Developing a strong upper body is something that everyone should aspire to do; the health benefits are astounding. One major body part plays a significant role in upper body strength, the back muscles.  

It’s long been known that bent over rows are one of the best ways to increase back strength. The question is, which is the best exercise? 

In this guide, I’ll pit the barbell row vs dumbbell row against each other in a bid to find the best. You’ll discover the similarities and differences between the two and which one you should focus on for maximum returns.

The barbell row is one of the key compound exercises that most beginners add to their workout to increase upper body strength. It's an excellent mass builder and is suitable for all levels of ability so long as the correct form is used.  

The barbell row is fantastic for developing the Lats, Rhomboids, Middle/Lower Traps, and Posterior Deltoids [1]. 

How To Perform The Barbell Row Correctly

5 Benefits Of Doing Regular Barbell Rows

The barbell row is an excellent upper back exercise that recruits large amounts of muscle fibers, causing strength increases and muscular growth.  

They make a brilliant addition to any exercises program and should be classed as one of your main upper body lifts.  

Not only are they excellent at developing your upper back, but they improve your posture by strengthening neglected body parts such as the posterior deltoids. You’ll also improve your core stability and improve your other lifts, with carryover to sports.  

Barbell Row Key Benefits 

  • Improves posture
  • Stabilizes core
  • Strength carryover to other lifts
  • Improves hip joint flexibility
  • Improves explosiveness

Barbell Row Variations To Try

There are numerous variations of the barbell row, below are all but a few of them: 

Pendlay Rows 

The Pendlay row differs slightly from the standard barbell row as the bar starts on the floor and is returned to the floor to complete a repetition. 

It’s an excellent variation to increase your concentric strength and carries over to the deadlift and cleans.  

Underhand Bent Over Rows 

Traditionally, the barbell row is performed with an overhand (pronated) grip. However, the underhand bent over row uses a supinated grip that helps you work your biceps more effectively and can help reduce the strain on the elbows [2].  

T-Bar Rows 

The T-Bar row is a favorite of mine; it’s performed by placing one end of a barbell in the corner of the room and adding weight to the other side. You then proceed to row the barbell toward your chest.  

T-Bar rows are perfect for adding thickness to your back and are a great addition to any workout. 

Barbell Seal Row 

This variant requires a bench and potentially two steps or elevated platforms. For the barbell seal row, you need to set a bench up on two steps with a barbell underneath. From there, you lie down and row the bar towards the bench.  

The Seal row is fantastic at working the middle lats, including the rhomboids. 

Inverted Row 

This movement is a step down from the pull-up and works your lats, rhomboids, biceps, traps, and more.  

This movement is ideal for those of you who can’t perform a pull-up. It’ll help you build up upper back strength. 

man doing a bent over barbell row

Dumbbell Row Overview

The dumbbell row is another great upper back exercise that holds its own when comparing the barbell row vs the dumbbell row.  

One of the main attractions of the dumbbell row is that it doesn't tax the lower back as much as the barbell row. Plus, it’s easier to control and will allow you to achieve maximum contraction on each rep.  

It can also be more forgiving on the joints as it allows a more natural movement pattern. Plus, its iso-lateral nature helps iron out any muscular imbalances [3].  

How To Do The Dumbbell Row Exercise

5 Benefits Of Doing Regular Dumbbell Row Exercises

The dumbbell row is fantastic at developing the upper back, giving you increased strength and more muscle mass (I'm talking the much desired V-shape here).  

One of my favorite aspects of the dumbbell row is that it allows you to move more naturally. Your hands aren't fixed to a barbell, meaning your movement pattern will feel more comfortable.

This is perfect for anyone who finds barbells uncomfortable or painful to use.  

The dumbbell row is unilateral, working both sides separately. This will help strengthen any muscular imbalances that can occur from working out. You'll also find your posture will improve over time; no more rounded shoulders for you, my friend.  

Lastly, by performing variations of the dumbbell row, such as the Krok row, you’ll improve your grip strength.

Dumbbell Row Key Benefits 

  • Helps get coveted V-shape
  • A unilateral exercise
  • Improves posture
  • Increases overall strength
  • Increases grip strength

Dumbbell Row Variations To Try

Some popular variations are: 

Dumbbell Plank Row 

The dumbbell plank row is a variation of the dumbbell row that majorly taxes the core muscles.  

You can perform the dumbbell plank row by placing dumbbells on the floor and assuming the plank position (with your hands on the dumbbells), then proceed to lift one arm at a time in a rowing motion.  

It’s great for working all body areas from your back, obliques, glutes, shoulders, and even chest.  

This is a complex movement and isn’t ideal for beginners.

Chest-Supported Dumbbell Row 

The chest-supported dumbbell row is an excellent way of working your lats, rhomboids, traps, and rear deltoids without taxing muscles such as your core or lower back.

With the chest supported row, you can generally lift heavier due to the bench eliminating any weaknesses in your movement chain.  

To perform this exercise, you need to set a bench on an incline, lie down (chest on the bench), pick up the dumbbells, and lift them towards your chest.  

Kroc Row 

The Kroc row lets you lift super-heavy weight while performing higher reps; it’s a perfect combination of strength and muscle building. As you’re using a large amount of weight, your overall grip strength increases massively.  

The technique is similar to a standard dumbbell row, but the form is looser. It’s all about the heavy weight, high reps, and a tonne of sweat. 

Personally, I wouldn’t recommend this to a beginner.  

Dumbbell Seal Row 

The Dumbbell seal row is the same setup as the Barbell seal row from the same section, except your using Dumbbells this time.  

As the Seal row setup removes almost all momentum from the movement, it doesn’t allow much room for cheating and is a brilliant upper back developer that will leave you feeling sore for a few days.  

I like this variation as the dumbbells allow for a much more comfortable movement pattern.  

Single-Arm Dumbbell Row 

This single-arm dumbbell exercise is probably the one you’ve heard of. It’s your typical lean against a flat bench with one arm and row one dumbbell at a time.  

This movement is excellent for focusing on muscle contraction and ensuring you have a full range of motion on each rep.  

I'd say this variation of the dumbbell row is perfect for beginners and is still useful to more advanced gym-goers.   

woman doing a single handed dumbbell row

Barbell Row Vs Dumbbell Row: Which Is Better?

For Muscle Growth & Activation 

If you're looking for muscle growth and activation, then you'll want to stimulate the muscle fibers in your upper body by lifting heavy with good form.  

Lifting heavy will produce muscle growth by overloading the upper body, forcing it to grow new muscle fibers.

The Barbell row is ideal for this as it’s a unilateral movement, so any weight you’ve added to the bar will be split between both sides of the body.  

However, lifting heavy is useless unless your form is good. By having great form, you'll activate the muscle fibers more effectively and will add both size and strength much quicker.  

If you can find the perfect balance between lifting heavy but using good form, you’re onto a winner.  

The Dumbbell row is brilliant at allowing you to develop your form, as the Dumbbells you’ll be using will be lighter than the barbell, and they’re a unilateral movement, so each side works independently. 

Overall, if performed correctly, the barbell row is excellent for muscle growth. But if you're worried about your form, start with the dumbbell row.  

Total Upper Body Strength Development 

For total upper body strength development, it’s difficult to pick between the barbell or dumbbell row.

One of the main reasons for this is that I'm a firm believer that to achieve a well-developed upper body, you need to have variation and train your muscles in different ways.  

Personally, I’d use the barbell row to lift heavy and overload my back muscles; then, I'd move to a more controlled movement such as a single arm bent over row.  

However, if you find the barbell row too heavy or uncomfortable, you can use variations of the dumbbell row to get you started; mixing a few variations will give you one hell of a back workout.  

Proper Form & Technique 

Like with any exercise, you should always strive to use the best form. By using an excellent form, you’ll not only avoid getting injured, but you’ll increase the effectiveness of your reps.  

If you want to become stronger and develop an excellent upper back, form is everything.  

One of the main mistakes I see is people rounding their backs during any type of rowing movement. This is far from ideal and will end up causing problems in the future. Always maintain a neutral spine and ensure you achieve full range of motion for each rep.  

1-Arm Vs 2-Arm Exercises 

To compare the barbell row vs dumbbell row, it's only fair that I look at both 1 arm dumbbell row vs barbell row and 2 arm dumbbell row vs barbell row, as each variant is entirely different.  

When performing the 1 arm dumbbell row, you can focus your energy on that specific side of your body, giving your all on each rep. You’ll support your body using your other arm (usually on a bench), removing a lot of stress from your lower back.  

On the other hand, the barbell row is a 2 arm exercise (bilateral); as both arms are working in synergy, you'll be able to lift a lot heavier than you would with the 1 dumbbell row. You’ll also find that the barbell row places more strain on your lower back.  

The main difference between the 2 arm dumbbell row vs barbell row is that the weight is evenly distributed across the barbell between both arms, making it easier to perform.

But, the downside to the barbell is that muscular imbalances can occur due to one side working harder than the other to move the weight. 

For beginners, I’d recommend using the single-arm dumbbell row as you can focus on developing excellent form. You could even implement the barbell row into your routine, but I’d be wary of using the correct form.  

Advanced users should mix it up a little and implement several variations into their workout.  

Equipment Size & Shape

The barbell or dumbbell row equipment couldn't be further apart if it tried.

The barbell is generally a 45lb Olympic standard bar that you’ll find in almost every gym around the world. In contrast, dumbbells come in all shapes and sizes, depending on the brand and weight.  

By using a barbell for bent-over rows, you can add some serious weight onto the bar to overload your lats and stimulate muscle growth. But with dumbbells, you’d generally go lighter and focus more on achieving a good range of motion with muscular contraction.  

When it comes to using barbells, they can be challenging to work with due to their fixed movement patterns and will tax your joints more than dumbbells do.  

Related Article - Dumbbell Vs Barbell Bench Press

person holding dumbbell

People Also Ask (FAQs)

Can dumbbell rows be bad for your back? 

Unless you've specifically been told not to do them by your doctor due to injury, dumbbell rows are an excellent exercise for strengthening the back. Strengthening the back is a great way to prevent future injuries from occurring. However, this is only the case if you use the correct form. 

Can barbell rows be bad for your back? 

As with my previous answer, so long as you’ve got no injuries that could be made worse by performing barbell rows, you’ll be fine. Using the correct form is even more critical with barbell rows, as the barbell tends to weigh a lot more and will put a significant amount of pressure on your back if your form is incorrect.  

What type of row is best? 

When it comes to rows, my favorite is the barbell row. I love overloading the back muscles with a large amount of weight on the bar, and I can feel every part of my lats working to move the weight.  


After comparing the barbell row vs dumbbell row, I've found that both movements have their place in your exercise program, and neither one should be neglected.  

The barbell row is perfect for stimulating muscle growth due to the heavy weight you can lift using this exercise. However, the single-arm dumbbell row is brilliant at fixing any imbalances that can occur when training with a barbell 

Whether you’re a beginner or advanced gym goer, if you can combine both the barbell and dumbbell row into your workout, you'll develop some serious upper body strength.  





Lee Kirwin

Lee Kirwin

Lee has worked in the fitness industry for over 15 years. He's trained hundreds of clients and knows his way around the gym, including what you need for your garage gym. When he's not testing products, he loves weightlifting, Ju Jitsu, writing, and gaming.