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September 06, 2020 10 min read

Bent over barbell rows, bent-over rows, Meadows row, upright rows—sometimes the list of rows seem endless—but that doesn’t make them any less important.

The row is an important and fundamental movement that’s an essential addition to everyone’s training routine. But today, we’ll be focusing on the one-arm dumbbell row.

While all rows will develop the backside, the single-arm dumbbell row has some special benefits that can complement your other rows or other movements on back day. With five different joint movements taking place in this one simple exercise, the movement is a must-have for any serious gym-goer's exercise repertoire.

Muscles Worked by the Single-Arm Dumbbell Row

As a compound exercise, there are several muscle groups that this row engages. The primary one, the star of the show (when it comes to rows), are the latissimus dorsi, or lats. 

These fan-shaped muscles sit on each side of your back, spanning from the mid to lower back. These wing-shaped muscles are primarily responsible for pulling actions when you’re bringing your arms closer to your body and bringing them inward. If you want that much sought-after v-shape to your torso, you’re gonna want big lats.

Second are the trapezius, also known as the traps. These two triangle-shaped muscles are located at the top of your shoulders, running along your upper spine and fanning out. The traps are essential when it comes to both stabilizing and moving your shoulder blades—so basically whenever your arm moves. 

Thirdly we’ve got rhomboids, also found on the upper back. These are diamond-shaped muscles made up of a minor part and a major part, running from your scapula to the spine. Their main focus is allowing your shoulder blades to retract while also stopping them from excessively moving when throwing or pushing things.

These are some of the main muscle groups worked by the one-arm dumbbell row, but other muscles include the teres major and minor, deltoids, biceps, brachioradialis, brachialis, and the pecs. However, the main attraction of single-arm dumbbell rows, as compared to other row variants, is how they target the core. 

Every time you lower the dumbbell, your core muscles have to engage in order to keep yourself stable. You’re effectively training the core to resist the rotational forces of only having a weight in one of your hands at a time. This brings us to the benefits unique to the single-arm dumbbell row.

The Benefits of this Back Exercise

While the aesthetic benefit of a v-shaped torso or an hourglass shape will probably be enough to convince most people to include this exercise in their weekly workout plan, that doesn’t mean they're more benefits to convince the hardest cynic.

Along with the core-focused engagement that a unilateral movement like the single-arm row will produce, there’s also the symmetrical aspect. The fact of the matter is that everyone is at least a bit asymmetrical in their physique. Your right hand and arm are probably at least slightly stronger than your left side if you’re right-handed, for example. While this is natural, it’s a good idea to develop weaker sides so they don’t fall too far behind.

In every exercise that has both hands gripping a single object (like a barbell for example), your stronger side will ever so slightly be making up for the weaker. These kinds of discrepancies have the potential to snowball into larger asymmetries later on, which can potentially lead to injuries. 

Since the row hits the upper back, your posture will also improve. If you’re a guy who really likes to hit chest day (we’re guilty as well) but sort of neglects the other muscle groups, then you need to be balancing out all that chest work with a strong focus on the upper back. 

A strong front upper body can result in slouching, especially if the back is underdeveloped. We need our back strong in order to maintain the natural curvature of the spine and to keep our shoulders in a healthier alignment. 

Lastly, incorporating the single-arm dumbbell row into your routine will give you a more solid functional base to work off of. Your arms, back, and core are used in almost every single action you perform—whether that’s in the gym or outside it. It’ll also help with athletic ability since working against your torso’s rotation is good practice for being able to rotate faster and more explosively, useful for sports such as baseball.

How to Dumbbell Row Step-by-Step

To pull this exercise off, all you really need is a single dumbbell and a flat bench or some other stable surface; making this a great exercise for home workouts. When it comes to the weights you use, generally go for something that you can do 3 sets of in an 8 to 12 rep range. 

However, you can also benefit from lowering the rep count since you’ll be able to lift more due to the other hand supporting you. In a barbell row, for example, your body must support the entire weight. But generally, it’s better to start off lighter and work up to a volume that’s both challenging, and one that you can recover from and not get injured.

Without further ado, here is our step-by-step guide for the perfect single-arm dumbbell row.

1. Begin the movement with your feet at about hip-distance apart, while you hold the dumbbell in your right hand. Bring your left foot back into a lunge position while keeping a shallow bend in your right knee. Keep your right knee in line with your ankle, and have the left knee behind slightly bent.

2. Lean slightly forward. You can either place your left hand (the free hand) on your thigh or on a stable surface in front of you, such as a bench. The surface should be at about knee height.

3. Engage your core before you initiate the movement—this is what you’ll need to do in order to maintain a stable support.

4. Slowly lower the dumbbell toward the floor until it’s hanging down completely, your elbow straight. However, maintain tension throughout the rest of your body. You don’t want to be arching or rounding your spine or shoulders.

5. To initiate the lift, pull back your shoulder blade towards your spine. Think of your elbow driving up towards the ceiling as you lift the dumbbell while also making sure it stays close to your body. The dumbbell should pass by close to your rib cage.

6. At the top of the movement, engage your rhomboids if you’re able to—your shoulder blades should be squeezing together. At this point in the exercise, the dumbbell should be in line with the chest while the elbow is pointing straight up.

7. Maintaining the proper posture throughout, slowly lower the weight back down into the starting position. Repeat for the desired amount of sets and reps, switching arms after each set. 

Keep in mind there are also variations where you can place your bent knee up on a bench parallel with you, along with the hand that’s not supporting the dumbbell. This can give you further support if you’re trying to go for heavier weights.

Form Tips to Keep in Mind

While the above step-by-step guide will get you on your way to doing solid one-arm rows, there are some form tips to keep in mind and issues that you might run into. 

When it comes to head positioning, it’s alright to experiment. Some people like to be looking straight forward, but you can also “pack the neck.” This means drawing the chin back which helps to keep the spine in a neutral position. You’ll probably end up looking at the floor, but it’s meant to reduce the compressive forces placed on your spine when doing certain lifts. Depending on how heavy you lift, this may or may not be something you utilize with the row.

However, don’t allow your head to go too far forward when you’re pulling. While positioning is up to your preferences, you also don’t want to let it jut out.

You also want to make sure you’re utilizing the movement to its maximum benefits, so form and muscle engagement are absolutely crucial.

If you want to place a greater focus on the abdominals, try to not lean your supporting hand on anything—or at least don’t rely on the support as much. While this won’t allow you to lift as much weight, it will be some extra tension on your core muscles. 

But keeping this muscle group engaged is important nonetheless. Poor activation in this area can lead to the rounding of the spine, which is something you want to avoid in order to prevent injuries and unnecessary wear and tear on the back. 

However, you also don’t want to twist your core at the top of the movement. This is a common problem for lifters because it makes it easier to generate momentum, therefore making the entire movement a tad easier. When it comes to your back’s form, there are some key things to remember. While you don’t want to lock the shoulder blades in place (allow them to move along the rib cage instead), you also want to maintain a flat back without any twisting of the torso. 

Also allow the shoulder blades to initiate the movement, not the arm. If you feel that too much of your bicep is being used with your back not getting gassed out, either try harder to engage those muscles or use a grip without the thumb wrapping around the dumbbell (a false grip).

Also called a suicide grip when bench pressing, the false grip isn’t usually recommended since it gives you less of a grip on whatever you’re holding. And while it might be suicidal when it comes to a heavy bench press, there aren't really any consequences to dropping the dumbbell if your grip gives out on you. It might be just what you need in order to engage more of your back, rather than your arm.

Many of these form issues can be helped with one simple fix.

Too Much Weight

While getting into the groove of chasing numbers can be intoxicating, especially at the beginning of your lifting career when you’re seeing massive gains, it’s important to keep your mind focused on proper form.

The biggest reason for improper form, and not just with the row, is using a weight that’s too heavy. Not only can this lead to injuries and long-term aches, but it’ll also have a negative impact on your form.

Lifting with too heavy of a weight will most likely lead you to twisting your torso, not going slow enough, and not using the full range of motion. You’ll begin to utilize momentum to get the dumbbell to the top of the position, rather than muscles—and that’s just leaving gains on the table.

To make sure you’re using proper weights, first, make sure that your form is perfect. Also, try slowing down the tempo and even focusing on the eccentric motion of the lift (when you’re going back down to the starting position). Not only will this help you perfect your form, but maximizing time under tension is a serious way to build muscle faster.

Spicing Up Your Back Workout

While a terrific exercise to add to your training routine, the single-arm dumbbell row might not be right for you—at least not yet. There are ways to make the movement easier, and several methods to make it more difficult. 

Making the exercise easier can simply come down to using lighter weights—obviously. But you can also help yourself out by improving the amount of stability you have. For example, putting your knee up on the bench along with your hand. This will reduce the amount your core has to work while also allowing you to lift heavier.

And what if you’re up for a challenge and want to spice things up a bit?

The reverse of making things easier is also true. Making your body less stable will engage more back muscles and force your body to work overtime in order to maintain proper posture and form. This can either be done by completely taking your hand off of a support, or for an added challenge, try putting your arm onto an exercise ball.

Not only will your core be fighting to stabilize your body, but your arm on the exercise ball will also be fighting to maintain posture. This is a great way to train the stabilizers in your arm and shoulders, but make sure you’re confident with the base move before going this route.

The Meadows Row

You might’ve not heard of this row, but it’s a great way to add a twist to the basic single-arm dumbbell row. All it requires is a barbell landmine.

The greatest benefit of the Meadows row is that it allows you to use a heavier weight than with a traditional single-arm dumbbell row. Not only can you quickly switch weights (since you’re using a barbell), but your grip will also be challenged by the simple fact that a barbell is significantly thicker than a dumbbell.

However, the heavier weight also poses some risks, especially for those who’ve had a history of back pain or back injuries—especially in the lower back. The weight puts much more stress and tension on your torso—which is a good thing if you can handle it—but it might antagonize injuries. However, if you’ve got a healthy lower back, then the Meadows row is a fantastic way to up your one-arm dumbbell row game.

To do a Meadows row, you’ll want to begin by standing next to the landmine barbell, by the weighted end. Grabbing the handle with one of your hands, engage the body as you’d do with a regular one-arm row. Well, almost.

The greatest benefit from this movement will come from the correct positioning of the hips relative to the bar, and relative to each other. By raising the hip closest to the bar higher than the one further away, you’ll be able to really extend the engagement of your entire lat. And similarly, as with a regular one-arm row, make sure not to twist your body or give in to the temptation of momentum. Keep your back straight and locked, and drive your elbow up hard. 

While a lot of variations exist that take some nuanced approach to hitting a certain muscle at a slightly different angle, the Meadows row punches above its weight as “simply” a one-arm row variant.

Rowing to Better Health 

While the row will keep your back up to check, it’s going to be up to you to take care of the rest of your body—especially with what goes into it. Make sure to eat well, rest well, and if you’re looking for that extra edge to get shredded as hell, consider taking supplements to really turbocharge your gains.

The single-arm dumbbell row is an incredible foundational exercise to elevate your physique—but it’s going to be up to you to consolidate those gains.