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Certain exercises are considered foundational to building a broad, thick back. 

The T-bar row is one such movement. As a compound pull exercise that hits so many muscles, it is a staple in many back-building programs.

However, like any complex resistance exercise, the T-bar row may not be accessible to every lifter.

You may feel that you lack the equipment, requisite strength, or technical know-how to include the T-bar row in your current training rotation.

This is perfectly understandable, as the T-bar row is a relatively advanced exercise with a lot of moving parts.

To that end, this article details the goals of performing the T-bar row and provides a list of the best T-bar row alternatives for when it’s not an option for you.

Muscles Used in the T-Bar Row

Muscles used in the T Bar Row

The T-bar row is a compound pull exercise, with the dynamic movement of the upper limb and isometric support from the trunk and lower body.

The prime movers in this exercise include:

  • Latissimus dorsi (large superficial ‘lats’ run down either side of the back)
  • Trapezius (the ‘traps’ are the large, diamond-shaped muscle of the upper back)
  • Biceps brachii

These muscles are supported in the rowing action by the following synergist muscles:

  • Posterior deltoid (rear portion of the shoulder musculature)
  • Teres major
  • Rhomboids (deeper muscles which retract the shoulder blades)

While the upper extremities perform the rowing action, a range of other muscles support and stabilize the body:

  • Erector spinae group (collection of muscles responsible for back extension)
  • Multifidus (deep back muscle)
  • Gluteus maximus
  • Hamstrings
  • Transverse abdominis (deep ‘core’ abdominal muscle)

The exercises in this article serve one of two purposes. 

Some alternative movements mimic the action and function of the T-bar row, just with different techniques or equipment.

Others aim to isolate and strengthen individual muscles used in this larger movement, addressing weak points, or simply adding effective accessory exercises.

Benefits and Drawbacks of T-Bar Rows

Advantages

Bang-for-your-buck: The T-bar row is a true multi-joint movement. As mentioned, it hits the entire upper and lower back, as well as the rest of the posterior chain.

Different options: The T-bar row can be performed with a landmine barbell attachment, a specialized machine, or simply with a spare plate as a base.

Disadvantages

Added pressure: The trunk and lower body stabilization needed for the T-bar row are great to develop a strong, athletic physique. 

However, this exercise also creates relatively high forces through the lumbar spine, especially when done incorrectly.

This combination of forward bending and added load is the condition which makes the discs and ligaments of the lower back more susceptible to injury.

The benefits of this (or any other) exercise would be far outweighed by any cause of pain or injury that could put you out of action for an extended period.

12 of the Best T-Bar Row Alternatives

Related: Lower Back Exercises With Dumbbells

1. Bent-Over Row

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If you don’t have a landmine attachment for your barbell (and don’t want to pulverize the corner of your home gym), the classic bent-over row is an excellent T-bar row alternative.

This compound exercise hits the entire upper back, with the rest of the posterior chain providing stabilization and support.

This research comparing different rowing exercises showed the bent-over row to produce a large amount of symmetrical activation across the back.

If you only had time for one t bar row alternative exercise for your back, this would be it.

Fitness Equipment Required: 

  • Barbell / plates
  • Dumbbells (variation)

How-To Perform Exercise:

  • Stand holding the barbell with an overhand, shoulder-width grip.
  • Pivot forwards from the hips with a slight bend in knees, until the bar is just below your knees.
  • Ensure your back forms a straight line from the crown of the head to the tailbone.
  • Lean slightly back on the heels, brace the glutes and core, and breathe out as you pull the bar into your stomach.
  • Slowly lower the weight to the starting position.

Pro Tips: 

  • Try a wider grip for more focus on the posterior delts, or an underhand grip for more biceps work.
  • Alternatively, you can perform this exercise with a pair of dumbbells; this variation also allows you to use a neutral grip.

2. Standing Low Row

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If you have access to a cable machine, this exercise is probably the one that most closely replicates the T-bar row.

The cable machine allows you to safely and progressively target the appropriate muscles, with the added benefit of being able to use different handle attachments.

An alternative to this exercise that may be easier to access is the resistance band version.

Fitness Equipment Required: 

  • Cable machine / handles
  • Resistance band (variation)

How-To Perform Exercise:

  • Set up the cable machine with the pulley at the lowest setting, and the appropriate handle attachment.
  • Stand tall as you take up the slack of the weight, then sit into a quarter-squat stance with your arms outstretched.
  • Keeping your lower body and trunk solid, breathe out as you pull the handle toward your lower sternum.
  • Hold the fully contracted position, squeezing your shoulder blades together.
  • Slowly extend the arms to the starting position.

Pro Tips: 

  • Keep your balance by sitting slightly into the heels, don’t allow the cable to shift you forward or backward.
  • The resistance band version is a great variation to change up the resistance curve, as this version gets harder the further out you pull the band.

3. Seated Row

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This is the first T-bar row alternative on this list to adopt a seated position and keep the torso upright.

It reduces the overall muscle activity in the body but provides a safer and more comfortable position to still allow an effective multi-joint rowing movement.

The handles, grips, and body position of the seated row can all be modified to suit your particular goal and comfort level.

One study found that performing the seated row (with a focus on retracting the shoulder blades throughout the movement) recruited more muscle activity in the lats and biceps than different pulldown variations.

Fitness Equipment Required: 

  • Seated row cable machine / handle
  • Resistance band (variation)
  • Swiss ball / chair (variation)

How-To Perform Exercise:

  • Sit on the padded seat and grab the handle to take up the weight.
  • With the knees bent, shuffle back so you can place your feet on the supports, one at a time.
  • Straighten the legs until they have just a slight bend, and sit tall with the back straight.
  • Starting with the arms fully extended, squeeze the glutes and brace the core as you pull the handle toward your upper abs.
  • Control the handle to the starting position.

Pro Tips: 

  • Try to keep a straight and stable lower back throughout this movement to avoid putting strain on your lumbar spine.
  • You can perform this exercise with a resistance band and a seat (such as a swiss ball) as a home alternative.

4. Supported Row

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The supported row is a must-include on this list. This exercise makes an excellent T-bar row alternative because it engages the spinal erectors and glutes without the increased load on the spine.

Your gym may have a specialized supported row machine. However, the same effect can easily be achieved with an adjustable bench and some dumbbells.

Fitness Equipment Required: 

  • Supported row machine
  • Incline bench
  • Dumbbells

How-To Perform Exercise:

  • Start by setting up the bench at a roughly 45-degree angle, placing the dumbbells on either side for easy access.
  • Lay with your chest on the bench, with the legs straight.
  • Pick up the dumbbells and engage the entire posterior chain, keeping the chin tucked.
  • Press the balls of the feet into the ground and engage the glutes as you drive the elbows up and back.
  • Bring the weights to either side of the ribs and hold for one second, squeezing the shoulder blades together.
  • Slowly control the weights to the starting position.

Pro Tips: 

  • You can adjust the incline angle of the bench to target different muscles. Higher angles will more heavily engage the upper traps; lower angles will require more activity from the lats.
  • Different techniques and grips can also be used to focus on traps, lats, or rear delts.
  • Avoid arching the back on this exercise; keep the chest on the bench throughout the movement.

5. One-Arm Row

The one-arm row is another exercise that can mimic the joint angles of the T-bar row, with more support for the lower back.

Being a single arm exercise, this single-side variation also provides a good rotational force through the core muscles.

If you don’t have a workout bench, this exercise can also be performed in a split stance, making it an accessible home gym option.

Fitness Equipment Required: 

  • Dumbbell
  • Flat bench or similar surface (variation)

How-To Perform Exercise:

  • Set up by kneeling one leg onto a flat bench, with the same-side hand resting on the bench in front of the knee.
  • For the no-bench version, stand with one foot forward and the hand resting above the knee.
  • Holding the dumbbell in your working hand, arm hanging straight down, and brace and straighten the back at about a 45-degree angle.
  • Engage the muscles of the lower body and core, and breathe out as you row the weight up to the side ribs.
  • Slowly control the weight down until the arm is fully extended.

Pro Tips: 

  • You can add in a little rotation of the upper body in this exercise for some extra core work.
  • This movement can be done with a close, neutral grip, or with a wider, pronated grip.
  • You can pull the weight straight up and down, or in an arcing motion to more strongly engage the lats.

6. Suspended Row

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Now we move to some alternative exercises, with different body positioning and equipment needs.

The suspended row looks quite different from a T-bar row. However, it stimulates very high muscle activation in the middle trapezius, latissimus dorsi, posterior deltoid, and biceps brachii.

This exercise is an easily scalable and super-effective bodyweight option for your back training.

If you don’t have access to suspension straps, you can try an inverted row with a simple bar instead.

Fitness Equipment Required: 

  • Suspension straps
  • Low bar (variation)

How-To Perform Exercise:

  • Holding the suspension handles (or bar), lean back with straight arms, taking up the slack.
  • Walk the feet out until your body forms a straight line, at an appropriate difficulty level for you.
  • Squeezing the glutes and hamstrings to avoid sagging at the hips, pull your elbows down and back.
  • Lift the chest high as you retract the scapulae hard.
  • Hold at the top briefly, and control yourself back to the starting position.

Pro Tips:

  • The great thing about suspension rows is that you can adjust the difficulty mid-set – simply shift your feet to add or decrease load as you go!
  • Holding at the top (or bottom) of this exercise is a great posterior chain counterpart to a traditional plank.

7. Trap-Bar Deadlift

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The following moves in this list aim to focus on specific muscles targeted by the T-bar row.

Some, like the trap-bar deadlift (also known as the hex-bar deadlift), are multi-joint movements that still engage all the target muscles, albeit with different prime movers.

This exercise creates a high level of muscle activity in the gluteus maximus while still engaging the entire upper back and posterior chain.

In fact, the trap-bar deadlift creates significantly more glute engagement than the traditional barbell deadlift.

Fitness Equipment Required:  

  • Trap-bar (hex bar) / plates
  • Dumbbells / kettlebells (variation)

How-To Perform Exercise: 

  • Stand inside the trap-bar with the feet shoulder-width apart.
  • Bend down and grip the handles in the center, ensuring the bar is balanced.
  • Keep the hips high, with a moderate bend in the knees.
  • Create tension in the arms as you straighten the back from head to tailbone.
  • Drive through the heels, standing up with the chest high and eyes forward.
  • Sit the hips back first as you control the bar to the floor.

Pro Tips: 

  • This exercise is the best on the list for increasing maximal strength, as it can be (safely) loaded relatively heavy.
  • Use lifting straps or chalk if grip strength is a limiting factor for you.
  • A dumbbell (or kettlebell) alternative to this exercise is the suitcase deadlift.

8. Pull-Ups

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While the pull-up might not be the first exercise you think of as a T-bar row alternative, it actually does stimulate the same major muscle groups.

Pull-ups are also one of the most effective ways to train your abdominals, strengthening your six-pack and protecting your spine.

If you’re still building up to traditional pull-ups, this experiment showed that kneeling lat pulldowns most closely replicate the muscle activation patterns of the pull-up.

Fitness Equipment Required:  

  • Pull-up bar
  • Cable / lat pulldown handle (variation)
  • Olympic rings (variation)

How-To Perform Exercise: 

  • Grab the bar at a comfortable width, placing the palms over the top of the bar.
  • Hang in a dead hang position with the knees bent if necessary; avoid crossing the legs over.
  • Start by pulling the shoulder blades back and down, with a rigid core and lower body.
  • Drive your chest up towards the bar, pulling the elbows down and back.
  • Pause at the top with the chin over the bar.
  • Slowly control yourself back down to a dead hang position.

Pro Tips: 

  • Experiment with different grips, widths, and body positions.
  • Use the aforementioned suspended row as a way to build up to this exercise.

9. Wheel Pose

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This intense yoga position earns a spot on this list for several reasons.

First, it lights up the entire posterior chain, creating an intense burn in the hamstrings, glutes, spinal erectors, traps, and shoulders.

In fact, this type of yoga posture is one of the best erector spinae and multifidus activators, according to studies done on yoga core muscle activation.

In addition, this exercise can be done anywhere, with absolutely zero equipment required.

If you haven’t tried this move, just trust me – it’s worth a shot.

Fitness Equipment Required:

  • None! Okay, maybe a yoga mat for comfort

How-To Perform Exercise: 

  • Lie on your back, with the knees bent and heels close enough to the hips to be reached by your fingertips.
  • Reach over and plant your palms on the ground on either side of your head, with the fingers pointing to the shoulders.
  • Pull your belly button into your spine and squeeze your butt.
  • Driving with the feet and hands, push the ground away from you as you lift.
  • Lift from the chest toward the sky, looking behind you.
  • Keep the toes pointed forward throughout the movement.
  • Tuck the chin as you slowly lower to the ground.

Pro Tips: 

  • This exercise is actually quite difficult for beginners. Regress with a reverse plank or standard glute bridge.
  • Wheel pose can be done as an isometric hold, or for repetitions depending on your goals.
  • This move is also a great warm-up exercise before heavy deadlifts or rows.

10. Single Arm Shrug

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Now we start to isolate different muscles targeted by the T-bar row to address any weak points.

The single-arm shrug has been found to produce the highest EMG (electromyographic) activity in the upper traps, specifically.

Another benefit of performing the unilateral version of a shrug is to ensure balance between your dominant and non-dominant sides.

This helps prevent neck strain and injury, and ensures one side doesn’t cheat the movement for the other.

Fitness Equipment Required:

  • Dumbbell / kettlebell

How-To Perform Exercise: 

  • Stand with the feet shoulder-width apart, holding the weight by the side.
  • Keeping a straight back and neck, pull the working shoulder up toward your ear.
  • Hold the elevated position, focusing on contracting the upper trap as maximally as possible.
  • Slowly lower the weight back to the starting position.

Pro Tips: 

  • Avoid rolling the shoulders in this exercise, as this could lead to pain or discomfort in the shoulder.
  • This doubles as a core exercise, so brace the abdominal muscles to resist side-bending.

11. Face-Pulls

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The study mentioned above also discovered the best exercise to highlight the middle portion of the traps.

Face pulls also target the muscles of the posterior shoulder and rotator cuff, making them a staple injury prevention exercise used to bulletproof the shoulders.

If you suffer from rounded shoulders or ‘nerd neck’, face pulls serve as a good T-bar row alternative to improve your posture and create a solid foundation for bigger lifts.

Fitness Equipment Required:

  • Cable machine / rope handle
  • Resistance band (variation)

How-To Perform Exercise:  

  • Set the cable machine with the handles at eye level, and attach the rope handle.
  • Stand facing the cable with the arms outstretched.
  • Sit slightly back onto the heels, with the knees unlocked.
  • Keeping the elbows elevated, squeeze the shoulder blades back, followed by the elbows.
  • As the elbows come in line with the shoulders, rotate externally, pulling the thumbs behind the head.
  • Keep the chest lifted as you slowly return the hands to the starting position.

Pro Tips: 

  • Take your time to learn the intricacies of this exercise.
  • Use a resistance band as a home-gym alternative.

12. Prone Y Raise

While your upper and mid traps might require additional work, it’s more likely that the weakest part of your back is your lower traps.

The Y raise is supported by evidence to be the most effective exercise for stimulating the lower traps.

This is another must-include for those with bad posture or anyone who experiences mid-back pain.

It is also a useful accessory exercise to build your capacity to be able to perform T-bar rows in the future.

Fitness Equipment Required:

  • Dumbbells
  • Incline bench
  • Swiss ball (variation)

How-To Perform Exercise:

  • Set up in the same way as the supported row, lying face-down on the bench.
  • Take up the weights, straighten the spine and neck, and retract the shoulder blades.
  • Control the weights up into a Y shape.
  • Try to create a mind-muscle connection with the lower traps, feeling them engage.
  • Control the weights back to the starting position, hanging straight down.

Pro Tips: 

  • This exercise only requires very light weights, as this is often a weak point.
  • If you don’t have a bench, use a swiss ball.

T-Bar Row Alternative Workouts

Now we’ve thrown all these exercises at you, how do you add them into your current routine?

The following beginner and advanced workouts can be used to replace (or modify) the ‘pull’ portion of a push/pull/legs split, or as the back day in a body-part split.

Beginner

Pull Workout APull Workout B
Supported row 3×8-12Suspended row 3×8-12
Kneeling pulldown 3×8-12Single-arm shrug 3×8-12
Face-pulls 3×15-20Prone Y raise 3×15-20

Advanced

Pull Workout APull Workout B
Wheel pose 3×15 secBent-over row 3×8-12
Trap-bar deadlift 3×5-8Pull-ups 3xMAX
Face-pulls 3×15-20Prone Y raise 3×15-20

Closing Comments

What do you think about our list? We hope this article gave you some inspiration for effective alternatives for a strong, aesthetic back.

Let us know what you think about T-bar rows (or these alternative choices) in the comments!

If you know someone who can’t do T-bar rows – whether due to a lack of equipment or a physiological issue – please share this article to help them out!