Mastering The Dumbbell Row: Form Flaws, Set Up & Execution

The 1-arm dumbbell row is one of the greatest "bang for your buck" muscle and strength building exercises you can be doing. Unfortunately, it is often overlooked.

Do you want to be strong? Do you want to be jacked?

Do you want to be one of those guys where everyone’s like: “Holy shit he’s a monster.”

If you do then you need to have a strong back. There’s just no way around it.I don’t care who you talk to or who you watch, if they’re strong I can guarantee they have a monstrous back.

Enter the 1-arm dumbbell row

The 1-arm dumbbell row is one of the greatest bang for your buck exercises you can be doing. For me it falls right up there with other big bang exercises like the squat, deadlift and press.

Unfortunately, the 1-arm dumbbell row often gets overlooked because it’s deemed too “simple” and maybe even boring. It’s just human nature to favor the new over the old, and to always be looking for new and shiny ways to improve x, y or z, but I’m here to tell you to keep it simple.

If you want to get strong, if you want to get jacked, if you want to increase your performance in other lifts, then you need to be implementing the 1-arm dumbbell row.

What is a row?

Despite it’s seeming simplicity, the 1-arm row tends to get butchered on a regular basis. Like not just killed, but rolled onto a highway, run over by an 18 wheeler, thrown down the side of mountain to be partially eaten by a bear, and then pissed on by a squirrel type butchered.

Walk into any commercial gym, head straight to the dumbbell section, and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about (and probably some other atrocities like cheating curls in the squat rack).

I believe this occurs simply because people don’t know any better. They’ve never actually been taught what a row is, what it’s supposed to work, and how you’re supposed to do it. Thus, a lot of people miss out on the benefits of the row because they do them incorrectly.

At its core, a row is a scapular retraction and depression, anti-flexion, and anti-rotation exercise. Thus, when performed correctly it should work the lats, rhomboids, lower traps, mid traps, erector spinae, rotator cuff, obliques, transverse abdominis, rectus abdominis and biceps (to a small degree).

In particular, it should hammer the lats, rhomboids and low traps. This just means you should feel it in the muscles between and below your scaps as you perform the exercise.

Ask most gym goers where they feel it as they perform 1-arm dumbbells rows, however, and you’ll get a wide range of answers stringing from upper traps, to elbow, to front of the shoulder, to neck, to eyebrows, and to just about everything other than our main focus.

Just always remember this: an exercise is only as good as it’s form, and an exercise should always work what it’s intended to work.

Common dumbbell row flaws

The beauty of this exercise is that I encounter new and inventive ways to mess it up on a daily basis. Here are 9 of the most common:

1.  Forward head posture

Notice how my head is driving forward as I row.

2.  Throwing your head back

Notice how my head is back and I’m staring straight ahead.

3.  Too much flexion

Hopefully this is pretty obvious.

4.  Too much extension

Pay special attention to my low back.  I’m cranked into a lot of lumbar extension.

5.  Elbow flare

Notice the large gap between my body and my elbow.  It’s almost a 90 degree angle.

6.  Elbow tuck

Notice how there’s no gap between my body and my elbow.

7.  Awkward humping jerking motion

Just stop it.

8.  Elbow past body/scapular anterior tilt/humeral anterior glide

Watch my scapula and shoulder.  In particular, pay attention to how the scapula is elevating and protracting (with some anterior tilt), and how the glenohumeral head is “rolling” forward in the socket.

9.  Rotating and not rowing

People tend to rotate because it makes them feel like they’re going through a full range of motion.  In reality they’re just rotating through their thoracic and not getting any scapular movement.

The dumbbell row set up

Performing a kick ass row starts with the set up.  Here’s how to do it:

And here’s a picture from the front so you can get a grasp for spacing:

Dumbbell row spacing

Dumbbell row execution

Now that you’re set up, here’s what to do.

Keeping a rigid/stationary spine and neutral head position, pull the weight back on a slight angle with elbow at roughly 45 degrees as you retract and depress your scapula as hard as you can.

Continue pulling in this fashion until you feel like your scapula has run out of room. Once you encounter this sensation you’ll want to begin letting the weight back out by reversing your original line of pull (scapular protraction and slight elevation).

It’s imperative that throughout this entire process you maintain a neutral spine and head position, and don’t substitute rotation for proper scapular movement on the rib cage.

Here’s a video of what that looks like:

Closing thoughts

In closing I’d like to leave you with some helpful cues, a few programming suggestions, and a goal/challenge for you to work towards (if you’re not there already).

Cues help everyone, but some cues that work well for some don’t work well with others. For this reason, cues are sort of a never ending experiment until you find what works best for you. Here’s a short list of some of my favorites:

  1. Keep your arm “relaxed” and do the whole pull with nothing but your back muscles.
  2. Make a big chest.
  3. Stretch out your collarbone.
  4. Pull through your elbow

On the programming front you can approach 1-arm rows in a number of ways.  Like all other things if hypertrophy is your goal then you’re going to want to work at a higher volume/rep range, and if strength is your goal then a lower rep range.  For hypertrophy I’ve found 4 sets of 12 reps per side tends to do the trick, while for more of a strength focus I like doing 5 sets of 6 reps per side.

Lastly, what should your goal be in the 1-arm row?  How much weight should you be trying to do?

In my opinion, you should be able to do a perfect 1-arm row with half of your body weight.  And just so you know I’m not blowing smoke out of my ass here’s a video of me doing rows with 110’s (I weighed in at 199 before performing these):

Well that’s about it for today.  Thanks for checking out the article, and I hope you learned a little something.  Now go get rowing and growing!