Building Muscle is not a simple task. Many exercises that are known to be “staples” in back training are regularly bastardized in the gym with poor form, wrong tempo, or improper rep ranges. There’s no better place to start than with the ever popular single-arm dumbbell row.
Dumbbell rows are performed in many varieties: standing while leaning one hand on the dumbbell rack itself, standing with no support at all, chest reinforced, and even in a plank position. For the purposes of clarity and to apply to the largest demographic, I’m going to refer to the common dumbbell row I’ve seen used; a single arm row with one arm and leg supported on a bench.
Start by planting one knee and one hand on the bench. Your hand should be out slightly in front of your shoulders, and your back should have a small arch. The knee and shin on the same side should be supported on the bench. On the opposing side, the foot should be on the ground, with the toes in line with the opposing knee. To get into the right back position, I like to cue my clients to “push the butt back”, as this will allow the low back to arch and the ribcage to slightly increase. It also puts more weight into the lower body and less into the hands (that’s important).
One common mistake I notice comes when clients don’t use a wide enough base. The distance between your two legs should be similar to that you use when you’re about to perform squats. This creates a stable base that will be less prone to fall into compensation from one sideways to the other due to a stance that’s too narrow. When you’re carrying a heavy dumbbell, it’s easy to allow the body to “lean” to the supported sideways, placing most of the weight on the bench, and hopefully poor mechanics, and an arm-dominant pull. Stay square.
Every pulling exercise that includes the elbow bending requires a preliminary shoulder retraction in order to make the back do the work. This dumbbell row falls into this category and therefore is no exception. To start the movement, recall to “unlock” the shoulder blades while maintaining a flat back. The dumbbell should be close to the floor, and your elbow shouldn’t be bent.
As you begin your pull, try to move it as far away from the ground as likely without bending your elbow. You’ll notice that the only way to do this is to retract the shoulder blade of the working arm. Once there’s no room left for refutation, let the elbow enter the movement and “drag” the weight to the torso. Be certain to keep the elbow close to the body, and avoid curling the wrist. The elbow should finish alongside the body. Control the rep on the negative half of the lift, and return to a fully stretched position.
Troubleshooting: Know Your Muscles!
This is huge. Nine out of 10 people I’ve seen do rows apply it to the wrong building muscle groups. Don’t get me wrong. The single-arm dumbbell row is a building muscle exercises that, when done correctly, can activate adequately upper back musculature. The thing is, there are better workout to choose from depending on just which muscles of the upper back you’re trying to hit by using it.
Not only does this encourage a movement pattern and style that more closely follows the path of the lats’ fibers, but it also allows the arm to move in a much more usual pattern and lowers the possibility for poor shoulder retraction and missed reps. Also, the force angle just plain isn’t conducive to hitting the higher scapular muscles quite as hard.
I recommend using the dumbbell row for higher reps; I’ve found the upper back responds well to endurance-based work in general – which makes wisdom due to the roles they play in constant contraction and postural correction. Sets of 12-15 are a decent place to start when you’re pumping up the volume.
Using the dumbbell row is a certain key to size in your back program, and it’s significant that you get the movement down pat before going to town with it, and more important to do so before you start moving to the correct of the dumbbell rack to reach for heavier weights. All that’s left now is to grab your seat on the gain train.
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