The dumbbell row is a strength training staple — but are you sure you’re even doing the exercise correctly?
For this basic gym necessity, you shouldn’t settle for anything other than perfect form—especially because it’s such a simple, essential movement when done properly. Let Men’s Health fitness director Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S. and associate fitness editor Brett Williams guide you through the exercise’s subtleties, saving you from the bad habits that are keeping you from unlocking your fitness potential.
Before you grab a dumbbell and start pulling, take note that it’s extremely important to pay attention to the subtleties of the stance here. You’re not just bending over and cranking out reps—you want to make sure that you’re using the right muscles in the first place.
A Better Stance
Eb says: There’s nothing inherently wrong with the way most people do the dumbbell row, with one knee and one hand on the bench, but that position does invite a lot of inconsistency through the hips, and resultantly, through the spine. Especially when you start learning the dumbbell row, it’s important to learn to be in control of your hips and spine. That’s why a better starting point for beginners is with one hand on a bench and an even stance with your feet.
From here, you want to think about keeping your hips square to the ground the entire time; that means keeping your core active as you row. Make sure your shoulders are slightly higher than your hips, too; you’ll have to turn on your back extensors to do this and it will protect your lower back from lifting the weight.
Maintain Mid-Back Tension
Eb says: The first move when you do the row: Squeeze your shoulder blades. Doing so is will prevent you from doing the row with a rounded upper back, and it’ll help protect your shoulders in the long term. If you forget to do this, which a lot of new gym-goers do, you wind up trying to row from a position that invites the head of the humerus (your upper arm bone) to get close to the clavicle (your collarbone), a situation that can bug both labral and rotator cuff tendons. That shoulder blade squeeze will help prevent that from happening. It also insures you get more out of the row; now you get a chance to activate both your lats and your rhomboids on each rep.
Make this squeeze of the shoulder blades intentional at first on every rep; as you progress, it’ll happen as one fluid motion.
Pull With Your Back, Not Your Biceps
Eb says: Once you’re in position, it’s easy to underestimate the row: Just pull the dumbbell up. But how you pull is key. It’s easy to over-involve the biceps, but this is a lat- and rhomboid-focused move. Avoid that by thinking only of pulling your elbow as high as you can—try to imagine that your forearm as a large hook that’s gripping the dumbbell. Your biceps will be involved in the row either way, but it shouldn’t be the dominant mover on every rep.
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