Daily Dose of Coach #201: The One Arm Dumbbell Row

The dumbbell one arm row is a staple in my exercise programs. It's one of those "old school exercises" that gives you a lot for what it looks like.

The row is a scapular retraction and depression exercise. Meaning, if done correctly, it's great for developing postural muscles. It's also a great core exercise in that it's an anti-flexion and anti-rotation exercise. The big muscles it primarily involves are the lats, rhomboids, lower and mid traps, erectors, rotator cuff, and rectus abdominus and obliques.

The row is also legendary for being done incorrectly. I can't tell you how many times I've watched this exercise butchered in gyms all around the world. Though it looks easy to execute, here are a few things I see people doing wrong:

-Having too much flexion or extension in their neck: Either their head is flexed down looking between their legs or they have their head up straining their neck to to watch themselves in the mirror.

-Too much back flexion or extension. Thoracic flexion or the "hump back" look more common. In throracic flexion or "Kyphotic" position, it's limits the mobility of the scapula, deeming the lats and rhomboids useless in this exercise.

-Jerking and Rotating: This problem starts if the weight is too heavy from the beginning, or starts to happen in the last few repetitions. Rotating happens when trying to go through a full range of motion, but not through scapular movement.

-The elbow flared out. I often see this coupled with the jerking, rotating, and the kyphotic position. The holy trinity of a bad one arm row.

So how is a good dumbbell one arm row properly executed? In the video above this person demonstrates two ways to set up. One is bench supported, and the other is a three point set-up. I generally like to use the three point set up because it provides less stability and increases the intensity of the exercise just a bit. But either way, the execution of the row is the same:

  • Set your body up so your torso is parallel with the ground.
  • Keep a neutral spine throughout the whole movement. No cervical, thoracic or lumbar flexion or extension.
  • Start with the dumbbell hanging at your side. To start the movement, retract the scapula like you are trying to squeeze a pencil between your shoulder blades.
  • Pull the weight back, elbow moving towards the ceiling to about a 45 degree angle. Squeeze the scapula back as hard as possible. I also like to try to think "crush the handle" with my grip at the top of the movement as well.
  • Make sure that you are not rotating at the top of the movement in exchange for proper scapular movement.
  • Lower the the arm to the starting position in control and repeat.
  • Remember the body should remain stiff and solid. The only movement that should be occurring is through the elbow and scapula.