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

James Cunningham, BSc, CPT
Published by James Cunningham, BSc, CPT | Staff Writer & Senior Coach
Last updated: December 28, 2023
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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 they also often lead 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

  • To effectively perform T-bar rows and sculpt the upper back and shoulders, maintain proper form, including a neutral spine and correct hand positioning.
  • The T-bar row targets a wide range of muscles, including the latissimus dorsi, middle trapezius, rhomboids, posterior deltoids, erector spinae, biceps brachii, and forearms.
  • According to electromyography research in the Strength and Conditioning Journal, T-bar rows show higher muscle activation in the upper back compared to traditional row exercises.
  • In my experience as a personal trainer, T-bar rows are a versatile and effective exercise for both building muscle and improving upper-body strength.

The Right Setup For T-Bar Rows


If you're at a modern gym, you'll likely find a T-bar rowing machine.

It's safer than a barbell with weights on one end, which can slip and strain your shoulder.

For beginners, start with a bar and a light plate. Stand with a foot on each side of the bar, knees bent. Lean forward, letting your hands naturally grip the handles.

If your grip isn't directly under your shoulders, adjust the foot plates for a better fit.

Make sure the setup suits your height before starting your T-bar rows.

If you are exercising at home, you can also check out our guide on the 10 best barbells for home gyms if you want more help choosing one.


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 your 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 them, 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, according to a study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology [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 number 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

Recent electromyography (EMG) studies, published in the Strength and Conditioning journal, have shown that T-Bar rows activate a range of back muscles, including the latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, and trapezius, more effectively than some other rowing exercises, offering a comprehensive upper back workout [2].

Yet, 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:

  • Posterior deltoids: the delts are at the top of the back and control most of the shoulder movements.
  • 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

To prevent common injuries like lower back strain and shoulder impingement during T-Bar rows, it's crucial to maintain a neutral spine and avoid over-rotating the shoulders.

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

Hand and Wrist Position

From my training sessions, I've learned it's vital to keep your wrists straight, not curled, to shield your wrist joints from the heavy weight. Wrist straps can be a game-changer here.

“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,

Body Movement

Avoid using upper-body momentum at the lift's start. This can harm your lumbar spine and risk a herniated disc. Stay still to protect your spine and improve your shoulder range.

Choosing the Right Weight

Based on my coaching, T-bar rows allow more lifting than other rows. For bulking, I recommend heavier weights with fewer reps.

For weight loss, go lighter and increase reps. In rehab, lighter weights and controlled movements are best for safely rebuilding upper back and shoulder strength.

Other Back Exercises:

5 T-Bar Row Variations

Barbell Bent-Over Rows

From my own home workouts, I know that if your gym lacks a T-bar row machine, you can still target the same muscles with these alternative exercises.

1. Bent Over Rows

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

  • Step 1:  Attach the plates only to 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.

Pendlay Row2. 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, which 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 your 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 slowly towards the floor.

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


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.


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About The Author

James Cunningham, BSc, CPT
Staff Writer & Senior Coach
James Cunningham, BSc, CPT holds a BSc degree in Sport & Exercise Science from University of Hertfordshire. He's a Health & Performance Coach from London that brings a unique blend of academic knowledge of health supplements and practical exercise experience to the table for his readers.
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Benedict Ang, CPT, PN1-NC
Staff Writer & Senior Coach
Benedict Ang, CPT, PN1-NC is an ex-National Soccer player turned MMA and Kickboxing champion, with ACE CPT and PN1-NC certifications. His advice is rooted in education and experience, ensuring that readers receive scientific and battle-tested insights. His mission is to empower his clients and readers to realize their potential and become the best versions of themselves.
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Dr. Harshi Dhingra, MBBS, MD is a published peer-reviewed author and renowned physician from India with over a decade of experience. With her MBBS from Bharati Vidyapeeth and an MD from Rajiv Gandhi University, she actively ensures the accuracy of online dietary supplement and medical information by reviewing and fact-checking health publications.
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