The usual questions that come up when comparing the Barbell Row Vs the Dumbbell Row include:
- Which one builds more muscle?
- Which one builds more strength?
- Which one is safer?
In this article, I’ll explain the pros and cons of both exercises, why you should try both before reaching any conclusions, and what I’ve learned from training in the gym for 5 years.
Both barbell row and dumbbell row are effective in building the overall muscles of the back however the barbell row provides better opportunities for progressive overload while the single-arm dumbbell row provides better control and stretch on the upper back and lats.
Barbell Row Vs Dumbbell Row – Pros and Cons
Both the barbell row and dumbbell row are fantastic back muscle builders, and as this article goes on, you’ll realize that the bottom line is, which do you prefer?
Benefits of the Barbell Row
- Progressive overload
The barbell row is a compound movement, meaning just like the bench press or squat, this is an exercise where you can lift heavy. While you can do the same with the dumbbell row, it won’t be as much as its barbell counterpart.
This means that your muscles will be engaged significantly more, therefore leading to greater stimulation for growth
However, it is worth noting that just like other compound movements, many other muscle groups are working together to help you lift the weight.
For example, the erector spinae (lower back), forearms, and hamstrings are muscles that are either supporting the movement or directly involved in the movement.
We’ll come back to this soon.
- Overall Back Builder
The barbell row is a classic exercise going all the way back to the golden era of bodybuilding (1950s) and is still used today. It survived the test of time for good reason.
The barbell row targets the trapezius, rhomboids, lats, and rear delts. Whether your goal is thickness or width, the barbell row will get you both.
- Time efficient
Since the barbell row is the ultimate backbuilder, it’s the bare minimum that you should do in your workout. It’s effective, it’s efficient. It’s the bare minimum.
Disadvantages of the Barbell Row
- Ego Lifting & Cheating
Ego lifting is very common in the gym and usually compensates for the lack of muscle gains by giving the appearance of “strength” to fellow gym-goers. It’s really a lose-lose situation. You’re not making muscle and you look like an idiot. It’s a fact.
One way that people cheat the barbell row is by pulling the bar up fast using their forearms rather than their backs. Another way is by not using the full range of motion.
The best way to fix this issue is by watching your form using a mirror. If you have problems, reduce the weight.
Drop the weight, Drop the ego.
- Greater risk of injury
Since you’re holding a lot of weight during this exercise, it can put a great deal of stress on your erector spinae (lower back). If ignored for too long, you could end up needing a lot more recovery time or at worst, a back injury such as a herniated disc.
This can be significantly worse with bad form such as a rounded back as opposed to a straight one.
- Energy depleting
Lifting heavy not only causes physical fatigue but also mental fatigue. This is why we limit compound lifts to the start of a workout and don’t do too many sets of them.
While they may be time-efficient, they’re not the best for a full-length workout.
It’s worth pointing out that if you’re training in a gym, there may be a limited number of barbells or stations where you can do the barbell row. Using a barbell or station for too long is unfair to other gymgoers.
It’s considered “hogging equipment” and should be avoided or at the very least, you should allow others to “jump in” and cycle the equipment/station with you.
Benefits of the Dumbbell Row
- Range of Motion
As mentioned in the intro to this article, the dumbbell row provides a greater stretch on the back muscles. Particularly the single-arm dumbbell row which we’ll go over later.
When lifting heavy during barbell rows, it’s hard to control the weight in order to emphasize deep contraction and stretch. With the single-arm dumbbell row, however, the added stability of one of the arms greatly enhances control and the capacity to focus on maximizing the range of motion.
- Improved Stability & Lower Risk of Injury
As mentioned earlier, the greater stability of the dumbbell row reduces your risk of injury and enhances your muscle-building capabilities. For some people, the risk of injury could make or break their workout. In this case, the dumbbell row may be superior.
- Greater Mind-to-Muscle Connection
When you’re a beginner, it’s hard to know when your muscles are working, or if the right muscles are working. Due to the enhanced control of the dumbbell row, you can better concentrate on feeling a deep stretch and contraction with each rep.
Over time, you’ll get better at feeling your muscles being activated. With this result, you can experiment with other back exercises to see which ones give you the most engagement.
Disadvantages of the Dumbbell Row
- Muscle Imbalances
If you opt for the double dumbbell rows, you may notice one side of your back or forearms fatiguing before the other. This is usually because one side is less developed than the other.
Than can be seen as a disadvantage but finding this out can actually help you.
In the case of muscular imbalances, the best thing to do is continue as you were but use moderate weight. You should be able to do 8 – 12 reps with great form.
In addition, add in a drop set or 2 for the weaker side. Over time, both sides of your muscles will adapt to the moderate weight and begin to grow at a similar rate.
- Less Time efficient
If you choose to do the single-arm dumbbell row it would of course take twice the amount of time each set. For people constrained on time, it’s worth keeping in mind.
- Harder to Progressive Overload
With the barbell, you can easily increase the challenge by adding on 2 plates, each being a pound but with the dumbbell, it will always be a few pounds.
You can’t increase the challenge by micro-intervals like the barbell row so you’ll have to use other methods of progressive overload.
This could be longer time under tension or using techniques such as drop sets and super sets.
Barbell Row vs Dumbbell Row – Similarities
Both the Barbell and Dumbbells can be used to perform the same standard rowing movement. As a result, you engage the same muscles with either variant.
Rather than comparing the two exercises, they should be used in conjunction with each other or at least alternate between them.
I lift fairly heavily in the gym so I start off my workout with seated T-Bar rows (a barbell row variant we will go over later) followed by single-arm dumbbell rows.
My tactic is to exhaust my overall back with a heavy compound lift and then follow it up with a more controlled exercise like the single-arm dumbbell row.
With any rowing movement, it’s important to practice good posture. Specifically, a straight back. You may notice low back pain from bad posture, lifting too heavy, or an undiagnosed physical condition.
Disclaimer: Check with a medical or fitness professional before committing to any workout plan.
Personal Note: I don’t do barbell rows because of low back pain. Instead, I do a similar variant called the seated T-bar row. The movement is the same but I have better support for my low back.
Barbell Row Vs Dumbbell Row – Execution
Exercise movements are best learned by observation and practice. I’ll be honest, reading instructions without visual presentation is useless. So instead here are some professionals to show you how it’s done.
Barbell Row Execution
Dumbbell Row Execution
Optimizing Muscle Engagement
Without getting into common mistakes, here’s how you can optimize muscle engagement with some advanced techniques.
This is NOT for beginners. As a beginner, your focus is to get the form right.
With that said, here are my tips for optimizing muscle engagement.
Time Under Tension (TUT)
TUT is about making the reps count rather than counting the reps. Instead of making it a goal to reach 12 reps, you make the goal to make those 12 reps as painful as possible.
The Time Under Tension for 12 easy reps is way less compared to the Time Under Tension for 12 hard reps.
So how do you increase time under tension?
Time Under Tension is the foundation for any technique you use to increase muscle engagement.
Whether it’s drop sets, super sets, slower eccentrics, squeezing at the top of a movement, or stretching the muscle at the bottom.
The goal of every technique is to increase Time Under Tension.
In my routine, I increase TUT by using:
- Slower Eccentrics
- Squeezing at the top and stretching the muscle at the bottom
- Using drop sets and partial reps to squeeze out as much tension as possible
This is advanced stuff. I’ve learned these from years of experience and am currently still experimenting with some (partial reps should only be learned after mastering the full range of motion with controlled reps)
These techniques can be applied to any exercise. It does not have to be a back exercise.
Here’s a summary of the techniques you can use to optimize muscle engagement.
Only add on one at a time. Mastery of a technique is important before moving to the next technique.
As soon as you finish a set of reps, lower the weight by 25% to 75% and rep out. Squeeze out as much tension as possible.
This technique aims to bring out tension for 1 or 2 muscle groups using 2 different exercises, in one go. For example, as soon as you finish a set of dumbbell tricep extensions, you start a set of bicep curls.
On the other hand, you can do a set of tricep extensions followed by skull crushers in one go.
Both increase TUT but one is more efficient while the other aims to exhaust a muscle group.
Squeezing and Stretching
It’s as simple as contracting your muscles hard at the top of the movement. This usually results in staying at the top for a sec before coming back down.
Stretching, however, is a little nuanced. It’s done at the bottom of the movement. In other words, the starting position. Stretching too much can cause issues with your shoulders and rotator cuffs.
For leg training, this could be a squat so deep that it puts too much pressure on the knees.
The main idea is to only go slightly beyond the starting position and to do so slowly.
Squeezing and stretching are fundamental methods to increase the TUT for any exercise that you do. This also makes you focus on control for each movement.
Another fundamental method to increasing TUT for any exercise is to practice slow eccentrics.
This is where you slowly bring the weight back to neutral. For example, for a bicep curl, once you’ve reached the top, you bring the dumbbell back down slowly and with control.
Another word for eccentric is ‘negative’.
Concentric is the first half of the movement. Consider is Positive
If you have a positive and a negative then you’re back to neutral or zero.
These words are commonplace in the gym so I thought I should explain them.
Slow negatives are especially helpful at the end of a set when things get tuff. Your muscles can handle more weight during a negative and so it becomes a good method to maximize tension.
I use slow negatives from start to finish of my main sets but that’s because I like the control.
Partial reps are for those who have mastered the full range of motion. Meaning they use the full capacity of a movement and that they’re aware of what that actually is.
This can easily be figured out by searching [exercise] + Full range of motion of YouTube.
Partial reps take advantage of the most intense part of a movement by reducing the range of motion to focus on that intensity.
They can either be done as the middle to the top part of a movement or the bottom to the middle part of the movement.
I prefer using partial reps at the end of a set when I can no longer do the full range of motion. At that point, I rep out using ‘bottom to middle’ partial reps.
Side note: It’s still important to emphasize control during partial reps. It’s a technique, not an excuse to use bad form.
Barbell Row vs Dumbbell Row – Variations
There are a few reasons why you may choose to use a variation. This includes injury prevention, optimized muscle engagement, or personal preference. For example, I love doing the seated T-bar row. It’s my favorite barbell row variant.
Barbell Row variations
- Seated T-bar row
I’ve hyped this exercise up and here it is.
Take the low back pain out of the standard barbell row and you get the seated T-bar row. With added chest support, you can focus completely on the rowing movement and maximize muscle engagement.
Progressive overload is pretty much the same with the use of plates to load up the movement.
- Pendlay Row
Rather than lifting the bar off the ground and then rowing, how about you start rowing off the ground? That’s the Pendlay row. The Pendlay row promotes explosive movement and strength but can also be used as a drop set to the standard barbell row to completely exhaust the upper back.
- Machine T-bar Row
The machine T-bar row is the same movement as the standard T-bar row with the only difference that it’s set up with a cable pulley system. This is my go-to when the plated T-bar Row is not available.
- Cable Seated Row
The cable seated row offers various attachments such as the v-bar and multibar cable attachment, and the straight bar. This means that you have more variety in the angles you do the rowing movement at.
For example, using the V-bar puts more emphasis on the lower lats while the wide grip of the multibar puts more emphasis on the rhomboid and traps.
Dumbbell Row variations
- Single-arm Dumbbell Row
There are 3 ways you can do this. Lean against your bench, lean against the dumbbell rack, or lean against nothing. If your gym is fairly crowded, DON’T lean against the rack. You’ll get in people’s way.
I prefer using the rack because it’s a little more comfortable than using the bench but I’ll only do so when the gym isn’t busy.
- Incline dumbbell row
Similar to the T-bar row, the added chest support removes the need for stabilizing muscles and instead focuses 100% on the rowing movement.
It’s tough to cheat and as a consequence, you may notice the exercise being a bit difficult compared to other variations.
- Meadows row
The meadow row uses one side of a barbell attached to a landmine (that’s just what the equipment is called). Despite using a barbell, this movement is more similar to the standing single-arm dumbbell row (the names just keep getting longer).
I use this as an alternative to the single-arm dumbbell row and find that it’s not so bad on my lower back, although that may be subjective.
Even though the rowing movement is as simple as, “pull the weight towards your chest or waist”, there are a few things beginners get wrong with form or techniques. These mistakes apply to both dumbbells and barbells.
I coined the term myself. This is when you pull the dumbbell or barbell too fast. Rather than using your back muscles to lift the weight, you use your forearms, momentum, and sometimes your lower body.
You use your forearms by explosively pulling the bar or dumbbell towards you rather than engaging your back muscles to pull the bar.
You build momentum by using your lower body and arms to swing the dumbbell/bar toward your chest
All in all, it involves getting from point A to B without effectively involving the back muscles. So you’re just “shifting weight”.
To solve weight shifting I like to think that the bar or dumbbell is being pulled by my elbows rather than my hands.
Focus on getting your elbows from the straight position to behind the body. Better yet, try doing the movement right now without weights, but focus on your elbows.
The elbows do the trick.
Less a mistake and more a weakness, weak forearms are something a lot of gym-goers have to deal with, myself included. These weaknesses become even more evident during back training when your forearms tend to fatigue before your back does.
Pulling anything requires you to first grip it. Grip requires forearm strength. If something, e.g. A 100-pound barbell, is hard to grip, your forearms will feel it.
The simple solution to this is to add in 2-3 sets a week of proper forearm training such as forearm curls to strengthen and adapt them to your back workouts.
Rounded Lower Back
This problem becomes more obvious the more you ego lift. When you ego lift, you forget about good form and your one and only goal becomes to get that weight up! On the other hand, it could develop out of habit or forgetting to monitor form.
It’s important to maintain a straight back to avoid lower back injuries such as herniated discs. Low back pain can go from being uncomfortable to requiring surgery if left unresolved.
This isn’t to scare you. Low back pain can be resolved easily with recovery and eliminating the source of the pain.
Maintain a straight back by tensing your core. If you can’t, lower the weight or, like me, use the seated T-bar Row.
Another common issue with posture is rounded shoulders. Rather than maintaining good posture, you let your shoulder roll over in front of you.
This reduces the range of motion which leads to less engagement of the upper back muscles and also shifts some of the tension to the shoulders and neck.
Rounded shoulders can also lead to shoulder impingements which can cause varying levels of pain. This is treated with physical therapy, stretching, and plenty of recovery.
Prevent yourself from catching the pain and boredom of physical therapy by maintaining good posture and rolling your shoulders back.
You can’t make muscle in physical therapy so practice good form.
Advice From A Gym Bro
I live by the Seated T-Bar row. It’s my favorite back exercise. While it may be the same movement as the standard barbell row, I do not and would not enjoy it because of the back pain that it gives me.
The Seated T-Bar row is what I prefer. It works for me
I also do the Meadows row or the Single-arm dumbbell row in the same workout. I like to follow up a heavy lift with a more controlled back exercise. I focus on the stretch and contraction that I get.
Again, It’s what I prefer.
I could easily do 5-10 sets of the seated T-bar row alone and make great gains. It also helps that the T-bar row has 2 sets of handles. One focuses more on the traps, rhomboids, and rear delts, and the other more on the lats.
But I still prefer the control and stretch I get from a single-armed exercise.
At the end of the day, all you’re doing is moving your hand from in front of you, to your sides.
Your muscles don’t know the difference between a barbell and a dumbbell but they do know your technique, your form, and the time under tension.
Try out both exercises and their variations. Find the one(s) that give you the most muscle engagement and enjoyment.
But I’m not going to end this with a cop-out answer like “Find the one that’s best for you”.
This is my honest opinion.
The seated T-bar Row is the single best upper back exercise. I attribute most of my upper back width and thickness to this exercise.
I’ve done this exercise for several years now. and I’ve made some serious gainz because of it. It’s barbell rows but without the back pain. It’s barbell rows but without the need for stabilizing muscles.
It’s a fully upper-back-focused, heavyweight, muscle builder.
For reference, I do 2 warm-up sets followed by 3 hard sets of 8-12 reps.
Any other row movement is secondary to me. However, I have been implementing more rowing movements into my workout.
This includes 2 sets of single-arm rows (dumbbell row/meadows row) and 2 sets of seated cable rows with the V-bar.
Give these exercises a try. The worst that can happen is that you don’t like them and choose another exercise. That’s the worst… So give them a try!
But a back workout can’t only be rowing movements. You still need pull-ups and lat pulldowns. Complete your arsenal of back exercises with the lat pulldown and its variations.
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