The Dumbbell Row is a Classic Muscle-Building Exercise

Conquer one of the best unilateral back exercises for strength and size.

The single-arm dumbbell row is one of those exercises that won’t go out of style. It’s simple as heck to do — you literally kneel on a bench and row your arm to your side — and it requires just a dumbbell to load the movement. It’s also a unilateral exercise, meaning it trains one side of your body at a time. Single-arm moves help to even out muscular imbalances and burn more calories over time since you’re essentially doubling up your workload. 

While you grow your upper back and lats, your lower back and core will work hard to stabilize your torso. There’s a reason bodybuilders like Arnold Schwarzenegger and powerlifters like Janae Kroczaleski make them a mainstay in their routines — they’re brutal and effective for building mass and size. In this article, we will go through everything you need to know about the dumbbell row, including:

Dumbbell Row Video Guide

Looking to take your back training to the next level? Learn about the dumbbell row in the video below, featuring BarBend‘s former Training Editor Jake Boly

How to Do the Dumbbell Row

The dumbbell row doesn’t let you lift the most amount of weight possible — if that’s your goal for back training, stick with the barbell bent-over row and Pendlay row — but it does let you load one side of your body to isolate specific muscles. Here’s how to do it. 

Step 1 — Grip and Set the Back

Dumbbell Row Set Your Back

Stand perpendicularly next to a training bench and place a dumbbell next to it on the side you plan to row. Place your non-rowing hand and your same-side knee on the bench, with your other foot firmly planted on the ground. Tense your back so that it’s completely flat. Now, reach down with your free hand to grab a dumbbell. Reset yourself, so your back is straight once again.

Form Tip: Drive your non-rowing hand into the bench to create more full-body tension. 

Step 2 — Initiate the Row 

Dumbbell Row Row the Weight

 

Do not row the weight with your shoulder. Your shoulders should remain relaxed. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and lead the row with your elbow. Pretend you’re starting a lawnmower. Your elbow should be pulled past your torso, and the dumbbell should be nearly touching your hip. 

Form Tip: If you do these correctly, you should feel a lot of the tension in your lats, on the side of your back. 

Step 3 — Lower the Weight

Dumbbell Row Initiate the Row

 

Once you have reached the top position, maximally contract the back muscles to increase muscle engagement. This should occur on every repetition. Once you have felt the back contract aggressively, lower the load in the same slightly arching motion it was lifted and repeat.

Form Tip: When lowering the weight, do not lose tension in the back muscles.

Benefits of the Dumbbell Row

Here are three benefits you’ll get from adding the dumbbell row into your training routine

Stronger Back and Grip

The dumbbell row is a key back-building exercise for lifters, athletes, and general fitness goers alike. You can do dumbbell rows to develop back strength and muscle hypertrophy, with additional benefits of increased grip and biceps development when done in higher training volumes.

Improved Posture

The dumbbell row can help to increase back strength and posture, as it develops many muscle groups that retract the shoulder blades. Individuals who slouch, sit at a desk, and round forward during sets of deadlifts can all integrate back exercises like the dumbbell row to help strengthen the back and improve posture.

Application to Competitive Strength Lifts

The dumbbell row targets the back, grip muscles, and arms. Those muscle groups are responsible for assisting in movements like squats, deadlifts, bench pressing, and maintaining positional strength in Olympic lifts. Stronger back muscles can ultimately lead to better lifts overall.

Muscles Worked by the Dumbbell Row

The dumbbell row is a back exercise that stresses high amounts of muscle tissues when performed correctly in the back, biceps, and forearms. The list below covers the primary and secondary muscles worked when performing dumbbell rows.

Dumbbell Row Set Up Variation

Latissimus Dorsi 

The lats are a large triangular muscle that spans the entire length of your back. A strong back helps you in nearly every single endeavor as a lifter and an upright human. 

Spinal Erectors

The spinal erectors, aka the lower back, work to assist in stabilizing the spine during the dumbbell row, as you’re hinged and arched for the entire movement. This row variation can challenge the erectors on a unilateral basis as well.

Scapular Stabilizers 

Single-arm dumbbell rows require that your shoulder blades (aka the scapula) are squeezed together to prevent your shoulder joints from moving. Since they’re contracted for the duration of the exercise, the smaller stabilizer muscles of the scapula gain a lot of strength. Considering strong and stable scaps are important for just about every pulling exercise, it’s an important area to target. 

Forearms and Biceps 

The muscles or the arm work to grip the dumbbell and assist in the pulling movement (elbow flexion). Note that a proper row should not use the biceps to initiate the movement, but rather that lats. That said, high rep rows can work to build arm strength and muscle development.

Who Should Do the Dumbbell Row?

Below are some reasons why strength, power, and fitness athletes can benefit from performing dumbbell rows.

Strength and Power Athletes

Improved back strength and mass can directly apply to pulling, squatting, carrying, and pressing movements. 

  • Powerlifters and Strongmen/Strongwomen: Movements like deadlifts, squats, and carries are dependent on strong back and grip muscles. Performing dumbbell rows and other accessory exercises can help to increase lean body mass, improve posture, and lay a foundation for strength.
  • Olympic Weightlifters: Olympic weightlifters rely on the back muscles to maintain strength and positions in the squat, clean and jerk, and snatch. While training those specific movements is key to the overall development of a weightlifter, dumbbell rows can be trained regularly to improve lean muscle mass, grip strength, and back development.

Fitness Athletes

Competitive CrossFit and fitness athletes can benefit from dumbbell rows as they address unilateral back strength, improve posture over time, and enhance upper body hypertrophy. Lifters who struggle with pulling movements like deadlifts, pull-ups, upper-body strength, and endurance can use dumbbell rows to develop such attributes.

General Population

Any lifter at any level can reap the same benefits mentioned above by working dumbbell rows into their workout split

Dumbbell Row Sets, Reps, and Programming Recommendations

Below, we list three ways to program dumbbell rows into your routine depending on your goal. 

Dumbbell Row Variation

To Gain Muscle

Gaining muscle is about moderate volume with moderate weight. Try performing three to five sets of eight to 12 or 15-20 repetitions with a moderate to heavy load. You should also consider playing around with your lifting tempo to manipulate your time under tension. 

To Gain Strength

Once you feel comfortable performing dumbbell rows, you can up the weight and slowly reduce the reps to focus on strength gains. Start by performing four to six sets of four to eight repetitions with very challenging loads. Also, this is a great set and rep scheme to do with the chest-supported row variations below.

To Improve Muscle Endurance

If you’re looking to condition your back and arm muscles, you can perform two to three sets of 20 to 30 reps with a moderate load. The grip will be a limiting factor here, so wear lifting straps if you’re looking to target the back.

Dumbbell Row Variations

Below are two dumbbell row variations to build strength, hypertrophy, and improve pulling performance.

Dumbbell Renegade Row

The renegade dumbbell row is a unilateral row done in a plank position — reinforcing core stability, scapular strength, and total body coordination. This exercise demands the core muscles (obliques) and can increase both back and core strength.

Incline Bench Dumbbell Row

The incline bench dumbbell row can be done by lying prone on an incline bench so that the chest is facing downwards at a 30-45 degree angle. By placing the body on the bench, you minimize stress and/or muscular demands to stabilize and support the body and load in the bent-over position.

This can be beneficial to minimize additional strain on the back and hips. This position can also help to maximize back strength and development by minimizing any limitations one may have due to fatigue when supporting themselves in the bent-over position.

Dumbbell Row Alternatives

Below are three dumbbell row alternatives that can be used to improve back strength, muscle hypertrophy, and posture.

Bent-Over Barbell Row

The Bent-Over barbell row is a standard row movement that develops back strength and size and improves pulling performance. This row variation is done with a barbell, which allows for a heavier load to be lifted. If you’re looking to improve your strength, this is a great variation. 

Trap-Bar Seal Row

The seal row is a chest-supported row variation that targets the back muscles while minimizing the hamstring, glutes, and lower back involvement. This is as close to a back isolation movement as you can get, and using the trap bar ensures a more comfortable, wrist-friendly grip (which also allows for more weight lifted). 

Meadows Row

Named after pro bodybuilder and coach John Meadows, the Meadows row utilizes a unique angle and hand placement to build immense back strength and size. The increased range of motion allows lifters to better squeeze and stretch the lats to further promote muscular damage and growth.

FAQs

What's a beginner mistake to avoid when doing dumbbell rows?

Too often, people perform rows in which they allow their chest and shoulders to hunch awards, which do not effectively hit the back muscles, and reinforces a slouched posture.

What is the benefit of doing a one-arm row vs. a two-arm row?

Performing two arm rows allows you to train the back in less time. However, the one-arm row allows you to often train with heavier loads, train closer to failure, and not be limited by hamstrings and lower back positional strength (as you can use your other arm as a support structure).

If you find you do rows but do not feel the back muscles fatiguing out first (not the lower back, but the middle and upper back muscle fibers), try one-arm rows in a supported position. If you want to do two-arm rows, try performing the chest supported two-arm row option from above.

What's the best method to build muscle with dumbbell rows?

Do sets of 15 to 30 reps with moderate weight. If you can perform more than 30 reps with ease, the weight is too light. For best results, try to perform perfect reps to complete failure, with no more than 20-30 reps per set. If you can do more than this, try adding some weight or add pauses and slow-tempo reps.