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Tone (or Bulk) Your Back With Standing Barbell Rows

written by: Finn Orfano • edited by: Angela Atkinson • updated: 5/18/2011

Working your legs and chest without gym equipment is easy--just do pushups, squats and lunges. But the best back exercises, such as the barbell row, require some basic equipment. You can do rows with any barbell or weighted bar, or you can use dumbbells through the same range of motion.

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    Can't I Use Weight Machines Instead?

    Gym weight machines usually work just one muscle or muscle group at a time. But in the real world, multiple muscles and joints work together to help you accomplish everyday pushing, pulling and lifting movements. "Functional" resistance training exercises like the barbell row mimic movements you actually perform in the real world--in this case, picking up a heavy box or back while bent over, or drawing something heavy toward you across the desk or counter.

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    Step-by-Step

    Here are the basics of how to perform a barbell row. Always pay attention to how your body responds, and adapt the exercise to suit any special needs you have. That's one reason why having a trainer or experienced, knowledgeable workout buddy double-check your form the first few times is such a good idea.

    1. Grasp the barbell in an overhand grip, hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
    2. Hold the barbell close to your body as you hinge forward from the hips. Your torso should be roughly horizontal, or as close to horizontal as you can comfortably get while keeping your back flat. Think "chest up and out" in front of you, "buttocks out" but "tailbone tucked" behind you.
    3. Inhale as you lower the barbell until your arms are straight, but not locked. Maintain your chest-up, chest-out posture.
    4. Exhale and lift the barbell up to your ribs. Allow your elbows to flare out naturally at a comfortable angle. Aim for a tempo of about two seconds on the lift, and two to four seconds to lower the bar back to the starting point for another repetition.
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    Choosing Weight Equipment

    You may find it easiest to start doing barbell rows with the fixed-weight barbells you'll find in most gyms. These bars are easier to maneuver than the 7-foot-long Olympic barbells you'll see resting on most bench presses and squat racks. Fixed-weight barbells also come in lighter weights than the Olympic barbells, which weigh about 45 lbs. without any weight plates added. Once you've got the technique straight, work your way gradually up to the heaviest fixed-weight bars, and from there on to the Olympic barbells. (If you're using home gym equipment, you might have "Standard" barbells instead, which are one inch in diameter, compared to the Olympic barbell's 2-inch diameter.)

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    How Much Weight Should I Use?

    Barbell rows work the large muscles in your back, so you can use a relatively large amount of weight for this exercise. Practice with a light bar or the bar only, no extra weight, until you feel confident in your technique. Then bump up to between 60 percent and 80 percent of the weight you can lift, with proper, controlled technique, on a row machine.

    If you've just started strength training, slowly increase the weight until completing 12 repetitions with good form is a challenge. Then increase the amount of weight you're lifting by 5 percent to 10 percent. Once you can do 12 clean, controlled repetitions again, it's time to increase the resistance again.

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    Moving Forward

    Do challenge yourself, but focus on good form more than on how much weight you're lifting. Hefting a huge barbell might look impressive, but the poor technique required to get it into the air is a great way of hurting your back, straining a muscle, or dropping the weight on yourself (or someone else). As long as you continue lifting progressively heavier weights to make that last repetition a challenge, you'll continue to build muscular strength and endurance. And if you find yourself hunting for motivation, check out these quick answers for common excuses not to work out.

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    Sources/Additional Reading

    ExRX (graphic demonstration of the exercise, and details on each muscle worked)

    American Council on Exercise (basic resistance training principles)