How to Perform a Dumbbell Row
Welcome to Alter This Action, the ongoing series where you’ll find everything you need to adjust a standard exercise to meet your objectives, your physique, and your mindset. Each story breaks down how to execute a fundamental fitness move, then provides various alterations based on your current fitness or energy level, current or past injuries, or the muscles you desire to focus on the most. So leave your pride at the entrance and ensure every workout meets you where you are today.
When strong glutes that can lift heavy weight plates and abs that can handle viral plank challenges are all the rage in the fitness community, it can be tempting to disregard more subtle muscle groups, such as your upper back. But neglecting back day could impact your daily functioning, as these muscles are utilized during practical, everyday movements, like opening heavy doors and lifting laundry baskets off the ground.
One way to ensure your upper back receives the recognition it deserves? Incorporate dumbbell rows, which involve bending at the hips and pulling two dumbbells up to your ribcage, into your training routine, suggests Kristie Larson, a NASM-certified personal trainer and body-neutral strength coach in New York. The standard exercise primarily targets your latissimus dorsi (which aid in extending and rotating the shoulders and arms) and rhomboids (which draw the shoulder blades inward toward the spine) and, as a result, helps to enhance posture, according to Larson. The movement also necessitates engaging your core to support your lower back, preventing it from rounding while in a bent position, she explains.
If the traditional dumbbell row seems too challenging, basic, or painful for you, don’t worry — there are numerous accessible dumbbell row variations you can perform to reap those benefits. For instance, beginners in weightlifting who want to perfect their technique and experienced individuals who are prepared to increase their load might attempt a dumbbell row variation that involves using a bench for support. Similarly, those seeking to correct muscle imbalances or a tendency to slouch can turn to dumbbell row variations that, over time, can assist them in achieving those goals. Additionally, individuals dealing with lower back problems can also try dumbbell row variations specifically designed to prevent any exacerbation of sensitivity. It should be emphasized that modifying a move to align with your personal needs and fitness goals is perfectly acceptable.
Ready to try out this upper-body exercise and commence rectifying your posture? Follow the directions below to master the traditional dumbbell row, then observe as Larson demonstrates how to vary the exercise with six different dumbbell row variations that are suitable for all skill levels and fitness objectives.
A. Take a stance with your feet positioned at a distance equivalent to the width of your hips, and let your arms hang by your sides. Hold a dumbbell in each hand, making sure that your palms are facing inward. Gently bend your knees.
B. Pivot at your hips until your chest is almost parallel to the ground and your back is straight. Lower the dumbbells towards the floor, maintaining straight arms. Draw your shoulders down and away from your ears. This will be your starting position.
C. Keep your core muscles engaged and your back in a flat position. Gradually bend your elbows to pull the dumbbells towards your hips. Keep your elbows close to your body and pause when your elbows reach your ribcage.
D. Slowly straighten your elbows to lower the dumbbells back to the floor and return to the starting position.
6 Variations of the Dumbbell Row
If you attempt the conventional exercise and discover that it does not contribute to your fitness progress or simply does not leave you with a positive feeling, do not hesitate to try a different variation of the dumbbell row that suits your current level.
Here, you will find alternative dumbbell row exercises that can be adjusted to increase or decrease the difficulty, as well as variations that focus on specific fitness objectives such as enhancing posture, strengthening biceps, and correcting muscle imbalances. Additionally, Larson shares modified dumbbell row exercises that can alleviate discomfort if you are experiencing lower back issues. Regardless of the alternative you choose, continue to listen to your body as you complete your repetitions, and switch to a different exercise if it doesn’t feel right.
While performing each dumbbell row variation, visualize the sensation of holding a piece of paper or squeezing a lemon underneath your armpit. Pull your elbow towards the outer edge of your ribcage, as suggested by Larson. These cues will ensure proper engagement of your latissimus dorsi and rhomboid muscles, protect your shoulders, and maximize the benefits of the exercise, according to her explanation.
Variation of the Dumbbell Row to Decrease Difficulty: Bench-Supported Row
Individuals who are relatively new to exercise or returning after a period of inactivity may find this modified dumbbell row variation to be a suitable starting point. Larson explains, “It is more beginner-friendly because it reduces the demands on your core muscles. You won’t have to exert as much effort to stabilize, allowing you to focus on perfecting your rowing technique without placing additional stress on your lower back.” She adds that this exercise is also beneficial if you have tight hamstrings and struggle to fully pivot at the hips, or if you want to lift heavier weights. “The bench-supported row allows you to increase the load, which can be a way to progress the movement,” Larson suggests.
A. Stand beside a flat workout bench, keeping your arms at your sides. Hold a dumbbell in your left hand, with your palm facing inward. Position your right knee on the bench, ensuring that your shin is flat and your toes are over the edge. Softly bend your left knee.
B. Pivot at your hips until your chest is almost parallel to the ground, your back is straight, and your right hand is resting on the workout bench.
Left appendage needs to be completely stretched towards the ground. Draw the shoulder blades downwards and away from the auditory organs. This constitutes the initial posture.
C. Maintaining a contracted core and a flat back, gradually flex the left elbow to draw the dumbbell towards the hips. Keep the elbows tucked close to the body and pause once the elbow reaches the ribcage.
D. Slowly extend the elbow to lower the dumbbell back to the floor and return to the initial position. Repeat the process on the opposite side.
Dumbbell Row Variation for Advancement: Renegade Row
When you are prepared to intensify the challenge for your core, attempt the renegade row. This variation of the dumbbell row requires you to showcase your stability, as your lower back may attempt to rotate and extend while performing the row in a high plank position, as explained by Larson. Hence, in addition to targeting the muscles in your upper back, your entire trunk is being challenged to assist in supporting you in that plank position.
A. Position two dumbbells shoulder-width apart on the floor. Commence in a table-top position, with the shoulders aligned above the hands, gripping a dumbbell in each hand with the palms facing inward. Bend the knees and align them directly beneath the hips.
B. Progressively step one leg back at a time to assume a high plank position on the palms. Ensure that the feet are shoulder-width apart. Activate the quadriceps, glutes, and core, slightly tucking the tailbone. Draw the shoulders away from the ears.
C. While sustaining a engaged core and a flat back, gradually flex the right elbow to draw the dumbbell towards the hip. Keep the elbow close to the body and pause when it reaches the ribcage. Maintain stable hips and refrain from swaying to the side.
D. Slowly straighten the right elbow to lower the dumbbell back to the floor and return to the initial position. Repeat the process on the opposite side.
Dumbbell Row Variation for Enhancing Posture: Wide-Grip Row
Practicing this variation of the dumbbell row can have remarkable effects on maintaining an upright and slouch-free posture, as it targets some of the smaller muscles surrounding and found within the shoulder blades. These include the middle and lower trapezius and deltoids, which significantly contribute to posture, according to Larson. Moreover, the exercise strengthens the muscles responsible for stabilizing the shoulders, which can be beneficial for individuals with a history of shoulder discomfort.
A. Stand with the feet positioned hip-width apart and arms relaxed at the sides, each hand holding a dumbbell. Slightly bend the knees.
B. Hinge at the hips until the chest is almost parallel to the floor, maintaining a flat back, simultaneously lowering the dumbbells to the floor with extended arms. Draw the shoulders down and away from the ears while rotating the palms towards the body. This marks the starting position.
C. While keeping the core engaged and the back flat, gradually bend the elbows to pull the dumbbells towards the hips.
Maintain close proximity of your elbows to the body and take a brief break once the elbows make contact with the ribcage.
D. Gently straighten elbows to lower the dumbbells down to the ground and return to the initial position.
Dumbbell Row Variation to Correct Muscle Imbalances: Single-Arm Row
By performing dumbbell rows with only one arm at a time, you have the ability to concentrate on exercising your shoulder joint through its entire range of motion, which can assist in developing resilience and flexibility within the muscles surrounding your shoulder blade, says Larson. “Moving it through its complete range of motion is truly what aids in maintaining the shoulder content and in good condition,” she adds. Moreover, training one side at a time can help equalize any potential muscle disparities. “You utilize one hand more than the other every day throughout your entire life — disparities are going to be inherent,” she explains. “Therefore, it is crucial to train each side independently from each other in order to develop pure strength on one side.”
A. Stand with feet positioned hip-width apart and arms resting at the sides, holding a dumbbell in the left hand with the palm facing inward. Gently bend the knees.
B. Hinge at the hips until the chest is nearly parallel to the ground and the back is flat, simultaneously lowering the dumbbell to the ground with the arms kept straight. Pull the shoulders down and away from the ears. This is the starting point.
C. While keeping the core engaged, the back flat, and the right arm extended, gradually bend the left elbow to pull the dumbbell back towards the hips. Maintain the left elbow close to the body and pause once it meets the ribcage.
D. Slowly straighten the left elbow to lower the dumbbell down to the ground and return to the starting position. Repeat on the opposite side.
Dumbbell Row Variation for Lower Back Discomfort: Incline Row
If you are encountering lower back sensitivity or feel discomfort in a hinged position, turn to this dumbbell row variation recommended by Larson. “The bench provides some support for your weight and allows you to achieve the forward angle that the hinge provides without actually having to hinge,” she says. Aim to position the backrest of your bench at a 45- to 60-degree angle, she adds.
A. Sit on a workout bench facing the backrest, which should be placed at a 45- to 60-degree angle, and hold a dumbbell in each hand with the palms facing inward. Lean your torso against the backrest so that the top of your chest aligns with the top of the bench, and extend your legs behind your body, forming a straight line from heels to head. Lower the dumbbells to the ground with the arms kept straight and pull the shoulders down and away from the ears.
This constitutes the initial stance.
B. Maintaining a strong core, gradually flex the elbows to retract the dumbbells towards the hips. Keep the elbows close to the body and pause when they reach the ribcage.
C. Slowly straighten the elbows to lower the dumbbells back to the ground and return to the initial position.
Reverse-Grip Row: A Variation of Dumbbell Row to Target the Biceps
In this variation of the dumbbell row, the palms will be facing forward instead of inward. This slight adjustment engages the biceps, as stated by Larson. “If you want a row variation that specifically targets your biceps and allows them to actively participate, this is an excellent choice,” she adds.
A. Stand with your feet hip-width apart and your arms by your sides, gripping a dumbbell in each hand. Gently bend your knees.
B. Hinge at the hips until your chest is nearly parallel to the floor, keeping your back flat, and simultaneously lowering the dumbbells towards the ground with straight arms. Retract your shoulders away from your ears and rotate your palms to face forward. This is the starting position.
C. While maintaining a engaged core and a flat back, gradually flex the elbows to pull the dumbbells towards the hips. Keep the elbows close to the body and pause once they reach the ribcage.
D. Slowly straighten the elbows to lower the dumbbells back to the ground and return to the initial position.
Photography: Anthony Cunanan
Art direction: Jenna Brillhart
Model and fitness expert: Kristie Larson
Hair and makeup: Tee Chavez
Activewear: Girlfriend Collective
Workout bench: Ignite by SPRI