give you the perfect form for maximizing muscle growth [1].

Also, make sure you keep your elbows close to your body. They shouldn’t flare out as that could cause joint strain.

Step 4: The Release Movement

Finally, slowly lower the bar back down to the starting point by counting to three.

This completes the full range of T-bar rows, and each rep should take about six seconds. You should feel the full shoulder extension during the movement.

T-Bar Row Reps And Sets

Many of my new clients ask how many sets and reps they should do for T-bar rows.

If you want to lose some weight and just get a bit more toned, your desired number should be 3 sets of 15 reps with a lighter load. This will tend to burn off fat reserves and not maximize bulking.

But for bodybuilders, the desired amount of sets should be at least 3, and you could push it to 5. Within each set, aim to do 8 to 10 reps where the last ones should be a real struggle.

What Muscles Do T-Bar Rows Target?

shirtless man

The reason so many bodybuilders love doing T-bar rows is that this exercise goes far beyond just the upper back muscles.

Here’s where you’ll feel the burn:

  • Latissimus dorsi: the lats run along the side of your upper back [2].
  • Middle trapezius: the traps are the large diamond shape part that makes up most of your back.
  • Rhomboids: these are below the traps and control the shoulder girdle.
  • Posterior deltoids: the delts are at the top of the back and control most of the shoulder movements [3].
  • Erector spinae: These are lumbar muscles that hold your spine in position.
  • Biceps brachii: Yup, you’ll also trigger the biceps.
  • Forearms: It will feel like an isometric exercise for your forearms as they grip onto the handles.

As you can see, you shouldn’t just be focusing on your shoulder blades. You’ll feel muscles from your lats at the top of your back to the lower back region.

And by gripping the T-bar row machine with your hands facing forward, you’ll work those biceps as well.

Avoid These T-Bar Row Errors

person holding her wrist in pain

Here are the main T-bar row tips to ensure proper form and avoid injuries.

Hand And Wrist Position

A common mistake I see people make is that they get the grip wrong during T-bar rows.

It’s vital that you keep your wrists straight throughout the movement and don’t get into the habit of curling them.

There’s a lot of weight on the bar, and that can seriously damage the wrist joint. It’s also not a bad idea to wear wrist straps.

“Many exercises can cause these injuries, with push-ups, bicep curls, bench or shoulder presses, and lateral raises being among the most common. In other words, any motion that involves bending the wrist, or may lead to a bent wrist, is a higher risk movement.” - Dr. John Knight, MD, handandwristinstitute.com. 

Too Much Body Movement

I sometimes see people try to get a bit of upper body momentum going at the start of the lift movement.

This kind of repeated spinal flexion can do a lot of damage to the lumbar spine and even cause a herniated disc.

Keep your body still to ensure less stress on your spine. This also adds more range of motion for the shoulders.

Wrong Weight

You’ll be surprised how much more weight you can lift with T-bar rows compared to other types of rows.

But choosing the right weight all comes down to matching it with your fitness goals.

If you’re looking to bulk up, then add more plates and reduce the reps. If you want to lose weight, then reduce the weight and do more reps.

5 T-Bar Row Variations

man and woman in the gym working out

If your gym doesn’t have a T-bar row machine, or you want to exercise the same muscles with limited equipment at home, here are a few ideas.

1. Bent Over Rows

The bent-over row requires a barbell and a couple of weight plates.

Step 1:  Attach the plates only on one side of the bar, with the other end resting on the ground. Step 2: Stand with a foot on each side of the bar and then bend forward so your hands grip the bar.

The movement of these simple barbell rows is the same as on a machine.

2. Pendlay Rows

Step 1: Set yourself up by standing with the bar in your hands and arms straight down.

Step 2: Lean forward and let your arms hang to the floor but don’t let go of the bar. You will pull the bar up to your chest in the same way as above, with your shoulders pulled back at the top of the movement.

3. Inverted Rows

You’ll need a rack as you use for a bench press, but you get set up without the bench.

Step 1: Hold onto the bar resting on the rack, so your body hangs above the floor.

Step 2: Then, you pull yourself straight up until the chest touches the bar.

This move will trigger most of the same back muscles but should also be a bit less straining on the lower back.

4. Resistance Band Rows

Another alternative to the traditional T-bar row is ideal if you don’t have weights or bars at home. Step 1: It’s like an upright row, but you slightly tilt your body forward and stand on a loop in the resistance band.

Step 2: Then, pull on the handles and maximize your range of motion. You should feel maximum tension on the bands when you get to the top.

5. Single Arm Dumbbell Rows

And finally, if you don’t have a barbell but use some dumbbells at home, you can do this modified version.

Step 1: Start this exercise with a dumbbell in one hand and lean forward in a runner's stance.

Step 2: Pull the dumbbell up to your chest and then lower it down slowly towards the floor.

Keep in mind that dumbbell rows don’t target as many muscles.

Related Article: Tobey Maguire's Workout Routine and Diet Plan

FAQs

Are T-Bar Rows Bad for Your Back?

No, T-bar rows are not generally bad for your back as long as you perform them properly. Most back injuries come from bad posture and too much body movement during the exercise.

How Often Should You Do T-Bar Rows?

You should do T-bar rows once or twice a week on your back days. Because it’s a compound exercise, it’s not ideal to do it more often as you could be adding too much strain from your gym time.

Are You Going To Try T-Bar Rows?

The T-bar row is an ideal exercise for people of all strength and skill levels.

By focusing on the right setup and avoiding some simple errors, you won't have trouble with your back, shoulders, or elbows.

And if you don’t have access to a designated machine, then the above variations will give you plenty of options to target the same muscle groups.

Try it out on your next back day and feel how much of a difference it will make in your appearance.


References:

  1. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/6820634_The_effects_of_varying_time_under_tension_and_volume_load_on_acute_neuromuscular_responses
  2. https://www.physio-pedia.com/Latissimus_Dorsi_Muscle
  3. https://exrx.net/Muscles/DeltoidPosterior

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