T-Bar Row vs Barbell Row: Differences, Pros, Cons

what is the difference between the t-bar row and barbell row

The t-bar row and barbell row are both useful exercises to incorporate into your back training, especially as compound exercises to build both strength and mass. 

But, what is the difference between the t-bar row and barbell row? The t-bar row and barbell row target the posterior chain similarly, but the barbell row requires minimal setup that allows for flexibility and variation. Alternatively, the t-bar row requires a landmine and handle set-up, which can provide direct back muscle activation and allow you to lift more weight.

There are pros and cons to each movement, and a specific time and place for when you would choose one over another.  

In this article, I will explain the difference between these rowing movements, which muscles are activated, and the purpose of each lift, to allow you to successfully implement these exercises to your programming.

Want to learn more about how the barbell row differs from other back exercises? Check out my article on Pendlay Row vs Barbell Row: Pros, Cons, Differences.

T-Bar Row vs Barbell Row: An Overview

Rowing movements are fundamental to any beginner or advanced lifter’s training protocol. These movements promote posterior chain and back development, which is extremely important if you are trying to lift a lot of weight or improve your aesthetics.

T-Bar Row

the t-bar row is a less challenging stationary row, where one end is fixed to the ground by a landmine

The t-bar row is a less challenging stationary row, where one end is fixed to the ground by a landmine. 

The anchoring of the bar will maintain a fixed bar path during the row.  This simplifies the movement and allows for attention to proper technique. 

Consequently, this will demand less core muscle activation and postural stability, which can be beneficial for isolating the muscles of the back.

The t-bar row is notorious for creating muscle density and depth in the back. This is due to your ability to leverage greater loads and isolate the muscles of the back.

Don’t have access to a T-bar Row? Check out my other article on the Best T-Bar Row Alternatives.

Barbell Row

the barbell row requires total body stabilization as you are in a bent over position with the free moving loaded barbell

The barbell row requires total body stabilization as you are in a bent over position with the free moving loaded barbell. 

The barbell row is associated with promoting width of the back muscles. This is due to the fact that the non-fixed bar allows for greater range of motion. This allows for a greater variety of back muscles to be targeted throughout the totality of the movement.

In addition, the barbell row can promote greater intramuscular coordination by loading the lower back and hamstrings in conjunction with the muscles of the upper back.

T-Bar Row vs Barbell Row: Pros and Cons

T-Bar Row Pros

  • The t-bar row can allow you to lift more weight. Due to the nature of this movement, you are able to leverage more weight.
  • The t-bar row can allow you to achieve greater potential overload. Lifting more weight can potentially lead to greater overload in the upper back, which is great for building strength.
  • The t-bar row allows for limited core involvement. Core strength is not a limiting factor in whether or not we are lifting weight. This allows for greater loading and isolation of the back muscles.
  • The t-bar row is less fatiguing. The t-bar row targets only the back muscles which allows for quicker recovery times. This allows us to prescribe higher frequencies and higher volume for this exercise.
  • The t-bar row is easier to learn. As the complexity of the movement decreases, the lifter is allowed to focus on proper technique. Novices will be able to quickly pick up this movement in a safe and effective fashion. 
  • The t-bar row can be a safer exercise. The t-bar row does not load the lower back, therefore technical inefficiencies have less consequence.
  • The t-bar row can be a pain-free row variation for those with low back injuries. While the t-bar row allows you to safely load your upper back, the barbell row can place the lower back in a compromised position. 

I mentioned the t-bar row in my article on 18 Exercises That Improve Deadlift Strength.  Check it out if you want more exercises on bringing up your deadlift strength.

T-Bar Row Cons

  • The t-bar row requires more equipment. You will need a landmine attachment and close grip handle to do the t-bar row effectively.
  • The t-bar row has less flexibility. You are limited to your handle variations when it comes to targeting the back in different ways.  Most often you’re performing this exercise in a neutral grip.
  • The t-bar row has less carry over to bench press. Unlike the barbell row, the t-bar row requires a neutral grip which is dissimilar to the bench press. 

Barbell Row Pros

  • The barbell row allows for greater variation. Some examples of variations you can do with the barbell row are overhand grip, underhand grip, pendlay row, and yates row. Continue reading for further explanation of the barbell row variations.
  • The barbell row has greater core involvement. The barbell row can promote total body muscular development. 
  • The barbell row can potentially target more back muscles. During the barbell row, you produce greater range of motion, which can target a greater diversity of back muscles.
  • The barbell row requires less equipment. You only need a barbell and weights to do the barbell row.
  • The barbell row has direct carry over to bench press. The barbell row should mimic the exact opposite of the bench press. Instead of pressing the weight, we are pulling the weight into our upper abdomen.

Barbell Row Cons

  • The barbell row can be more challenging to learn. The barbell row requires the ability to maintain lower body tension during the entirety of the exercise.
  • The barbell row is limited by the leg and lower back strength. In order to stabilize the weight you need total body strength. This can be the limiting factor in how much weight you can use.
  • The barbell row can put pressure on the lower back. If you are suffering from lower back pain then the barbell row might not be the right exercise for you. This is because it can put pressure on the low back if done incorrectly.

Curious how powerlifters structure their back workouts?  Check out my article on How Do Powerlifters Train Back (3 Must-Do Workouts).

T-Bar Row vs Barbell Row: Muscles Used

The t-bar row is an isolation movement that targets the latissimus dorsi, trapezius, posterior deltoids, and rhomboids. The barbell row is considered a compound pulling exercise, which actively targets the same back muscles, while passively targeting the hamstrings and erectors. 

While back muscle activation is similar between the t-bar row and the barbell row, the muscles that are prioritized are different.

The t-bar row is an exercise that can increase the depth and thickness of the back. This is due to the close neutral hand position and ability to leverage more weight.

The barbell row is an exercise that can increase the width of the back. Additionally, the barbell row has direct carry over to the bench press. This is due to the similar grip width and pronated hand position that these two movements share.

While targeting the muscles of the back, the barbell row has greater demand of the lumbar spine and requires greater postural stiffness.

A study by Fenwick et al. (2009), took a look at the levels of muscle activation in the hip extensors and spine during various rowing movements.

They applied 16 channels of emg to various muscles of the torso including the rectus abdominis (postural stabilizer), obliques (core muscle), and latissimus dorsi (back muscle). 

Subjects performed 3 trials of the single arm cable row, inverted row, and bent over barbell row with 3 repetitions per trial.

What did they find?

  • Compared to the 1 armed cable row and inverted row, they found that the barbell row produced significantly greater compressive forces on the lumbar spinal load.
  • The barbell row produced large muscle activation symmetrically from the upper back to lower back.
  • The barbell bent-over row required the greatest amount of spinal stiffness.

If we are trying to improve the rigidity of the back muscles, which is something we might want to do as powerlifters or strength athletes. The barbell bent-over row can be a huge asset to improving postural strength and total body muscle gains.  I mention this in my article on Is It Okay Do Deadlift With A Round Back?

Here we can conclude that the bent over barbell row can challenge the trunk musculature to a greater degree. If we are trying to target the back in isolation, the t-bar row might prove to be better in this department.

T-Bar Rows vs Barbell Rows: How To Perform

How To Do The T-Bar Row?

  • Make sure the barbell is securely fastened to a landmine attachment.
  • Ensure your feet will be hip-width apart as you pick up the load. 
  • As you grab the handle make sure you are externally rotating both your shoulders as if you’re breaking the handles, retracting your shoulder blades, and maintaining an exaggerated forward chest position. This will allow you to maintain proper posture as you stand up with the weight. 
  • You will initiate the set up by sitting your hips back until the torso is parallel to the ground. 
  • During the movement make sure your chest is over your feet, and you emphasize sweeping your elbows back while aiming for the upper abdomen/lower chest. 
  • During the lowering phase of the movement you will guide the load into the full elbow extension

How To Do The Barbell Row?

  • Ensure your feet will be hip-width apart as you pick up the load. 
  • To maintain postural stability, you will externally rotate both your shoulders as if you’re breaking the bar, retract your shoulder blades, and maintain an exaggerated chest forward position. 
  • With the bar sitting in your hands, you will get in the starting position by initiating and sitting back until the torso is parallel to the floor, and the chest is in line with feet. 
  • From this position, you will have to sweep the elbows back as you pull the bar towards your upper abdomen/lower chest.
  • During the lowering phase of the movement you will guide the load into the full elbow extension.

T-Bar Row vs Barbell Row: Variations of Each Movement

Variations Of The T-Bar Row

While the t-bar row is somewhat limited in variation, there are still different handles and methods you can use to change the loading on the back. 

V-Handle: Close-grip handle at the base of the barbell sleeve. Due to close neutral grip position one can achieve more overload by leveraging more weight.

Straight Handle: Close-grip pronated hand position at the base of the barbell sleeve. This is similar to the V-Bar but places the hands in a pronated position. This variation is more similar to the barbell row, by imitating the straight-ness of the bar.

Rope Handle: Hand position is still close while grabbing the rope handles. The rope handles allow you to pull the bar through your torso to get greater range of motion.

MAG Grip: This handle can be placed at the base of the barbell sleeve. The odd grip of this handle allows one to think less about grip and more about elbow drive. This can promote greater lat activation and is one of my personal favorites!

Meadows Row: This is a single arm variation of the landmine row where you are able to get greater range of motion and overload on one side. This can commonly be used as a replacement for a single arm dumbbell row.

Variations Of The Barbell Row

There are many variations that one can use with simply just a barbell and weights when it comes to the barbell row. 

Overhand Barbell Row: Pronated hand position and is often similar to the hand position of bench press. This is considered the gold standard for powerlifting due to its similarities to the lower phase of the bench press.

Underhand Barbell Row: Supinated hand position just outside the thighs. This variation of the barbell row is primarily for building muscle rather than strength.The underhand barbell row targets biceps and lower lats a bit more than the overhand barbell row. 

Pendlay Row: This movement is used to leverage more weight directly from the floor. This can be used to improve power output and the rate of force development in rowing movements. 

This movement starts with the barbell resting at the midfoot. Grip width and hand position are similar to the barbell bent over row. Hips will be further back until the torso is parallel with the floor. The rowing motion in this exercise has more forceful execution to maximize power output.

Seal Row: This movement requires a bit more of an elaborate set up. A bench will be elevated by two plates stacked on two sides of the bench. This exercise will typically require more core stability due to the feet and legs being straight off the bench.

Snatch Grip Row: The snatch grip row puts more of an emphasis on maintaining tension with the lats. Range of motion will significantly decrease here, but there is some merit to the stability necessary to accomplish this exercise. 

Yates Row: You will be maintaining a more upright position in this exercise. Range of motion will significantly decrease as you’re targeting more of your upper back muscles. Due to the decrease in range of motion, more weight can be done in this exercise.

Which Exercise Is Best For You?

There’s no doubt that both the barbell row and the t-bar row are excellent additions to a lifter’s training program. 

When To Use The T-Bar Row?

  • If you are deep in prep for either powerlifting or bodybuilding, the t-bar row can be a less fatiguing option
  • If you have lower back pain, the t-bar row can take pressure off the lumbar/hip region
  • If you want to go as heavy as possible
  • If you want to add variety to your workout program
  • If you want to maximize muscle growth in the upper back muscles.

When To Use The Barbell Row?

  • If you are trying to improve postural stability and rigidity in your upper back
  • Beginner and advanced lifters trying to build total body muscle and strength
  • If you want to increase power output as a powerlifter

When To Use Both?

  • If you want to maximize muscle and strength growth
  • If you have additional time to incorporate both in to your daily routine
  • If you want greater variety in your training routine

Frequently Asked Questions

Here are some frequently asked questions for the t-bar row and the barbell row:

Is The T-Bar Row Dangerous?

Compared to other row variations, the t-bar row is a much safer alternative. The t-bar row does not require the lower back and spinal loading of the barbell row.

Can You Do A T-Bar Row Without A Handle?

If you don’t have a handle, a towel can be used around the bar to act in its place. Additionally, a strong variation of the t-bar row is the Meadows Rows. This can be done by utilizing straps to adjoin your hand to the bar.

Are Barbell Rows Bad For Your Back?

If done improperly, the barbell row can hurt your lower back. This is why you should take your time with lighter loads to learn proper execution of the barbell row. Proper execution of the barbell row can prove to be beneficial to building a big back. 

Are Barbell Rows Worth It?

Barbell rows are a fundamental exercise to build your back and your lifts. When done correctly, the barbell row can build postural strength and neuromuscular coordination.

Final Thoughts

Both the t-bar row and barbell row can strengthen and build your upper back. If I had to pick one, as a powerlifter, I would pick the barbell row over the t-bar row. There are greater mechanical similarities between the barbell row and squat, bench, and deadlift. Additionally, improving postural rigidity and strength can benefit powerlifters greatly.

References

Fenwick, C. M. J., Brown, S. H. M., & McGill, S. M. (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. doi:10.1519/jsc.0b013e3181942019