Just because two exercises are rowing exercises doesn’t make them equal or even very similar, and that’s exactly the case with the bent-over row and the upright row.
Although the names make them sound so much alike, how do you differentiate when to use each and which is right for you and your current goals?
Bent-over rows and upright rows differ in the primary muscles they target, the stance you take to perform them, the amount of weight you can typically do with them, and the goals you are trying to accomplish with rowing exercises in your program.
This really shouldn’t be a comparison between which is a better exercise because they serve unique purposes and can both be part of a well-rounded program. But for you to understand them fully, let’s dive into the particulars.
Differences Between Bent-Over Rows and Upright Rows
Between the two rowing exercises, there are four key differences to note:
- Muscles targeted
- Weight capacity
1. Muscles Targeted
I’ll share a complete breakdown of each exercise and the muscles used below. Still, the main difference between these lifts is that the bent-over row primarily targets your back muscles while the upright row primarily targets your shoulders.
In both rows, overlapping muscles are used, like your biceps to bend your arms during the row, your erectors to stabilize and balance you, and your traps, but the primary muscle of emphasis in each row is different.
These two rows are easy to distinguish as you have to take a different stance to perform each.
In the case of the bent-over row, as the name suggests, your upper body is bent over your toes as you stand on your feet. The barbell is rowed upward toward your chest, which is parallel (or close to parallel) with the floor.
The upright row also tells us how it’s performed in its name, as you stand completely erect and row the barbell upward along your torso toward your chin.
Recognizing the differences in stance can tell you a lot about which muscles are targeted and make these two rows immediately distinguishable.
3. Weight Capacity
Because these two rows target different muscles, and those two muscle groups are vastly different in size and function, you can expect a considerable difference in how much weight you can move with each row.
For example, the bent-over row targets the much larger back muscles. It incorporates several additional muscles than the upright row, leading most lifters to be able to row considerably more weight in this variation.
The upright row’s reliance on the smaller delt (shoulder) muscles combined with the lack of involvement from other muscle groups leaves lifters typically getting a great workout with much less weight in their hands.
This isn’t a bad thing, as the weight itself doesn’t matter so long as it’s relatively heavy for you and provides a good amount of fatigue with each set.
Ultimately, the rows differ in the benefits you get from them and the goals you are working toward.
A bent-over row benefits lifters wanting to strengthen or grow their back muscles, while an upright row is a better exercise for a lifter focused on growing their shoulders and traps.
Ideally, you will have both goals simultaneously or at different stages of your program, and you’ll benefit from each!
I wrote about how a stronger back can strengthen your bench press in Does a Strong Back Help Bench Press? (Yes, Here’s How).
Bent-Over Rows: How To, Muscles Used, Tips, Common Mistakes, Pros, and Cons
Bent-Over Rows: How To Do It
To perform a bent-over row, take the following steps:
Step 1: Bend 90 degrees over a barbell
Step up to a barbell on the floor and bend at the hip at about 90 degrees.
Step 2: Grip the barbell
Grab the barbell about shoulder-width apart.
Step 3: Pull the barbell to your body
Row the barbell upward toward your body until it touches your torso. You’ll typically pull the bar to your chest or to your hips if you’re performing the row underhanded.
Step 4: Lower the barbell
Once you touch the weight to your body, lower it back down until the arms are fully extended.
Step 5: Repeat for reps
Perform as many reps as your set calls for.
Bent-Over Row: Muscles Used
The bent-over row is primarily a back exercise, specifically targeting your lats and traps, with your biceps and rear delts contracting to move the barbell as well. All in all, the following muscles are utilized:
- Latissimus dorsi
- Erector spinae
- Posterior deltoids
The latissimus dorsi (lats) is a big, flat muscle that spreads across most of your middle and the sides of your lower back. This is the primary muscle responsible for pulling the bar against gravity toward your chest.
The trapezius (traps) muscles are the shrugging muscles running between your shoulders and neck. They are also responsible for pulling the weight close to your body, especially in the top portion of the range of motion.
The rhomboids are the upper back muscles that contract your shoulder blades together as you pull the barbell to your body.
The biceps are the arm muscles that enable you to bend your elbow so you can pull the barbell to your torso.
The erector spinae (or spinal erectors) are the back muscles that run along your spine, enabling you to bend forward, stand upright, and straighten and twist your back, holding you steady in your bent-over stance.
Read more: Best Spinal Erector Exercises
The posterior deltoids are the rear shoulder muscles nearest to your back that assist in bringing your arms backward during the lift.
Wondering if bent-over rows are enough to train your back and biceps? Check out Are Rows and Pull-Ups Enough for Back and Biceps?
Bent-Over Rows: Pro Tips
Here are 3 tips to think about for a bent-over row:
1. Get a Good Bent-Over Position
We’ve established that a key difference between the bent-over row and the upright row is your stance, so take the time to set a good bent-forward stance for these rows and keep your chest parallel to the floor! The more you let your body inch upward, the more you change the targeted muscles that are working.
Many lifters will be careless with their form and hit muscles in a way they aren’t intending to, leaving the gains they are looking for out of the picture.
Don’t cheapen your bent-over rows by making them something halfway between an upright and bent-over row.
2. Hit the Same Touch Point Every Time
As you pull the bar toward your chest, be consistent and hit the same spot on your torso each time, whether you’re pulling overhand or underhand.
Underhand rowers will want to pull the barbell into the hip or belly, while overhand rowers will want to target their chest around the solar plexus (which is somewhere between your lower chest and belly button).
Whichever grip you are using at the time, hit the same touchpoint on your body to get the most consistent form and results.
3. Avoid Jerking or Swinging
Momentum is not your friend in this lift, so hold yourself to a standard and perform these rows as strictly as possible without jerking the barbell or swinging it to get momentum.
Yes, it’s harder to do these in a strict, controlled fashion, but that’s the point – let that challenge work on you so you can get the results you’re looking for. There’s no shame in using a lighter weight to get your form right.
Bent-Over Rows: Common Mistakes
Two common mistakes I see with bent-over rows are detailed below:
1. Bad Stance
I see the same problems with bent-over rows as I do with lat pulldowns – people shifting their upper body out of position so the exercise is hitting different muscles.
With lat pulldowns, I see lifters leaning way back and pulling the bar toward their body like an upside-down bent-over row, and I see bent-over rowers standing nearly upright like an upside-down lat pulldown. In both cases, you’re doing yourself a disservice by not doing the exercise the way it was designed.
Get in your 90-degree bent-over position and fight to keep your body that way during each rep you perform when you do bent-over rows. Any movement in your upper body angle will change what muscles or angles of the muscles are being trained.
It’s fine to have a slightly more obtuse angle than 90 degrees, but keep it consistent!
2. Lower Back Help
I see lifters always using their lower back to help with bent-over rows as they jerk or pull their upper body upward in addition to using the intended upper and middle back muscles to row, making this look like a half good morning, half row.
Don’t let yourself build momentum by doing the “good morning” at any point in the lift to help move the weight. We want to isolate and target our lats and traps as much as possible, and bending at the hip upward isn’t helping!
Keep your upper body still, set your position, and row with only your targeted muscles.
Bent-Over Rows: Benefits
Bent-over rows and upright rows are so different in my mind, but when compared to upright rows, there are two benefits to performing bent–over rows:
- Superior back targeting
- More muscles used
Superior Back Targeting
As we’ve established, not all rows are back exercises, but the bent-over row is definitely a better overall back exercise than the upright row based purely on the muscles used.
Because the bent-over row is a horizontal row (where your body is horizontal), this exercise naturally targets the back more than a vertical row (where your body is vertical) like the upright row. It’s not a matter of opinion but physiology – you work your back more with the bent-over row than an upright row.
When focusing on back work, the bent-over row is the better option.
More Muscles Used
If you’re interested in compound lifts that use many muscles to complete the motion, a bent-over row is more beneficial than an upright row.
When you use more muscles in an exercise, you expend more energy. When those muscles rebuild themselves, you use more calories in that process as well. Compound lifts are a great way to burn more calories, and the bent-over row is a compound barbell exercise that uses many large muscle groups.
It’s not as great as the squat, deadlift, or bench press in terms of large muscles used at once, working together – but it’s still a compound lift that can work a lot of muscles at once and burn a lot of calories.
Bent-Over Rows: Drawbacks
One main drawback comes to mind as I think of the bent-over row:
Being bent over is not an easy position to be in as you’re using your own strength to keep yourself balanced while you row a weight in your hands up and down.
I highlighted this fact in both my pro tips and my common mistakes, but many people have terrible form in holding their upper body in the right position to properly do bent-over rows.
That doesn’t mean you should avoid them, but you can do alternatives, like using a bench or other chest support to keep your upper body stable while you do the rowing motions.
Alternatives like seal rows and chest-supported rows can target the same muscles without making you responsible for your upper body positioning.
If your gym has the equipment, I highly recommend these alternatives when targeting your lats, rhomboids, and traps.
Upright Rows: How To, Muscles Used, Tips, Common Mistakes, Pros, and Cons
Upright Rows: How To Do It
Follow these steps to perform an upright row:
Step 1: Grip the barbell in your hands
Standing upright, grip a barbell in your hands with an overhand grip at your waist.
Step 2: Row the barbell to your chin
Pull the barbell along your torso up toward your chin. Let your elbows extend out to the sides to allow your hands to bring the barbell all the way up from about your chin to your nose.
Step 3: Lower the barbell back down
Lower the barbell back down to your waist.
Step 4: Repeat for Reps
Repeat for as many reps as your set calls for.
Upright Rows: Muscles Used
When performing upright rows, the following muscles are primarily used:
- Erector spinae
The trapezius muscles are muscles below your neck and between your shoulders. They’re responsible for shrugging the bar upward, especially at the top of the range of motion as the barbell is above your chest.
In this exercise, all three heads of the shoulder muscle – the anterior, middle, and posterior deltoid – are used to pull the barbell upward.
The biceps are the arm muscles responsible for contracting your elbows so you can pull the barbell all the way up to your chin without your arms limiting the range of motion.
In this case, your erectors stabilize you to remain upright and balanced while you row a weight in front of you that would otherwise pull you forward or tip you over.
Upright Rows: Pro Tips
If you want to do upright rows well, take note of a few tips:
- Get the full range of motion
- Keep the weight close
- Change the equipment
1. Get the Full Range of Motion
As with any exercise, you get the most out of upright rows when you do them correctly, and range of motion (ROM) is a key element to doing it right.
Upright rows become more challenging at the top of the lift, where it would be easy to cut it short and stop at your chest or shoulder height. To get the most benefit to your traps and delts, ensure your reps go all the way up, somewhere between the chin and eyes for most lifters.
This lift is similar to a lateral raise in the way it works your shoulders, but with our hands in front of us on a barbell, we have to pull the barbell much higher to get the same contraction and benefit as raising dumbbells out to our sides with the lateral raise.
Get the most out of this lift by using the full ROM.
Learn more about the differences between upright rows and lateral raises in Upright Row vs Lateral Raise: Differences, Pros, Cons.
2. Keep the Weight Close
Keeping the barbell close to your torso will help keep you balanced throughout the lift and target the right muscles. The more you let the barbell drift in front of you, the harder it will be to pull it up, and the more emphasis you’ll put on your front delts rather than balancing the use of all three deltoid heads.
You essentially turn it into more of a front raise the more you let the weight get in front of you. And while the front raise has its place in a shoulder program, we don’t want to muddy the waters in the benefits of the upright row.
Change the Equipment
Each piece of equipment offers a different variation or benefit, and you should get the most out of everything you can access.
For example, kettlebells can force a narrower grip while still allowing for a heavy load when both hands are placed on a single kettlebell.
Cables can allow you to keep constant tension while adding other forms of distraction, like stepping further back from the cable and fighting it to prevent it from pulling your arms forward away from your torso.
Dumbbells in each hand can free up your range of motion to allow for more comfortable, lateral travel throughout the lift.
Find variations you like and use them in a rotation to keep things interesting and dynamic in your upright rows.
Upright Rows: Common Mistakes
As simple as this exercise is, there are a couple of key mistakes to avoid:
- Yanking for momentum
- Poor posture
1. Yanking for Momentum
As with many lifts, you can make the lift easier by yanking or swinging the weight for momentum, but this kind of assistance takes away from the gains we are chasing.
Perform upright rows as strictly and controlled as possible to really make your muscles work. Upright rows get hard quickly as your shoulders fatigue, so it’s understandable why you may want to throw the weight around for your last few reps.
However, you’re just using other muscles and momentum to move the weight rather than training your traps and shoulders for the results you want! Instead, choose a slightly lighter weight and squeeze every last rep out with strict form.
2. Poor Posture
Just like I shared about bent-over rows, the positioning of your upper body in the upright row is crucial in dictating what muscles are being targeted and how they are being used. Don’t let your posture fall forward as you do these, or you’ll start using more of your back muscles and leaving your shoulders out of the equation!
Back muscles are great, but this isn’t the rowing exercise we want to use to target them. If you are programmed for upright rows, we are mostly focused on shoulders and traps, so we want to keep our body perfectly upright to ensure those muscles are doing the work!
Avoid tipping your upper body forward to really hit those traps and shoulders.
Upright Rows: Benefits
The upright row has a few distinct advantages over other rowing variations:
- Maximal shoulder recruitment
- Minimal lower back involvement
Maximal Shoulder Recruitment
There is not a single other rowing exercise that hits the shoulders as well as the upright row. Sure, many other rows incorporate the shoulders to some degree, but the upright row is the king of rowing motions that involve the shoulders.
If you need to build your shoulders (for example, if you have) and need more rowing exercises, look no further than the upright row!
If your rear delts in particular are weak, check out these tips for fixing underdeveloped rear delts.
Minimal Lower Back Involvement
Many folks are limited in what they can do in the gym based on their lower back pains or discomforts, so it’s great news that the upright row doesn’t need much lower back involvement to do well!
Yes, your lower back keeps you stable and upright, but we aren’t talking about a good morning or a deadlift-type hip hinge here.
For lifters who find themselves limited in how much they can move or engage their lower back, the upright row is a great option to keep going in the gym despite those setbacks.
I touched on it earlier, but you can do upright rows with a huge variety of equipment!
Whether you find yourself in a fully stocked gym with every piece of equipment imaginable and want to utilize all of it, or you’re traveling without many resources and could only manage to pack a resistance band in a heavy suitcase, you can find effective variations to perform upright rows.
The exercise is so simple and can be loaded with many different options, making it a great exercise to do in any circumstance.
Upright Rows: Drawbacks
Two drawbacks of upright rows are:
- Lacks back recruitment
- Difficult with shoulder pain
Lacks Back Recruitment
As much as this lift emphasizes the shoulders, it leaves much of your back out of it, which is a downside when the back is your focus.
If you’re looking at a list of rowing exercises for your back, the upright row isn’t a great choice because it’s primarily a shoulder exercise. This is a benefit for targeting the shoulders but an obvious drawback to rowing for your back.
You’ll need to find a different rowing exercise to really target your back. Pro tip: I’ve broken down a great one in the first half of this article.
Difficult With Shoulder Pain
Speaking from personal experience, this can be a difficult movement to perform if you’re experiencing shoulder pain or discomfort.
I’ve found variations that get around my pain, like using dumbbells, but I still feel frustrated that I can’t do more of this exercise.
If you are dealing with shoulder discomfort, you may be better off focusing on rowing exercises that use less of your deltoid. The good news is that includes about every other rowing variation out there.
Learn more about how to fix shoulder discomfort when doing upright rows in Upright Rows Causing Shoulder, Wrist, or Elbow Pain? Try This.
Frequently Asked Questions
Bent-over Rows vs Upright Rows: Which One Should You Do?
Lifters should do a combination of each, as the bent-over row focuses more on your back and the upright row focuses more on your shoulders. Lifters with a specific goal or need to address one or the other should put more emphasis on the rowing variation that corresponds with the muscle they want to target.
Bent Over Row vs Upright Row: Which Is Best For Powerlifting?
Powerlifters tend to have a much greater need to build their overall back muscles, so a bent-over row will be a much more common inclusion in a powerlifting program.
That said, powerlifters who recognize their shoulder strength is deficient in their deadlift may benefit from doing upright rows to strengthen their shoulders. However, a pressing movement would likely correlate better to a stronger bench press.
Bent-Over Row vs Upright Row: Which Is Best For Muscle Mass?
Both of these rowing variations can be used to develop strength and size in the muscles they target when combined with the appropriate caloric intake. However, the bent-over row tends to be a better exercise for developing total strength. The upright row is more commonly applied for shoulder hypertrophy.
Other Upper Body Exercise Comparisons
- Lat Pulldown vs Pull-Up: Differences, Pros, Cons
- Barbell Shrugs vs Dumbbell Shrugs: Differences, Pros, Cons
- Pendlay Row vs Barbell Row: Differences, Pros, Cons
- T-Bar Row vs Barbell Row: Differences, Pros, Cons
- Bench Press vs Overhead Press: Differences, Pros, Cons
- Floor Press vs Bench Press: Differences, Pros, Cons
About The Author
Adam Gardner is a proud resident of Utah, where he lives with his wife and two kids. He has been competing in powerlifting since 2016 in both the USPA and the APF. For the past three years, he and his wife, Merrili, have coached beginning lifters to learn the fundamentals of powerlifting and compete in their first powerlifting competitions.