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The barbell row is an effective upper-body strength exercise that works several muscles in the back and arms. However, the bent-over body position of the barbell row can increase your risk of low back discomfort or injury. Always use proper form during the bent-over row exercise, and do not perform barbell rows if you have low back problems.
The barbell row involves pulling a barbell from arm's length into the upper abs in a bent-over position; joint movements occur at the shoulder blades, shoulders and elbows. During the barbell row, the shoulder blades adduct, or retract, and the elbows flex, or bend. The shoulders move through transverse extension, which involves moving the upper arms out and away from the chest. The muscles responsible for these body movements are the muscles of the back and arms.
The barbell row works several muscles of the back, including the latissimus dorsi, rhomboids and traps. The latissimus dorsi are the largest back muscles; they attach to the humerus, or upper arm bone, wrap around to the back and fan out to the spine and down to the pelvic bone. The barbell row targets the middle and lower portions of the trapezius, triangular-shaped muscles that originate on the spine, extend across the back and attach on the shoulder blades. The rhomboid, a rectangular-shaped muscle that runs diagonally down from the middle of the spine and attaches to the shoulder blade, lies under the trapezius muscle and is much smaller than either the lats or traps.
Several other muscles are involved in the barbell row, although not to as great an extent as the primary movers. The biceps, rear shoulders and rotator cuff muscles all assist in the movement. The erector spinae, or low back muscles, hamstrings and glute muscles act as stabilizers; they do not actively contract, or shorten in length, but they statically contract with no change in length to stabilize the torso in the bent-over position.
According to a study published in the "Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research," the barbell row elicited more muscle activity across the entire back than the one-arm cable row or the inverted row. However, due to the bent-over position, the barbell row elicited the highest load on the low back, which causes high compressive forces on the lumbar spine. The inverted row may be a better exercise option if you have low back problems or pain.