You might love training your back with barbells, and you’re not alone. With these lengthy tools, you can slap on as many weight plates as you’ve trained for and pull incredibly heavy iron off the ground. But barbells are not the only implement that can help you craft massive strength in your posterior chain. Dumbbells are also a crucial part of well-rounded strength training — especially if you work single-arm dumbbell rows and their variations into your program.
Single-arm dumbbell rows may not be as glamorous as an iron-clanking deadlift or Pendlay row, but they’re a force to be reckoned with. All you need is a weight bench and a dumbbell — and a lot of mental grit — to combat any side-to-side strength imbalances that might be cramping your back gain style. Because they target your lats so well, single-arm dumbbell row variations of all kinds are a fantastic way to build a broad, strong back.
By focusing on one side at a time, these rows and their variations help you maximize your back muscle growth. You’ll fight off those pesky strength and size imbalances that tend to crop up when you only work with barbells, too. There are single-arm row variations for lifters of every experience level — so once the back gains start, they never really have to stop.
Best Single-Arm Row Variations
Beginner Single-Arm Rows
Intermediate Single-Arm Rows
Advanced Single-Arm Rows
Beginner Single-Arm Rows
When you’re first starting out in training, you want to make sure you master each move before advancing. That’s where these single-arm row variations come in. But even if you’re an experienced lifter, you can still use these moves to give your form a tune-up and heft some solid weight.
Dumbbell rows are only as good as your form. The single-arm prone dumbbell row trains you to maintain your form by bracing your chest against a weight bench. In doing so, you won’t be able to hike your torso upwards to kip the weight up.
You’ll need to rely only on your strength and excellent form to lift the weight to where it needs to be. As a result, you’ll need to lift lighter weights, especially at first. But over time, stabilizing your back by supporting your chest will actually let you hoist much heavier dumbbells.
Benefits of the Single-Arm Prone Dumbbell Row
- Lying down with your chest supported will not allow you to unintentionally cheat your form.
- As a beginner, this variation will help you develop the strict form you need to progress the movement.
- As an advanced lifter, having your chest supported means you may be able to lift even heavier without worrying about tweaking your back.
How to Do the Single-Arm Prone Dumbbell Row
Raise a flat bench by placing its feet on top of a few secure, stable weight plates or a thick bumper plate. Make it high enough so that your arm can fully extend without hitting the ground. Check to make sure the bench is secure. Grab a dumbbell with your right hand. Brace your core and pull your shoulders back and down. Pull the dumbbell up and back, imagining putting your right elbow into your pocket. Lower with control. Repeat for reps. Switch sides.
When you’re fully prone, you’re supporting your entire body — with an emphasis on supporting your chest and torso. With the head-supported variation, you’ll be standing up but supporting your forehead against the top of an incline bench.
The idea here is similar to that of the single-arm prone dumbbell row. You want to support your body such that you’re keeping your torso still. That way, the lift comes from your lats rather than momentum from shifting your body.
Benefits of the Head-Supported Single-Arm Dumbbell Row
- By supporting your forehead on the bench, you’ll give yourself the feedback you need to know when you’re starting to cheat your form.
- You’ll only be supporting your head, so you’ll have to maintain core tension and torso position on its own — this helps you advance the movement.
- Since you’ll be standing in a slight hip hinge, you’re going to involve your lower back, glutes, and hamstrings in maintaining an isometric hold.
How to Do the Head-Supported Single-Arm Dumbbell Row
Set up an incline bench so that your forehead can rest on its top if you hinge forward slightly. Stand a few feet back from the bench so that when you hinge, your forehead will comfortably rest against the top of the pad. Cushion your forehead with your free hand if you prefer. Maintain your hinge. Row the dumbbell with control. Keep your hips and shoulders square throughout the move. Switch sides.
Using cables is a whole different animal than using dumbbells. Cables provide a different sort of resistance than free weights. That can be a great boon to your training, especially when muscle-building is your goal.
The single-arm cable row will give you a consistent amount of resistance across your entire range of motion. This means that your muscles will be under tension for longer periods of time each rep. Increased time under tension is a great recipe for growing those muscles.
Benefits of the Seated Single-Arm Cable Row
- You’ll receive consistent resistance from the cable throughout your entire range of motion.
- Working with cables allows you to spend more time under tension, which is a solid way to build muscle.
- You’ll likely perform this exercise seated, which can help you pay attention to posture and anti-rotational core strength.
How to Do the Seated Single-Arm Cable Row
Sit down on a bench set up for cable rows. Select a D-handle or a similar attachment. Brace your feet on the pads. Find a sitting distance from the pulley where the cable is just starting to provide tension. Square your shoulders and pull the handle toward the outside of your rib cage. Keep your shoulders and torso straight. Let the tension pull your arm long again, with control. Repeat for reps. Switch sides.
Intermediate Single-Arm Rows
When you’ve got some experience under your weightlifting belt, it might be time to make your single-arm row variations a little more complex — and heavier.
You’re familiar with the seated single-arm cable row. But this variation introduces the element of balance to an already unilateral training situation.
Here, you’ll be putting yourself in a slightly off-balance position. By kneeling tall with only one knee on the ground, you’ll have to focus on maintaining balance the entire time. This will give a great challenge to your coordination, balance, and positional strength.
Benefits of the Half-Kneeling Single-Arm Cable Row
- Performing this move from a half-kneeling position will challenge your overall balance and coordination.
- You’ll be getting your core extra involved in this move by working against rotation while balancing your lower body.
- This variation provides consistent resistance throughout the move, making it excellent for muscle-building purposes.
How to Do the Half-Kneeling Single-Arm Cable Row
Kneel with one knee on the ground and the other at 90 degrees with your foot planted in front of you. Square your hips and keep your chest tall. Face the cable stack. Grab a D-handle attachment set to chest level. Keep your shoulders even. Row the cable toward your rib cage. With control, let it return back to starting position. Repeat for reps and switch sides.
This move will look like a regular row, but with one crucial difference. Your dumbbell will come to a dead stop on the ground between each rep. This means you’ll have to fight to reestablish tension in between each rep, recruiting even more muscle fibers to do so.
You can load this variation up fairly heavy. As long as you’ve got your form right, you don’t have to be shy here. You can use a little bit of body English here — just make sure you’re not kipping your entire torso in the process. That can put your lower back at risk while making the move less effective for your lats.
Benefits of the Dead Stop Single-Arm Row
- If you perform this variation supported by a bench, you can heft a very significant amount of weight.
- By coming to a dead stop between each rep, you force your body to reestablish tension completely every time.
- This is a very useful variation for building confidence in hoisting heavy dumbbells, since you’ll get to rest them briefly on the ground between reps.
How to Do the Dead Stop Single-Arm Row
Set up as you would for a regular single-arm row. Depending on your limb length, you may not want to brace your leg on the bench, opting for a deeper hinge and only resting your free hand on the bench or weight rack instead. Row the dumbbell from the ground to your rib cage. Lower with control. Let the dumbbell rest on the ground momentarily at the bottom of the rep. Reestablish tension and repeat. Switch sides after your reps are done.
To perform a suitcase row, you’re going to be unsupported — meaning you’ll be in a hip hinge the whole time. That’s one of the factors that makes this an intermediate lift.
The other challenge-booster this single-arm row variation provides is the position of the weight. Oftentimes, you’ll be performing unsupported rows by keeping the weights very tight to your body, with at least some of the journey happening right under your body. But with suitcase rows, you’ll aim to keep the weight to the side of your body the whole time for an added core challenge.
Benefits of the Suitcase Row
- As their name implies, this row variation carries a lot of real-world significance — when you have to pick up ungainly objects, you also often have to keep them to the side of your body.
- Suitcase rows allow an already unilateral move to become even more isolated on one side, which is great for combating imbalances.
- You’ll perform this move while maintaining an isometric hip hinge, which helps you develop stronger hamstrings, glutes, and low back.
How to Do the Suitcase Row
Set up with your feet hip-width apart. Place a kettlebell or dumbbell on the outside of your left foot. Hinge at the hips until your left hand can pick up the weight. Maintain a hip hinge with your torso roughly parallel to the ground. Perform the row while keeping the weight to the left side of your body the whole time. Keep your elbow tucked just outside your body. Lower with control. Repeat for reps and switch sides.
Advanced Single-Arm Rows
These single-arm rows aren’t for the faint of heart — nor the small of back. You’ll want to start these with fairly sufficient back strength, but that’s not the only thing you need to bring to the table. You’ll also need a great hip hinge and excellent sense of balance to pull these rows off.
The bird dog row takes a classic bodyweight exercise — the bird dog — and kicks it up a few notches. You’ll balance yourself with your hand and opposite knee on a flat weight bench, which is tough enough to begin with. Then, you’ll perform rows.
If you need to build up the confidence to do this move, practice performing a rowing motion on the ground during an isometric bird dog. That way, when you do the move on an actual bench, you’ll have a better idea of what it will feel like. You’ll also know more about how to balance without tipping off the edge of the bench.
Benefits of the Bird Dog Row
- You’ll take your balance to a whole new level with this variation, especially when you perform it on a weight bench.
- The stakes will be very high for maintaining square hips and shoulders — you’ll tip over if you don’t — so it’s a great opportunity to build your anti-rotational core strength.
- Bird dog rows challenge your entire body to stay cued in to maintain your balance, so they offer excellent form refreshers for all row variations.
How to Do the Bird Dog Row
Place a light dumbbell on a flat bench beneath you. Set up roughly in plank position on the bench. Place your hands under your shoulders. Position your knees under your hips. Ground down into your left knee and right hand for balance. When ready, slowly extend your right leg out and back behind you. With your left hand, pick up the dumbbell. Establish your balance. Perform a row with control. Maintain squared hips and shoulders. Repeat for reps and switch sides.
If you’re an advanced lifter, you’ve likely performing Romanian deadlifts — the deadlift variation that stops at shin-level. You’ve also probably performing single-leg Romanian deadlifts, which is where one leg leaves the ground to float out and back behind you during the lift.
This single-arm row variation combines those exercises with the row. You’ll get into a single-leg Romanian deadlift position — with one leg out behind you — and perform rows. Your sense of balance will both curse you and thank you.
Benefits of the Romanian Deadlift Single-Arm Row
- By performing an isometric single-leg Romanian deadlift, you’ll be strengthening your hamstrings, glutes, and lower back during your row.
- Your sense of balance and coordination will benefit tremendously from this challenge.
- This is a great move to include on days when you don’t have a lot of time to work out and want to exercise your full-body as efficiently as possible.
How to Do the Romanian Deadlift Single-Arm Row
Set up with your feet hip-width apart. Hold a dumbbell in your left hand. Ground down into your right foot for balance. Slowly hinge at the hips to send your left leg out and back behind you. Hinge until your torso is roughly parallel to the ground. Reestablish your balance. Hold that position and perform a row. Repeat for reps. Switch sides.
This one doesn’t necessarily require extraordinary balance like the other advanced variations. But it will call on all your technique, raw strength, and restraint. The Kroc row — innovated by powerlifting and bodybuilding legend Janae Marie Kroc — is similar in set-up to your usual bench-supported single-arm row. But her version will have you using a lot of disciplined body English to heft even more weight.
By intentionally and strategically cheating your form, you’ll be able to lift a lot more weight. This allows your back to gain a lot more unilateral bang for its buck. Plus, you’ll be developing disciplined but explosive power in your lats.
Benefits of the Kroc Row
- You’ll be training like the legend herself to develop massive back strength.
- By lifting more than you would normally be able to, you’re preparing your body to hold and handle much bigger weights.
- The Kroc row will also help you eke out more reps than you normally could, which maximizes your muscle-building potential.
How to Do the Kroc Row
Set up with your knee and free hand braced under you on a bench — as you would for a regular dumbbell row. Let the dumbbell hang toward the ground until you feel your lats stretch and load. Keep your core tight. Initiate an explosive pull with your lats. Use your working side and hips to help you explode the weight upward. Let the weight settle back down. Repeat.
Muscles Worked by Single-Arm Row Variations
Different row variations are going to provide different emphasis for your muscles. For example, some variations will recruit even more core stability while others isolate your lats to greater or lesser degrees. But in general, these are the muscles that single-arm row variations will hit most directly.
Your lats are the big triangular muscle that continues down the entire length of your back. When your form is right, your lats will be the primary puller during single-arm row variations.
Especially when you’re performing rows in a hinged position — think suitcase rows and Romanian deadlift rows — your lower back will help stabilize you. Except for Kroc rows, you’ll mostly want to keep your low back still during single-arm rows. Your spinal erectors will help you do just that.
Your scapula — AKA, your shoulder blades — help you stabilize your shoulder joint during single-arm rows. You’ll keep them contracted throughout the movement to keep your shoulders still and protected. This stabilization will strengthen your scaps quite a bit.
Forearms and Biceps
Though your arms aren’t the main target of back training, they’ll definitely get stronger the heavier and harder you go. Your biceps kick in to assist you in your pulls, while your forearms are responsible for keeping your wrists steady and your grip strong.
How to Program Single-Arm Row Variations
The way you program different variations will depend on your exact goals and also which move you’ve selected. For example, even as an advanced lifter, you don’t want to load bird dog rows as heavily as you load up Kroc rows. Rows that focus more on balance are more likely to be used for endurance instead of strength-building. That said, you can play around with different rep schemes according to your goals and what works best for your body.
- For Strength: Perform three to four sets of six to eight reps per side.
- For Muscle-Building: Do two to three sets of eight to 12 reps per side, approaching failure with each set.
- For Endurance: Opt for three to four sets of 12 to 15 reps per side.
Make sure you’re adjusting your weights accordingly. Even if you’re challenging your endurance with Kroc rows, you won’t want to go as heavy as you would when deploying that move for strength or muscle-building.
Single-arm rows might be exactly the thing your back training has been lacking. You might be great with a barbell — but if your progress has stalled, a lack of unilateral training might be the culprit. Strengthening both sides of your back separately can work wonders for improving your deadlift, barbell rows, pull-ups, and other big posterior chain moves. Diversifying your back day with single-arm row variations can help you even out your imbalances and bust through even the toughest plateaus.
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