Dumbbell Row Guide

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

The dumbbell row is an upper body back exercise that can increase overall strength and muscle mass of the back muscles, increase arm strength and hypertrophy, and improve pulling performance.

In this article, we will go through everything you need to know about the dumbbell row, including:

  • Dumbbell Row Form and Technique
  • Benefits of the Dumbbell Row
  • Muscles Worked by the Dumbbell Row
  • Who Should Do the Dumbbell Row
  • Dumbbell Row Sets, Reps, and Programming Recommendations
  • Dumbbell Row Variations and Alternatives

How to Perform the Dumbbell Row: Step-By-Step Guide

Below is a step-by-step guide on how to perform the dumbbell row in the supported double arm variation. Further below we will discuss a wide variety of variations and dumbbell row alternatives.

Grip and Set the Back

Grip the dumbbell with a full grip, one in each hand. Once you are standing erect, push your hips back and load the hamstrings and glutes as you assume a bent over position, similar to that of other bent over rows/deadlifting movements.

Make sure you start with a weight that is manageable to move with proper back and hip angles. The stance chosen should be similar to what is used in your deadlift, but it may vary. Find the stance that feels most comfortable and allows your to maintain a strong hip hinge and set back.

Coach’s Tip: You can rotate your palms (palms forwards, palms facing you, or palms backwards) to place more emphasis on the back vs biceps.

Initiate the Row

With the back set, pull the elbows slightly back towards the hips and upwards, so that the forearm is perpendicular to the floor.

Do not pull the load directly vertical, but rather slightly back and up, which will match the lat muscle fiber’s angle better than pulling straight up.

Coach’s Tip: Be sure not to over row the dumbbell upwards. Many lifters will pull too high and allow the shoulders to collapse forwards as the load is lifted. Rather, be sure to keep the shoulders pulled back the higher the load is lifted.

Squeeze the Back, Lower, and Repeat

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.

Work to keep tension on the back throughout the entirety of the set.

Coach’s Tip: When lowering the weight, do not lose tension in the back muscles.

3 Benefits of the Dumbbell Row

The dumbbell row offers immense benefits for beginners and athletes alike. Below are three of these benefits.

1. Stronger Back and Grip

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

2. Improved Posture

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

3. Application to Competitive Strength Lifts

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

Muscles Worked – 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.

  • Latissimus Dorsi (back)
  • Posterior Shoulder, Rhomboids, Scapular Stabilizers
  • Forearms and Biceps (grip and some pulling)
  • Spinal Erectors
  • Hamstrings and Glutes (positioning)

Who Should Perform Dumbbell Rows?

Below are a few groups of athletes that can benefit from including dumbbell rows within training programs.

1. Strength and Power Athletes

Improved back strength and mass can have direct application to pulling, squatting, carrying, and pressing movements. Dumbbell rows can be an effective training exercise for such goals.

  • Powerlifting and Strongman Athletes: Movements like deadlifts, squats, and carries all 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 Weightlifting: Olympic weightlifters rely on the back muscles to maintain strength and positions in the squat, clean, snatch, and jerk. While training those specific movements is key to overall development of a lifter, dumbbell rows can be trained regularly to improve lean muscle mass, grip strength, and back development.

2. Competitive CrossFit and 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.

3. Sports Training and General Fitness

In addition to the above strength, muscle hypertrophy, and upper body performance benefits, back training can improve grip strength and posture. Dumbbell rows are a great option for those looking to attack unilateral development and/or have limited access to machines/train from home gyms.

Dumbbell Row Sets, Reps, and Weight Recommendations

Below are two primary sets, reps, and weight (intensity) recommendations for coaches and athletes to properly program the dumbbell row specific to the training goal. Note, that the below guidelines are simply here to offer coaches and athletes loose recommendations for programming.

Muscle Hypertrophy – Reps, Sets, and Weight Recommendations

The dumbbell row can be trained in a variety of repetition ranges. The back muscles can perform high amounts of loading and volume, allowing lifters to train across the repetition spectrum for size and strength.

It is suggested that lifters experiment with various repetition schemes and loading to determine which works best for their fiber types.

  • 4-5 sets of 8-12 or 15-20 repetitions with a moderate to heavy load.
  • Tempos, pauses, and eccentrics can be done throughout the range of motion to induce additional muscular damage and hypertrophy.

Strength – Reps, Sets, and Weight Recommendations

For developing back strength, heavy rows can be done once a lifter has established proper coordination and control of the lower back and hips in the bent position.

Additionally, some of the variations below like the chest supported row and/or seal row can be good options for building back strength as the lifter is not dependent on supporting their lower back and hips; allowing them to focus fully on moving loads with the back.

  • 4-6 sets of 4-8 repetitions with very challenging loads.
  • The dumbbell row can be done with heavy loads as long as the lower back is flat. With more advanced lifters, some momentum can be used to overload the back muscles and increase upper body and grip strength.

2 Dumbbell Row Variations

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

1. 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 is very demanding on the core muscles (obliques) and can be used to increase both back and core strength.

Press Up and Get Hollow

Begin by placing two dumbbells or kettlebells under the shoulders in a standard push-up position. Contract the glutes and the belly to create a hollow posture.

Coach’s Tip: Conquer the plank and stay light to ensure proper form is utilized.

Take a Breath, Set the Back, and Row

Take a deep breath, then row one one dumbbell upwards by contracting the lat. Avoid opening the shoulders and swinging the dumbbell up.

Once you row the dumbbell, contract the lats and upper back, then lower it in a controlled manner and repeat the process on the opposite side.

Coach’s Tip: Start light and build form, as this is a technique upper body and core movement.

2. Incline Bench Dumbbell Row

The incline chest supported 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 can also help to maximize back strength and development by minimizing any limitations one may have due to fatigue when supporting themselves in the standard bent over position.

3 Dumbbell Row Alternatives

Below are three (3) dumbbell row alternatives that can be used to improve back strength, muscle hypertrophy, and posture.

1. Barbell Row

The barbell row is a standard row movement that develops back strength, size, and improves pulling performance. This row variation is done with a barbell, and can be done using a variety of bent over angles to target different positions.

Grip the Bar, Set the Back

Grip the barbell with a grip that’s similar in width to your deadlift, or slightly wider. Once you’ve established your grip, lift the bar off the ground and bend over maintaining a strong set back and hip hinge. 

Make sure you start with a weight that is manageable to move with proper back and hip angles. The stance chosen should be similar to what is used in your deadlift, but it may vary. Find the stance that feels most comfortable and allows your to maintain a strong hip hinge and set back.

Initiate the Row

Once your stance, grip, and back/hip angle are established, then it’s time to initiate the row. When beginning the pull, think about bringing the elbows back as if you’re starting a lawnmower, and focus on utilizing the latissimus dorsi to move the weight. 

Coaching Tip: If the weight is causing you to drop your chest or the elbows are flaring, then it may be too heavy and the weight used should be scaled back. 

Squeeze the Back, Begin the Descend

At the top of the movement, squeeze the full upper back and contract the lats without breaking your hip angle and set back. Think about pulling the barbell fully to the body to ensure you’re fully contracting the upper torso’s musculature. 

Coaching Tip: If you’re looking to improve hypertrophy with the barbell by increasing time under tension, then try adding a pause at the top of the movement (full row), or slow down the eccentric (lowering portion). 

2. 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 ideal for lifters looking to not be limited by lower back/hamstrings strength and/or with people who cannot assume the proper bent over position.

Using a trap bar, can further increase range of motion in the pull, while also allowing a more neutral grip to improve pulling strength.

3. Meadows Row

Named after Jim Meadows, bodybuilder and EliteFTS advisor; this row utilizes a unique angle and hand placement to build immense back strength and size. The additional increased range or motion allows lifters to get a better squeeze and lat stretch to further promote muscular damage and growth.

Wrapping Up

The dumbbell row is a fundamental back exercise that is beneficial for every lifter to conquer. Whether you’re trying to improve your back’s size or strength, the dumbbell row is a great training option to do so.

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