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Safety and Injuries

Dumbbell Row: Muscles Worked, Proper Form, Variations & More

Reading Time: 5 minutes 31 seconds

By: ISSA

Date: 2021-08-20T00:00:00-04:00


When devising workout plans for clients, personal trainers are tasked with deciding which exercises to include. The ones chosen will largely depend on their fitness goals. These exercises can also change based on whether there are specific areas of their body the client wants to target. If their goal or target involves building muscle in the upper body, the dumbbell row exercise delivers.

What the Dumbbell Row Is

The dumbbell row is an upper body exercise. It involves bending forward at the hip with a weight in one hand, that weight hanging toward the floor. The weight is then pulled upward, closer to the chest, before lowering it back to the starting position.

The torso and lower body remain stationary during a dumbbell row as the movement is mainly in the shoulder blades. Since it works only one arm at a time, it is sometimes referred to as a single-arm dumbbell row or one-arm dumbbell row.

Muscles Worked

The primary muscle group worked when doing dumbbell rows is the upper back. This includes the following:

  • Latissimus dorsi - the flat triangular muscle that extends from the humerus (located in the upper arm, between the elbow and shoulder) to the mid-to-lower spine, near the bottom of the rib cage

  • Posterior deltoid - the muscle on the back of the shoulder

  • Rhomboid - superficial muscles in the upper back that connect the scapula (shoulder blade) and upper spine

  • Trapezius - extends from the back of the head and neck, down the spine, and out to the shoulder

The dumbbell row also helps build muscle in the upper arm. That makes it good for toning both the biceps and triceps. It even increases strength in the core.

Row Benefits

Building muscle mass in the upper back offers many benefits. Because these muscles are used for both pushing and pulling motions, increasing their strength makes these types of actions easier. Pushing the vacuum, picking up children, moving furniture, and pull-starting equipment doesn't feel quite so hard.

Another benefit of the dumbbell row is that it helps support proper posture. Strong middle and upper back muscles contribute to healthy spine alignment. Your torso sits more upright with your shoulders back versus slouching forward. If clients want a V-shaped physique, the row can help with this as well.

Dumbbell Row Form and Lifting Technique

When doing a single arm row, stand next to a flat bench and bend forward. Keep the knees slightly bent. Place the arm closest to the bench on its seat. Some people place the same-side knee on the bench as well. Keep the other arm straight, the weight hanging just above the floor.

Slowly bend the elbow of the arm with the weight, pulling that weight up so it is closer to the chest. The weight is then slowly returned to the starting position until it is just above the floor. The back remains straight during this move by engaging the core during the lift.

Since this is a single arm exercise, be sure to do it on both sides. Do the right arm and then the left arm, or vice versa.

Going slow adds more stress, forcing the muscles to fully engage in order to retain control. To challenge the muscles even more during the row, hold the weight for a couple of seconds when it is up near the chest.

Mistakes to Avoid When Doing Dumbbell Rows

When lifting the weight, clients may be tempted to round their backs. However, it's important to keep the back straight. This keeps them from putting too much stress on the spine.

Also, watch the client's form to make sure they aren't rotating their body during the row. The torso doesn't move during this movement. Only the shoulder blade and, to a limited extent, the arm.

Finally, the arms should stay close to the side during dumbbell rows. The elbows shouldn't flare out to the side, so this is something to monitor as well.

Dumbbell Row Variations

There are many ways to do a dumbbell row. Here are a few variations to keep this exercise from getting monotonous:

  • Barbell row. The dumbbell row can be performed with a barbell instead. The starting position is similar to a deadlift. One benefit of doing this variation is that heavier weight can be lifted. Plus, since both sides are lifting at the same time, it helps keep the muscles balanced.

  • Bent over dumbbell row. Another row that works both sides at the same time is called a bent over dumbbell row. To do a bent over row, you simply bend forward at the hip and hold a weight in each hand. Like with a dumbbell row, the arms are straight and the weight hangs above the floor. It's important to keep a neutral spine (natural spinal curve) when lifting weights on both sides at the same time. This helps minimize the risk of injuring the back.

  • Chest supported dumbbell row. This exercise is sometimes called an incline bench dumbbell row. A chest supported row involves lying face forward on an incline bench. This position supports the upper torso and chest during the movement. Since the back muscles aren't trying to stabilize the body, clients can typically lift a heavier weight with this row.

  • Stability ball dumbbell row. For clients who want to really strengthen the core, they can do the row while placing one hand on a stability ball. The instability of the ball forces the lower back and abs to engage more fully. Since this move is more advanced, it shouldn't be used until a traditional dumbbell row is mastered.

  • Kroc row. A dumbbell row done with high reps and heavy weights is referred to as a kroc row. That makes this dumbbell row variation a good option for clients who are powerlifters.

Each dumbbell row variation works slightly different muscles. Switch them up regularly in your clients' workouts to continue to build strength in the upper back and arms.

You can also vary this exercise by changing the grip. The way you grip the dumbbell changes which muscles are worked. Typically, an underhand grip is used, meaning that the knuckles aim toward the floor. This move also utilizes a neutral grip, or palms facing each other.

If you want to challenge the upper arms more, change the grip so your palms are facing forward. Facing the palms backward when lifting places more stress on the muscles in the back.

When Dumbbell Rows Aren't Recommended

Clients with a previous injury to the upper back or shoulder should get a doctor's clearance before doing dumbbell rows. This exercise places a lot of strain on these areas, so they have to be able to handle the load.

Bent over dumbbell rows may also not be recommended for clients with lower back pain. Since a bench isn't used, muscles in the lower spine are extra engaged to maintain posture. If a lower back issue exists, this additional pressure could aggravate the area.

How Much Weight to Use

Clients who are new to exercise or have low upper body strength should start with a lighter weight. A one-, three-, or five-pound dumbbell can provide enough resistance at first. Once muscle strength increases, the weight used can increase as well.

The weight your client can lift when doing a dumbbell row also provides insight into their fitness level. Have them lift as heavy a weight as they can one time. This is their one rep max or 1RM. Then compare the weight they lifted to what others are able to lift via a dumbbell row standards chart. This will tell you whether their strength is consistent with a beginner, novice, intermediate, advanced, or elite lifter.

Allow Adequate Time for Muscle Recovery

After a tough upper body workout, it's important that the client gives time for adequate muscle recovery. This helps increase strength while reducing injury risk. Somewhere between 24 and 48 hours is generally enough.

ISSA's Exercise Recovery Certification program teaches even more muscle recovery techniques. In this course, you will learn how to avoid overtraining, DNA-based recovery factors, the importance of nutrition and sleep, and more.

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Exercise Recovery Specialist

ISSA's Exercise Recovery Specialization unlocks the science behind recovery techniques. As a Certified Exercise Recovery Specialist, personal trainers can apply this information to their exercise prescription and programs, helping athletes and general fitness clients alike.

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