4 Single Arm Row Variations to Build a Serious Upper Back

More unilateral strength = more bilateral strength

Big bilateral row exercises, like the bent over barbell rows, lat pulldowns, and seated rows often get all the love and attention while single arm rows get neglected or forgotten about.

That’s a shame, because unilateral rows have many particular benefits, which include

  • Decreases strength imbalances between sides
  • Trains your anti rotation core muscles, which in turn can protect the lower back
  • Gives your joints a break from the barbell

When you create instability and change your body position during single arm rows you’ll improve your form, increase your strength in the upper back, and get in some great core work.

Here are 4 lesser known single arm variations that deserve a primetime spot in your routine.

1. Birddog Row 

This is one of the toughest single arm rows around. The birddog position on the bench reduces your stability, which helps you dial in pulling technique. Any faulty technique, movement dysfunction, or flawed muscle activation patterns will result in losing your balance.

Plus, it’s an isometric birddog, which builds anti-rotational stability and is great for the lower back and core.

Form Tips And Programming Suggestions

If you cannot perform a birddog without any compensations then don’t attempt this exercise. Given its instability, it might be smart to use 50-60 % of the weight you usually use for your single arm rows, but only lift with weight that guarantees good form.

As this exercise relies heavily on your external obliques (you’ll see when you do it) pairing in with a Pallof press will really test your core. For example,

  • 1A. Birddog Row – 8 reps each side
  • 1B. Split Stance Pallof Press – 8 reps each side

[Related: The Birddog is one of these 3 core exercises you should consider doing daily]

2. Deadstop Row

The Deadstop row has two benefits:

  1. The stop on the floor gives your joints a quick break and allows you to use a heavier weight.
  2. Stopping and pausing on the floor takes away the stretch reflex of the muscle, so you work slightly harder on the concentric part of the lift.

You’re also in the hinge position, so you’re helping to strengthen the lower back and core muscles

Form Tips And Programming Suggestions

Better to use a weight bench for support than the dumbbell rack because you’ll be getting in the way of the other lifters. Get into a good hinge position and feel the stress in your hamstrings, not your low back. Don’t bounce or slam the dumbbell into the ground, lower it with control.

Pairing this with a single arm press variation will have just about all your upper body needs taken care off.  For example,

  • 1A. Deadstop Row 8-12 reps each side
  • 1B. Single arm floor Press 6-8 reps each side

3. RDL Row

Because of the reduced points of contact and the feedback you’ll receive if done incorrectly, this is a little similar to the birddog row. Being in the RDL position makes this like a full body exercise because you’ll be training your glutes, hamstrings (isometrically) and single leg balance.  

If you have trouble with your single leg RDL, this exercise will help improve it because you’ll be spending more time there.

Form Tips And Programming Suggestions

Start with 50-60% of your usual rowing weight until you dial in your form and technique. Make sure you get into a good single leg hinge without the hips rotating to one side and perform this in a slow and controlled manner, so as to not lose your balance.

If you love training legs, paring this with a split squat will have you feeling the burn. For example,

1A.  RDL Row – 8 reps on each side

1B.  Bodyweight Split Squat – 12-15 reps on each side

4. Half Kneeling Lat Pulldown

The half kneeling position itself is a fantastic position to train hip mobility (hip flexors, glutes) core stability, and balance. When you add movement it trains them even more, in addition to the body part you’re training.  

Pulling from a half kneeling position gives you instant feedback on your pulling form because any hitch in your giddy up will result in a loss of balance. Lucky for you, you’re close to the ground.

Form Tips And Programming Suggestions

Get into a half kneeling position with your glutes engaged and ribs down. When you’re pulling, keep your shoulder down, chest up and when extending the arm during the eccentric, reach at the end to give the serratus anterior some extra attention.

Pairing with a non-competing exercise that needs hip mobility is a great superset. For example,

1A. Barbell Squat Variation – 6-8 reps

1B. Half Kneeling Lat Pulldown – 8-12 reps on each side

 [Related: Why you should try lifting weights from a kneeling position]

Wrapping Up

Single arm rows need to play a starring role in your accessory exercise routine because of all the carryover benefits they have in and out of the gym. Plus, they train the biceps.

Like you needed an excuse.

Featured image via Ajan Alen/Shutterstock

Shane McLean

Shane McLean

Shane McLean is a Certified Personal Trainer who’s worked with a wide variety of clients, from the general population client all the way to ex-Navy seals and college athletes.

Shane is a big believer in seeing exercise as a gift for the body and never a punishment — exercise should be as enjoyable as possible and never just a “work” out.

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