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Pendlay Row vs Barbell Row: A Complete Comparison for Your Workout Program

May 28, 2024
man loading weights on a barbell in a gym

Photo by Victor Freitas on Unsplash

The Pendlay Row and the Barbell Row are two popular back exercises that target multiple muscle groups. While they may seem similar at first glance, key differences set them apart.

Pendlay Row

Named after weightlifting coach Glenn Pendlay, the Pendlay Row is an exercise that starts and ends with the barbell on the ground. To perform this exercise, you set up with your torso parallel to the ground, grip the barbell, and explosively pull it to your chest. Each repetition begins from a dead stop, requiring you to use more power and build strength in both the static and concentric parts of the movement.

Barbell Row

On the other hand, the Barbell Row, sometimes referred to as the bent-over row, involves keeping the barbell off the ground throughout your set. You start from a hinged-forward position with the barbell in hand, then row it towards your lower chest. The barbell never touches the floor until the set is completed, which allows for continuous tension but requires less explosive power compared to the Pendlay Row.

Key Differences

  • Starting Position: The Pendlay Row starts from the ground for each rep, while the Barbell Row keeps the barbell off the ground.
  • Range of Motion: The Pendlay Row necessitates a fuller range of motion due to the dead-stop start.
  • Strength vs. Hypertrophy: Because you’re rowing from a dead stop, the Pendlay Row is more suited for strength gains, while the Barbell Row, which allows for higher reps, is generally better for hypertrophy.

Muscle Activation

Both exercises engage similar muscle groups, including the middle and lower trapezius, latissimus dorsi, and the erector spinae[^1^]. However, the American Council on Exercise points out that the specific technique of Pendlay Rows demands high levels of power, which can aid in building larger muscle groups like the back and hips more effectively[^2^].

Practical Application

Deciding which exercise to incorporate into your workout program largely depends on your fitness goals. For those focused on building strength and explosive power, the Pendlay Row is an excellent choice. On the other hand, if you aim to increase muscle size and volume, the Barbell Row might be more beneficial.

For further details on back exercises, you might find our article on Barbell Back Workouts useful.

[^1^]: Dewar, Mike. (2024). “Pendlay Row Vs. Barbell Row: Which Is Best for Strength and Hypertrophy?” BarBend. Link [^2^]: “Comparison Pendlay Row Vs. Barbell Row — Which Is Best for Strength and Hypertrophy?.” BarBend. Link

Form and Technique: Pendlay Row

The Pendlay row is a highly effective exercise when executed with proper form and technique. Here’s how you can ensure you’re performing the Pendlay row correctly to maximize its benefits:

  1. Starting Position: Begin with your feet shoulder-width apart and your knees bent in a quarter squat. Push your hips back and maintain a flat, straight back with your torso parallel to the floor. Position your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart with an overhand grip on the barbell.
  2. Setup: Make sure the barbell is on the floor and not resting on any other surface. This is crucial for minimizing the use of momentum and ensuring the lift engages the targeted muscles effectively.
  3. Lifting: Brace your core and, with an explosive but controlled movement, pull the barbell towards your chest. Keep your elbows close to your body, ensuring that the bar reaches your chest or upper abdomen before lowering it back to the floor.
  4. Reset Each Rep: Each repetition starts from the floor, ensuring that momentum does not assist in the lift. This allows for maximum muscle recruitment and emphasizes the development of explosive strength.
  5. Form Maintenance: Throughout the exercise, maintain a flat back and avoid rounding your spine to protect your lower back. The spine should remain in a neutral position to maximize muscle engagement and minimize the risk of injury.
  6. Breathing: Exhale as you lift the bar to your chest and inhale as you lower it back to the floor. Proper breathing supports stability and strength throughout the movement.

Benefits of Proper Technique

Achieving and maintaining the correct form is essential for reaping the full benefits of the Pendlay row:

  • Balanced Muscle Engagement: The Pendlay row targets the lats, trapezius, rhomboids, posterior deltoids, biceps, and spinal erectors effectively (Gymshark).
  • Increased Strength and Power: Because the exercise starts from a dead stop each time, it builds explosive strength and power, which is beneficial for athletic performance.
  • Reduced Risk of Injury: Proper form minimizes the stress on your lower back by ensuring a flat back throughout the movement.
  • Enhanced Flexibility and Mobility: Performing this exercise through a full range of motion can improve flexibility and joint health over time.

For more detailed breakdowns and comparisons between different row exercises, you can also read our article on T-Bar Row vs Barbell Row.

Form and Technique: Barbell Row

person in grey nike shoes and blue pants about to lift a barbell of the floor

Photo by Jonathan Borba on Unsplash

The barbell row is a fundamental movement in strength training and bodybuilding, primarily targeting the back muscles, including the latissimus dorsi, trapezius, and rhomboids. Proper form and technique are crucial for maximizing effectiveness and minimizing the risk of injury.

Setting Up:

  1. Grip and Stance: Use a pronated (overhand) grip, shoulder-width apart. Stand with your feet hip-width apart.
  2. Bend Over: Hinge at your hips, maintaining a slight bend in your knees, and lean your torso forward to about a 45-degree angle. Keep your back straight and your core engaged throughout the movement.

Executing the Lift:

  1. Pull the Barbell: Initiate the pull by retracting your shoulder blades. Drive your elbows back and lift the barbell towards your lower ribcage. Ensure your wrists remain in line with your forearms, avoiding any bending.
  2. Lower the Barbell: Control the descent as you lower the barbell back to the starting position. Avoid letting the barbell drop quickly to maintain muscle engagement.

Key Tips:

  • Elbow Position: Keep your elbows tucked close to your body to effectively engage your back muscles.
  • Back Position: Avoid rounding your lower back. A straight spine is critical to prevent injury.
  • Breathing: Inhale as you lower the barbell and exhale as you pull it towards your body.

According to a study published in the “Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research,” maintaining a proper lumbar spine position during barbell rows can help reduce the risk of lower back injuries (source).

For more exercises focusing on back muscles, consider checking out our At Home Dumbbell Back Workout.

By mastering the barbell row’s form and technique, you’ll build a solid foundation for a stronger and more muscular back.

Key Differences in Muscle Engagement

Pendlay rows and barbell rows target similar muscle groups but their muscle engagement differs primarily due to variations in technique and body positioning. The Pendlay row is performed with the torso parallel to the ground. This positioning requires the lifter to explosively pull the barbell from a dead stop on the ground with each repetition. This technique emphasizes the engagement of the upper back muscles, such as the rhomboids and traps, as well as the lats. Moreover, the strict posture helps in minimizing the usage of momentum, which also significantly engages the core muscles to maintain stability.

In contrast, the barbell row allows for a slight torso angle, typically around 45 degrees, and the bar is lifted in a continuous motion without resting it on the ground. This movement recruits the lats, middle back, and erector spinae. The less rigid form allows for a greater range of motion, involving the biceps and forearms significantly during the lift.

Pendlay rows are particularly effective for building explosive power and size in the upper back due to the reset with each repetition, which rapidly engages the muscles from a fully stretched position. According to a review on muscle performance, different levels of motor-unit activation are crucial for muscle growth and strength development (Raffy Dotan et al., 2012). This difference in motor-unit activation between the two row variations significantly influences the muscle engagement and overall training outcomes.

For a more holistic approach to building back strength and size, integrating other exercises that complement these rows might be beneficial. For instance, referring to our at-home dumbbell back workout can provide additional variations and target muscles from different angles, enhancing overall muscle development and preventing imbalances.

Hypertrophy: Comparing Volume and Muscle Growth

When it comes to hypertrophy, the volume of resistance training plays an essential role in muscle growth. According to a study by Schoenfeld et al., training volume, defined as the number of sets and repetitions, has a direct relationship with muscle hypertrophy. In their research, trained men who performed more sets per exercise experienced greater muscle growth compared to those who did fewer sets [^1^].

The study divided participants into three groups: low-volume, moderate-volume, and high-volume. The low-volume group performed one set per exercise, the moderate-volume group performed three sets, and the high-volume group performed five sets. Over an eight-week period, the high-volume group showed significantly greater increases in elbow flexor, mid-thigh, and lateral thigh muscle thickness compared to the low-volume group. For instance, muscle hypertrophy in the elbow flexors increased by 5.5% in the high-volume group versus just 1.1% in the low-volume group [^1^].

It’s important to note that despite the high-volume group spending more time training, all groups saw similar strength gains. This suggests that while higher volumes are crucial for maximizing muscle growth, even low-volume training can increase strength efficiently.

To learn more about how to balance cardio and strength training for optimal muscle gain, you might find our article on How Much Cardio Should I Do a Week When Trying to Build Muscle? helpful.

[^1^]: Schoenfeld et al., “Resistance Training Volume Enhances Muscle Hypertrophy but Not Strength in Trained Men,” Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2019 Jan; 51(1): 94–103

Strength Gains: Which is Superior?

When comparing the Pendlay Row and the Barbell Row, it is important to evaluate which exercise leads to greater strength gains. Both exercises are effective in building muscle strength, but they do so in different ways.

Studies have shown that muscle strength gains can be measured by improvements in one-repetition maximum (1RM). The Pendlay Row, which emphasizes explosiveness and strict form, can be particularly effective for athletes looking to improve their power and overall strength. This exercise involves pulling a loaded barbell from the floor to the lower chest with a fast, controlled movement, engaging the latissimus dorsi, traps, and rhomboids.

On the other hand, the Barbell Row, performed with less strict form, allows for a greater range of motion and the use of heavier weights, as the back is not parallel to the floor. This can lead to increased strength gains over time due to the ability to lift more weight. The Barbell Row primarily targets the middle back, but also engages the lats, traps, and rear deltoids.

The Pendlay Row, due to its explosive nature, might offer superior benefits for dynamic strength and explosive power, making it a preferred choice for competitive athletes. Conversely, the Barbell Row’s ability to incorporate heavier lifts can make it more suitable for general strength development.

In conclusion, the decision between the Pendlay Row and the Barbell Row depends on individual goals. For explosive strength, the Pendlay Row may be superior, while for overall strength and hypertrophy, the Barbell Row could be more beneficial.

[^1]: Jung, R., et al. (2023). Muscle strength gains per week are higher in the lower-body than the upper-body in resistance training experienced healthy young women – A systematic review with meta-analysis. PLoS One, 18(4): e0284216. PMC10101404

Summary: Making an Informed Decision

Choosing between the Pendlay Row and the Barbell Row depends on your fitness goals and physical capabilities. Both exercises are effective for building back strength and muscle mass, but they have unique benefits that can cater to different needs.

The Pendlay Row, with its emphasis on explosive strength and a strict horizontal pull, is particularly beneficial for those looking to improve their powerlifting performance or increase muscle mass in the upper back and traps. It’s also helpful for ensuring a full range of motion due to the reset between each repetition. As per strength and conditioning specialists, this variation can enhance performance in lifts like the deadlift and the clean [source].

On the other hand, the Barbell Row allows for more continuous tension on the muscles and can be adjusted to target different muscle groups by altering grip and stance. It’s a versatile option for overall back development and can be integrated into various training programs. According to a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, exercises like the Barbell Row can significantly increase muscle activation and growth in the lats and rhomboids [source].

Consider integrating both exercises into your routine for a balanced approach to back training. If you’re interested in cardio workouts to complement your strength training, you might find our guide on low-impact cardio for bad knees useful.