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Training the back for size is not a simple task. Many exercises that are known to be “staples” in back training are regularly bastardized in the gym with poor form, wrong tempo, or incorrect rep ranges. There’s no better place to start than with the ever popular single-arm dumbbell row.
Dumbbell rows are performed in many varieties: standing while leaning one hand on the dumbbell rack itself, standing with no support at all, chest supported, and even in a plank position. For the purposes of clarity and to apply to the largest demographic, I’m going to refer to the most common dumbbell row I’ve seen used; a single arm row with one arm and leg supported on a bench.
Start by planting one knee and one hand on the bench. Your hand should be out slightly in front of your shoulders, and your back should have a slight arch. The knee and shin on the same side should be supported on the bench. On the opposing side, the foot should be on the ground, with the toes in line with (or just behind) the opposing knee. To get into the right back position, I like to cue my clients to “push the butt back”, as this will allow the low back to arch and the ribcage to slightly rise. It also puts more weight into the lower body and less into the hands (that’s important).
One common mistake I notice comes when clients doen’t use a wide enough base. The distance between your two legs should be similar to that you use when you’re about to perform squats. This creates a stable base that will be less prone to fall into compensation from one side to the other due to a stance that’s too narrow. When you’re carrying a heavy dumbbell, it’s easy to allow the body to “lean” to the supported side, placing most of the weight on the bench, and encouraging poor mechanics, and an arm-dominant pull. Stay square.
Every pulling exercise that involves the elbow bending requires a preliminary shoulder retraction in order to make the back do the work. This dumbbell row falls into this category and therefore is no exception. To start the movement, remember to “unlock” the shoulder blades while maintaining a flat back. The dumbbell should be close to the floor, and your elbow shouldn’t be bent. As you begin your pull, try to move it as far away from the ground as possible without bending your elbow. You’ll notice that the only way to do this (aside from twisting your body, which is just plain wrong – but you knew that already) is to retract the shoulder blade of the working arm. Once there’s no room left for retraction, let the elbow enter the movement and “drag” the weight to the torso. Be sure to keep the elbow close to the body, and avoid curling the wrist. The elbow should finish beside the body. Control the rep on the negative half of the lift, and return to a fully stretched position.
This is huge. Nine out of 10 people I’ve seen do rows apply it to the wrong muscle groups. Don’t get me wrong. The single-arm dumbbell row is an exercise that, when done correctly, can activate plenty of upper back musculature. The thing is, there are better exercises to choose from depending on just which muscles of the upper back you’re trying to hit by using it. That’s why I believe it’s the best choice to treat the single arm dumbbell row as an UPPER LAT exercise. Not only does this encourage a movement pattern and style that more closely follows the path of the lats’ fibers, but it also allows the arm to move in a much more natural pattern and lowers the possibility for poor shoulder retraction and missed reps. Furthermore, the force angle just plain isn’t conducive to hitting the higher scapular muscles quite as hard. Check out my detailed demonstration and explanation of the movement in the video below:
I recommend using the dumbbell row for higher reps; I’ve found the upper back responds well to endurance-based work in general – which makes sense due to the roles they play in sustained contraction and postural correction. Sets of 12-15 are a good place to start when you’re pumping up the volume.
Using the dumbbell row is a definite key to size in your back program, and it’s important that you get the movement down pat before going to town with it, and even more important to do so before you start moving to the right of the dumbbell rack to reach for heavier weights. All that’s left now is to grab your seat on the gain train.
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