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November 15, 2022 8 min read

Aesthetics and turning heads play a significant role in the reason strength builders work so hard to get a perfectly sculpted body. It is therefore not unusual for some to focus on the muscles they can see in the mirror.

However, what people see as you walk away is as important as what they see when you approach.

A balanced physique requires the same amount of attention to all muscle groups, which can also provide an injury-free, functional life.

One of the best back workouts is the bent-over dumbbell row. It has been part of iron pumping for many years, and it remains an exercise that guarantees to increase your pulling strength by adding mass to your back.

For optimal results, bent over rows must be performed with proper form, which might take a while to master if you are a beginner. However, bent over rows offer multiple benefits — like better trunk stability and posture — that will lower your risk of injury over time.

Barbell bent over rows is the more traditional form of this back exercise, but many variations of the bent over row exists inlcuding resistance bands, dumbbells, kettlebells, and machines are some resistance tools you can use for bent over rows.

This versatility makes it possible for people with back pain or other issues to add bent over rows to their workout routines without restrictions.

Furthermore, using dumbbells instead of a barbell allows you to address muscle imbalances in your upper body because you can pay additional attention to underdeveloped muscles.

Bent over dumbbell rows are also great compound exercises, and although it is not a full-body exercise, the muscles of your entire upper body get involved in the muscle-juggling of this back exercise. The dumbbell rows strengthen the muscles in your back, arms, shoulders, and more, while also building core stability.

What Muscles do Bent-Over Dumbbell Rows Work?

Although the bent-over dumbbell rows primarily target the upper and mid-back muscles, they also strengthen the arms and shoulders.

1. Latissimus Dorsi

Latissimus Dorsi – Image from Shutterstock

Your lats run down the sides of your back and receive most of the muscle-building benefits of dumbbell rows. However, if you lead with your elbows, and cover the entire range of motions with your elbows clearing your back, your shoulders will benefit as much.

2. Rhomboids, Trapezius and Posterior Deltoids

The muscles in your upper back responsible for pulling your shoulder blades together and down are the trapezius and the rhomboids. The next muscle group that assists in rowing the weight of the dumbbells and pulling your shoulder blades together and back is the posterior deltoids.

Upper-back Muscles - Image from Shutterstock

Even when you're not rowing, engaging the trapezius and rhomboids to pull the shoulder blades together helps prevent slouched, rounded shoulders. Furthermore, retracted shoulders provide a solid base from which your arm and back muscles can generate force and provide stability, thereby limiting injury risks during your bent over dumbbell row workout routine.

PRO TIP: Keep your shoulders retracted throughout this exercise.

3. Biceps Brachii

Your biceps brachii, or biceps for short, are located on the front of your upper arm and flexes your elbow by contracting as your arm bends. As a secondary mover in this exercise, your biceps assist the rowing movement, but you should not feel most of the burn in them.

Biceps Brachii – Image from Shutterstock

Ideally, you should feel minimal involvement from the biceps because they merely facilitate the elbow movement. A weight that is too heavy might be the cause if the biceps involvement feels really strong.

PRO TIP: Visualize the shoulder blades squeezing together and the contraction of the rhomboids at the top of the row to help minimize the role you allow the biceps to play.

4. Erector Spinae

This muscle group’s primary function is to maintain your spinal alignment in the hinged bent-over position. The erector spinae is a muscle group comprising eight muscles stretched between the back of your skull and your pelvis, stabilizing the spine.

Erector Spinae – Image from Shutterstock

As you complete each dumbbell row, your spine is under load and in a hip-hinged position, which could be compromising if this muscle group was not strong enough to protect the spine. Therefore, working the spinal erectors is crucial for optimal lumbar flexion resistance and reducing injury risks.

5. Transverse Abdominis

The transverse abdominis muscle is the deepest of the six abdominal muscles. Extending from your ribs to your pelvis, it wraps around your trunk from front to back with the muscle fibers running horizontally. It is comparable to a back support belt working on bracing your spine and stabilizing your torso.

Transverse Abdominis – Image from Shutterstock

The transverse abdominis works together with the erector spinae to cover your entire core and minimize the chances of your lower back dipping, which could lead to back injuries.

How to Do Dumbbell Rows with Proper Form

The dumbbell bent over row is a rowing exercise that requires you to hinge your hips and lifts two dumbbells while keeping your back straight. You must lift the dumbbells with a neutral grip and use a pulling movement that activates a variety of muscles in your shoulders, upper back, arm, and core.

Starting position:

Grab a pair of dumbbells and stand tall with slightly bent knees and your feet hip-width apart. Your shoulders and hips must be in line and tuck your chin as if you are holding an egg to ensure your head and neck remain in a neutral position. Hold this position throughout the exercise.

Distribute your weight evenly and dig down with your feet to ensure a stable position. Your grip on the dumbbells should be neutral, meaning your hand palms must face each other. Your arms, with slightly bent elbows, should hang down by your sides.

Maintain a neutral spine and hinge at your hips and push your butt backward so that your upper body is at a 30- to 45-degree angle and your shins vertical. You should feel your legs working to support your position. Rotate your shoulders outward to engage your lats.

Start all repetitions from this position.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Squeeze your lats — the muscles stretching down the sides of your upper back — to initiate the upward movement of the bent over dumbbell row. Using your arms and back, pull the dumbbells up and toward your hips with your elbows maintaining a 45-degree angle with your body.

  2. Retract your shoulder blades as you pull the dumbbells toward the outside of your thighs. Keep your elbows forming a 90-degree angle and your upper arms in line with your upper body.

  3. Without losing your rowing alignment, lower the dumbbells by protracting your shoulder blades and straightening your elbows to return to the starting position.

Reps and sets:

Base your sets and repetitions on your ability to maintain perfect form and technique throughout the entire range of motion and all the reps. Aim for performing 2 to 3 sets of 8 to12 repetitions at first.

Finish your workout with cool-down stretches

Cool-down stretches lower your chance of injury and bring your body temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure levels back down to their normal levels.

You could recover smarter with a recovery aid like BCAAS-EAAS, to ensure maximum muscle growth efficiency, so you can keep your gains and build your muscles back bigger and faster.

Personal Trainer Tips for Perfect Bent-Over Dumbbell Row Form

Using the proper form and technique to perform dumbbell bent over rows is crucial, not only to prevent injuries but also to ensure you work the targeted muscles.

1. Hip Movement

While performing a dumbbell bent over row, you effectively put your weight in your heels while holding a dumbbell deadlift position. If you struggle to keep your hips back, position yourself with a wall behind you. You can then focus on keeping your butt against the wall throughout.

2. Maintaining a Flat Back

Maintaining your back still and flat throughout the bent over dumbbell row exercise is a crucial safety precaution. Although the perfect form is to hold your torso parallel to the floor, you might feel unstable at first. Start with leaning forward as far as you can to maintain a flat, stationary back.

However, don’t allow yourself to rock up and down as you row the dumbbells because you will soon be using momentum instead of muscle power to do the exercise.

3. Brace your Core

Arching your spine is a sure sign of improper form, putting excessive stress on your lower back. The core muscle to activate to tighten your core is the transverse abdominis. Tightening your abs as if you’re bracing for a punch to the gut will activate the transverse abdominis to stabilize your upper body in the bent-over rowing position.

4. Use Your Shoulder Blades

The retraction and protraction of your shoulder blades as described above help you target your mid- and upper back muscles, including your rhomboids and both lower- and upper traps. It also prevents scrunching of the muscles around your neck. Retracting your shoulder blades promotes activation of your posterior deltoids or rear shoulder muscles.

5. Excessive Weight

Using heavier weights won’t necessarily accelerate your muscle-building process. Unless you are experienced and have built shoulder and back strength, heavy weights will sooner cause injuries than stronger muscles.

6. Use the full range of motion

Your arm movements play the primary role in the bent-over dumbbell rows. It is vital to extend your arms fully at the bottom of the row to ensure optimal activation of your back muscles.

7. Don’t over-row

For proper engagement of your back muscles, you must not lift the dumbbells higher than your waist. Many people over-row by pulling the dumbbell up to their armpits, making the exercise less effective.

8. Try Different Dumbbell Row Variations

To get optimal benefits from dumbbell rowing, try out different dumbbell row variations. However, you should wait until you have mastered the form and technique of the bent over dumbbell row.

One option for increasing the challenge of the bent over dumbbell row is doing the single-arm version to isolate one side of your back at a time.

Benefits of bent over dumbbell rows

1. Functional Strength

The movement pattern of the bent over dumbbell row is similar to those you use in your day-to-day activities. Performing the exercise requires the use of multiple muscles and the use of almost all your joints, including your shoulders, elbows, hips, knees, and ankles. Therefore, it builds functional strength.

2. Improved Posture

If you spend hours each day sitting hunched over a desk, your chest muscles adapt to the position and become shorter. Similarly, your upper back muscles remain stretched for most of the day, causing them to become longer.

A proper balance between your front and back is crucial for good posture. Therefore, any exercise like the dumbbell bent over row that stretches your chest muscles and contracts your back muscles is great for improving your posture.

3. Building Strong Muscles

Strong upper-back muscles – Image from Shutterstock

Bent-over dumbbell rows help you build strong muscles all over. Although it emphasizes upper body and back muscles like the posterior deltoids, latissimus dorsi, teres major, rhomboids, and trapezius, the exercise activates many other muscles.

As a comprehensive workout, the bent over dumbbell rows also works the muscles in your core, lower back, chest, arms, and glutes.

4. Core Stability

Core stability is a requirement in just about every exercise you do. Being a compound exercise that works multiple core muscles, the bent over dumbbell row is great for engaging your entire core, front and back, as you brace your core throughout the exercise. A tight, contracted core is the most important form when performing this exercise. One of the important tasks of the core in this exercise is to prevent lower back damage.

5. Increase Grip Strength

Dumbbell rows are perfect for building enough grip strength to improve your performance and safety when you lift heavier weights like bench presses and deadlifts. They also serve as excellent warm-ups before other compound exercises.

Conclusion

The bent over dumbbell row is an excellent exercise for building strong back muscles, but they also improve hip and trunk stability. However, safety should always take preference. if you experience back pain while performing dumbbell rows or if you’re unable to maintain a straight back during this movement, don’t proceed. Instead, try either the supported one-arm dumbbell row or the incline bench row.

If you experience back or shoulder pain when you perform bent-over dumbbell rows, put the dumbbells down and arrange a consultation with your physical therapist or physician.

Start with lightweight dumbbells, perform the rows slowly, and maintain proper form. Adding the bent over dumbbell row to your strength training program can improve your posture, and your back strength, while limiting your injury risks.