The Pendlay row is a back exercise created by esteemed weightlifting coach Glenn Pendlay.
It’s similar to other horizontal row exercises insofar as it involves pulling a weight toward your body. The difference is that in the barbell Pendlay row, the weight begins and ends each rep on the floor.
Pulling from a “dead stop” prevents you from using momentum to lift the weight, ensuring your back muscles do the majority of the work. It also helps you develop explosive strength and power.
In this article, you’ll learn what the Pendlay row is, why it’s beneficial, the main muscles worked by the Pendlay row, how to perform proper Pendlay row form, common mistakes and how to fix them, the best Pendlay row alternatives and variations, and more.
Table of Contents
The Pendlay Row is a horizontal row exercise that trains the entire back.
It’s named after USA weightlifting coach Glenn Pendlay, who coached weightlifters to row with their backs parallel to the floor and lift the barbell from a dead stop on the ground with each rep.
Pendlay believed performing horizontal rows like this was the most effective way to develop muscle, strength, and power because it prevented you from using momentum to “cheat” the weight up.
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Many people think that vertical pulling exercises develop your lats, which makes your back wider, and horizontal pulling exercises develop your traps, rhomboids, and teres muscles, which makes your back “thicker.”
However, this isn’t based on any sound scientific reasoning and is essentially just gym lore.
Research shows that horizontal pulling exercises, like the Pendlay row, train your entire back, including your lats (perhaps even slightly better than vertical pulling exercises like the pull-up and lat pulldown).
Thus, all horizontal row exercises, including the barbell Pendlay row, make your back thicker, wider, and stronger.
Having a strong back is essential if you want to lift heavy weights—you can think of it as the scaffolding that supports the rest of your body.
The barbell Pendlay row allows you to lift heavy weights safely and progress regularly, which makes it ideal for gaining back strength that’ll boost your performance on other exercises.
When you rapidly stretch a muscle, your central nervous system sends a signal “instructing” that muscle to contract.
This process is known as the stretch-shortening cycle (SSC), and it helps you lift heavier weights on exercises that involve quickly transitioning from the eccentric (lowering) to the concentric (lifting) portion of the exercise, such as the squat, bench press, and barbell row.
While the SSC is vital for lifting heavy weights, it may also rob you of some muscle growth since your muscles have to do less work when you rely heavily on the spring-like effect of the SSC.
Unlike most row exercises, each rep of the Pendlay row begins and ends with the barbell on the floor. This prevents you from using the SSC to lift more weight and ensures your muscles work hard through the full range of motion, making it ideal for gaining muscle, strength, and power.
The main muscles worked by the Pendlay row are the . . .
- Latissimus dorsi
- Teres major and minor
- Posterior deltoids
- Erector spinae
Here’s how the main muscles worked by the barbell Pendlay row look on your body:
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The best way to learn proper Pendlay row form is to split the exercise into three parts: set up, row, and descend.
Position your feet shoulder-width apart under a loaded barbell with your toes pointed slightly outward. Bend over and grab the bar slightly wider than shoulder-width apart with an overhand grip (palms facing toward you), then straighten your back and raise your hips until your back is roughly parallel to the floor.
Take a deep breath into your belly and brace your core, then, without changing your back angle, pull the weight to your upper body, touching it anywhere between your lower chest and belly button.
As you pull the bar, drive your shoulder blades together and your elbows toward the ceiling.
While keeping your back flat and your core tight, reverse the movement and return the bar to its starting position on the floor.
Don’t try to lower the bar slowly or quietly. The entire descent should take 1-to-2 seconds or less. Take a moment to get in the proper starting position, then start your next rep.
Many new weightlifters anticipate lifting the same amount on the Pendlay row as they do on a regular barbell row. However, because of the Pendlay row’s stricter form, you typically can’t lift nearly as much.
Trying to lift too much weight usually causes your form to break down, diminishing the exercise’s effectiveness. Avoid this by choosing a weight that allows you to row with proper form, then increase the weight gradually.
Driving through your legs and “whipping” your back up by thrusting your hips forward allows you to lift heavier weights but detracts from the Pendlay row’s primary purpose: developing explosive strength and power in your back.
While there’s a time and place for using “leg drive” (in the regular barbell row, for example), you should try to keep your hips and legs as still as possible throughout each rep of the Pendlay row. Only lifting weights that are light enough to allow you to perform the exercise with proper form is the best way to achieve this.
Excessive elbow flaring turns the Pendlay row into a rear delt row, shifting the focus to the shoulders rather than the back.
To ensure you train your back muscle, keep your elbows at a 45-degree angle relative to your torso throughout each rep. For most people, this means keeping your elbow 6-to-8 inches from your sides.
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In the dumbbell Pendlay row, both sides of your body have to lift the same amount of weight independently, making it good for finding and fixing muscle and strength imbalances. Because your hands aren’t fixed to a barbell, it also allows you to use a neutral grip (palms facing each other), which some people prefer to an overhand grip.
Because you use a bit of leg drive to get the bar moving, you can generally lift more weight with the barbell row than you can with other horizontal rows, which is one of the reasons bent-over barbell rows are a great exercise for your entire back.
You lie prone on a bench during the seal row, which prevents you from generating momentum with your lower body. This forces your back muscles to do most of the work and ensures you stimulate them sufficiently. You also hold the weight for the entire duration of a set, which slightly increases the time under tension on your back muscles.
The one-arm dumbbell row allows you to train your back unilaterally (one side at a time), which helps you identify and even out size and strength imbalances. Because you rest on a bench, it also places less stress on your spine than many other horizontal row exercises, making it a good alternative to the Pendlay row for those with back issues.
The main benefit of the cable row is that by using a cable, there’s constant tension on your back muscles throughout each rep. This extra time under tension taxes your back slightly differently from the other horizontal rows, such as the barbell Pendlay row.
+ Scientific References
- Lehman, Gregory J, et al. “Variations in Muscle Activation Levels during Traditional Latissimus Dorsi Weight Training Exercises: An Experimental Study.” Dynamic Medicine, vol. 3, no. 1, 2004, p. 4, https://doi.org/10.1186/1476-5918-3-4.
- Fenwick, Chad M J, et al. “Comparison of Different Rowing Exercises: Trunk Muscle Activation and Lumbar Spine Motion, Load, and Stiffness.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, vol. 23, no. 2, Mar. 2009, pp. 350–358, https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0b013e3181942019.