The traditional T-bar is a simple piece of equipment in which one end of a long bar is attached to a hinge and the other end can have plates loaded. There is a bar—which looks like a bicycle handle bar—just below the plates for the you to grasp. You straddle the bar, bend forward, grab the handlebar, get set, lift the weights off the ground and then performs rows. The 45-pound plates on the end of the bar should hit your upper chest at the top of each rep as you row for the desired number of reps. The T-bar row can be seen in the iconic documentary “Pumping Iron,” in which Arnold Schwarzenegger grinds out rep after rep.
For many decades the T-bar row was performed with 45-pound plates loaded on the bar. Very strong trainees and top professional and amateur bodybuilders would put eight or more 45s on the bar, so obviously the T-bar is a heavy back exercise.
Some pros looked at it from a different perspective—they replaced the 45s with 25-pound plates, which, as the 25s have a smaller diameter, gave them a greater range of motion. Because they were pulling the bar farther, they were able to use less weight.
The trainees who enjoyed pulling more weight stayed with the 45s, and those who thought a bit differently tried the 25s. Enter Joe Gold, the late gym-equipment master and founder of Gold’s Gym and World Gym.
Gold created a unique T-bar apparatus. The bar was attached to a hinge, as all other T-bar rows were; however, the other end, the plate-loading end, was completely different. Instead of loading plates on the end of a straight bar and having the 45-pound plates limit the rowing motion, he had a new idea: The end of Gold’s bar looked like the head of a Texas longhorn, with horns that were bent up and outward coming out of the sides.
With Gold’s innovative design you could load 45s or 25s—it didn’t matter. There was nothing to stop the bar from hitting your chest, as the plates weren’t close enough to make contact with your body.
There were also two sets of handles: 1) the traditional bicycle handlebars and 2) a pair of handles close to the bar and parallel, mimicking the hand position of a dumbbell-row. Joe turned to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Frank Zane (10 Mr. Olympia titles between them) for their opinions of the new bar. Schwarzenegger said, “It’s not a T-bar row; it is a rowing apparatus.” Zane said, “The full range of motion doesn’t require the heavier weight of the traditional T-bar row, but the weight doesn’t matter because of the better range of motion.”
Unfortunately, one of the World Gym managers didn’t like the parallel handles, so he cut them off. What a mistake!
The primary problem with the T-bar row is that once trainees start performing it very heavy, low-back pain and stiffness tend to follow. When trainees give up heavier training, they usually drop T-bar rows altogether. That often happens if they have been training heavily for a long time. Frequently, they are left with a back routine comprised of pullups, pulldowns, seated cable rows and dumbbell rows.
Even so, when trainees do T-bar rows and don’t have low-back pain, they’re often a favorite exercise. Most trainees feel that their backs become thicker and stronger when they perform T-bar rows.
Not all exercises are perfect. Some are excellent, some are terrible, and some have a short time frame in our training careers. It appears that the T-bar row is one of the short-lived exercises for most trainees.
Train smart, then train hard.
—Joseph M. Horrigan
Editor’s note: Visit www.SoftTissueCenter.com for reprints of Horrigan’s past Sportsmedicine columns that have appeared in IRON MAN. You can order the books, Strength, Conditioning and Injury Prevention for Hockey by Joseph Horrigan, D.C., and E.J. “Doc” Kreis, D.A., and the 7-Minute Rotator Cuff Solution by Horrigan and Jerry Robinson from Home Gym Warehouse, (800) 447-0008 or at www.Home-Gym.com.