If there is one dumbbell exercise that everyone does and probably does wrong, it is the single-arm dumbbell row. In fact, one could sit in a corner at a gym and take notes as people choose a weight, prop half a knee on a bench, look up into the mirror to check if their backs are straight, fail to realise that an arched back is not equal to a straight back, wobble a bit, and then pull the weight up in what mostly seems like the right way, but is far from it.
It is so painful to watch. And yet, anyone who has done back exercises at the gym has also done exactly this. This is an exercise which has been taught incorrectly for a while, and it is easy to get it wrong.
The most common mistake is not opening up or lengthening your body as much as possible if you are performing this using a bench for support. Make sure your lats are open and free, not restricted into a setup where you end up performing the exercise with a curve in your spine. The one-arm dumbbell row should not be done with any restrictive movements, like pinning the shoulder blades so that only your upper back is working. “A common cue used with the 1-arm dumbbell row is to retract (adduct) the scapulae (shoulder blade) and then to pin it there throughout the duration of the set… Which in turn can result in muscular imbalances. I prefer to coach people to allow their shoulder blades to move or breathe. You should feel a nice stretch in the bottom position – not to the point where you’re hanging on passive restraints – and then return back. It’s a subtle tweak but has a profound influence on the efficacy of the exercise and shoulder health in general,” writes Boston-based coach Tony Gentilcore. Gentilcore has nearly 50,000 followers on his Instagram and was a promising baseball player before shifting focus to fitness science.
The other common mistake – even for those who have mastered keeping a straight back during exercises – is not keeping the neck aligned with the spine. This usually happens because of the impulse to look up in the mirror while rowing. Getting past this impulse and making sure the neck is aligned with the spine is more important.
The last mistake – and this might be surprising for those of you who have been getting results despite using this form – is to perform the move with one knee on the bench. I was doing the same thing until two years ago, and eliminating the knee on the bench has done a world of good to my spinal stability while doing the one-arm dumbbell row. The extremely popular Jeff Cavaliere might be slightly harsh in calling this form of the row the worst back exercise, but his argument makes sense. “When you put one knee on the bench and do this exercise, it puts stress on the groin area that I am not comfortable with,” he says in a YouTube video which has more than 1.1 million views.
Cavaliere argues that putting both feet on the ground for stability and the free arm out to support the upper body makes a lot more sense. He says that this eliminates the mistake of not being able to achieve a horizontal position for the exercise. “I have the additional upper body support that allows me to do so without putting my lower back at risk,” he says. Another way is to eliminate the bench fully and use the dumbbell rack as a support for your free arm.
There is one more variation which eliminates a lot of these issues but uses a barbell rather than a dumbbell. Invented by John Meadows, the video below has him explaining how to do the ‘Meadows Row’ without the worry of groin strains or herniation in the back. The difference here is that the free arm is rested not on a bench or a rack but on your own knee. Meadows stresses the fact that the torso does not move at all while doing the exercise, meaning one should focus on just driving the weight up and controlling it downwards using the lats and rhomboids. The Meadows Row is also done with a different grip since the bar is placed perpendicular to the body and not parallel.
There are easy fixes and alternatives to doing a single-arm row and making sure you don’t hurt your back in the process. And if that involves eliminating its most popular variation, so be it. In the long run, these minor tweaks will keep you going to the gym for longer.
Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.