Dumbbell rowing is essential. But most lifters don't spend a whole lot of time doing it, either because they're making some common mistakes and not getting results or because they're not aware of the benefits. So let's get into those.
Mistakes to Avoid During Dumbbell Rows
The goal of the row is simple: to strengthen the back. Sometimes, ego is a MF'er that causes lifters to attempt weights that are beyond their capability. When this happens, you compensate by twisting the torso and using body momentum to get the weight up.
How To Fix It
- Create and maintain full-body tension throughout your set. This will stabilize the spine and minimize potential swinging and momentum.
- Pull your chest down as you row. While you pull the weight up, pull your chest down. This will encourage a "flat" back and reduce the amount of potential twisting at the torso.
- Use weights you can handle. You get stronger and build muscle with completed reps. No one cares how much you're lifting. You'll get more out of rows by using weight you're capable of lifting with optimal technique.
2. Pulling with the Arms
Inexperienced lifters pull with their arms instead of their backs. They're either going too heavy or they don't know how to effectively engage their backs.
How To Fix It
- Pretend your hands are hooks and pull with your elbows. You may have heard this one before, but try to envision it because it'll reinforce back engagement.
- Loosen up your grip or use straps. It's easy to pull with the arms if you're not used to using your back. It helps to loosen your grip slightly or use weightlifting straps to take the arms out of the equation. Your back is bigger than your arms, and you'll eventually be able to row more weight than you can hold.
- Pull your arm to a 90-degree angle. This rule doesn't necessarily apply to all rowing variations, but it's a good start for most people who are trying to emphasize pulling with their back instead of their biceps and/or upper traps.
In the top photo, my arm is at an acute angle with lots of shoulder shrugging. I'm using too much biceps and upper traps. In the bottom photo, my arm is almost at a 90-degree angle with no shoulder shrugging. I'm effectively pulling with my back, not my arms.
3. Cranking the Neck
Don't hyperextend your neck by looking up during rows. This puts sheer force on the cervical spine and adds unwanted strain on the neck.
How To Fix It
- Stand up naturally and maintain that head/upper back alignment throughout your set. How your head is aligned with your upper back while standing should be identical during your bent over row and even deadlift variations.
- Make a double chin. Push your chin back slightly and keep a "tall head" to avoid hyperextending the neck.
- Stare at the floor. Pick a spot on the floor slightly ahead of you and stare at it throughout your set. Don't look straight forward or up.
Reasons to Up Your Rowing Game
Since there are tons of rowing variations you'll never get bored with it. Here are a few variations you've probably never tried:
Head-Supported Bent Over Row
Eccentric Isometric Bent Over Row
Banded Bent Over Dumbbell Row
Your posterior chain muscles along with your core are responsible for stabilizing the spine. It isn't a suggestion. It's a requirement that you strengthen these muscles to make you better at doing all other things in the gym and in life.
Most lifters tend to favor exercises that exacerbate their internally rotated posture. They do lots of variations of lat pulldowns (isolating the lats which are internal rotators of the shoulders). Rowing exercises (where you're pulling horizontally) are good for your posture since they target the mid-back muscles, which act as extensors and stabilizers of the spine.
Improved Deadlift Strength
You've seen the turtle-shell lockouts in the gym before. Don't be that guy. Save your spine and do rows to strengthen your mid-back muscles and erectors.
Whether you're trying to accomplish your first pull-up or just want to take it to the next level, rows of all sorts will only help you.
How Much Rowing is Enough?
Try adding an extra set for every pressing exercise you do. If you do 6 sets of bench, do 7 sets of rows. This doesn't apply to everyone, but it does get you on the path to prioritizing your back strength.