The 8 Best Dumbbell Row Variations to Build a Stronger Back

Doing a dumbbell row from a plank makes it a full-body exercise.
Image Credit: BartekSzewczyk/iStock/GettyImages

When you think of upper-back exercises, odds are dumbbell rows readily come to mind. You can rely on rows to build muscle, strengthen slumped-over shoulders and improve your posture.

While you can reap big benefits doing dumbbell rows, over time, you might find yourself feeling less challenged or bored. To prevent your progress from plateauing and to keep your motivation high, infuse your workout routine with fresh dumbbell row variations.

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But before you advance to row variations, brush up on the proper form for the standard bent-over dumbbell row first.

First, Master the Standard Dumbbell Row

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Activity Dumbbell Workout
Body Part Back
  1. Holding a dumbbell in each hand, stand with feet hip-width apart and knees bent slightly.
  2. Hinge at the hips until your chest is parallel with the floor and your back is flat.
  3. Brace your core as you pull your elbows up to your sides until they touch your ribs while squeezing your shoulder blades to your spine.
  4. Return to start, extending your arms down toward the floor.

Now Try These 8 Dumbbell Row Variations

The best way to advance your dumbbell rows? Single-arm variations. "[They're] often overlooked and underrated for strength and performance," Ben Lauder-Dykes, trainer for Fhitting Room and certified kettlebell instructor, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "And this is leaving a lot of potential progress on the table."

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That's because you can produce more force per limb when each is working unilaterally (something known as the bilateral deficit), Lauder-Dykes says. For example, if you can lift 100 pounds in a two-arm row, you'll be able to lift more than 50 pounds when doing a single-arm row.

While the specific mechanism isn't fully understood, Lauder-Dykes says it's likely due to the fact that moving one limb instead of two means more focus on that limb, meaning more muscle fiber recruitment and more control of the movement.

1. Externally Supported Single-Arm Row

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Activity Dumbbell Workout
Body Part Back
  1. Stand an arm’s distance away from a bench, box or chair and hold a dumbbell in your left hand.
  2. Hinge your hips back and place your right hand on a bench, box or chair with the arm fully extended and your right foot directly underneath you. Maintain a soft bend in the right knee.
  3. Step your left foot back, keeping your heel lifted and pressing your forefoot into the ground. This is the starting position.
  4. Drive your left elbow up and back, bringing your thumb just underneath your chest to the top of the rib cage.
  5. Squeeze your shoulder blade to your spine, then return to starting position, fully extending your arm at the bottom.
  6. Repeat for desired number of reps, then switch sides.

2. Self-Supported Single-Arm Row

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Activity Dumbbell Workout
Body Part Back
  1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart.
  2. Step your left foot back, so you’re in a staggered stance, keeping the left heel elevated.
  3. Hinge your hips back and rest your right forearm on your right leg. Keep both knees slightly bent, your hips and shoulders square and your back flat.
  4. Grab a dumbbell with your left hand. Drive your left elbow up and back, bringing your thumb just underneath your chest to the top of the rib cage.
  5. Squeeze your shoulder blade to your spine, then return to starting position, fully extending your arm at the bottom.
  6. Repeat for desired number of reps, then switch arms.

3. Unsupported Single-Arm Row

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Activity Dumbbell Workout
Body Part Back
  1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart.
  2. Step your left foot back, so you’re in a staggered stance, keeping the left heel elevated.
  3. Hinge your hips back and reach your right arm straight out to the side.
  4. Keep both knees slightly bent, your hips and shoulders square and your back flat.
  5. Grab a dumbbell with your left hand. Drive your left elbow up and back, bringing your thumb just underneath your chest to the top of the rib cage.
  6. Squeeze your shoulder blade to your spine, then return to starting position, fully extending your arm at the bottom.
  7. Repeat for desired number of reps, then switch arms.

Tip

Pushing through your feet into the floor and holding tension in your extended arm will help you brace your core and resist rotation during this row variation, Lauder-Dykes says.

“You won’t be able to go as heavy, but this may be one of the most challenging row variations you’ll ever do,” he says.

4. Alternating Bent-Over Row (Seesaw Row)

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Activity Dumbbell Workout
Body Part Back
  1. Grab a pair of lighter dumbbells.
  2. With your feet stacked under your hips, hinge your hips back. Maintain a soft bend in your knees.
  3. Drive your right elbow up and back, bringing your thumb just underneath your chest to the top of the rib cage.
  4. Reverse the movement, pulling your left elbow up while extending your right arm down.
  5. Continue this alternating movement, using your breath to control the speed and cadence of each rep.

Another great way to add variety to your rows is to shift your weight to one side of your hips (think: lateral lunge position). This transforms rows into a full-body exercise and set yours inner thighs and glutes on fire, Lauder-Dykes says. Plus, this hip-shift row variation can have big benefits for people who play sports that require powerful glutes for quick movements like pivots and changes of direction.

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5. Hip Shift Single-Arm Row

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Activity Dumbbell Workout
Body Part [ "Back", "Butt" ]
  1. Holding a dumbbell in your left hand, step out to your right side, keeping your feet pointing forward and your knee always tracking over your big toe.
  2. Sit your hips back, then drive your left elbow up and back, bringing your thumb just underneath your chest to the top of the rib cage.
  3. Squeeze your shoulder blade to your spine, then return to starting position, fully extending your arm at the bottom.
  4. Repeat for desired number of reps, then switch sides.

Performing dumbbell rows in a plank position is another solid strategy for upping the challenge factor. Moves like renegade rows recruit other muscle groups, work your entire body and are especially effective for building core strength since they require a lot of stability and control, Lauder-Dykes says.

And while the renegade row shifts focus away from your upper-back muscles, it can be used to add volume to your training in combination with other rowing variations that allow you to work with heavier loads.

6. Elevated Plank Row

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Activity Dumbbell Workout
Region Full Body
  1. Stand an arm’s distance away from a bench, box or chair.
  2. Lean over and place your right forearm on the bench, box or chair and extend your body out into a straight line in an active plank, positioning your feet slightly wider than your hips to create more stability.
  3. Grab a dumbbell with your left hand, draw the abs in toward the spine and lock out your legs to stabilize your hips.
  4. Keep your neck neutral and gaze slightly ahead of you as you drive your left elbow up and back, bringing your thumb just underneath your chest to the top of the rib cage.
  5. Squeeze your shoulder blade to your spine, then return to starting position, fully extending your arm at the bottom.
  6. Repeat for desired number of reps, then switch arms.

Tip

“This exercise is better performed for lower reps ranges (anywhere from 6 10 reps per side),” Lauder-Dykes says.

7. Renegade Row

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Activity Dumbbell Workout
Region Full Body
  1. Place two dumbbells slightly closer than shoulder-width apart on the ground. Grip each dumbbell and come into a high plank, shoulders stacked over hands, feet slightly wider than hip-width apart and your body in a straight line from head to heels.
  2. Draw the abs in toward the spine and lock your legs to stabilize the hips.
  3. Lift one hand off the floor, pulling the dumbbell to the top of the ribcage.
  4. Return to start, placing dumbbell down softly, then switch sides.

Tip

“The slower and more controlled you can perform the movement, the better,” says Lauder-Dykes, adding that quality is better than quantity when it comes to renegade rows.

8. Renegade Row With Push-Up

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Activity Dumbbell Workout
Region Full Body
  1. Place two dumbbells slightly closer than shoulder-width apart on the ground. Grip each dumbbell and come into a high plank, shoulders over hands, feet slightly wider than hip-width apart and your body in a straight line from head to heels.
  2. Draw the abs in toward the spine, lock your legs and tuck your elbows as you lower your body into a push-up, keeping your shoulders, hips and heels in line throughout the entire movement.
  3. Push back up to high plank
  4. Lift your right hand off the floor, pulling the dumbbell to the top of the ribcage.
  5. Return to start, placing the dumbbell down softly.
  6. Begin the sequence again, alternating arms each time you row.

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