If you want a big strong back and healthy shoulders, the dumbbell row and it’s many variations must be a staple movement pattern in your training.
But here’s the problem; the row is theoretically super shoulder friendly, but in the real world where athletes actually train and technique flies right out the window as soon as weights start to get relatively heavy, the row is also one of the single most butchered movements in the gym.
This fact is the reason why many lifters are left utterly confused when their shoulders and elbows start to get beat up when they are programming everything by the books in terms of ratios of pulling and placing emphasis on the row.
But here’s the deal, no matter how world-class your programming is, if you use piss poor form and place a high amount of volume and load on said piss poor form, you’re going to be dealing with your fare share of pain, dysfunction and training plateaus.
But before you crank your gleno-humeral joint through another volume heavy back day that in all actuality has little to no benefit for the development of your back, it’s time to fix your dumbbell rows.
Since the row is considered a “feel” based movement that requires high levels of mind-muscle connection and activation, it’s important to teach this movement based on feel. And that’s exactly what are are going to do!
But before we jump into this, we better cover some basics as it pertains to pulling based movements, the row and shoulder health in general. This is some important shit so pay attention before you skip to the row variations that are going to fix your ugly ass form below!
The Row vs. The Pull-Up & Why It Matters
Since this is indeed a rowing article, it would be negligent not to mention the golden push to pull ratio for shoulder health: If you aren’t rowing 2-3x as much as you are pulling up you are leaving your shoulder health to chance. But lets remember that all pulling was NOT created equally.
The horizontal pull is vastly different than its vertical counterpart aka the pull up. And identifying what makes it the row the superior movement pattern for building strength and muscle as well is important if you want to row with ANY variation pain-free.
While the pull up and it’s many hand setups variations place a stretch on the lats and train in an overhead position, we often forget that this pattern places the shoulder into internal rotation under loading. While this is not inherently bad, this position, the volume placed upon it and the load should be monitored.
On the opposite side of pulling is the row pattern that allows the shoulder to stay in a more neutral position throughout a full range of motion while improving a synergistic lat and upper back targeted activation for better transferable training effects. This movement pattern also has the ability to extend the t-spine and shoulder posturing while being able to be programmed with heavy loads and higher volumes in a more pain-free way.
By no means is the pull-up and it’s many variations inherently dangerous, but we must place an emphasis on row based movement patterns in pain-free programming. And it of course goes without saying, well maybe not, that the form and technique during the row is also an important indicator of a lifter’s ability to train this pattern without restriction of pain.
Now that we have that covered, here are a few of the key technique fixes that a vast majority of lifters need to key in on to upgrade the horizontal pulling movement pattern, especially when using the dumbbell.
The Importance of “The Arc” During The Row
In order to fully engage the lats and upper back during the dumbbell row, there MUST be an arcing type movement with the dumbbell moving back towards your hip during the concentric pulling muscular action. Contrary to common butchered form during this movement, this does NOT mean just moving the dumbbell up and down. That’s a big no-no, even though gravity is teasing you to fall into this rowing trap.
The initiation of the arc not only improves activation by targeting the musculature of the back such as the lats more authentically based on their primary muscular action, but also limits the shoulder from going into an over extended position at the gleno-humeral joint. This avoidance of the hyperextension at the shoulder at the top of the row range of motion helps to keep the true shoulder joint out of that nasty impinging internal rotated based position.
While it’s very difficult to actually see relative movement patterning back and forth during the row based movement, it’s important to differentiate intent vs action. The intent of rowing back towards the hip in an arcing type motion is the key here, as there is truly no external resistance that forces the shoulder back, only up while moving against gravity.
While cueing this movement, the starting and ending points are extremely important to place yourself into a position to literally feel the arc type motion happening. Starting out of a stretched position at the lats with the shoulder blade moving slightly into protraction and upward rotation, we can extend the available range to engage the lats to extend back upon the initial pull.
Also, by “stretching” the bottom portion of this movement, we can create a stronger activation pattern from the lat, rhomboids and scapular musculature to work together in order to create internal tension that you can differentiate from relative motion of the weight moving from point A to point B.
For those lifters who have trouble “feeling” the lats turn on and get pumped during a set of rows, and instead feel it in the biceps most, cueing this arc with a peak contraction at top will also be a powerful tool to enhance this lift.
How do you know you are arcing correctly if there is very little relative movement happening back towards the hip? Well, we want to “feel” strong contractions and blood flow entering the lats. And in the best case scenarios, you’ll be able to activate the lats not only up into the shoulder where most people feel contractions and tension happen from, but even down into the attachment points along the rib cage. Activate there, and you know you are on the right track with this cue that is truly internally based.
Achieve The Arc By Improving The Angle & Stretched Line of Pull
While cueing the arcing row to generate better internal tension at the lats is an important first step in improving your row pattern, often times lifters have a hard time eliciting quality muscular contractions. The next step in the process of improving the mind-muscle connection and authentic row pattern is by altering the setup of the single arm by using a slight declined angle bench.
The decline bench single arm dumbbell row provides a more novel angle of pull to initiate the row from due to the change in body position in the kneeling 3-point stance setup. By elevating the foot of the bench and creating a declined angle between 10-30 degrees, we can place a bigger stretch through the lats at the bottom where the arm initiates the pull from (while perpendicular to the ground in line with the gravitational pull), while also allowing the dumbbell to move through more of an “arcing” motion which lights up the lats and improves the feel.
In terms of the angle of decline, a little truly goes a long way. Remember, we are altering joint positions slightly to target better centrated positions to elicit a higher quality of contraction through an accentuated range of motion. Drastic changes to this staple movement pattern are not necessary, and will limit the effectiveness if you go overboard on the angles. This is the main reason to build up a flat bench slightly with plates instead of using the traditional adjustable decline bench.
It’s also important to note that your setup must remain the same for your hip, leg and arm positioning on the bench to actually make a notable alteration in the angle of pull. I often see this setup cause people to sit back on their butt more than usual, which can negate the effectiveness of this novel declined bench angle for the purposes of activation.
To really get the most out of this movement, literally stretch your arm out forward at the bottom of the range of motion, taking the shoulder blade with you and initiate the pull back towards the hip at the top, peaking the contraction. Since the angle of the bench is on a decline, the dumbbell should be more naturally pulled forward as you lower, which is exactly what we want as we’ll reverse and pull it BACK upon raising. Start light, and get a feel for this setup.
Fixing The Single Arm Dumbbell Row With A Decline Bench & Band
The combination of cueing the arc internally while enhancing the feel by altering the declined angle of the bench setup is pretty powerful. But as we know, some frustrated motor morons truly need more of an external stimulus to force them into the right position to increase the learning curve of a movement.
So if the intelligent setup and row based variations above haven’t quite done the trick to elicit the type of activation and pain-free movement, here’s a way to instantly improve your technique with a slight decline bench setup and the addition of a band.
While the use of bands cue increase activation and cue tension through weak points or lagging muscle groups isn’t anything new to the industry, it is pretty damn effective. This technique of “pulling” into the bands during compound movement patterns is referred to Reactive Neuromuscular Training (RNT), and is going to become your new best friend to improve the look, feel and function of struggling movements.
By now we’ve beat the “arcing row” to death, but this again is a key point to understand when we talk about adding a band into the movement pattern with RNT as the goal.
The natural pull of a row will cause the weight to move up and down (perpendicular to the ground) against gravity, but yet again, this presents with problems. By adding a band in the horizontal line of pull (parallel to the ground) the first key stabilizers of the posterior shoulder will be activated, and the movement will be trained in multiple planes against both the bands and gravity.
Here’s how to simply set this band up for an enhanced feel and cleaner, crisper dumbbell rows:
Attach a circular band to a stable surface that will be parallel to the ground during the row
Wrap the circular band around the side of the dumbbell
Setup in the 3-point stance on the slight decline bench
Grip the dumbbell and ensure that you stabilize the band between your hand and the handle
Initiate the arcing row by driving the dumbbell back to your hip against the band
Control the eccentric lowering and stretch the lats out in front of the body at the bottom
You’ll notice that the dumbbell will have more relative motion forward and backward, so stay smooth and strict with your form and control the range of motion to get the most out of this variation.
Due to the multi-planar aspect of this movement, stability is going to be very challenging. Programming in more pure strength and hypertrophy schemes with slow and controlled movement patterns will provide the best training stimulus for this corrective strength movement. Stick with multiple ramp and working sets between 8-15 reps putting quality contractions over quantity or loading in the dumbbell.
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 Gold Medalist Olympians, NFL All-Pros, MLB All-Stars, Professional Bodybuilders, World-Record Holding Powerlifters, National Level Olympic Lifters and All-World IronMan Triathletes.
Along with his impressive coaching accolades, Dr. John and his innovative methods have been regularly featured in some of the most widely regarded media outlets in the industry like Men’s Fitness, Shape Magazine, Testosterone Nation, and Bodybuilding.com to name a few.
Dr. Rusin is the leading pioneer in the fitness and sports performance industries in smart pain-free performance programming that achieves world class results while preventing injuries in the process. Dr. John’s methods are showcased in his 12-Week Functional Hypertrophy Training Programthat combines the very best from athletic performance training, powerlifting, bodybuilding and preventative physical therapy to produce world-class results without pain and injuries.