Dumbbell Bent Over Row: Complete Back Workout Essentials

Dumbbell Bent Over Row is a workhorse exercise. A compound movement that targets the often-neglected back muscles while at the same time working everyone’s favorite muscle—the biceps. Here are a few quick reasons to add bent over dumbbell row to your workout:

  • You’re looking to create a back routine that targets all the essential muscles.
  • You want to include compound exercises in your workouts for their strength-building and calorie-burning benefits.
  • You want to build the muscles in the upper back, shoulders, and biceps.
  • You want to perform exercises that give the biggest results.

Read on and we’ll discuss how a dumbbell bent over row is done, as well as explain why it delivers on everything listed above.

Set of dumbbells used for Dumbbell Bent Over Row

How do you do a Bent Over Row?

In order to perform any kind of bent over row strong fundamentals apply. You can follow this same guide when performing a traditional barbell row or performing an EZ curl bar row. It will give you the best results and protect you from injury. However, since we’re focusing on the bent over DB row, the first thing you’ll need is a set of dumbbells.

Weight Position Matters

Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and set the dumbbells on the ground about 4 inches in front of your shins. They should come down to rest in the same place at the bottom of each repetition. Unlike many lifts that start from the ground, such as deadlifts, you should not bring the weight close to your shins as you lift up. Keep a straight line from your shoulders down to your hands throughout the lift.

Get into Stance

The goal of the bent dumbbell row is to target the muscles in the upper back. The more you stand upright, the more you target the upper portion of your traps instead. This turns the row into more of a shrug, which isn’t what we’re here for. We want a proper bent over row to optimize back muscle gains.

In order to engage your back muscles correctly, you’ll want to keep your back as parallel to the floor as possible. Start by pushing your hips back and bending your knees slightly. If you focus on pushing your butt as far back as possible, this will help get you into the correct position. Fold at the waist until your back is parallel to the ground. Keep your shoulders pulled back and your back straight. Do not allow your back to round or let yourself sink into a crouch.

Take a Deep Breath

How does that stance feel? You should feel a slight stretch in the muscles in the backs of your legs. Your hamstrings will be the key to keeping yourself in good form during the bent over row exercise. Next, breathe in and tighten your stomach. Your abdomen should be pressed firmly against the tops of your thighs. This will engage your core and help prevent lower back injury during the row.

Grab Hold

Grip a dumbbell firmly with each hand. Your arms should be fully extended when the weights are on the ground. If your arms are bent, straighten your legs and raise your chest a little. If you start the DB row with your arms bent you’re cheating yourself of part of the exercise and losing a lot of benefits.

Lift That Weight

Now that you’ve got your grip, pull the weight off the floor. Focus on pulling your elbows up toward the ceiling until the weight is alongside your body. Fight the urge to snatch the weight off the floor by levering with your back. This can put dangerous strain on your lower back. By pulling with your elbows you will actually cause your body to engage the upper-back muscles.

Watch your Elbows

The width at which you keep your elbows during the dumbbell row makes a big difference. The closer you keep your elbows to your body the more you will engage your large back muscles, such as your lats. The wider you keep your elbows, the more you will engage the smaller muscles in your upper back and rear of your shoulders. Try them at about the same width you’d keep your elbows during a bench press.

Neither the close grip or wide grip style is wrong, but the way you perform the lift will have a big impact on where you feel soreness the next day, and where you’ll develop the most muscle. Here at Fitness Day One, we prefer the wide row dumbbell lift. Other exercises in your back routine, such as pull-ups, work wonders for your lats. A wider grip on your bent over dumbbell row works to develop the layer of muscle just above, on, and between your shoulder blades.

Slow Down

After just lifting all that weight to your chest it can be tempting to just let it fall to the floor. While that may be acceptable for a pendlay row, we’re here for the bent over row. Focus on letting the weight down slowly. By taking your time on the eccentric (downward) motion of the lift you’re getting a huge benefit. This may even be the hardest part of the bent over row.

Remember to Breathe

Sometimes beginners have a tendency to hold their breath during the dumbbell bent over row. It can feel unnatural to exhale while pulling the weight to your chest and besides, didn’t we just talk about inhaling and keeping your abdomen tensed during the lift?

The solution is to breathe out during the downward motion of the bent over row. While this is the opposite of most exercises, where you are expected to exhale during the contraction phase, it feels the most natural to exhale while lowering the weight during the bent over row. It also allows you to maintain form through the crucial portions of the lift.

What does Dumbbell Bent Over Row Work?

Primary Muscles

The primary muscles engaged during a bent over row are the lats (latissimus dorsi), and the other muscles of the upper back such as the trapezius (specifically the portion between the shoulder blades), and the infraspinatus (layer of muscle over the shoulder blades).

Secondary Muscles

Secondarily, you will be using your biceps to lift the weight during the dumbbell row. Any exercise where you’re bending your arm to lift the weight provides a biceps workout. Back exercises such as row, pull-ups, and lat pulldowns are excellent biceps exercises as well. You will also engage the rear deltoids (muscles on the back of your shoulders). Oh, and don’t be surprised if you feel a burn in your quads and hamstrings during your row. Good bent over row form engages the legs as well.

What this Means for You

Bent over row can be described as the bench press of the back. If you think about it, you’re essentially performing the opposite motion of the bench press. So that means all the muscles of your back at about chest height are being worked. This builds mass and strength, giving you balanced upper body development, while also preventing dangerous muscles imbalances caused by benching too often and lifting back too little.

Why use Dumbbells?

Now that you know how to do the bent over rows the right way and you know why they’re so good for you, you’re probably wondering why you’d pick up a pair of dumbbells instead of a barbell.

Muscle Development

While you certainly can use a barbell instead of dumbbells, I recommend beginning with dumbbells for your bent over row. Dumbbells keep you honest. During a barbell row, you can use a strong side of the body to do more of the work. Also, many who use barbells for bent over row have trouble keeping their elbows even and end up tucking one, resulting in uneven muscle development. Those same lifters tend to have a much easier time maintaining form when they use dumbbells.

Range of Motion

You can actually pull the weight further back alongside your body and pull your shoulder blades closer together at the top of your lift. This especially engages the section of the trapezius that runs down between your shoulder blades, resulting in those defined upper back muscles that are so hard to get.

Dumbbell Bent Over Row is a Fundamental Exercise

Now it’s time to hit the gym and rep out a few dumbbell bent over rows. I recommend working them into your routine at nearly the same frequency you do bench. This will keep your upper-body muscles balanced.

A total back workout is crucial to any weightlifting plan. There’s a reason some of the best lifting programs incorporate bent over rows, even if there are only 5 total exercises in the program. They’re one of the most essential exercises for any lifter.

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