Dumbbell rows are the absolute best exercises for muscle growth in your upper back.
But you can tweak your grip position, body angle, and weights to optimize your gains, so be sure to read to the end to learn all these tips.
As a strength and conditioning coach, I use one-arm rows with my clients as a staple during back days. I program dumbbell rows for those just looking to get more fit, powerlifters, and even professional athletes.
If that sounds like you, read on to learn:
- How To Do Dumbbell Row
- Common Mistakes Doing Dumbbell Rows
- Muscles Worked During Dumbbell Rows
- Alternatives To Dumbbell Rows
- How To Add Dumbbell Rows To Your Workout
Table of Contents
How To Do Dumbbell Row
This step-by-step guide will break down how to do dumbbell rows with perfect form.
- Grab one dumbbell from the weight stack.
- Place your other hand on a different dumbbell on the rack and take a step back only with the side holding a dumbbell.
- Your feet will be shoulder-width apart. This is your starting position.
- Keep a neutral grip with your palms facing each other.
- Hinge at the hips so your chest is over your toes with a flat back. The dumbbell will be in front of your quad.
- Retract your shoulder blades.
- Row the dumbbell to your side by driving your elbow straight back.
- You will finish with your elbow past your torso and the dumbbell tight to your sides.
- Control the weight back down until your arm is completely straight.
Pro Tip: A key difference between bent-over double-arm rows and single-arm rows is that you can lift heavier weights with a single-arm dumbbell row. With your other arm, you can hold the rack to increase stability so you can focus more on activating the lats with each pull.
Want more dumbbell exercises for your back? Check out the full post.
Common Mistakes Doing Dumbbell Rows
The three most common mistakes I see with dumbbell rows are:
I often see my clients do a single arm row and shrug their shoulders to their ears. This mistake typically means their traps are overactive, and they are not using their lats to do the row. Make sure you retract your scapula before each row, keep your shoulder tucked down, and choose a weight that is not too heavy.
Rotating the Torso
Rotating through the torso happens when the core muscles do more work than the lats. The core will take over once you begin to rotate, and not much of a row is even happening. You want core stability during a one-arm dumbbell row, not core movement. Maintain a neutral spine through the full range of motion to prevent this common mistake.
Elbow Out Wide
Letting the elbow go too far out wide during a single-arm row can put you at risk of a shoulder injury. When the elbow goes wide during a row, that internally rotates the shoulder slightly. Over time, that repetitive action may cause impingement in the shoulder. Instead, keep your elbow tight to your torso on every row.
How To Add Dumbbell Rows To Your Workout
Dumbbell rows can be added to any back day, but I will review what sets and reps to use for different goals.
- Muscle size: While bulking, you want to focus on muscle hypertrophy. Aim to lift 3-5 sets for 8-12 reps each set. This intensity will increase overall muscle size and mass.
- Muscle definition: While cutting, aim for 1-3 sets of 12-20 reps. This intensity will give your muscles a more defined appearance.
Sample Back Day Workout
|Sets & Reps
|Bent Over Single Arm Dumbbell Row
|Incline Dumbbell Row
|Barbell Bicep Curls
|Dumbbell Bicep Curls
Read more about my favorite 18 upper body pull exercises you can add to your next pull day.
Who Should Do Dumbbell Rows?
Dumbbell rows benefit everybody who works out, including the general population and athletes.
- General Population: Novice and veteran lifters should include dumbbell rows in their workout routines. Most people have forwardly rounded posture from sitting at a desk or in a car. Incorporating dumbbell rows can improve your posture.
- Powerlifters: Powerlifting athletes must incorporate dumbbell rows because they translate to the competition lifts. Dumbbell rows build a bigger, stronger upper back. The bench press, squat, and deadlift all require a strong back to assist in the lift.
- CrossFitters: CrossFit athletes do a ton of movements that require a strong upper back, too. Pull-ups, power cleans, and snatches require upper back strength to complete the movements. Adding dumbbell rows can help CrossFit athletes reach their next big personal record.
What about Dumbbell Rows vs Barbell Rows? The main difference is that dumbbell rows can be unilateral, and barbell rows are bilateral. Unilateral movements can help correct muscle imbalances on each side of the body. That way, both sides will be equally strong, and you will not have one side taking over during bilateral movements.
Muscles Worked During Dumbbell Rows
The key muscles worked in a dumbbell row are the latissimus dorsi and rhomboids. Accessory muscle groups like the trapezius, posterior deltoids, and biceps are also worked.
- Latissimus Dorsi: The lats are the primary muscles activated during a dumbbell row. They are responsible for both scapular and arm movements.
- Rhomboids: The rhomboids are a key stabilizer of the scapula during dumbbell rows. They are in your upper mid-back and connect your scapula and spine. They help retract your scapula and pull the scaps down and back.
- Trapezius: A key step in doing a dumbbell row with correct form is to retract the shoulder blades, so the traps play a major role in that. The 3 parts of the traps are the upper, middle, and lower traps. Only the middle and lower traps will assist with the movement during a dumbbell row.
- Posterior Deltoids: During dumbbell rows, the rear deltoids (back shoulder muscles) assist the lats by driving the arm behind into shoulder extension.
- Biceps: Biceps are an accessory muscle in the dumbbell row that works with the primary back muscles. The biceps are responsible for elbow flexion as you pull the weight towards your torso.
Are you wondering what the differences between a bent-over row and an upright row are? Read our full guide on Bent-Over Row vs Upright Row.
Alternatives To Dumbbell Rows
Three alternatives to a single-arm dumbbell row include the:
Incline Dumbbell Row
The incline dumbbell row on a bench is a good row variation for those with back or hip pain. I like to do these on a 30° bench, but you can also do it on 15° and 45° benches.
I use these with clients struggling to get into a hip hinge position. Laying prone puts less stress on the lower back to stabilize the body, so all of the focus can be on the row itself. I still get a good pull through the lats on an incline bench because 30-45° is the ideal angle for a dumbbell row.
To do this, lay prone on a bench. Row the dumbbell towards your hip, keeping your elbow tight to your body.
Check out our article on the 9 Best Dumbbell Lat Exercises.
The seal row takes stress off the lower body because you are lying prone on a bench. This can be done with dumbbells, a barbell, and even a trap bar. My favorite variation is to use dumbbells because I can feel my lats working the most.
To do this, lay prone on an elevated bench. Drive the dumbbells to your hips while keeping your elbows tight and in line with your body. Ensure you do not hyperextend or bend through your lower back and body. Your arms will be the only body part that will move during the pull.
Pro Tip: If you do not have a seal row machine at your gym, place a bench on two boxes like I did in the image above.
You will find a machine row at almost every gym. The machines are ergonomically created, so you will still be hitting every major upper back muscle and the biceps with these.
I use machine rows with beginner and novice lifters so they can feel what proper form feels like with the assistance of the machine. For expert lifters, I can push them with weight on machine rows.
Sit down on the seat and keep your chest pinned to the padding. Drive your elbows back behind your body to do the row. Keep your elbows close to your body, and not let them point to the outside.
The T-Bar Row is a bilateral upper-back exercise. Read our full article on the 13 Best T-Bar Alternatives.
Benefits of Dumbbell Rows
The 3 main benefits of doing dumbbell rows are:
Dumbbell rows are a multi-joint compound movement that targets your upper back to strengthen you. Adding dumbbell rows to your workout routine will be the best exercise to promote muscle growth. You can adjust the volume to focus more on hypertrophy, strength gains, or toning.
According to one study, multi-joint compound movements produced greater strength gains and cardiorespiratory fitness than single-joint exercises.
Dumbbell rows develop muscles that control the scapula, which translates to improved posture. Strengthening the upper back with dumbbell rows will keep your shoulder blades retracted and tucked back. Retracted shoulder blades help maintain proper posture to eliminate back pain.
I incorporate dumbbell rows into my athletes’ overhead workouts to improve their throwing performance. Strengthening the lats through dumbbell rows will create more velocity while throwing. The lats help slow down the arm in the late phases of throwing, so strengthening them with dumbbell rows can help prevent overuse injury.
According to this research study, shoulder impingement injuries can occur to throwing athletes when their muscles become fatigued and the humerus drifts away from the scapular plane. Strengthening the upper back and scapular muscles through dumbbell rows can help prevent injury to the throwing athlete.
Dumbbell rows help with stronger lifts overall. A strong and sturdy upper back is needed for powerlifting athletes during lifts like the bench press, squat, and deadlift.
What’s the best method to build muscle with dumbbell rows?
The best way to build muscle with dumbbell rows is to train for muscle hypertrophy. 3-5 sets of 8-12 reps will give you the best results for building muscle with dumbbell rows.
Should I go heavy on dumbbell rows?
You should go heavy on dumbbell rows, but always a weight you can handle. You never want to compromise form for weight, but lifting heavy on dumbbell rows will get you the gains you are looking for.
Should dumbbell rows be fast or slow?
Dumbbell rows should be slow and controlled. Slow eccentric lengthening during a dumbbell row will lead to even more muscle growth compared to doing dumbbell rows too fast.
Why can’t I feel my back during dumbbell rows?
If you can't feel your back during dumbbell rows, you might be pulling with your arms too much. If you row too high towards the chest, you use more biceps than back to row the weight. Set your scapula and row towards your hip to feel your back.
What’s the best angle for dumbbell rows?
The best angle for dumbbell rows is 30-45°. That can be achieved by laying prone on a bench set to that incline or hinging at the hips in a bent-over position so your torso is angled. This angle targets your lats the most because of their pull line during the movement.
About the Author
Jake Woodruff has an MS in Sports Medicine from the University of Pittsburgh. He is currently a strength and conditioning sports performance coach at a private Pittsburgh facility. He is a former college athlete and currently plays semi-pro soccer. You can connect with him on Instagram.