Deadlifts vs. Barbell Rows: Which Builds A Thicker Back?

Brad Borland
Written By: Brad Borland
May 30th, 2014
Updated: June 13th, 2020
94K Reads
Which exercise is the king of back builders? In this article Brad Borland compares barbell rows and deadlifts, and helps you to decide which is right for your goals.

Brad Borland is a strength & conditioning specialist, cancer survivor and the founder of WorkoutLab.

Nothing signifies strength like a big, strong back. Thick, broad and detailed lats, rhomboids, teres minor and major and a thick, cable-like lumbar are all attributes sought after by many but achieved by few. Building said back requires toiling away with the right kind of tools and applying a heavy dose of intensity. Wasting precious time in the gym with non-essential exercises, resulting in little gains and a lot of frustration isn’t the best and most efficient way to get to your goal.

Two big boys on the block regarding back mass, strength and thickness are the deadlift and the bent-over barbell row. No other two exercises come close to packing on the mass and thickening your back than these two power houses. But what are the pros and cons of each and which comes out on top for your back mass needs? Let’s break down both moves for a closer look at how to perform them and what each is best at.

Deadlift

As the ultimate whole-body exercise, nothing will challenge you in one move quite like the deadlift. Calves, quads, hams, glutes, lumbar, lats, traps, biceps and core are all stressed to a great degree. As a highly efficient move, the deadlift is a one-stop shop for overall body mass. Bend down at your hips and knees with a straight back and grasp a bar close to your shins. Take an alternating grip that is shoulder width apart and make sure your hips and glutes are low.

Begin the move by pulling the bar up simultaneously using your hips quads, back and stabilizing with your shoulder girdle. Continue pulling the bar with a straight back while keeping the bar close to your body and your core tight. Straighten your body without leaning back and stressing your spine too much. Once at the top, reverse the motion and repeat the same form touching (not slamming) the bar back to the floor and repeat for reps.

Pros: As a relatively full-body move the deadlift works a myriad of musculature. It is quick to pack on the mass and strength and sets in motion a natural surge in growth hormone and testosterone to help you with all your muscle-building needs. The deadlift is also considered a highly effective functional exercise enabling you to conquer everyday laborious tasks with ease. It will also aid other lifts, supporting ancillary muscles for better performance in the squat, standing presses, rows and other standing exercises.

Cons: For the untrained and unfamiliar, the deadlift can be a potentially dangerous exercise. Spinal compression, hip and knee injury and neck strain can all stem from poor form and little preparation. Also, since the deadlift causes great central nervous system expenditure, it can quickly lead to burnout and over training when not scheduled into a program correctly. Careful consideration and proper form and technique are musts when performing a correct deadlift movement.

Big back

Barbell row

Another big back mass builder is the bent-over barbell row. Rows are thought to be the bench press for the back. When performed correctly, the row enables you to move a lot of weight and really thicken the lats and other areas hitting the entire back. With a barbell in hand at a shoulder width, overhand grip, bend over at the hips (not the waist) with your butt out behind you and knees bent as if you were in the down position of a Romanian deadlift.

Pull the bar toward your waistline squeezing your shoulder blades. Slowly reverse the motion and repeat for reps. Be sure to actually bend over at least at a 80 degree angle as to not turn this exercise into an upright row which is seen far too many times. Use a moderate weight that you can handle with proper form before adding any additional weight.

Pros: The barbell row is a true mass builder if there ever was one. Nothing spells more muscle than ripping the bar off the ground and rowing some heavy stuff. Cables and machines can’t compare to the row for overall muscle-building potential and upper body strength. Although the bent-over row can come in many versions: dumbbell, t-bar and reverse grip, the free weight row is a staple in any routine.

Cons: If performed with less than textbook form the row can be a potentially dangerous exercise much like the deadlift. Spinal stress, lumbar strain and other pulls are just a few of the injuries that may occur. Several other factors can easily come into play due to poor execution or just plain ego such as too much of an upright posture, too much weight used and too much sway and jerking the weight up.

The verdict

As both exercises pack on the mass, there are some significant differences in not only the function of each but also the actual mechanical muscular action. The deadlift, although known for thickening the back, mostly gleans itself as a static contraction type exercise with little movement in the lumbar. The barbell row on the other hand lends itself as a true stretch and contract type move in the more traditional sense. Another similarity is the stress each move puts on the CNS. This would have to be closely regulated in any program to minimize injury and burnout. This is also evident when you throw squats into the mix.

Both the deadlift and barbell row have their places in an effective back building program but would be best alternated from one back workout to the next. Both have their own unique way of stimulating growth and strength but can also lead to too much strain and chronic soreness if not used and performed properly. Give them both a try and see for yourself.

18 Comments
Tlucas
Posted on: Fri, 07/25/2014 - 19:29

Atta boy Brad! That's how you take a punch. Nice response to the criticism.

Brad
Posted on: Sun, 06/08/2014 - 23:56

Thanks for all your comments. These articles are for the 90% of people who need honest, straight forward info. They are for informational purposes to help people understand what the differences are between two popular exercises.

I appreciate the read and as the author of these and many others here at M&S I try to give the reader a comprehensive and unique view to these and many other training protocols and programs.

So, with that said, I am here to answer any questions you may have and ... criticize away!

Brad

Dan
Posted on: Sun, 03/08/2015 - 08:13

Lots of routines out there showing barbell row or deadlift. Some say rows are an assistance exercise. I was wondering if I should give up the rows and do deadlifts everytime which is the starting strength novice program starting point. Your article is helpful. Thank you.

mk
Posted on: Sun, 03/29/2015 - 15:03

gentlemen stop being so emotional about nothing,this article is factual and the whole point of the VS series is to encourage newbies to use the basic barbell movements in their training.
alternate grip on the deadlift is effective for maximum pulls boss,overhand wont give you much mechanical advantage,and the whole muscle imbalance route mmmm i think we stretching it a bit there especially considering all the BIG deadlifters looking pretty well rounded.
take the articles like an experienced lifter and you will understand their strength and validity but if you take them like a jacked up steroid user then well i guess you start cursing and calling names....

steve
Posted on: Fri, 07/03/2015 - 22:48

Wow... I found your article informing. Been training for 20 plus years. I always find it refreshing to read someones POV. It scares me the number of people who look to argue or prove others wrong.
You give muscle heads a good name.

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BradBorland
Posted on: Sun, 07/05/2015 - 10:04

Thanks so much Steve!

David
Posted on: Sun, 06/08/2014 - 17:21

I cringe everytime I read articles that tell people to use the alternating grip on deadlifts. The problem with this I find is that most people naturally have weak grips and by skipping the double overhand grip they're really not developing their grip naturally which can lead to injuries down the road as there will surely be setting themselves up for some pretty big muscle imbalances.

Shady
Posted on: Wed, 06/04/2014 - 19:45

Every one of the VS. articles end the same way. The conclusion is always, "both are necessary for complete (back, shoulder, chest, biceps, triceps, quads, hamstrings). Can we just stop with these articles? Or at least let's not call it a VS. which implies a winner.

Spud
Posted on: Tue, 06/03/2014 - 04:46

I do not understand this article. You're comparing a total posterior chain exercise with a back focused one. Kind of like comparing bicep curls vs chin ups for bicep growth, both will do the job but one hits a wide range of muscles.

Mike
Posted on: Mon, 09/09/2019 - 22:00

actually if you do a little research youll find the bentover rows hit the same muscles as the deadlift. maybe read some books .

victor
Posted on: Mon, 06/02/2014 - 12:03

I 'hate' it / find it irritating that they call this series: which is better ?

They only compare it, and when the 'verdict' is being told, they say: do what ever you wanna do, both are needed / are a good choice.

That isn't a verdict, this all is caption obvious work.. cmon dudes seriously ?

Justin
Posted on: Mon, 06/02/2014 - 01:15

And how did this get five stars btw!?!

Justin
Posted on: Mon, 06/02/2014 - 00:46

Thanks for the open-ended, no point article...Why not explain a decent plan that incorporates both exercises...Lotta words that don't add up to much in regards to the user group wanting significant input on how to utilize these two key exercises.

Thanks!

Richard
Posted on: Sun, 06/01/2014 - 03:53

This comparsion was pretty dumb. As each exercise works different parts of your back and both are vital for a strong back.

Nick
Posted on: Sun, 06/01/2014 - 03:07

"Take an alternating grip" - yeah, thanks for the advise. And then you see people in the gym alternating their grip on 50-60kg bar. Bulshit. Apart from plain stupid if you want to make a very strong grip, this also creates an imbalance AND can lead to a pretty bicep-torn picture. Double overhand is the way to go if you really wanna do it right. If you go into powerlifting competition - yeah, you can alternate. Apart from that alternate grip is not worth it.

Overtraining - another pixie fairy. Overtraining is not a myth, but 99% of the people in the gym CANNOT OVERTRAIN. What they experience is very far from overtraining. Stop using this hoax to scare people from actually lifting heavy. Only people that do insane volume of heavy lifting (pro athletes) can truly achieve overtraining and as we all know they have their ways of handling them.

Karl
Posted on: Sat, 05/31/2014 - 21:24

Hi, I use dead lift on legs day and also use barbell rows on back day, does this sound quite ok

Eric
Posted on: Sun, 04/24/2016 - 20:09

Exactly PERFECT!

adam
Posted on: Sat, 05/31/2014 - 01:41

Why not call the article - Why the Deadlift and Barbell row are and important part of any workout! - or words to that effect.

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