Bent Over Rows and Back Pain – Fixing Common Mistakes

Bent over rows and back pain is a pretty common conversation I have with people looking to build strength in their back. On the topic of low back pain: the key to rehabbing a bad back is knowing what is causing the pain and making sure that what you’re doing in the gym isn’t making things worse. Today, we are going to break down the bent-over row and target common mistakes back pain sufferers typically make. The point of this article is to put your mind at ease when it comes to doing this exercise right. If you are constantly getting weird tweaks in your lower back or something just doesn’t feel right when doing the barbell bent-over row. I am going to go over the most common mistakes people make as well as how to fix them and a couple of alternative exercises. 

When it comes to getting into actual weight lifting when you’re dealing with back pain, I need you to understand one thing. Just because it’s an exercise doesn’t mean its good for you to be doing. Not all movement is good for a lower back injury. First, focus on your root cause and gradually introduce the weights back in. If the barbell bent over row is a staple in your program, listen up!

Grip variations when doing the bent over row.

The first thing I want to cover (that I didn’t mention in the video) is your grip on the bar. In the video, I show an overhand grip which is just one way of doing it. The bent over row is about feeling rather than maximum weight.  You want to be able to activate the shoulder blades and draw them together.  Which grip you use doesn’t really matter for the sake of this article. Odds are if you’re reading this you’re trying to combat a lower back injury, so you need to focus more on doing it right and pain free over anything else.

Overhand Grip

The Underhand Grip

The underhand grip tends to be a little easier on the shoulders, so if you have a lower back issue and shoulder pain, this is a safer and more comfortable way of pulling. Again, one way is not the only way. Try both and see which one allows YOU to have more control of the weight.

How to use the “Ramp-Up” technique if you’re getting back pain with Bent-Over Rows

The idea of ramping up is a pretty common concept in the rehab world. The idea is to introduce progressive loading instead of jumping right in with you “typical weight”. For example, for someone dealing with low back pain with bent-over rows I would have them start with just the bar and see if they can accomplish the full exercise without any symptoms.

If they can’t, then we adjust the body position or introduce a different bent-over row variation until we can remove the symptoms they are experiencing.

If they can do the bar in the traditional bent-over row position then we will ramp up to a higher weight. Maybe add 10lb or 25lbs on each side. The goal is to find the breaking point of your symptoms. Once you find that threshold of where the pain starts coming in we dial back to below that and work on form and endurance with that weight. Week by week we ramp this weight up until we are operating at a normal weight for you.

How to do the bent-over rows while dealing with back pain

Today I want to direct you to a video I put together showing you the breakdown of what most people do wrong with these exercises. Watch till the end because I go over two alternative exercises to the barbell bent-over row that you can integrate into your workout.

Some key points I want you to take from the video.

1 – Before you hinge at the waist and get into the “bent over” position, lock in your core first. Don’t make the mistake of hinging then bracing as you begin to do the first rep. Prepare your body for the work before it’s done, don’t just react to what’s happening.

2 – Be intentional about the exercise. Take 100% of the momentum out of the exercises and focus on the contraction of the muscles being worked, the brace on your core and your breathing cycle. It seems like a lot but as you practice you will get better and better.

3 – Don’t hesitate to switch to one of the alternative exercises I give at the end of this video. Nothing says you have to do the traditional bent over row to get a good back workout in. Don’t trade ego for pain. It’s not a good long game tactic.

The key to being able to continue to progress with your lower back injury and workout is to pick your exercises wisely. The last thing you want to do is make things worse or keep things inflamed to the point where the rehab portion of your training won’t ever work. Don’t let your favorite exercise keep you from beating your back injury. Play it smart and think long term!

Another great video on the topic of bent-over rows is by a respected pro athlete trainer and Physical Therapist Jeff Cavaliere. In this video below he shares the common misconception with arm height and muscle activation. He takes two, side by side videos of him doing the same exercise and asks which one is right and which one is wrong. I bet you can’t point out the one that’s wrong before he tells you!

This video gives some great background on the best way to use the scapula movers to successfully do this exercise as well as saving your shoulders while doing it.

If you want a list of some of my favorite back exercises that are best for those with back pain you need to check out my YouTube Playlist here! 

I also have a growing playlist of my favorite pulling exercises here!

What if doing bent over rows continues to cause low back pain?

When it comes to rehabbing a low back injury or working through chronic low back pain its someteimss best to hang up an exercise and work on the basics of the pulling or rowing movement to desensitize the low back and build the mental confidence that our bodies can handle it.

This is often known as the mind body connection and is a critcial step in the long-term recovery strategy. If the bent over row is still causing some irritation I wanted to share with you 3 awesome resources you can continue to work through.

==> One of my favorite bent over row variations

==> Build a stronger upper back with this

==> Try these “Scoop Rows out!

What is your history with this exercise? Do you find yourself making these mistakes and dealing with lower back pain? Let me know your experience in the comments below!

Share this article is you know some people who have terrible form in the gym! You could save their back!

Addicted to your health,


6 thoughts on “Bent Over Rows and Back Pain: Fixing common mistakes

  1. Hi, I just want to know about the weight distribution on feet while doing bent-over row with dumbbells and while doing deadlift or stiff deadlifts.

    1. Gripping the ground with your feet is a cue I like to use. Think of your feet like your hands. If I were to ask you how should you grip the ground when doing push-ups. How would you?

  2. Hello, My low back pain is lower than what is shown in the video. I am pretty sure my back is not rounding when i do the rows. For me the pain is right where the low back meets the sacrum. If I do a weight of around 135 pounds it doesn’t seem to get sore but if i raise the weight, I experience pain later not during the workout. I will try some of the tips you mentioned in the above article to see if that helps. Mainly locking the core before i hinge which i haven’t been doing.

    1. Hey, Norm!

      It sounds like your issue could be in the L5-S1 region which is where all of my issues were. It’s pretty common and taking the right first steps to break your pain cycle is key.

      Bracing the core is huge as well as auditing your life and pulling out the things that could be keeping you inflamed. It’s not always what you’re doing IN the gym that is the problem. Usually, it’s what you are doing every day OUTSIDE of the gym that is huge!


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