Barbell vs Dumbbell Row – Head to Head

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Last updated on February 7, 2023

When it comes to creating a thick, powerful upper body, you need to have well developed lats. Not only will they give you a great v-taper to your upper body, they’ll massively boost your overall strength levels. One of the fundamental back movements to develop thickness in the lats is the row. While there are a number of different versions of the exercise, the bent over row is among the most popular.


While the bent over row is more commonly done with a barbell than with dumbbells, that doesn’t necessarily make it a better version. In this article, I will put the barbell and dumbbell versions of the row head to head to discover which one gives you the best bang for your buck.

How They Are Different

On the face of it, the barbell and dumbbell versions of the bent over row look very similar. Mechanically they are similar but there are some important differences as well.


Best for Strength


You will always be able to lift more weight with a barbell than with dumbbells. So, when it comes to pure strength development the barbell provides greater potential. As far as  muscular development goes, however it is not quite as straightforward. The ability to lift heavier weight on the barbell version of the bent over row allows for greater loadings in the 6 to 8 rep range, which is generally acknowledged as the key area for muscle hypertrophy. However, the dumbbell version of the exercise allows for greater control and minimizes potential cheating by using momentum. This makes the dumbbell version a purer form of the exercise that allows you to more effectively target the working muscle. So while the barbell version may allow you to lift more weight, there is very little benefit in terms of muscle growth if non-target muscles are being recruited in the effort.

Better Mind-Muscle Connection

Using dumbbells on this exercise also allows you to better develop your mind muscle connection. You are better able to concentrate on working each side of the lats and really feeling the contraction and extension as you move the dumbbells up and down. When you are using a barbell, it feels more like a compound movement with a hold of your body working together. While that’s great the strength development, it is not the best building muscle in the latissimus dorsi muscle.

Best for Muscle Balance

When you do the bent over row with dumbbells it is an example of unilateral training. That means that you are working each side of the latissimus dorsi muscle separately. When you do the exercise with a barbell, however, because both sides lift the same weight they have to work together.

Because we all have muscular imbalances, where one side is weaker than the other, this will inevitably result in muscular and strength imbalances. If you continue training with barbells this problem will never be able to correct itself. When you swap out the barbell for dumbbells, however, the ability to work each side of the muscle individually means that each side must carry its own weight, so to speak.

Over time, this will correct any muscular and strength imbalances. This makes training with dumbbells a far better option for balanced development of the body than using barbells.

How to Do the Barbell Row

  1. Place a loaded barbell at your feet, ensuring that collars are securely affixed. Your feet should be hip width apart.
  2. Hinge at the hips to lower your body to the floor. Angle your torso at 30° and grab the bar with a pronated grip just a little wider than the path shoulder width apart.
  3. Making sure that your spine is in a neutral position and that you are looking down at the floor, lift the bar so that it is hanging at full arm extension a few inches from the floor.
  4. Pull your scapula and lats down, keeping your elbows in at the sides.
  5. Now row the bar up towards your navel.
  6. Hold the fully contracted position for one second and then lower under control back to the start position.
  7. Do not allow your upper body to come up as you lift the bar or otherwise use momentum to complete the movement.

How to Do the Dumbbell Row

There are a number of ways to do the dumbbell row, but the one that is closest to the barbell version is the bent over two handed dumbbell row. Here is how to perform it.

  1. Place a pair of dumbbells at your feet, standing with feet hip width apart.
  2. Into the hips to lower your body to the floor. Again your torso should be at a 30° angle in the start position.
  3. Reach down to grab the dumbbells, bringing them just off the floor and holding them at full arm extension. You want the dumbbells to be angled at 45° in the start position.
  4. Now pull the weights up towards your rib cage, keeping your elbows close to the sides of your body as possible.
  5. Hold the fully contracted position for 1 second, squeezing the lats in this position.
  6. Lower under control and repeat.
  7. Do not allow momentum to come into play by lifting your upper body as you pull the dumbbells up.

The Verdict

If you are after pure strength development, then the barbell version of the Bent over Row is the better option for you. It will allow you to lift more weight and is more of a pure compound movement.

However, if your goal is to maximally develop the muscles of your back, especially those of the latissimus dorsi, then you will be better off spending your time doing the dumbbell version of the exercise. As well as allowing you to correct muscular and strength imbalances, dumbbell bent over rows are less likely to involve cheating and momentum and allow you to better develop the mind muscle connection, which is vital to success in the bodybuilding game.

About the author  Steve

Steve Theunissen is from New Zealand and is a qualified Personal Trainer and Nutritionist with over 30 years experience. Read more about Steve in the 'about us' page.

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