Underhand barbell row vs overhand: Do THIS one!

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The barbell row is an excellent compound lift – one that many of us remember fondly from StrongLifts 5×5 and other beginner programs! I’ve been asked a few times whether underhand or overhand is the better grip for a barbell row – here’s what you NEED to know about that…

Underhand barbell row vs overhand: Do THIS one!

At a glance…

  • Rowing with an overhand grip targets the upper back
  • Underhand grip focuses on the mid back and incorporates the bicep more
  • There is a higher chance of injury when rowing with an underhand grip – bicep tears and elbow issues can occasionally occur
  • Grip width matters: the WIDER you go the further UP the back the emphasis moves as a result of the shoulder angle changing
  • Row above or below the belly button? Similar to grip width, the higher you row the HIGHER up the back the emphasis is

Which grip is best? Underhand barbell row vs overhand…

A barbell row done with an OVERHAND grip targets the upper back, principally the rhomboid and trapezius muscles. An UNDERHAND grip targets the mid-back by building the latissimus as well as hitting biceps and deltoids more.

The difference in emphasis is driven by the change in shoulder angle (elbows out vs elbows in), as well as the supinated or pronated grip bringing biceps in to play.

Overhand grip is best for building your upper back

A staple of many weightlifting routines is the barbell row. In its natural form it is an overhand bent over row. Many of us will know it from StrongLifts 5×5 and other similar beginner programs and love it for its ability to build a super-thick back!

An overhand barbell row principally targets the muscles in the upper back the most:

  • Rhomboids
  • Trapezius (traps)
  • Latissimus (lats) – typically the ‘upper’ and ‘outer’ areas
  • Rear deltoids

By taking a slightly wider than shoulder width grip we end up with our elbows flared out of the way when rowing. This position emphasises the traps and rhomboids over the lats.

It’s easy to cheat an overhand row… Don’t do it!

Bent over rows are VERY easy to screw up. How much do you bend over? Where do you row the barbell to? These matter as the more you stand up and the lower you touch the EASIER the row will feel.

Annoyingly there is no right answer on form – all we can do is set ourselves up to fit our own ergonomics and then be CONSISTENT. Don’t stand more upright as the weight increases, instead value the SQUEEZE through the movement.

If you struggle with form creep when rowing (I know I do…) an alternative may be to do a PENDLAY row where we pull from the floor. It tends to trigger a more consistent form to be used albeit with less time under tension overall as the barbell is on the ground between reps.

Underhand grip is best for building your mid-back

An underhand row is performed with your palms ‘up’ and facing forwards rather than the overhand equivalent where palm are facing you. An underhand row is also known as a reverse grip or Yates row.

A reverse grip row hits the muscles in the mid-back the most with secondary work being done by the biceps:

  • Latissimus (lats) – typically the ‘lower’ and ‘inner’ area
  • Trapezius (traps)
  • Deltoids (delts)
  • Biceps (bi’s)
  • Front deltoids

The main difference in feel when performing an underhand barbell row is the sensation of having ‘tucked elbows’. Compared to an overhand variant your elbows will track VERY close to your sides and it will feel really ‘neat’ as a result. It is this change in elbow position that changes the focus of the movement from upper to mid-back.

Underhand rows can agitate elbow and biceps so be careful!

If you are susceptible to tennis-elbow or other elbow-related gremlins then underhand rows may not be comfortable for you particularly at heavier weights.

Sloppy form can, in extreme circumstances, lead to bicep tears or injuries if the eccentric portion (lowering the bar) is done too aggressively resulting in a jolt at the bottom which may over-straighten your bicep suddenly.

To manage this risk when working with an underhand grip be particularly careful with weight selection and don’t push the RPE of your sets too far (I stick to RPE 7 as a ceiling for these personally.)

Another way is to vary the type of row you do – instead of a straight barbell using dumbbells which are far easier on your body!

Wide vs narrow grip: Probably narrow for most

As well as over or under hand we can vary the width of our grip from a typical shoulder-ish ‘narrow’ width to a snatch style ‘wide’ grip.

The wider the grip the LESS arm and elbow involvement and the MORE dominant the back and rear deltoids become in the movement. An old adage is ‘go wide to get wide’ which implies wider grips (on rows and pull-ups) will develop wider traps and lats. In my experience there is some truth in this.

For underhand barbell rows I would recommend a narrow grip ONLY as too wide a grip introduces another direction of force to our elbows and it can agitate them over time. This is similar to performing wide grip barbell curls which can cause many people elbow issues.

Remember: Form matters, not just grip!

It’s worth noting that there is more to a barbell row than an over or underhand grip. The form for rowing is pretty flexible and everyone will do it slightly differently – the KEY is to be CONSISTENT.

Cheating rows is an easy thing to do and it WILL creep up on YOU! It certainly creeps up on me regularly. In fact I find barbell rows one of the HARDEST exercises to keep a consistent form throughout my sets. This happens less if you prioritise the row – but typically I do them late on in my workouts as an accessory rather than a primary lift.

Where you row to: Above or below the belly button?

As well as grip type something else to ponder is WHERE you want to row TO. If you row above your belly button the elbows flare out relatively more and this pushes the work in tot he upper back and rear deltoids similar to a WIDE grip.

Conversely rowing to your lower stomach (below the belly button) pulls the movement further down the back in to the lats.

Conclusion

So what is the BEST grip for a barbell row? For most people I would start with a narrow, overhand grip which offers a fantastic back-building compound lift while minimising the chance of a bicep tendon or elbow injury. With that said variety is the spice of life and if you’re an experienced lifter feel free to experiment with grips and row forms to target your weak points and build your strength and physique over time!

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