Blowing up your back muscles takes work, and one of the simplest, best, and most popular exercises to get it done are dumbbell rows.
The movement that you perform in general rowing exercises is great for your back muscles—especially since they’re an opportunity to move a little differently than we typically do in your day to day.
“Rowing movements are ideal for training your back because they directly offset the horizontal push positions that everyday life puts us in,” Men’s Health fitness director Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S. says. “Throughout your day, you’re extending your arms out in front of you when you type at your computer, drive your car, or open a door. When you row, you don’t just hit your lats, but you also build your rhomboids and rear delts, key muscle groups that offset all the pushing motions of life.”
But using a dumbbell for rows is particularly effective compared to performing variations with barbells or other fixed implements. You’ll be working with a better range of motion using the unilateral tools, allowing you to work the full movement path of the muscles. You can take on the dumbbell row in a bent over position, with care to keep your back in spine-safe posture—but more commonly, you’ll hit the bench for support as you go about your workout.
While the bench supported row is just about as common as the dumbbell curl in the weight room, Samuel recommends one major deviation from popular form to perform the exercise optimally. Check out the video above and check out these tips for a better way to row.
Row With 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. Want some more details about this wrinkle? Check out the details here.
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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