T-Bar Row Vs. Barbell Row — Which Back Builder Is Best for You?

If you’re serious about maximal strength development or getting a V-taper, then you need to row to grow. The T-Bar row and the barbell row are often the top two contenders for the big barbell pulling spot in most lifting programs. But which one do you choose?

You’ll often see strength athletes and bodybuilders alike pulling multiple plates and this helps to build strength, muscle mass, and pulling power. Its cousin, the barbell row, is slightly more complex and trains the lower and upper back While both movements are similar, slight differences in stability, setup, and technique may have you prefer one over the other.

Credit: Jasminko Ibrakovic/Shutterstock

The T-Bar row, although the setup is more complex, the angle and stability of the landing mine is easier on the lower back and this usually allows you to use more weight. The barbell row requires more lower back and hamstring activation to hold the hinge position, but with less stability, so less resistance is used.

Depending on your goals, the T-Bar or barbell row might work better for you. It’s up to you and your preferences. But with a little guidance below, you can best determine when it’s best to pull using a T-Bar set-up or the barbell row. Let’s dive in.

Differences Between the T-Bar Row and Barbell Row

First things first — the T-Bar row and the barbell row are both horizontal pulls lifters can perform pretty heavily. But that doesn’t make them the same. Here are some of the key differences between the two.

Range of Motion and Bar Path

A big difference between the T-Bar row and the barbell row is the range of motion and bar path. The T-Bar with the landing setup is why you can generally lift more weight.

Plus, as your torso is lower to the ground with more knee bend, you are reducing your range of motion (ROM). Not so with the barbell row, which is more a stiff-legged hip hinge.

Muscles Trained

Due to the fixed bar path of the T-Bar row, there is less demand for your core and postural stability which puts more focus on your upper back. The shorter range of motion and the close grip takes the lats out slightly and trains the upper back more.

This is why the T-Bar row contributes to a thicker back. The wider grip often used in the barbell row gives you lats more love. The barbell row also affords you less stability and requires more core and postural control and lower back engagement to support the hip hinge.

Setup

The T-Bar row is a landing exercise that needs a landing attachment or the barbell wedged into a corner with a towel or tennis ball. Plus, you need a V-handle or a towel so you can row with both hands in a neutral grip.

For the barbell row, you just need a barbell and some weights. Both lifts begin with the implement resting on the floor, requiring that you hinge down and deadlift it up.

Similarities Between the T-Bar and Barbell Row

The T-Bar row and the barbell row might not look the same and have vastly different setups, however, they’ve still got some similarities too.

Movement Pattern

The specific mechanics of the barbell row and T-Bar row are different due to the setup, but the overall movement pattern is the same. Both the T-Bar row and the barbell row are horizontal pulls that train the muscles of the upper back, lats, forearms, and biceps. So, you’ll be building your pulling strength with both lifts.

Both Build the Posterior Chain

The T-Bar row and the barbell row focus on different muscles, but both still train your posterior chain. Although the barbell row may work your back and hamstrings harder, by comparison, the T-bar row still uses your hamstring and lower back to a certain extent.

Depending on your grip, the barbell row trains your lats harder than the T-Bar row, but the lats still play a part in this lift. Both lifts require a large amount of grip strength to keep the bar securely in your hands.

T-Bar Row Vs. Barbell Row Technique

Although the technique for the T-Bar row and the barbell row is similar because they are both horizontal pulls, there are still a couple of differences.

Lower vs. Upper Back

With the T-Bar row, the angle, and placement of the bar makes it easier to get into position and puts less compressive force on your lower back. If you’re looking to row hard and heavy but your lower back is saying, be careful, the T-Bar row will be your go-to.

This isn’t as pronounced with the barbell row. With the anterior load and being in a hip hinge position with less stability, the lower back comes into play more. The barbell row puts more compressive forces on the spine and requires more spinal stiffness than other row variations.

Plus, the barbell row has more involvement from both the lower and upper back compared to the T-Bar row. (1)

How to Do the T-Bar Row

  • Stand over the bar with a wide stance and breath down into the bent-over row position.
  • Get your shoulders down, chest up, and spine in neutral.
  • Your feet should be positioned around eight to 12 inches behind the plates.
  • Grip the T-bar with both hands with arms extended and pull the handle towards your upper abs.
  • Pause for a second and slowly lower to the starting position.

How to Do the Barbell Row

  • Breathe at your hips and grab a loaded barbell with a grip that’s slightly wider than shoulder-width.
  • Squeeze your shoulder blades together and row the barbell until it’s touching your stomach.
  • You want your elbows to be angled at about 45 degrees throughout the movement.
  • Hold the top position of the row for a beat and then slowly lower back down.
  • Reset and repeat.

When to Do the T-Bar Row Vs. Barbell Row

Both these lifts deserve a spot in your strength programming, no doubt. But if you’re trying to figure out which one you should do to best fit your health and fitness goals, be guided by the advice below.

For Strength

When it comes to absolute loading potential, you are going to move more weight with the T-Bar row than with the barbell row most of the time. If you’re looking to build upper back strengththe T-Bar row should be your go-to. Because of the ability to use more weight and the neutral grip being your strongest grip, it’s going to be the one you perform when building absolute strength.

The barbell row can play a role in building more total-body strength. Because of the equal involvement of your upper and lower back, it also has a place as a deadlift accessory exercise to strengthen your lower back for a stronger and safer pull.

You’ll also be able to target your hamstrings more specifically, to strengthen your hinge position at the bottom of the barbell deadlift.

For Hypertrophy

When you are looking to add some thickness and depth to your upper back the T-Bar row is probably your best option between the two. The close grip and reduced ROM give your upper back more emphasis. But if you’re looking to build your V-taper and core strength, then opt for the barbell row.

man in stringer tank performs sets of t-bar rows with wide grip
Credit: martvisionlk / Shutterstock

That said, both are great choices for muscle growth because they work similar muscles hard and heavy. But with the T-Bar row being easier on the lower back and more stable due to the landmine set-up, you may have an easier time recovering from your hypertrophy-focused sessions.

For Bodybuilders

Bodybuilders will probably benefit more from the T-Bar than the barbell row. Lifters might be able to recover faster from the T-Bar row because of the lack of compressive force on the lower back. Although the barbell row is still a great exercise, it can be hard on the lower back and can impact recovery, especially if you train your lower body the day after.

For Beginners

Before even attempting the barbell row, you have to be proficient at hip hinging with a load. Whether being a deadlift, Romanian deadlift, or a kettlebell swing, learning to hip hinge with load takes some time and effort.

For beginnersstarting with the T-Bar row might be a better option. The reduced range of motion increases stability and less stress on the lower back means the lifter will build confidence with the hip hinge and heavy horizontal row pattern. When the beginning lifter feels comfortable with the T-Bar row, they can move on to the more advanced barbell row.

T-Bar Row or Barbell Row — Who Wins?

Both are great exercises and if your lower back is healthy, both can have a place in your program. When you’re looking to improve your deadlift numbers or technique then the barbell row should be your go-to. Spending more time in the hinge position will strengthen your lower backwhich is necessary for a safer and stronger bull.

On the other hand, bodybuilders or those suffering from tender lower backs may do better with the T-Bar row. Comfort and less force on your spine will allow you to row heavier, for longer, and grow your back as a result.

Ultimately, which exercise you choose comes down to your unique needs in the gym. It’s too difficult a task to declare one exercise flatly superior to another — as with everything in fitness, the devil is in the details.

References

1. Fenwick, CMJ, Brown, SHM, & McGill, SM (2009). Comparison of Different Rowing Exercises: Trunk Muscle Activation and Lumbar Spine Motion, Load, and Stiffness. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 23(2), 350–358.

Featured Image: Jasminko Ibrakovic / Shutterstock

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