The barbell row is an upper-body exercise while the deadlift is a lower-body exercise. While both can be great exercises to work the entire back of your body, they are not the same exercise, nor are they substitutes.
When you do a bent-over barbell row, you usually bend over, pick up the bar, and use an underhand grip. The starting position is being bent over without stretching your hamstrings too much.
This lift mainly works your biceps, lats, and the back of your shoulder (rear delt). We’ll talk more about the proper form and variations later.
On the other hand, when you do a deadlift, you bend over without bending your legs. And as you pull the weight to your thighs, you still have a neutral back. This lift is effective at increasing your functional strength because it activates the largest lower body muscle.
But which of these two is really most effective? Below, we’ll overview the two exercises to help you decide which is right for your fitness goals.
Let’s check it out!
Bent-Over Barbell Row vs Deadlift – Performance Differences
The form is all-important with both bent-over barbell row and deadlift and to ensure you don’t get sloppy, choose the right amount of weight. Controlled, slow movements offer more value rather than jerking up a massive weight only to push your muscles too much.
But before we begin with the proper form, remember to always warm-up before the workout. You can also use a weightlifting belt for added safety or try to do the heavier lift first to make sure that you can lift as much weight as possible.
Now, let’s find out how the two workouts differ in form.
Here’s how you barbell row with proper form:
1. In a medium stance, stand with your mid-foot below the bar.
2. Bend over and grasp the bar (medium grip, palms down, and hands about a shoulder-width apart).
3. While keeping your hips high, unlock your knees
4. Lift your chest and straighten your back.
5. Pull the bar upwards, keeping it just a few inches above the belly button
As you return the bar to the floor, straighten your back again and breathe. Then, do your next rep.
On the other hand, here’s how to perfect your deadlift:
1. Just like the barbell row, stand with your mid-foot below the bar
2. Grab the bar maintaining a shoulder-width grip
3. Lift the bar keeping a flat lower back and driving your hips forward
4. Take a big breath and stand up with that weight
Keep in mind that your lower back should stay neutral during the lift to avoid injury. And the best way to maintain that strong spine from start to the end of your lift is to keep your chest up all throughout.
There are so many variations of barbell row out there, which means that are probably a few that would work well with your fitness goals and for your body. Choose from among these variations that work for you:
- Pendlay Row – This requires more range of motion and power.
- Yates Row – The main difference is in the angle of the torso.
- T-Bar Row – This works on your lower back, middle, and upper muscles.
- Machine Row – A workout that can improve your overall strength, fitness, and stamina.
- Inverted Row – This is easier on your shoulder as the movement is more natural compared to vertical pulling workouts, like chin up and pull up.
- Dumbbell Row – It develops muscle hypertrophy and back strength.
- Kettlebell Romanian Deadlift – It targets the glutes and increases hip mobility.
- Romanian (Stiff-Leg) Deadlift – A good exercise to improve mind-muscle connection.
- Sumo Stance Deadlift – It is a little easier on your back.
- Offset Load Deadlift – A great way to expose imbalances and asymmetries and can similarly be used to eliminate them.
- Single-Leg Deadlift – A hip-hinge movement that strengthens the legs, core, and back.
- Kickstand Deadlift – Helps focus the contraction and strength of each individual leg.
The barbell row targets muscles you don’t obviously notice. Isn’t it that when you stand in front of the mirror, the first things you often notice are your abs, chest, and arms? No wonder why many fitness enthusiasts focus more on these muscles, forgetting their legs and back.
Well, with a barbell row, you’ll look great even as you turn around because your physique is balanced. Here are the muscles you’ll work with barbell row:
1. Abs – Barbell row is a great lift builder, similar to any Olympic lift or powerlifting. It targets your ab muscles as you support your lower back during the lift.
To be more precise, the workout targets your rectus abdominis – the muscles that run over your belly. And if you eat proper foods, your ab muscles become more visible.
2. Lower Back – The Barbell Row primarily develops the muscles of the lower back. As gravity tries to bend your back as you lift the bar, you resist that force. This, in turn, strengthens your erectors (muscle along your spine).
3. Upper Back – Let’s say you’re doing Pendlay rows. This variation of barbell row impacts your shoulder blades to give you that v-shape form.
As you keep your back and arms straight all throughout the move, you also work on your rear shoulders, traps, and other small muscles of your upper back.
4. Arms – Whether you prefer an overhand grip or an underhand grip, a barbell row can work on your forearm muscles as you hold the bar in your hands. This also happens when your biceps work to lift the weight.
5. Hips – Your glute muscles and hamstring work as you raise your torso to get the barbell moving off the floor. The barbell row also helps strengthen your hips using static and dynamic contractions.
In deadlifts, your legs are considered as the prime movers but it works your whole body. The following are the main muscles that deadlift target:
1. Legs – The deadlift is a workout where your hips hinge backward to pick up the weighted kettlebell or barbell from the floor. In that movement, your glutes and hamstring straighten your hips. Your calves straighten your ankles. Overall, the range of motion targets your leg muscles.
2. Arms – Since your arms hold the bar, this strengthens your forearms and grip. During a deadlift, your triceps and biceps don’t bend but they work isometrically to hold your body in proper form.
3. Abs – Your obliques and muscles contract to support your lower back during a conventional deadlift. The heavier your deadlifts are, the more muscular and stronger you become. As long as you also maintain a proper diet or eat right, your abdominal muscles will show.
4. Traps – When performed correctly, deadlifts can target your trapezius muscles. These muscles contract to keep your shoulders properly in place and transfer the force towards the bar.
Not only that. Your chest muscles and shoulders likewise contract to add support. The heavier the deadlift is, the bigger your traps become.
5. Back – Doing a barbell deadlift can help you build a thicker back. This is because your back muscles contract to keep the spine neutral. Moreover, your lats (latissimus dorsi muscles or the V-shaped muscles that connect the arms to the vertebral column), keep the weight close to your body.
Pros and Cons of Barbell Rows and Deadlift
Pros of Barbell Rows
The benefits of barbell rows, especially the Pendlay Row, are so profound that they should be a part of every lifter’s back training. It helps you build a stronger back as you maximize your overall upper body pulling strength during the lift.
It also entails pulling the weight as quickly as possible while maintaining proper form. This is why you can get so strong on barbell rows.
Pros of Deadlift
Meanwhile, the deadlift is a full-body move that works many muscles. It sets in motion a surge in testosterone hormone to help you with muscle building.
It likewise aids in other lifts, supporting your ancillary muscles so you can perform better in standing exercises, standing presses, and squats.
Cons of Barbell Row
However, both lifts have disadvantages too. For the unfamiliar and the untrained, the barbell row can be potentially dangerous. Lumbar strain, spinal stress, and other pulls can cause injuries.
Cons of Deadlift
In the same way, deadlifting can be dangerous if performed not incorrectly. Knee injury, hip injury, neck strain, and spinal compression can stem from little preparation and poor form.
Not only that. Since a deadlift places a demand on your central nervous system, it can quickly lead to overtraining and burnout when not scheduled in a proper program. Proper technique and form and careful consideration are musts to do a correct deadlift.
Final Verdict: Which Exercise is More Effective?
Barbell rows have a few perks. It’s easier on the lower back and is great for developing grip strength and upper back. In fact, it is considered to be the bench press for the back.
However, in my opinion as a personal trainer, I believe deadlift is more effective than barbell row. That is not to say that the barbell row is not a mass builder because it is.
It’s just that I consider deadlift to be an elegant lift that is unmatched by nearly any other exercise. In fact, it is the ultimate test of your overall body strength.
This is why fewer people (5%) in the gym can execute a safe deadlift the moment they walk in the gym while more (50%) new gym-goers can do a barbell row without instruction from a personal trainer.
I have no data to back this up but just based on personal observation in the fitness industry and the clients I’ve worked with. A barbell row is less technical, is easier, and is a good exercise.
In contrast, a deadlift is very difficult because it works your entire posterior chain. It is a compound exercise. But it is also worth noting that a barbell row can be a great exercise to get a better deadlift.
So, there you go. I hope you find these tips helpful when choosing what exercise you’d like to focus more on. Happy lifting!
If you like this article, you might want to read our other reviews at ExpertFitness.org.
Nathan Lloyd, MSc
LICENSED PERSONAL TRAINER
I’m a personal trainer, based in Boulder, Colorado.
I service clients physically in the Boulder area, mainly in the ONE Boulder Fitness Gym, but am also available for online consulting and coaching.
If you’re interested in my personal coaching programs, please contact me via the contact page.