Whether you are a powerlifter, an athlete, or just work out to look your best, muscular balance is important. That means you need to train your upper body as much as your legs and the back of your body as much as the front. Any imbalances will affect your appearance and your performance.
One of the best and most popular back exercises is the T-bar row. You’ll find a T-bar row machine in most gyms, and generations of exercisers have done this exercise, including many famous bodybuilders.
To do T-bar rows, you stand astride the bar, lean over from your hips, and pull the handle up and into your abdomen. It’s a simple exercise, but that’s part of its appeal.
On the downside, the T-bar row can be hard on your lower back, and even though it’s a popular exercise, some gyms don’t have the machine to do them. Maybe you train at home, and that’s why you can’t do this exercise.
The good news is that you can use a T-bar alternative to target the same muscles. Each one is equally effective but involves different equipment or a slightly different movement.
T-Bar Row Alternatives
What Muscles do T-bar Rows Work?
T-bar rows work most of your upper body pulling muscles. There are lots of them, but the main muscles worked during T-bar rows are:
Latissimus dorsi – Looking not unlike wings when they’re well developed, the lats are located on the side of your upper back. Their primary role is extension and adduction of the shoulder joint. The lats give your upper back its width.
Trapezius and rhomboids – Located across and between your shoulder blades, during T-bar rows, these muscles pull your shoulders back and together in a movement called retraction. The trapezius and rhomboids are important postural muscles.
Teres major – Also known as your mini-lat, this muscle works with your lats and is located just below the back of your armpit. Like your main lats, it helps give your upper back its shape and width.
Posterior deltoid – This is your rear shoulder muscle. It works with your lats to extend your shoulders. Like the trapezius and rhomboids, the posterior deltoid is an important postural muscle.
Biceps brachii – Located on the front of your upper arm and called the biceps for short, this muscle flexes your elbow.
While these muscles as the most significant movers and shakers during T-bar rows, several other muscles are also involved. That’s because T-bar rows are done while standing and leaning over. That means the following muscles get a workout, albeit indirectly:
- Erector spinae – your lower back
- Core – the muscles of your midsection
- Gluteus maximus and hamstrings – the backs of your hips and thighs
15 T-bar Row Alternative Exercises
No T-bar row at your gym? Do T-bar rows hurt your lower back? Or are you just bored of T-bar rows? No problem! Try these equally effective T-bar row alternatives.
1. Single-Arm Dumbbell Rows
Single-arm dumbbell rows use the same movement as T-bar rows, but you’re left with an arm free to support your lower back. As an extra benefit, working one arm at a time means you can identify and fix any left-to-right strength imbalances.
- hold a dumbbell in one hand and lean forward, placing your other hand on a knee-high bench.
- Without rounding your lower back, row the dumbbell and into your ribs.
- Extend your arm and repeat.
2. Bent-Over Barbell Row
The bent-over barbell row is another classic back builder. Like T-bar rows, it’s can also be hard on your lower back, so take care when doing this exercise.
- Pick up and hold the barbell with a shoulder-width underhand grip or a wider than shoulder-width overhand grip.
- With your feet hip-distance apart, bend your knees slightly and lean forward at the hips, so your body is inclined to about 45 degrees.
- Bend your arms and pull the bar up and into your abdomen. Extend your arms and repeat.
- Don’t round your lower back, as doing so increases your risk of injury.
3. Pendlay Rows
Pendlay rows are named after US weightlifting and powerlifting coach Glen Pendlay and are also known as dead stop rows. They’re basically the same as bent-over barbell rows, except that each rep starts and ends with the weight resting on the floor.
This provides your lower back with a brief rest, and an opportunity to reset your core.
Most people can use more weight for Pendlay rows than they can for standard bent-over rows. However, to set the bar down between reps, you’ll need to lean over more, which requires good flexibility.
4. Wrestler’s Row
This dumbbell exercise is ideal for anyone who only has access to lightweights. It works one arm at a time, so it’s useful for identifying and fixing left-to-right strength imbalances.
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand, bend your knees slightly, then hinge over from your hips.
- Don’t allow your lower back to round. Bend both arms and pull the weights up and into your ribs. This is your starting position.
Note: Using an alternating action, lower and raise each dumbbell while keeping the other weight pulled up and into your side.
5. Seated Cable Rows
A lot of exercisers find the seated cable row much easier on their lower backs than T-bar rows. Done correctly, this is an effective lat builder that is also very lower back-friendly.
- Sit on the seat/bench with your feet on the footplates and knees slightly bent.
- Hold the handle with a firm grip.
- Sit up straight, pull your shoulders down and back, and brace your abs.
- Pull the handle into your midsection, extend your arms, and repeat.
Note: Keep your torso stationary throughout to minimize the stress on your lower back.
6. Chest-Supported Dumbbell Rows
With this exercise, your lower back and legs are completely uninvolved, leaving you free to focus on training your lats and other upper back muscles.
- Set an adjustable workout bench to 45-degrees.
- With a dumbbell in each hand, lie on your front with your head uppermost.
- Bend your arms and pull the weights up and into your lower ribs.
- Extend your arms and repeat.
Note: This exercise can also be done using a barbell.
7. Inverted Rows
Inverted rows are a bodyweight alternative to T-bar rows.
They’re ideal for home exercisers and anyone who prefers calisthenics over weight training. You will, however, need a strong bar to do this exercise.
- Using a squat rack, Smith machine, or similar, set the bar to about waist-height.
- Sit on the floor below the bar and hold it with an overhand, slightly wider than shoulder-width grip.
- Straighten your legs and lift your hips off the floor, so your body forms a straight line from your head to your feet.
- Bend your arms and pull your chest up to the bar. Then extend your arms and repeat while keeping your body perfectly straight.
Note: You can also do this exercise with a TRX or similar functional suspension trainer.
8. Renegade Rows
Renegade rows are a very functional back and core exercise. They teach you how to brace your abs while supporting your weight with your arms and legs.
This is a good exercise for athletes and anyone else who wants to improve their athleticism and physical performance.
- Adopt the push-up position with a dumbbell in each hand. Brace your abs.
- Without twisting your hips or shoulders, bend one arm and row the weight up and into your ribs.
- Put the dumbbell back on the floor and repeat on the opposite side.
- Continue alternating for the duration of your set, keeping your core braced throughout.
9. Smith Machine Single-Arm Row
The smith machine single-arm row requires very little balance, so you are free to focus on working your lats to the limit. This exercise is essentially a single-arm T-bar row.
- Stand sideways onto a Smith machine.
- Set the bar to around knee-height.
- Lean forward and grab the center of the bar.
- Place your free hand on your knee for stability.
- Pull the bar up to the side of your chest and then lower it again.
- Do as many reps as required and then swap sides.
10. Face Pulls
While T-bar rows are mainly a lat exercise, they also work you’re your trapezius and rhomboids. This exercise also targets the muscles between your shoulder blades, making it great for improving your posture.
- Attach a rope handle to a high cable machine.
- Take one end in each hand and, with your arms straight, step back and into a staggered stance.
- Keeping your elbows up and out, bend your arms and pull your hands into the side of your head. Do not lean back.
- Extend your arms and repeat.
11. Standing Cable Row
Standing cable rows are similar to face pulls, except you pull the handle into your abdomen instead of your head. This increases lat activation. You can use an overhand, underhand, or parallel grip for this exercise. Set the cable machine to about waist-height.
12. Resistance Band Rows
No weights? No gym? No problem! You can use a resistance band to simulate many of the exercises on this list, including bent-over rows and seated cable rows. To do the latter (seated cable rows with resistance band)
- Sit on the floor with your legs extended in front of you.
- Holding the band tightly, loop it over your feet.
- Bend your arms and pull your hands into your midsection.
- Extend your arms and repeat. Bend your knees slightly and sit up straight to take the stress off your lower back.
13. Narrow Grip Lat Pulldowns
Narrow grip lat pulldowns involve more shoulder extension than they do shoulder adduction, which means they are a viable alternative to T-bar rows, despite being a very dissimilar movement.
- Reach up and grab the pulldown bar with an underhand, narrower-than shoulder-width grip.
- Sit down and put your legs under the thigh restraints.
- Lean back slightly.
- Bend your arms and pull the bar down to your upper chest, pulling your shoulders down and back as you do so.
- Extend your arms and repeat.
14. Neutral Grip Chin-Ups
A lot of people do T-bar rows using a neutral grip. This is both a strong and comfortable position. Neutral grip chin-ups work the same muscles as T-bar rows but with no stress on your lower back. On the downside, you’ll need to be strong enough to lift your bodyweight using just your arms.
- Grip the handles, so your palms are facing inward.
- Hang with your arms straight and feet clear of the floor.
- Bend your arms and pull your chin up and over the bar.
- Descend smoothly and under control and repeat.
Deadlifts don’t look a lot like T-bar rows, but they actually work many of the same muscles.
The main difference is that, during deadlifts, your lower body is much more active, and your lats must work isometrically (statically) to keep the weight close to your legs.
- Place a barbell on the floor and then stand with your toes beneath it, feet parallel and about hip-width apart.
- Bend down and grab the bar with an overhand or mixed grip.
- Straighten your arms, drop your hips, lift your chest, brace your abs, and slightly arch your lower back.
- Without bending your arms or rounding your lumbar spine, drive your feet into the floor and stand up. Do not lean back at the top of the movement.
- Put the bar back on the floor, reset your position, and repeat.
Got questions about T-bar rows? We’ve got answers! Read on to find out more about this popular exercise…
How Do You Do T-bar Rows Without a Machine?
There are two ways to do T-bar rows without a dedicated T-bar row machine. The first is to use a device called a landmine. This is a sort of a hinge that allows you to do a range of exercises, including various squats, presses, and rows. You place one end of your bar in the landmine device and then lift the other.
No landmine? No problem. Just wedge one end of a barbell into a corner and stand astride the other. You’ll need to use a narrow, overlapping grip, but this is a perfectly acceptable alternative to using a T-bar row machine.
How Often Should You Do T-Bar Rows?
Most people should do T-bar rows 1-2 times per week. This provides plenty of time for rest and recovery. You COULD do them three times per week, e.g., Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, but you’ll soon get bored of them if you do T-bar rows so often.
Instead, use any of the 15 alternatives in this article to avoid getting stuck in a T-bar rowing rut.
Why Does My Back Hurt During T-bar Rows?
The most common cause of back pain during T-bar rows is rounding the lumbar spine. Make sure you bend your knees slightly and hinge from the hips to prevent this problem. Using too much weight increases the chances that you’ll round your back, so don’t overload this exercise.
Strengthening your lower back with exercises like Romanian deadlifts, 45-degree back extensions, and good mornings may also help.
Can’t I Just do T-bar Rows to Build My Back?
Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should! While T-bar rows are undeniably effective, if that’s the only exercise you do for your back, your progress will soon stall. Most exercisers get better results from more varied workouts.
Do 2-3 different back exercises per workout and change them every 4-6 weeks to maintain your progress and avoid training plateaus.
Do I Have to do T-bar Rows?
T-bar rows are a useful and popular exercise that a lot of people enjoy, but that doesn’t mean that they’re compulsory. Some people find them awkward or feel that they put too much stress on the lumbar spine.
The good news is that you can enjoy all the benefits of T-bar rows without actually doing them. Just replace T-bar rows with any of these tried and tested alternatives.
T-bar rows are a great back builder. They work virtually every muscle on the rear of your body, from the back of your neck to the base of your spine. They also provide your legs with a workout, albeit indirectly. You’ll also feel this popular exercise in your biceps and core.
While T-bar rows are very useful, they aren’t for everyone, and not all gyms have a T-bar row machine.
The good news is that you can work all of the same muscles by using one of these 15 T-bar row alternatives. Each one is every bit as effective but uses either different training equipment or a slightly different movement.
As good as T-bar rows are, they can also be hard on your lower back. Even strong lower backs tend to round during this exercise, and a rounded lower back is very prone to injury. If you can’t do T-bar rows without your back rounding, you should definitely use one of these alternatives.
Finally, if you do T-bar rows too often, you’ll start to get used to them, and they’ll lose some of their potency. Your workout progress will soon grind to a halt. Avoid boredom, stagnation, and plateaus by using these 15 T-bar row alternatives.