Focus Physique
The Perfect One Arm Dumbbell Row Form

Proper one arm dumbbell row form can be hard to come by and this can be a truly abused exercise. Therefore, I felt it was necessary to give you a guide to the perfect dumbbell row form! Lots of articles tend to bash every trainee that gets this exercise wrong.

It’s not the end of the world though. There are certain concepts of the one arm dumbbell row that need to be taken into consideration for great form, and we’re going to clear that up here.

I myself butchered this exercise for my whole first year of training. Being a personal trainer, I’ve also helped many people with this exercise and have gotten so many positive reactions to their new found exercise form.

Things such as:

“Wow, I never knew I was supposed to feel it there.”

or

“I actually feel the muscle working now!”

This dialogue perfectly sums up the problems we are generally seeing as well. People don’t know what they’re supposed to be working, where to feel it, and how to execute the movement.

What We’re Looking for in the One Arm Row

Besides building the proper muscles, being able to do a pulling movement efficiently is one of the fundamental movements the human body should be able to perform.

The muscles primarily involved in the dumbbell one arm row include: the latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, lower trapezius, mid trapezius, erector spinae, and biceps brachii.

The overall goal is to feel the one arm row in the upper middle back around the shoulder blade area. To ensure we have the one arm row just right, employ the form tips below and read through the troubleshooting guide if need be!

Form Tip 1: Maintain a Wide Base

We’re going to evaluate the classic one arm row with one knee on the bench, one hand on the bench and one leg kicked out for support.

Between these three points you’ll need to be wide enough to ensure proper thoracic extension. This means place the hand, knee, and leg with adequate space in between.

Being hunched causes the back to round which doesn’t allow for proper scapular retraction. This in turn does not allow the rhomboids, middle and lower traps, and potentially the lats to be worked properly and thoroughly.

Lehman et al. (2004) did a study on latissimus dorsi muscle activity in the cable-pulley seated row with and without full scapular retraction. This study did show the trend that there is better latissimus dorsi muscle activity with full scapular retraction.

This may lead to the fact the lats won’t be fully engaged if there isn’t proper thoracic extension in the one arm row.

Form Tip 2: Chest Up, Back Flat

Dumbbell row form is bad with a rounded upper back.
This is not the posture you want with good dumbbell row form

This ties into the first form tip. With a wide enough base it’s possible to keep proper thoracic extension by keeping the chest up and back flat.

Form Tip 3: Shoulder Down Toward the Hip

Many people have the tendency to shrug the shoulder towards their ear. The problem with this is it puts a large amount of the focus onto the upper trap. When doing the exercise properly, you may slightly feel it in the upper trap.

The upper trap are also known as the upper trapezius muscle.
The upper traps are highlighted in yellow.

If you more than slightly feel it in the upper trap, then further evaluation into form or underactive/overactive muscles may be needed. The upper trap is actually a muscle that is commonly deemed overactive, which could potentially affect your one arm row.

First though, we should focus on proper form. The que I like to give is “keep the shoulder down towards the hip”. This ensures that the upper trap isn’t taking the brunt of the one arm row.

Form Tip 4: Lead with the Elbow

Visualizing that you are leading the movement with the elbow allows you to disengage the bicep which is key.

This is a weird concept and hard to visually spot. What I typically tell my client is to imagine that the resistance is behind the elbow and you are pushing through that. The hands are just hooks holding the weight.

Through my experience, this que works and recruits more of the back muscle fibers as opposed to doing the row without this focus.

Form Tip 5: Keep Elbows Close to the Body, Squeeze Shoulder Blade

The reason behind this tip is to ensure that the lats are engaging properly and that we are bringing the shoulder in toward the spine for full scapular retraction.

Research on how to get the best latissimus dorsi muscle activity has also been pretty conclusive on the fact that shoulder extension with the arm close to the body ensures the best lat muscle activity.

This also ties in with another common mistake that we see in the one arm dumbbell row: winging at the elbow. Like I said above, you want the elbow close to the body for the best muscle engagement, not sticking away from the body.

The common reason people make this winging motion is because they bring the dumbbell too high up in relation to their body. From the starting position, the dumbbell will naturally sit right underneath the shoulder.

From here, you actually want to pull back and end at belly button level as opposed to chest level. Ending at chest level is what creates this undesired winging motion.

Form Tip 6: Avoid Rotation

Some trainees doing this exercise will have the tendency to dip alllll the way down as if they’re trying to touch their dumbbell to the floor, and then come back up. Don’t do this!

One of the subtle benefits of the one arm row in the core activation you get from avoiding this rotation. This is actually a great benefit of one arm exercises in general.

Along with this, the excessive rotation might place strain on the spine and also take away focus from ensuring that you’re engaging the right muscles.

One Arm Dumbbell Row Form Troubleshoot Guide

We now have all the elements in place, but from my experience it’s unfortunately not always that simple. There’s a lot of form tips to keep in mind so it’s understandable you might still be running into a problem.

Most problems with the one arm row that you will run into just involve a need for quick tweaks in form. Let’s look at the most common problems I see in those that I work with doing the one arm row.

Troubleshoot 1: Feeling One Arm Rows More in the Arms

Feeling one arm dumbbell rows more in the arms is pretty common and usually stems from your rowing form. This can be fixed with a quick tweak in your dumbbell row form.

For a nearly instantaneous fix to this problem, envision yourself leading the movement with your elbow. You might have already been doing this, but on your next set, put more focus into leading with the elbow and see if it shifts from your arms, to more of your back.

This fix is usually instantaneous, but sometimes it does take some practice to get just right!

Troubleshoot 2: Feeling One Arm Rows More in the Upper Traps

Feeling one arm dumbbell rows more in the upper traps is another common problem and typically can be fixed instantaneously with a quick form tweak.

This time we need to put more focus into keeping the shoulder down towards the hip. The reason you’re probably feeling it more in the upper trap is because you are elevating the shoulder.

This problem can be trickier though than just keeping the shoulder down through proper dumbbell row form. Some people actually have overactive traps and it’s a bit more common than you might think.

This actually means that they have a hard time inhibiting the upper traps and getting muscles such as the mid and lower traps to fire.

If you think that your upper traps may be overactive, refer to the section below the troubleshoot guide on upper trap release.

Troubleshoot 3: Still Not Feeling One Arm Rows in the Back

If you still can’t feel your one arm rows in the back after the first and second troubleshoot, then you may not be pulling the dumbbell back far enough.

While keeping all of the form tips in mind, you’ll want to row up as far as you naturally can. Sometimes this is the last key to finally feeling it in the back.

You’ll know you are trying to row too far if you start to extend in the elbow or curl the wrist in. These are compensations to pull the weight farther, but in reality you’re doing nothing beneficial!

Upper Trap Release

I’m going to give you the general run through on how to disengage the upper traps and how to get the middle and lower traps firing.

It may take weeks or more to really feel like you’ve successfully disengaged the upper traps to the proper extent, but this process will allow that release to take place.

Your first step is going to be to use a self-myofascial release (SMR) technique on the upper traps. Two great tools to do this are the foam roller or the Theracane.

When foam rolling the upper traps, place the foam roller on a wall and lean onto the roller. This is an effective approach.

Standard protocol for foam rolling the upper traps is to roll over the muscle nice and slow. Going too fast can excite the muscle which is the opposite of what we want to do.

If you find a particularly tender area, hold the foam roller there for about 30 seconds. If you’re more adept with the foam roller, then a hard foam roller and long release time such as 1-minute can be appropriate.

The Theracane is also a great tool to use. With the Theracane, you have the ability to find tension points and choose the amount of pressure you would like to use. Again, hold out each tender point for 30 seconds to 1-minute.

From here, out next step is to engage the middle and lower traps along with a few other scapular depressors and retractors. An exercise I love to get the job done is the banded w; also known as the shoulder w.

The video below gives a great demonstration on how to do this exercise properly. In addition to the form given, I would also recommend using a tempo 2-2-4 which will be great for getting the proper muscles to activate.

This means a two count on the concentric and isometric portion of the muscle contraction, and a four count on the eccentric (negative) portion.

Once you’ve done the following steps above, then you can go into the one arm row. Throw out your ego and keep the weight light. In addition to this, proper dumbbell row form is everything to ensure that the right muscles are now firing.

One Arm Dumbbell Row Form Figured Out!

One arm dumbbell row form can be frustrating and hard to come by. Once you feel it in the right spots though, it’s amazing the progress you can make in your strength and aesthetics!

Follow these tips and you will get the one arm row just right. It also doesn’t hurt to video tape yourself or have a trained eye to help you pick up the movement from an outside perspective!

Did you too ever struggle with the one arm row and have that aha moment when you finally got it right?


Sources:

  • Bentley and Beardsley. (n.d.). Latissimus Dorsi. Retrieved from https://www.strengthandconditioningresearch.com/muscles/latissimus-dorsi/#REF
  • Lehman, G. J., Buchan, D. D., Lundy, A., Myers, N., & Nalborczyk, A. (2004). Variations in muscle activation levels during traditional latissimus dorsi weight training exercises: An experimental study. Dynamic Medicine, 3(1), 4. [PubMed]

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About Brennen Elboeck

I'm Brennen, the founder of FocusPhysique.com. I want to give hundreds of thousands of people science based, practical physique and life transforming information! To never miss a post or what's new make sure to sign up for our newsletter above!

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