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The Pendlay Row: The Best Secret Back Exercise?

Updated: Jan 28, 2022

When it comes to back training in the gym, one of the most classic movements that comes to mind is the bent over barbell row.


It's commonly known and is a great overall exercise that works the the lats, upper back, spinal erectors, biceps and forearms all to a great degree.


But what's less commonly known is that there's a variation to this exercise that is generally better for building overall pulling strength, as well as having more benefits that roll over to your main compound lifts.


We're talking about the Pendlay Row.


It's one of our favorite exercises to perform in the gym, and we got asked: are Pendlay rows better?


That depends on a number of factors and considerations, but don't worry. We'll help you make sense of it all.


In this post we'll look at how to perform the Pendlay row, as well as the benefits of it, and how you can incorporate it into your training program.



Strong and muscular man doing Pendlay row to build strength and muscle mass in his back and biceps


How To Perform the Pendlay Row


The first thing to understand is that the Pendlay row is actually quite similar to the traditional barbell row in terms of the form.


However the Pendlay row will have your starting with the bar on the ground, almost in a more horizontal deadlift starting position.


Usually with the Pendlay row, your spine will be more horizontal than it would be if you were performing a classic bent over barbell row.


  1. Approach the bar and place your feet where you would in a conventional deadlift.

  2. Bend at the hips to get closer to the bar.

  3. Then, once you can't stretch any more, bend your knees until you can grab the bar.

  4. Take a shoulder width and double overhand grip.

  5. Pack your lats in by imagining that you're squeezing a pencil in between your armpits, or you're trying to break the bar in half. It's the rotation of your shoulders that will help keep your lats in tight. Now you're fully set up.


The movement of packing the lats in should look something like this:



Packing your lats in will help keep them engaged and will usually help you lift more weight, with good, controlled form.


Once you've got your starting position, you'll then want to:


  1. Pull the bar up into your chest, generally with some explosiveness.

  2. Try and keep your spine in that same straight, horizontal position, but a little bit of spinal extension is fine.

  3. Keep your wrists as straight as possible, and don't bend them just to bring the bar up to your chest. If you find yourself having to do that, you should lower the weight.

  4. Your shoulder blades should be squeezed together hard.

  5. As soon as you hit your chest, you can either hold the bar up there for a split second or two and lower it back to the ground, or you can lower it as soon as it hits your chest if you're going heavier in the 3-6 rep range.


Once the bar goes back down onto the ground, that's one rep completed. For a great example of what the exercise looks like, check out Scott Herman's video below!



Muscle Groups Worked


The Pendlay will work all the same muscles as the traditional bent-over barbell row. Your main drivers are the muscles in the back, primarily the lats and and the upper back.


If you want to target the lats more for a wider looking physique, your elbows need to stay tucked into your side as much as you can. Taking an underhand grip can help with this.


If you want to focus more on the upper back muscles (traps, rhomboids, read delts), then you should take a wider elbow angle, like Scott is doing in the video above. His elbows are tracking out to his sides, almost at 90 degrees.


You can choose what elbow angle you go with, depending on your weak points, as well as just what you want to do.


Any elbow angle will hit both parts of the back, but just to a greater degree for whichever you choose.


If you want something in the middle, so you'll be targeting the back overall, opt to go with a 45 degree elbow angle instead.


Aside from those back muscles, you'll find your spinal erectors, and mainly the lower back working very hard to hold that isometric extension during your reps.


This is great for both building strength, as well as preventing future injuries in your heavy compound lifts (squat, bench and deadlift).


Muscular and lean bodybuilder showing off his back and biceps built by barbell rowing

Then, you'll also get some great activation in the biceps and forearms, which will help with both strength and muscle gaining goals.


The biceps work to flex at the elbow, and the forearms are holding the bar in place, as they're responsible for your grip strength.


Lastly, you might feel a little bit of a stretch in your hamstrings, due to the hinged position that you're in for the duration of your set.


Once again, it'll help you build strength in that hinged position, giving you gains that roll over into your deadlifting.


Pendlay Row vs. Bent Over Barbell Row Performance Differences


The first thing to note is that the Pendlay row is more of a power or strength building movement. Lifters typically lift more weight with this, due to the dead stop between each rep.


It's generally used for less reps per set, and will tax the spinal erectors more due to the more hinged position and higher weight. This means you'll generally need to factor in more rest between sets, and may need to change your program around slightly to allow your lower back to rest.


It's not a great idea to do heavy barbell rows of any kind the day before heavy deadlifting or squatting.


In terms of muscular hypertrophy, both movements are very effective. It's been shown by scientific studies that increasing volume will lead to more muscular hypertrophy, at least up to a point.


And we know that with the traditional bent over barbell row, you generally do more volume with the same number of sets due to the added weight.


This may mean that the bent over barbell row is the slightly better option for those just looking to build muscle, and don't want to focus as much on strength gain.


However, it's also been proven by scientific studies that training heavy and closer to an individual's one rep max increase strength quicker than using moderate loads.


Due to this, we do recommend that you factor in some heavy lifting in each workout, that way you'll get the benefits of both training styles.


We lift heavy with the Pendlay row at the beginning of each back or 'pull' workout, and then get the rest of our volume with subsequent exercises such as pull ups and single arm cable rows.


While the bent over barbell row alone may be the better option for muscle gain, the Pendlay row easily takes the cake for gaining strength.


Like we mentioned above, training heavier and closer to out one rep maxes will result in similar muscle gain, but far greater strength gains. That's why we like the Pendlay row so much.


The Pendlay row is simply one of the best exercises for back strength development.


Strong woman doing Pendlay row for back development

Since you start on the floor, there's less space to cheat, and you also need far more explosive power to bring the bar up.


The dead stop helps to build strength and power, both of which will roll over into your heavy compounds. Especially the deadlift, which has a similar starting position and movement pattern to the Pendlay row. Plus, building strength in the upper back and erectors are great for improving squats and deadlifts.


So if you're a powerlifter, or just would like to focus on strength more than muscle gain, the Pendlay row is by far the better choice.


We generally do our Pendlay rows at the beginning of our workotus, and go pretty heavy around the 6-rep range.


Incorporating the Pendlay Row Into Your Program


If you do opt to include the Pendlay row into your workout program, it's probably a good idea to put this first in your 'pull' workouts, unless you're doing deadlifts. In that case, you'll want to do them straight after.


Generally, lifters will perform the Pendlay row in 3 to 4 sets of 5-8 reps, with the lower end being focused more on strength, and the higher end being a little more hypertrophy focused.


If you have a powerlifting-style training program, you might need to rearrange your program a little if you find your lower back being far too tight.


Remember, Pendlay rows will tax the erectors (vitally important muscles in all three powerlifting movements) more than the bent over barbell row.


Do this exercise once or twice a week, but also try to incorporate some dumbbell or unilateral (single arm) cable work to minimize imbalances that may come about from the barbell rowing.



Conclusion


Overall, both the Pendlay and bent over barbell row are great pulling exercises.


However generally, we believe the Pendlay row is the slightly better exercise.


However both exercises have their time and place in your program of course. The bent over barbell row may be better for those who want to focus solely on building muscle, perhaps bodybuilders.


The Pendlay row will be better for building strength, which rolls over effectively into your squat, bench press and deadlifts.


It's up to you to pick and choose the right exercise!


Which one is your favorite?


The barbell row or the Pendlay row?

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