Bodybuilders and powerlifters have sung the praises of the barbell row as one of the most vital moves for strength and muscle-building. But don’t take their word for it — the American Council on Exercise sponsored a study that found it was the best move for overall muscle activation.
As is the case with most lifts, certain variations claim to be even better than the original for all your goals. Enter the Pendlay row, named after its inventor, weightlifting coach Glenn Pendlay.
While the two are, for the most part, similar in application and benefits, there’s much that separates them. So which one is better for your needs? There’s no definitive answer, but we’ll go over the differences and let you decide which one should be a part of your workout program.
The differences between the Pendlay and barbell rows are subtle yet significant. This section will dive into how to do both with proper form and how to spot the difference between the two.
The barbell row, sometimes called the barbell bent over row, is one of those moves that looks simple but is easy to screw up. Here’s how to make sure you’re doing it properly.
The set up for the Pendlay row will be very similar to the barbell row, but the execution is different. Below, we’ll go over where the two diverge.
One of the biggest differences between the two lifts is the starting position for each: The barbell row has you lower the bar until your arms are fully extended, but the iron is still in the air. With the Pendlay, you return the bar to the ground.
Because you’re rowing from a dead stop, the Pendlay row also requires a fuller range of motion since each rep starts on the ground. With the barbell row, the bar is already off the ground before you start lifting. The Pendlay row requires — and therefore builds — more power. You’ll do fewer reps with the Pendlay row since you’ll (typically) use more weight.
You’re consistently hinged over for each move (though the barbell row has you supporting the weight for the entirety of your set). This loaded hinged position will really tax the lower back, making it a great accessory exercise for deadlifts.
Regardless of which move you choose, make sure your form is on point. Row the barbell until your elbows pass your torso, and keep your upper back tight throughout the movement.
In this section, we’ll go over the different benefits each lift delivers.
Both moves work your back muscles — middle trapezius, lower trapezius, latissimus dorsi, infraspinatus, and erector spinae — so there’s no difference in the muscles worked. Still, the barbell row eeks out a small victory here.
This is because you’re able to do more reps with the bent over row than the Pendlay row — and when it comes to muscle-building, volume is key. As we discussed before, the fuller range of motion and dead stop reps make the Pendlay row more difficult to perform more reps. If a chiseled back is your goal, then go with the bent over barbell row.
The Pendlay row is a great strength-building exercise because you start each rep on the floor. This means you’ll need explosive power to get the barbell toward your chest since you don’t have momentum working in your favor the way you do with the barbell row. This also makes it harder for you to cheat on each rep. The Pendlay row wins this category.
The Pendlay row does a great job of increasing static and concentric strength, both of which are needed during the snatch, clean & jerk, and breaking through sticking points in a lift. For powerlifting, Pendlay rows can also aid in the back squat and deadlift, as they increase lower and upper back strength.
The Pendlay row is also a great lift builder because the bar starts on the floor, similar to any powerlifting or Olympic lift you might be trying to improve.
Depending on what workout split you’re following, either rowing motion will be performed on your back, pull, or upper-body day. If you incorporate powerlifting moves into your training regimen, place your row of choice after the deadlift.
If you’re not deadlifting, then make this your first lift of the day. Remember, you want to perform the heaviest lift first to ensure you can lift as much weight as possible.
For the barbell row, aim for three sets of seven to 12 for maximum hypertrophy. The Pendlay should be performed with as much weight as possible for three sets of two to five reps.
Here’s the deal: Both exercises are useful and have a place in your program. Which variation you use comes down to whether you want to gain muscle (use the barbell row) or get stronger (go with the Pendlay row).
Choosing between the Pendlay row and barbell row is just a small battle in the war to build a massive back. Here’s more back training content from BarBend.
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