There’s a particular type of exercise you should rely on to build a stronger back: rows. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of variations of this fundamental back exercise.
The king of rows is the bent-over barbell row and it fully deserves its preeminent status thanks to the massive back-boosting benefits it provides. However, you could argue that the one-arm dumbbell row is even better for your back. That’s because using one arm at a time allows you to focus your efforts on the lats, rhomboids and other back muscles called upon by this pull exercise.
Using dumbbells instead of a barbell also prevents you from relying on one side of your body to do the bulk of the work, and can highlight any strength imbalances that you need to work on. The one-arm row also allows for a greater range of motion than the barbell bent-over row, enabling you to target more accessory muscles around the scapula.
To help you master this move, we spoke to experienced strength and conditioning coach and sports scientist Ryan Horton of Horton Barbell. Read on for an expert guide on how to perfect your one-arm dumbbell row form, along with its chief benefits and the common pitfalls to avoid.
Ryan Horton is the owner of Horton Barbell. He began his career as a strength and conditioning coach in 2004, holding positions ranging from assistant coach to director of strength and conditioning at a number of US universities, including Temple University. Before opening Horton Barbell, he held the position of director of applied sports science with the Georgia Tech American football team. He graduated with a BA in exercise physiology from Otterbein University in Ohio.
How To Do The One-Arm Dumbbell Row
There are two popular ways to set up the one-arm dumbbell row. “Either variation is fine,” says Horton. “It’s really down to personal preference.”
The first option requires a weight bench, although you could also sub in a couch if training at home. “Place one hand and one knee on the same side of your body on the raised surface,” says Horton. “To row with the right arm, put your left hand and knee on the bench.”
Keep your left arm straight, with your hand directly beneath your shoulder and your left knee directly beneath your left hip, while placing your other foot on the floor outside your right hip to create a stable base. This, Horton explains, will ensure you have a “nice, tight, engaged back”.
For the second set-up option, keep both feet flat on the floor and rest one hand in front of you on a sturdy raised surface, like a chair, bench, dumbbell rack or plyo box that’s between knee and hip height.
“Place one hand on this surface with a straight arm while keeping both feet flat on the floor, about shoulder-width apart, to create a solid base,” says Horton. To get the idea, think about creating a tripod position with your feet and hand.
Next, pick the dumbbell off the floor, keeping your arm straight. Retract your shoulder blade on the working side to engage your upper-back muscles. From here, pull the weight until it’s level with your torso, keeping your elbow tucked in close to your body.
“Your hand should finish around the top of your stomach,” says Horton. “From here, control the weight back down until your arm is fully extended, and repeat.”
Common Form Mistakes
The one-arm row is not a complex exercise, so don’t overcomplicate it. “Assume a solid base, keep your core tight, grab a dumbbell and row. If you follow that instruction, 95% of the time it’s going to be spot-on,” says Horton. That said, there are a few common mistakes that can creep in and undermine your progress.
1. Starting Wrong
Rounding your back and positioning your feet too close to your center of gravity is a typical error Horton sees all too often. “If your set-up position is garbage—your back is rounded, your feet are too close together—you’re going to be all hunched up and off-balance,” he says.
Instead, focus on setting up with a solid platform. “Remember to maintain a wide base with your feet, a flat back, a tight core and keep everything square. Get that right and the row, for the most part, will take care of itself.”
2. Flaring Your Elbows
Another common mistake is to flare your elbows out to the side when performing a one-arm dumbbell row. Instead, keep your elbow tucked into your body.
“If you get into a proper set-up position, keep your elbow tight to your body and use a weight that’s heavy enough to be challenging, then when you row towards the top of your stomach you’re naturally going to use the correct range of motion,” says Horton.
3. Twisting Your Torso
The final pitfall is overly rotating or twisting your upper back at the top of each rep and shifting the focus of the exercise away from the target muscle groups.
“You’re not starting a lawnmower,” says Horton. “Don’t twist your torso and turn as you row. Keep everything tight and your back flat to work the right muscle the right way.”
Benefits Of The One-Arm Dumbbell Row
Which muscles does the one-arm dumbbell row work?
Although it works only one side of your body at a time, the one-arm dumbbell row is an effective multi-joint compound exercise for the upper body. It primarily targets the broad latissimus dorsi muscles of the mid back, which are chiefly responsible for manipulating the scapula, or shoulder blade, along with the rhomboids of the upper back.
Horton notes that because of the pulling movement involved, the one-arm dumbbell row targets the biceps muscles of the upper arm too. “The lats are going to get hit, the rhomboids are going to get hit, and the biceps are going to come into play as well,” he says.
Are one-arm dumbbell rows better than barbell rows?
Generally, if you’re looking to build strength, the better lift is the one that allows you to shift the most weight. In this case, that’s the barbell row—but this situation might be the exception.
“With a barbell row, you’re probably going to be able to use more weight than a dumbbell row, but because you don’t have an off-hand to brace, the lower back is working really hard to be able to maintain that body position,” Horton explains.
“Whereas with a one-arm row, you can use your other hand to do most of the work to brace your position, allowing you to fully focus on rowing and moving as heavy a weight as you can handle. Therefore, from a rowing standpoint, the dumbbell variation is an unbelievably good strength-builder.”
Are one-arm dumbbell rows good for building muscle?
As we’ve covered in the dumbbell row versus barbell row grudge match, the one-arm dumbbell row is an excellent option for building strength in your back and biceps, because, as Horton reiterates, “you can set up in such a stable position, it allows you to really brace and move heavy weight”.
By extension, the dumbbell variety is equally well suited to adding size as part of a comprehensive hypertrophy training program, enabling you to safely vary the tempo for each stage of the exercise to promote muscle growth.
But the benefits of this exercise don’t end there. Horton, who specializes in training athletes, says the move is a staple in his training programs because it has such tremendous carry-over for a wide variety of sports.
“Whatever sport you play, whether you’re playing football, basketball, baseball or rugby, you need to have a strong back,” he says. “And this is one of the best moves for building back strength. I would use it for any athlete.”
Thanks once again to the fact that you support your bodyweight with your non-working arm, this move is also better than most other rowing exercises at saving your lower back from fatigue. This, says Horton, means you can attack other compound exercises in your program with a greater intensity without an elevated risk of injury to the muscles and tendons of your posterior chain.
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Harry covers news, reviews and features for Coach, Fit&Well and Live Science. With over a decade of training experience, he has tried everything from powerlifting to gymnastics, cardio to CrossFit, all in a bid to find fun ways of building a healthy, functional body.
- Nick Harris-FrySenior writer