How to Do the Bent-Over Dumbbell Row to Sculpt Your Back, Shoulders, Arms and Core

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bent-over dumbbell row form
The bent-over dumbbell row is a foundational strength training move that targets your back, shoulders, arms and core.
Image Credit: Carolina Araujo/LIVESTRONG.com

Some exercises are great at multi-tasking, by strengthening multiple parts of the body at once. And the bent-over dumbbell row is one of the best at juggling muscle groups.

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But if you want to get all the muscle-building benefits of this exercise, you need to nail your form first. Watch a full tutorial on how to do bent-over rows with proper form and technique.

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What Muscles Does the Bent-Over Dumbbell Row Work?

This move strengthens the muscles in your back, shoulders and arms, all while helping build core stability.

How to Do the Bent-Over Dumbbell Row

Bent-Over Dumbbell Row

Skill Level All Levels
Activity Dumbbell Workout
Body Part Back, Abs and Arms
  1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand at your sides, palms facing each other.
  2. Push your hips back and soften your knees to lean your torso forward until it's nearly parallel with the ground and your weight is centered in your heels. Let the weights hang straight down in front of your knees.
  3. Brace your core and think about keeping your back completely flat.
  4. Leading with your back, squeeze your shoulder blades together and then pull through your arms to raise the dumbbells up toward your ribcage. Pause at the top of the movement.
  5. Keep your core and spine stable as you reverse the motion, extending your arms to lower the dumbbells so that they hang by your knees.

Tip

For those with pre-existing back pain or issues, the bent-over position may feel uncomfortable. If that's the case, try a chest-supported row (more on that below).

Watch the Full Dumbbell Row Tutorial

3 Benefits of the Bent-Over Dumbbell Row

1. It Strengthens Your Upper Body

This exercise targets your upper and middle back, according to Carolina Araujo, CPT, a California-based certified personal trainer and founder of Fit With Carolina. More specifically, this move strengthens your traps, rhomboids and lats.

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Although they're not the focus of this exercise, your chest and arms also assist your back in performing the move.

2. It Helps Build Stability

Dumbbells are inherently unstable exercise tools. As you perform dumbbell rows, your back and core work to stabilize the weights to prevent them from swinging side to side (and throwing you off balance). As a result, you build more stability in these muscle groups, Araujo says.

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3. It Can Improve Your Posture

When you sit in a chair for a long time, do you notice your shoulders slump and back curve? It may be a sign you need to build more core and back strength. After sitting upright for a while, these muscles fatigue, causing you to slump.

By helping build your back and core strength and stability, bent-over dumbbell rows can help improve your posture, too, according to Araujo.

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6 Tips to Improve Your Bent-Over Dumbbell Row Form

1. Keep Your Hips Back

While you do a dumbbell bent-over row, you basically hold a dumbbell deadlift position, with your weight back in your heels, Araujo says.

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You want your hips back throughout the entire exercise.

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"If you feel your hips start to creep forward, you can do your rows in front of a wall and keep your butt back, touching the wall the entire time," she suggests.

2. Keep a Flat, Still Back

Maintaining a flat back is a big safety precaution while doing this exercise, according to Araujo. Although you should try and make your torso as parallel to the ground as possible, you want to prioritize stability. Only lean forward as far as you can while maintaining a stationary and flat back.

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"A lot of people tend to dip their chest and back down and up with each rep, using momentum instead of muscles to move the dumbbells," she says. "Focus on keeping your back flat and in place and only keep leaning forward as long as you can maintain that."

If holding your back straight and stable feels difficult, you should grab a lighter pair of dumbbells, Araujo says. Or, try a modified variation (more on that below).

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3. Squeeze Your Core

Another common exercise form mistake? Your spine starts to round like an upside-down U — and this position can put stress on your lower back, Araujo says. A reason for this mistake may be that you're releasing the tension in your core.

Your transverse abdominis (TA) is a core muscle that functions like a weight belt deep in your abdomen — and it's the main core muscle worked in bent-over dumbbell rows. When you do a dumbbell bent-over row with good form, your TA helps keep your upper body stable and secure in the bent-over position.

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Tighten your abdominal muscles almost like you're bracing your gut for a punch, she suggests. Slightly tilt your hips in to help engage your core and keep your back flat.

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4. Lead With Your Shoulder Blades

"Although this exercise does work your arms, they're not a main focus," she says. "When you squeeze your shoulder blades together, you pull with your back instead of your arms, giving the right muscles the attention they need."

With each rep, focus on drawing your shoulder blades down and together. Lead with this movement, Araujo says.

This helps you target the muscles across your middle and upper back, such as your lats, rhomboids and lower traps. Leading with your shoulder blades also helps prevent scrunching your muscles around your neck, such as your upper traps. Drawing your shoulder blades together as you row also helps activate your rear shoulder muscles (your posterior deltoids).

5. Row to Your Waist

Here's another thing that people of all levels often mess up — they row the weights to their armpits rather than to their waists, according to Araujo. Rowing to your armpits prevents your back muscles from engaging properly, so you miss out on the biggest dumbbell row benefits.

Many people also tend to make the movemement too large, extending the weights too far back. Instead, move until the weights are just past your torso.

6. Fully Extend Your Arms

To get your full range of motion during your dumbbell bent-over rows (and target more muscles across your back), you want to fully extend your arms at the bottom of the exercise, according to Araujo.

"Your lats are the back muscles that sit right below your armpits and run across your sides," she says. "When you let your arms fully extend during this exercise, you get a larger range of motion and give these muscles a tougher workout. That way, you target both the muscles in the middle back and your sides."

Can a Dumbbell Row Replace a Barbell Row?

"Bent-over dumbbell and barbell rows will target mainly the same body parts," Araujo says. "So, if you don't have a barbell handy, you can definitely replace one with the other."

There are a few differences, though. Generally, dumbbell rows help build a little more stability, as the weights are more challenging to hold steady. Dumbbells also give you a larger range of motion than a straight bar.

On the other hand, you can load more weight onto a barbell if you're looking to lift heavy.

Bent-Over Row Variations

The best way to get more out of this exercise? Try out different dumbbell row variations, Araujo says. After you nail your form for the original move, trying new variations is a great way to keep building strength.

Chest-Supported Dumbbell Row

Skill Level Beginner
  1. Set up an incline bench at a 30- or 45-degree angle.
  2. Lie facedown on the bench so you head is above the top of your bench. Hold a pair of dumbbells in each hand with your palms facing in toward each other.
  3. Initiate the movement by pulling your elbows up and back toward your hips. Pull until your elbows are even with or a bit past your sides. Keep your shoulders down away from your ears.
  4. Finish the rep by lowering the weights back toward the floor until your arms are straight.

Tip

If you have back issues or trouble keeping good form, Araujo recommends this modification. Doing your rows with your chest lying on an incline bench can give you a little extra support while isolating your back muscles.

Single-Arm Bent-Over Dumbbell Row

Skill Level Intermediate
  1. Stand with your feet staggered with your left foot back. Hold a dumbbell in your left hand and rest your right hand lightly on your right thigh for support.
  2. Hinge your hips back and lean your torso forward, back flat.
  3. Row the right arm up, keeping the elbow at your side and bring the weight up to your abdomen.
  4. Then, reverse the motion and lower the weight with control.
  5. Once you finish the left arm, switch sides.

Tip

If you want to make bent-over dumbbell rowing even more challenging, Araujo recommends you try rowing one arm at time to isolate each side of your back. By focusing on one side at a time, you also build even strength across your body, preventing muscle imbalances.

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