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The Essential Back Exercise You Can’t Miss

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  • Post last modified:September 26, 2023

Wondering, “which muscle do back exercises work?” Well, while back exercises are primarily focused on your back muscles, they engage the rest of your body as well — which is what makes them essential for any strength-training routine. The dumbbell bent-over row (demonstrated here by NYC-based trainer Rachel Mariotti) is just one of many ways to reap the advantages of this motion, but it might be one of the most accessible.

Advantages and Variations of Dumbbell Bent-Over Row

With the dumbbell bent-over row, “the primary muscle group targeted is your back, specifically the latissimus dorsi and rhomboids,” says Lisa Niren, an ACE-certified head instructor at FITURE. You can even modify the row slightly to target different sections of your back: “Pulling the weight higher to your chest works your upper-back muscles while pulling the weight closer to your waist works your mid-back muscles,” she explains.

Take care to keep the shoulders “down and back” the entire time to ensure you’re engaging the correct muscles, says Christi Marraccini, a NASM-certified trainer and chief content officer at NEO U in New York City. “Especially toward the end of your set, when you may be tempted to let your shoulders rise towards your ears,” she adds.

The bent-over row (and any back exercises, for that matter) are important to incorporate into your strength routine to maintain the balance of strength between the back and front of your body. “The bent-over row is the perfect complement to the bench press because it targets the muscles on the opposite side of your body,” explains Heidi Jones, TRX-certified Fortë trainer and founder of Sweat to Change TV. (Try supersets of the bent-over row with a dumbbell bench press or push-ups for an intense — but balanced! — lifting set.)

The stooped-over pull exercise also targets your forearm muscles, along with the muscles in your upper arms, shoulders, legs, and core. (Yes, indeed.) “The stomach and lower-back muscles engage to stabilize (or keep your body in place) while executing the exercise,” declares Niren. “Strengthening these muscles enhances your posture and spinal stability, reducing the chance of lower-back injuries,” she clarifies.

However, on the other hand, the stooped-over pull may cause discomfort in the lower back for certain individuals. A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research discovered that the standing stooped-over pull places the greatest strain on the lumbar spine compared to the inverted pull or standing single-arm cable pull. If the standing stooped-over pull induces lower back pain, attempt the inverted pull using a suspension trainer or hanging beneath a barbell. Alternatively, to make it more manageable overall, opt for smaller dumbbells.

Desire an additional challenge? Attempt changing your grip to an underhand grasp (dumbbells parallel to your shoulders and wrists facing forward away from your body) to intensify targeting your forearm muscles and lats, as stated by Jones. If you wish to lift even heavier weights, try the stooped-over pull with a barbell and an overhand grip (palms facing your thighs).

How to Perform a Dumbbell Stooped-Over Pull

A. Stand with your feet spread apart hip-width and hold a medium- or heavy-weight dumbbell in each hand, situated by your sides. With your knees slightly bent, bend forward at your hips until your torso is inclined between 45 degrees and parallel to the floor, and let the dumbbells hang beneath your shoulders, with your wrists facing inward. Engage your core and keep your neck in a neutral position, maintaining a flat back as you commence.

B. Exhale as you draw the dumbbells up next to your ribs, bringing your elbows straight back and keeping your arms tight against your sides.

C. Inhale as you slowly lower the weights back to the starting position.

Perform 4 to 6 repetitions. Aim for 4 sets.

Tips for Proper Form in the Dumbbell Stooped-Over Pull

  • Maintain focused vision on the floor slightly in front of your feet to preserve a neutral neck and spine.
  • Keep your core engaged throughout each set and try to avoid any movement in your torso.
  • Concentrate on squeezing your shoulder blades together at the peak of each repetition.

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