If your goal is to develop a strong and muscular back that looks as good as it performs, you better damn well place an emphasis on the row. The single arm dumbbell row and its many variations provide the cornerstone of smart back training, and facilitate a myriad of non-aesthetic and strength benefits such as healthy shoulders and improved spinal posture.
But even with the mass benefits across the board that the single arm dumbbell row offers, many strength athletes have their priorities mixed up when it comes to back training, putting all of their training emphasis on vertical pulling movements such as a chin ups and shrugs instead of the hammering away at a common weak link in strength and shoulder health, the horizontal pull aka the row.
While well executed vertical pull variations are not inherently dangerous, very few lifters actually present with the requisite movement and skill capacity to train these more advanced movements without performance or orthopedic repercussions.
Too much poor vertical pulling not only places undue stress on the shoulder joint under too much volume and intensity due to the natural internally rotated glena-humeral (true shoulder joint) biomechanics of the movement, but it also only targets a fraction of the musculature that the horizontal row is capable of hitting.
So yes, if you want to build a bulletproof backside that performs as impressively as it looks, it’s time to start dialing back the volume of vertical pull work in your program, and start investing in perfecting the row pattern instead! Here are the 5 staple single arm dumbbell row variations that you should be mastering and progressing to increase intelligent pain-free volume into your back work into your routine.
Why The Single Arm Dumbbell Row Is So Damn Effective
From a strength and functionality standpoint, the single arm dumbbell row should be placed in every single type of training program, period. The unilateral nature of this movement challenges the entire pillar through the hips, trunk and shoulder girdles, while targeting large key movers on the backside of the body. The only question that remains are what single arm row setup should you use based on your specific strength, hypertrophy or performance goals?
With so many to chose from, it can get confusing for even a season veteran of the iron game. So I have broken down the five most effective single arm row setups (from most basic to most advanced) and detailed the differences and focus each movement to program this back training staple to yield the most results that are geared specifically to your goals.
Use these variations to guide you through a step by step approach of rebuilding the horizontal pull pattern. Once you’ve mastered the execution of the movement and challenged loading capacity to a high enough level to elicit a training effect, keep moving up the pyramid to advance your row work to fit your skill level and training goals.
#1 Kneeling Single Arm Dumbbell Row
If you are a novice lifter or have a history of lower back pain and/or dysfunction, the kneeling three point single arm dumbbell row provides the most stable setup to work from while also minimizing the shift and compensation at the hips and lower lumbar spine that is commonly associated with poor rowing mechanics.
The three points of contact are your foot on the ground, opposite hand placed on the weight bench, and the entire length of your opposite shin in contact with the weight bench in order to increase the total contact area, hence increasing the stability of the setup of this single arm dumbbell row variation as a whole.
Aside from being a great way to teach and master properly executed single arm rowing mechanics, this setup is an effective choice for secondary training days where you want to minimize the stress placed upon the stability of the spine and hips. With more emphasis placed on the dynamic movement itself, the exercise becomes more joint friendly and easier to target the active muscles directly.
Position yourself on the weight bench with your opposite arm straight with the hand in contact with the bench, same side leg out extended in contact with the floor and opposite shin in full contact with the bench and the ankle crease up against the edge of the bench.
From this stable position, grab the dumbbell in one hand and ensure that your base is stable by activating the core, glutes, arm and leg that are responsible for static support.
Row the dumbbell back activating at the lats and focusing on “squeezing” the dumbbell back to your hip, NOT driving the elbow up as commonly practiced incorrectly.
Tension for a split second at the top of the range of motion and control the eccentric lowering portion until your arm is in a straightened position at the elbow.
Throughout the reps in a set, maintain constant tension in the muscles of the back and work hard to create smooth and coordinated motions up and down.
#2 Symmetrical Stance Single Arm Dumbbell Row
The symmetrical stance single arm row provides the opposite setup of what we just reviewed with the kneeling three-point stance single arm dumbbell row variation. Due to having both feet in perfect symmetry underneath the hips and the core and spine in a parallel and non-rotated position relative to the floor, the symmetrical stance single arm dumbbell row challenges the core with a greater need for anti-rotation activity throughout the single arm row movement.
This variation is the preferred setup for high performance athletes and other functionally minded lifters who want to “kill two birds with one stone” in their training. This is largely due to time constraints, having a different goals set or focus for training, or just thinking it will have a higher amount of transference into sport of physical activity.
Check out this VIDEO as I teach Dave Tate of EliteFTS the symmetrical stance row at time clock 14:30.
These is no doubt that this variation is the most challenging of the three that we will review in this article, and if you don’t believe me, stay strict on your form and see your loads decrease as your core activity increases. Again, this variation is great for linking up the kinetic chain and creating segmentation synergy, but absolutely limits the top end loads that are able to be moved and controlled by the active back musculature involved in the row. So if you are more aesthetic and strength minded, move onto the last setup we will review, the split stance single arm dumbbell row in the next section.
Place your feet in the power stance just below your hips with the toes pointing directly forward.
Using the hip hinge motion, push your butt back and bend at the knees slightly to set your hips and spine in a perfectly stable position to work from.
Place your opposite hand on the weight bench or any other elevated surface and maintain a straight elbow position.
At this point, your spine should be parallel to the ground.
Pick up the dumbbell and begin to row towards your back hip without altering your base of support at the hips, supporting arm or legs.
Maintain coordinated and smooth rhythm of the row throughout the set.
It should be noted that the most limiting factor of this type of row setup may indeed be the core, so place your focus on maintaining properly aligned core positions throughout the set.
#3 Split Stance Single Arm Dumbbell Row
If you are a serious strength or aesthetic athlete that wants the best strength and hypertrophy stimulus possible, I would recommend you master the split stance single arm dumbbell row setup for a few key reasons.
First, it allows just enough core and pillar involvement to be deemed functional and transferable to other major lifts or activities. Secondly, due to the angle of the torso during this movement, you will be able to load this variation up heavier while still managing to maintain a stable and neutral spine. And lastly, due to the split stance setup, the hip on the active rowing side (back hip) remains slightly higher than the opposite side hip, creating a pre-stretch through the lats. This pre-stretch really activates the entire lat and places it in a position to do some major work.
My favorite feature about this setup is the ability to allow the lat to stretch at the bottom of the range of motion by letting your shoulder blade protract and upwardly rotate. While still maintaining control, this end range accentuated stretch will allow a greater range of motion that is great for mobility maintenance and expediting the pump to the active muscles.
Again, the greatest thing about the variables that I mentioned above including core involvement, torso angle and pre-stretch hip height, is that you can manipulate these setups to taper this staple rowing movement to your body and your goals. Every single person will have unique anatomy and anthropometrics, so finding your perfect setup by manipulating these variables is necessary for advanced lifters to keep progressing.
Give this setup a shot, and make sure to slightly alter your stance and setup out of this initial recommendation based on your goals, and more importantly, what you feel!
In a split stance, position your front leg facing forward with a slight bend in the knee while your back leg is semi-straightened with your toes pointing out at an angle to open up and elevate the back side hip.
To elevate the hip and achieve a pre-stretch of the lat, rotate the rowing side hip up slightly bringing your toe pointing more directly out to the side.
The opposite arm will be placed on a stable surface such as a weight bench or dumbbell rack. To manipulate your torso angle, use higher or lower surfaces for your arm support.
From this stable position, grab the dumbbell and row back towards the hip. With the pre-stretch of the lat, let your shoulder blade rotate freely around the thoracic cage, accentuating the range of motion used during the row.
Allow your thoracic cage to move slightly into extension and rotation during the pull phase of the motion, and forward rotation and slightly flexion during the eccentric stretched lowering phase.
With the increased scapular and thoracic cage movement, ensure there is minimal momentum and compensation being used.
Finally, this is a more advanced variation; so master the three point stance before progressing to this.
#4 Decline Arcing Single Arm Dumbbell Row
While the single arm dumbbell row is a movement pattern that predominantly takes place in the horizontal plane of action, advanced lifters can reap the benefits of slight angulation changes in order to target the lats and upper back to a greater degree. Using a traditional flat weight bench with slight inclines or declines can help achieve novel angles to work from in order to clean up functional weak links or accentuate activation or specific muscles that are active in the chain.
Though a slight incline can absolutely be useful in training, I prefer to teach the slight decline from a strength and hypertrophy plateau busting standpoint due to the position the declined angle naturally allows the shoulder (and more specifically the shoulder blade) to fall into during the eccentric portion of the exercise.
Placing a few weight plates under one side of the bench then kneeling on that same side changes the angle of the torso, and in turn, the shoulder complex before the acting rowing motion even starts. With a more declined angle, the shoulder blade can achieve greater degrees of protraction and upward rotation at the bottom aspect of the range of motion that essentially “stretches” the muscles at the bottom at terminal end range.
Training from the stretch can be a helpful driver for enhancing the mind muscle connection while also expediting localized blood flow into the area, which is helpful from both a corrective and hypertrophy standpoint. Lastly, the decline angle forces an arcing type motion of the dumbbell moving from front to back aka “towards the hip” which helps the shoulder cue extension, which is a prime movement that targets the lats.
All of these benefits can be simply achieved by changing the angle. Simplicity is the ultimate form of sophistication. And for a quick “corrective” fix for flailing elbows on the single arm dumbbell row, try out THISvariation that has proven highly effective for cueing the arcing row with an external banded cue.
Place 2-3 weight plates under the head of a traditional flat bench.
Kneel on the high side of the bench which the plates are positioned under.
Achieve a 3-point kneeling stance on the decline angled bench per #1 above
Allow the dumbbell to “stretch” the bottom aspect of the motion while still staying under control with full tension around the shoulder joint at all times.
Drive the dumbbell up and back towards your hip in an arcing motion.
Activate and squeeze your lats, focusing on the lower rib cage insertion points.
Control the eccentric action slowly under tension down into the stretched position and repeat.
#5 Split Stance Dead Stop Single Arm Dumbbell Row
Every foundational movement pattern is comprised of three phases of muscular action; the eccentric, concentric and amortization phases. The eccentric lengthening which occurs at the back happens when the dumbbell approximates the floor, while the concentric happens when the dumbbell is driven up towards the hip. Between these two phases, AFTER the eccentric and BEFORE the concentric is where the amortization phase takes place, aka the change of direction phase.
While moving through all phases of action is a standardized skill which every lifter should be able to master with the single arm dumbbell row, there are certain advantages to taking away the stretch-shortening cycle that occurs in the amortization phase in order to peak higher activation in the musculature comprising the back while also improving starting strength positioning.
This can be simply achieved with a dead stop row variation which incorporates the dumbbell resting on the ground between each rep of the single arm dumbbell row. For advanced strength and hypertrophy training, this is the top of the movement pyramid for the single arm dumbbell row which can spark a huge training effect due to it’s novelty and variance.
Position the feet in a split stance.
Hinge the hips over and bend the knees to allow the hand to come close to ground contact.
Use the opposite hand to stabilize this asymmetrical stance by gripping the dumbbell rack (or a bench).
Start the dumbbell down on the ground to the side of the back leg.
Grip the dumbbell hard, tension the hips, core and shoulders together, and pull explosively.
Peak the flex at the top of the range of motion and accentuate the eccentric back down into the starting position.
Allow the dumbbell to settle on the ground and do NOT ounce it with touch and go style reps.
Repeat for the prescribed reps, then reciprocate the feet and hands to train the opposite side.
About The Author
Dr. John Rusin is an internationally recognized coach, physical therapist, speaker, and sports performance expert. Dr. John has coached some of the world’s most elite athletes, including multiple Gold Medalist Olympians, NFL All-Pros, MLB All-Stars, Professional Bodybuilders, World-Record Holding Powerlifters, National Level Olympic Lifters and All-World IronMan Triathletes.
Dr. Rusin is the leading pioneer in the fitness and sports performance industries in intelligent pain-free performance programming that achieves world class results while preventing injuries in the process. Dr. John’s methods are showcased in his best selling Functional Hypertrophy Training Programthat combines the best from athletic performance training, powerlifting, bodybuilding and preventative therapy to produce world-class results without pain and injuries.