Overhand v.s. Underhand Barbell Rows

A common question I get is the difference between barbell rows using an overhand versus underhand grip, and which one is best. Here’s what you should know.

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No one variation is better that the other. It just depends on your goals and what you’re trying to get out of the barbell row. To understand what’s going on better try this…

Without the bar get yourself in to a bent over row position (hinge over, butt back, chin down). Don’t worry if someones watching. Then, imagine pulling that imaginary bar in towards you using an overhand grip. You could even use. Wooden dowel or broomstick to practice this (cue more weird looks). Notice when you row in the angle of your humerus (upper arm) and the flare of your elbows.

Next, do the exact same with using underhand grip. Notice how using the underhand grip your elbows naturally stay closer in to your lats and your elbows flare out less.

The path of your humerus when rowing (the degree to which your elbows tuck or flare when rowing) will determine what areas of you back are being targeted the most. As a general rule, where your elbow points is the direction of what’s going to work. 

For example, if the line your elbow is pulling in points towards your lower lats then it will likely bias that area. On the other hand if your elbows are really flared (an elbows-out row variation) then you’ll be better alined up to work your rhomboids and upper traps.

What it all means

Elbows more tucked by your sides (close to your lats) and driving inward will bias your lats. Particularly the lower portion. This is more easily achievable when using an underhand grip barbell row.

When your elbows flare more away from your sides — as is the case when using an overhand grip — this will bias more upper back. So mid and upper traps and rhomboids.

Based off this information you might say that using an overhand grip is “best” to work your upper back, while an underhand grip is “best” if you want a lats-focused row. Keep in mind that the angle of your torso and how much you ‘arc’ the barbell back in to your hips will also change muscle emphasis. But case in point, you should now understand the difference a simple grip switch can make to your barbell rows. 

One caveat to this is that an underhand grip barbell row can oftentimes put more stress on your elbows. If you’re more prone to elbow crankiness then rowing underhand with an EZ bar or dumbbells could be a better option than a straight barbell. Because of the increased biceps activation using an underhand grip you also want to watch out for those bicep tears when doing heavy rows.

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