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Updated On: May 09, 2023
A wide, sculpted back is a goal for many gym goers, men and women alike, and fortunately, there are plenty of ways to give your back the attention it deserves. Barbells, cable machines, lat pulldowns, chin-ups, and pull-ups are all great options for building a V-tapered back, but there's another piece of equipment that just may be the icing on your back-building cake.
We're talking about dumbbells, and more specifically, putting them to work in the dumbbell row exercise. With dumbbells, you can vary your grip, body position, and joint angles to effectively train your back, leading to even better gains.
As a bonus, training with dumbbells can be easier on the joints and requires more muscles to stabilize than a barbell. And when each dumbbell is lifted independently, this helps identify and correct muscle imbalances.
With benefits like that, dumbbell rows deserve a spot in your routine. This article will cover:
Ready to row to grow? Let’s go.
The dumbbell row, otherwise known as the bent-over row, is a pulling exercise that targets the big muscles of the back, while providing a workout for many of the arm muscles as well. To perform this compound exercises, you set up in the hinge position, beginning with the dumbbells away from you with your arms extended.
Then you pull the dumbbells toward your torso, using the muscles of your arms and back while keeping your spine neutral. Keeping your shoulders down and chest up while maintaining feet shoulder width apart ensures a neutral spine, good form, and core stability.
If you're looking for an awesome lat exercise using dumbbells, this is it!
With the dumbbell’s freedom of movement and the ability to change grips and angles, you can emphasize one back muscle over another. You'll work most of the back muscles, as well as your rear shoulders, upper arms, and biceps.
First, let’s get into the main back muscle groups used when performing a dumbbell row. Thanks to dumbbells, you'll be able to more effectively hit all of your major back muscles at different angles, enabling you to build more muscle mass.
They contribute to the rowing movement in a row via scapula protraction and retraction.
This muscle is made up of three parts, upper, middle, and lower, but the middle and lower trapezius are the ones used most in the rowing movement. The middle and lower trapezius movements include scapula adduction (middle traps), depression (lower traps), and outward rotation.
Also known as the lats, this muscle is what gives you the V-taper. Its main movements when performing dumbbell rows are shoulder extension and adduction, horizontal abduction, and adduction.
While it's definitely a back exercise, many of your arm muscles also get a good workout as they work with the back to pull the weight toward your body.
The rear shoulder muscle works alongside the lats and assists with rowing by extending the shoulder.
Made up of flexor and extensor muscles, the forearms assist the biceps with elbow flexion and work hard to grip the dumbbell.
The biceps work together with the back and shoulder muscles to pull the weight toward you via elbow flexion. You can rest assured your upper arm gets plenty of attention in the row, making it one of our favorite compound exercises.
Both the dumbbell row and barbell bent-over row are great exercises to build and strengthen your back. As both encourage muscle growth, you can't go wrong when deciding which to include in your routine. There are pros and cons to each. Here's a closer look at factors to consider.
No matter the barbell variation, you’ll be able to lift more weight with barbells than with dumbbells. Dumbbells only go so high and then get bigger and bulkier and more difficult to use. Not so with the barbell. You can load it how you want, and the stability of lifting the barbell over the dumbbell allows you to lift more, achieving progressive overload more easily.
While barbells win as far as heavier loads are concerned, it also locks you into a certain range of motion and limits your grip options to overhand and underhand. This is not the case with dumbbells. You can vary your grip and change the angle of your pull more than you can with a barbell.
Barbells limit you to a certain range of motion and grip, but dumbbells don’t. The ability to grip the dumbbells in neutral, as seen in the hammer curl vs. bicep curl, makes it easier on your wrist, elbow, and shoulder joints if any of those are an issue for you.
A bilateral bent over barbell row is great, but if muscle imbalances exist between sides, then you’ll unintentionally favor one over the other. This may lead to form issues and uneven muscle development. With dumbbells, even when you’re lifting two, they work unilaterally so you can strengthen imbalances, leading to more muscle development.
With certain dumbbell row variations, you have the potential to go through a larger range of motion than barbell rows. This gives the muscles a greater stretch, and more time under tension for better hypertrophy potential.
This how-to provides you with step-by-step directions for mastering the neutral grip bent-over dumbbell row. You can also use an overhand or underhand grip for the traditional dumbbell row, so feel free to use the one that's most comfortable for you.
For a more challenging version of the two arm dumbbell row, use a wide overhand grip. Since there is less elbow flexion and shoulder adduction, it takes the biceps and lats out of the equation. This variation is an excellent rear shoulder dumbbell exercise, also targeting the upper back. For this version, bring your elbow out in a wide arc when pulling toward your torso.
We suggest sticking with the 8-15 rep range for the dumbbell bent over row, and including the exercise in your back and biceps workout is an excellent idea!
How to do Dumbbell Rows:
Here are 6 great dumbbell rows to consider adding to your workout routine. These moves include a mix of bilateral and unilateral (one arm row) movements with varying grips and body positions to strengthen imbalances, work large as well as smaller stabilizer muscles, and train the back muscles from different angles.
With this many rowing exercises, we're certain you'll agree this is one versatile exercise. Aim for 3-5 sets of whichever variation you select.
Looking to hit your muscles one side at a time? You can't go wrong with a one arm dumbbell row, which is a great way to identify muscle imbalances. For one arm rows, you can use a bench or use your non-working hand and knee for support.
Bend over, placing one hand and the same side knee on a bench, or placing the non-working hand on the knee as a way to brace yourself. Holding the dumbbell in your opposite arm, bend your elbow to row the dumbbell toward your body. Complete your reps on one side, and then switch sides. Aim for 8-10 reps on each side.
The unilateral dead stop row takes you through a large range of motion before requiring you to lower your dumbbells to the floor. This pause takes the stretch reflex out of the muscle to make the concentric contraction harder.
Combined with the larger range of motion, you can build serious muscle with this variation, as long as you're pairing your workouts with the best food for muscles.
Like with the bent-over-row, you can vary your grip to focus on certain parts of the back with this single arm row. No matter the grip, this variation has equal parts shoulder extension and scapular retraction (because of the large ROM) to train your lats, upper back, forearm, and biceps.
To perform a unilateral dead stop row, face a flat bench with one heavy dumbbell in front of your feet. Hinge down and place one hand on the bench, feeling it in your hamstrings and not your lower back.
With your other arm, hold the dumbbell with your preferred grip and row toward the front of your hip keeping your shoulders down and chest up. Pause and lower it with control until it reaches the floor. Reset and repeat. Target 6-15 reps.
Chest-supported rows are similar to the machine version as your chest stays on the pad. Taking the lower body out and being more stable makes it easier on the lower back and puts more focus on your upper back muscles.
Due to the incline and the shortened ROM of the chest supported row, more focus is on your upper back and less is on the lats and biceps. Start with a neutral grip, but you do have the option of switching to an underhand or overhand once you get the hang of it.
Plus, with an adjustable bench, you can adjust your incline to train your back from a variety of angles for better muscle development. Target 6 to 15 reps.
For correct form for the incline bench dumbbell row, set the weight bench at a 45-degree incline. Grip a pair of dumbbells with a neutral grip and glue your chest to the bench. Secure your feet with your elbows extended, and retract your shoulder blade, rowing the dumbbells to the outside of the bench
Pause and lower down with control and reset and repeat.
The RDL row typically requires less weight but trains more muscle. Similar to the dead stop row, this exercise has a bigger range of motion and will train the upper back, lats, posterior deltoid, forearm, and biceps evenly, while also making a great hamstring and hip exercise.
Start with a neutral grip and then progress to the other grips when you have your form and balance down. We suggest a rep range of 12-15.
To get into the RDL Row starting position, grip your dumbbells with a neutral grip. With your shoulders down and chest up, first complete a Romanian deadlift, then row up, remaining bent over, until you feel your upper back contract. When your row is complete, stand back up, repeating the sequence.
The dumbbell renegade row is a great full-body exercise that trains the back by rowing in the prone position. You will be limited in the weight you can use here but you will be training more total body muscle.
Due to the shortened range of motion and the neutral grip with this dumbbell row variation, it puts more focus on your upper back and biceps and less on the lats and posterior deltoid. You'll also activate the core muscles and much of the upper body. Really, your entire upper torso gets a lot of attention.
To perform a renegade row, get on your hands and knees with a pair of hex dumbbells in each hand, shoulder-width apart, and a neutral grip. Then get into a solid front plank position with your feet wide.
Squeeze your glutes and engage your core to keep your spine neutral. Row one dumbbell toward your hip, trying to avoid excessive torso rotation. Place the dumbbell back on the ground and repeat on the other side. Aim for 6-12 reps per side.
A common mistake that occurs with many dumbbell row variations is going too heavy and relying on momentum to complete the movement. This causes you to rely more heavily on your biceps and less on your back muscles. But when your chest is glued to the bench, like with batwing rows, it fixes the issue.
Due to the shortened range of motion, there is less shoulder extension and more scapular retraction, so the upper back is more involved. Like with the bent-over row, you can vary your grip to train your upper back from varying angles.
To do this awesome upper back exercise, lie face down on the weight bench with your chest on the bench and legs straight off the edge. Engage your glutes to keep your legs straight and lower back in neutral.
Grip the dumbbells with your preferred grip, retract your shoulders, and pull the dumbbells to the outside of the bench toward your hips. Make sure your body stays glued to the bench at all times.
Pause and slowly lower down to the floor. Rest and repeat, aiming for 8-15 reps.
Dumbbell rows are an excellent exercise to strengthen imbalances, improve muscular strength, work your back from a variety of angles, and give your joints a break from the barbell. With the variety of dumbbell rows available, you’ll never get bored, which will help keep you progressing.
Ultimately, this progression leads to muscle hypertrophy, which is the best ending any gym-goer could ever ask for.
Related: 9 Best Dumbbell Back Exercises
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