If you're interested in building a bigger, stronger back, dumbbell rows are undoubtedly a staple in your programming. From strength and muscle gains to shoulder and postural health, dumbbell rows boast a bevy of benefits.
Unfortunately, many people don't know how to execute them correctly. And when you butcher your row form, you not only limit your results but also increase your risk of a back injury.
Here, Carson Smith, master trainer and instructor at Shred415, discusses the five most common mistakes that make rows less effective (and potentially harmful), plus offers tips to help you get the most out of the mighty move.
1. You Arch Your Lower Back
When it comes to row mistakes, this one is undeniably the most common. But if you're rounding or arching your back, you're probably putting unwanted pressure on your spine. Indeed, the ideal posture for a dumbbell row is a flat, straight back. This will help you prevent any strain (or potential injury) in your lower back.
“Arching, weakness or pain in your low back is often a sign that you are not engaging your core,” Smith says. Before you begin the move, activate your abs.
“Pull your belly button in towards your spine to help support your low back as you row,” inhaling as you pull the weights close to your body and exhaling to release, she says.
To nail your form, you can even perform your first few reps in front of a mirror to check that you’re keeping a neutral head, neck and spine, Smith adds.
2. You Don’t Keep Your Neck Aligned With Your Spine
Think of your neck as an extension of your spine — because it is! In other words, your neck should align perfectly with your neutral, flat back.
"Hyperextending (looking up) or rounding (looking down) will add tension on the vertebrae that connect your neck and spine," Smith says. The problem is that "added tension in this delicate area can cause serious injury or long-term nerve damage," she explains.
“To correct this common mistake, try looking two to three feet in front of you to help keep your neck straight,” Smith says. Again, activate and brace your core to protect your mid and low back.
3. You Rely on Your Biceps
"Your back is one of your largest muscle groups, so you shouldn't be afraid to go heavy and challenge yourself," Smith says. "However, if other muscles [like your biceps] are 'taking over,' chances are you aren't building a correct mind-muscle connection."
So how do you know if you're relying on your biceps? "Your biceps are much weaker than your back muscles, so you will find rows challenging and uncomfortable if you are letting them do all of the work," she explains.
Smith suggests starting with a lighter weight, then focus on squeezing your shoulder blades to your spine as you pull it toward your body.
“If you’re using two dumbbells, you should feel like you could hold a pencil along your spine as you squeeze,” she says.
At the top of the movement, hold the weight(s) for two to three seconds. “Try this for 10 to 15 reps to connect your mind and body, then grab those heavier weights,” Smith says.
4. You Swing Your Arm Using Momentum
If you're cranking out rows at warp speed, you're likely using momentum instead of muscle. "When momentum takes over during a workout, oftentimes you are moving too fast or your weights are too light," Smith says.
But here's the thing: Your back muscles are big and strong, so you'll be able to lift heavier loads. And to make the resistance count for strength or muscle gains, you don't want to rush the movement.
“Try a three-count pull, hold at the top for two seconds and then release for one,” Smith recommends. “This rhythm will help to slow you down and make sure you are spending time in the ‘working’ part of the movement, not the release.”
5. You Don't Bend Over Enough
Standing too upright makes lifting a little easier and thus less effective for your intended muscle groups, especially your back.
To really reach and target your back muscles, your chest needs to be parallel to the floor, Smith says. Essentially, you want to achieve a tabletop position, with a flat, level back and shoulders just slightly higher than your hips.
As a reminder to hinge forward, try using a deck or bench to rest your weights on in between each rep, Smith suggests. This will encourage you to pause, reset and check your form, and help you maintain a neutral head, neck and spine.