How to Do the Dumbbell Single-Armed Row

The dumbbell row is the best pulling movement. It can feel tough to keep a strict style though. Not much range of motion needs to take place though to work the muscles that pull well.

It works the upper back, the back half of the shoulders, and the elbow flexors. Major muscles include the latissimus dorsi, teres major, trapezius, rhomboids, rear deltoid, biceps brachii, brachioradialis, and brachialis. Joint motions include shoulder extension and adduction, scapular adduction or retraction, and elbow flexion. Although not mentioned in most sources, it also addresses the back half of the middle deltoid. The abdominals stabilize and contribute to the movement, especially when performed unilaterally as suggested here. The muscles attached to the hands and forearm work hard to maintain the grip.

This version uses less range of motion than other pulling exercises, but brings in more muscle. Keep in mind that tension builds strength and size, not range of motion, which can instead harm the joints and work the muscles less well.

This guide focuses on the row with a dumbbell and flat bench.

Equipment

You will need a dumbbell and a flat bench. The suggested style is unilateral, so only one arm at a time will work. Other options such as a barbell make it even harder to maintain the proper position. The ideal pulling movement is horizontal. This best protects the joints and works the involved muscles at their ideal lengths for generating tension.

Starting Position

Use between a neutral and underhand grip to grab the dumbbell. The keeps the hand mostly supinated. The overhand or neutral grip recruits the biceps brachii poorly, since the tendon of that muscle wraps around the radius bone of the forearm, worsening the angle of pull, with the hand in those positions. An underhand grip also allows the long head of the triceps to activate more fully by internally rotating the elbow.

The arm should place at about 45° relative to the body. Rows with flared elbows increase the stress on the shoulder. Elbows too tucked prevent the shoulders and arms from as much involvement. The hands, wrists, and shoulders should line up.

Let your hand hang freely to grasp the dumbbell. This prevents cupping that many trainees do. Trying to get the palm of the hand under the bar in an attempt to grip the bar without relying on the gripping muscles does not work well. If the grip feels too hard to maintain, use a smaller diameter dumbbell and apply chalk as well. Do not use straps.

Place your knee and leg on one end of the bench. The knee should bend as much as necessary. Brace your same-side hand on the other side of the bench. The elbow for this arm should approach full extension. Hug the edges of the bench with each limb. If you place each limb in the middle, then the dumbbell can sometimes hit the bench on the way up. Place the hand and leg far enough away from each other that the low back cannot round. This also allows your torso to align closely to parallel with the floor, which helps to keep the ideal horizontal position. This becomes hard to maintain as you grow stronger though. Try to establish a standard by keeping a set distance between the planted hand and leg. This allows you to maintain consistency.

The other leg should plant between the hand and leg on the bench. The knee should stay straight and the foot should plant on the ground across from the bench as far as possible. This keeps a stable base and helps to prevent the core from twisting too much. Otherwise will reduce the range of motion and can harm the spine. This final limb placement should create a triangle between the two legs and the hand. The active arm holding the dumbbell will place roughly in the middle of this triangle or slightly closer to the foot planted on the ground.

Keep the shoulder blades pulled back and down away from your ears. Stick the chest out. Maintain this tight position throughout the exercise and never allow slack. Keep your eyes focused toward the ground. This should keep your neck in a comfortable, neutral position.

Large diameter plates may overly obstruct the range of motion. Make sure that the range of motion you choose allows your elbow to pull slightly past your shoulder when viewed from the side. You should likely not use more than 35 lb. Olympic weight plates.

Liftoff

Grip the bar tightly. Maintain a slight retraction of the shoulder blades. Brace the core tightly. Lift the dumbbell off the ground.

Action

Lifting (Positive) Phase:

Drive the elbow straight back so that the wrist stays roughly in line with the elbow. Stop when a weight plate touches your ribcage. When the weight plate hits the stomach instead, you will reduce the involvement of the shoulders, arms, and trapezius, while cutting down on the range of motion too much.

Use all the involved joints to elevate your arm. You arms are not merely hooks; consciously move at the elbows and avoid focusing only on the upper back. Allow your waist to twist slightly as you raise the dumbbell.

Hold back on the urge to do odd things with your head when the effort grows. Stay disciplined. Look forward and keep your head in neutral.

As you get stronger, you may find that pressure increases on the chest. Limit this by twisting slightly at the waist as you lift the weight. Do not force your chest to stay down.

Lowering (Negative) Phase:

Do not drop the dumbbell. Resist the descent. Do not forcefully lock out the elbow at the conclusion of the repetition while lowering. Attempt to keep a slight bend in your elbow if the lockout causes stress. Keep using the same tips recommended in the lifting phase. Stay tight.

You can either choose to place the dumbbell on the floor between repetitions or keep the dumbbell suspended. Depending on the length of your arm and the height of the bench, you may be forced to choose one or the other. Do whichever method allows you to feel safest. Either way, a fast transition likely optimizes the lift for most trainees. Avoid excessive bouncing out of the bottom position either way though. Performing the bounce too aggressively will make you lose your tightness.

The Dumbbell Row

The row serves as the best possible pulling movement. Although it uses the same active muscles as the pull-up, another pulling option, more cheating can occur on the row. Nonetheless, it works the muscles in their best positions and works safest for the shoulder.