As with most of the exercises I feature in this series, again have one that has a ton of benefits for lifters of all levels but sadly many coaches, trainers, and trainees seem to find a way to butcher.
When done correctly the 1-Arm Dumbbell Row has tremendous carryover for people of all fitness abilities. Whether your goal is to build strength, size, or just simply feel and move better, this is an exercise that should have a place in your routine. Hopefully these few cues I’ll give you will help clean up your form or that of your clients.
Disclaimer: As with any of these exercises, if you are experiencing pain while performing them and your technique is good, please see qualified professional who can help diagnose your pain. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, your personal trainer/strength coach is not that person (me included).
Benefits of the 1-Arm Dumbbell Row:
- Helps build upper back strength & size
- Can help to promote healthy shoulder function
- Helps to improve core strength
How to Perform the 1-Arm Dumbbell Row:
First off let’s start by selecting the correct weight for this exercise. I’m sure I’m probably preaching to the choir here, but if you are grabbing a pretty colored dumbbell from the group exercise class room, chances are you’re being way too cautious. This is an exercise that uses big strong muscles of your body and you’ll surprise yourself with what you can do if you push just a little harder.
That being said, if your dumbbell is so heavy that you can’t move it without twisting your body around violently like you were trying to escape a straightjacket then put your ego aside and grab a little less weight.
Ok, so now we’ve got a decent weight to start with based on your strength level, and what your sets and reps call for that day. Your next step is to set-up correctly. A poor set up before beginning the lift is one of the most common mistakes I see on a daily basis. Here are just the most common 3 mistakes I see:
- When kneeling on a bench in this exercise, people mistake which knee should be on the bench and which leg should be on the ground
- They don’t maintain a neutral spinal position
- They place their feet too close to their midline, cutting off valuable space and range of motion.
First we have the set-up you see most commonly, where the trainee has one knee and one hand on the bench and one foot on the ground. In this set up the hand which is on the bench and the knee that is on the bench should be on the same side.
Give yourself a little space between your hand and knee when placing them on the bench, as well as space between the knee on the bench and the foot that is on the ground. Your hand should be positioned under your shoulder, with your torso at a slight incline. This allows for a much smoother pull, and greater engagement of your core muscles.
In the alternative set-up, the 3 point stance, you’ll place one hand on a bench, box or something sturdy about that height off the ground. The foot on the side of the hand which is on the ground can be placed close to the bench/box/whatever you’re using, while the other foot should be much further back and also out wide.
This gives you a much more stable base, but will also allow for greater demand on your core. Again, in this stance I like to coach a slight inclined angle of the torso, while the hand on the bench is still directly below the shoulder on that same side.
Another little tip I like to give people, is to tilt the head of the dumbbell up just a little bit to mimic the angle of their upper body. It seems to allow for a better pulling motion for most of my clients and a better contraction when they get to end of their pull.
Once you have the set-up down, you’ll begin by pulling the dumbbell towards the outer part of your rib cage, while squeezing your shoulder blade down and back. I’ll steal cue here I’ve heard used a lot by the guys at Cressey Sports Performance, which is to put your shoulder blade in the back pocket of your opposite side.
You should begin to really feel your lats working at that point. Continue to squeeze the shoulder blade back until you reach that maximal contraction.
More often than not, during the pulling phase of this exercise I see people make these two mistakes:
A.) Try to pull the dumbbell too far and begin to rotate their shoulder past where it needs to go causing them discomfort in their elbows and shoulders.
B.) Twisting their torso a lot in order to give them the feeling that they went through a full range of motion when, in fact, the muscles around the shoulder blade and the lats did very little work.
Once you’ve completed the pulling motion, lower the weight back down in a controlled fashion (that doesn’t mean it has to be super slow).
As the elbow straightens out towards the bottom, allow for your shoulder blade to protract slightly to allow for a slight stretch through the lats and upper back as well as a greater range of motion. This does not mean that you should lose that neutral spine position, or twist downward with your torso.
Here are some examples of what we don’t want your 1-Arm Row to look like:
As with any exercise it all depends on what training effect you’re trying to achieve. Are you training to build strength? Size? Burn calories as part of circuit? Each of these end goals for your workout requires slightly different programming options.
If getting stronger is your primary focus, I generally advise working through 3-5 sets of 5-8 reps per side. The focus should be on using the heaviest weight possible while maintaining good form and still feeling a strong muscle contraction in your back.
Are you looking more to build some muscle, in that case I’d advise you to focus on time under tension. What I mean by that is keeping tension in the muscles that are working for as long as possible throughout each rep. Add an extra little pause/squeeze at the top of the rep or maybe slow down the eccentric (negative) part of the rep, or both. Keep the reps high in the 8-12 range and work through 3-4 sets.
Maybe you’re looking to throw this into some sort of a finisher at the end of your workout to burn a couple extra calories. If that’s the case, pick a weight that is lighter than what you would normally use so that you can still maintain good form even as you get fatigued.
You should be able to move the weight pretty fast but that doesn’t mean you should be out of control and using terrible form. If that’s the case make the necessary adjustments and you’ll get much better results.
No matter what your focus is on the 1-Arm DB row can be an invaluable part of your program as long as you’re performing it optimally.
Now get off to gym and move some iron around!