Rows, using a barbell or dumbbell, is a popular exercise for working the upper back. The motion that you do when you row is a “pull” movement. This helps to counterbalance the predominance “push” exercises, like chest presses and overhead presses, that most people do in abundance. Pulling movements are important because they work the posterior chain by pulling weight toward your body.
Barbell and dumbbell rows have other advantages as well. This exercise works more than one muscle group, including the lats, rhomboids, and trapezius, simultaneously when you do rows, it’s a compound exercise. That’s a benefit since compound exercises burn more calories, elevate your heart rate more, and create more of an anabolic response. But, rows aren’t just a single exercise. There are a variety of row variations that work the muscles in your back slightly differently. Let’s look at some of the more common ones.
One-Armed Dumbbell Rows
Although barbell rows primarily target your upper middle back, particularly the middle to lower portion of the trapezius muscle and the latissimus dorsi (lats). Your rhomboids also get in on the action when you row. Which of the muscles you target depends on where you place your arm when you row. If you hold the dumbbell around the mid-part of the waist, you mainly work your mid-back. When you move your arm higher toward your shoulder when you row, it places more emphasis on the upper back.
One-armed dumbbell rows have some unique benefits over barbell rows. Because you’re holding a dumbbell on one side, your core muscles work harder as they have to resist rotation as you row. Unfortunately, it’s common for people to arch their back when they do this exercise, and this reduces activation of the latissimus dorsi, the largest muscle in the middle and lower back. The latissimus dorsi is one of the widest muscles in the body.
Another common problem is people tend to rotate or twist their torso when doing a one-armed dumbbell row. This typically happens when you use momentum to help you do the exercise. One way to avoid this is to use a lighter weight. Unfortunately, people often use more weight than they can safely handle when they do one-armed dumbbell rows. Lighten up and get the form right first! Another advantage to one-armed rows is you can work one side at a time. This gives you the opportunity to correct muscle imbalances by working one side harder than the other.
Bent-over Barbell Rows
Bent-over barbell rows have some advantages and disadvantages over one-armed dumbbell rows. Because you’re using a barbell, you can typically handle more weight. Since you’re bending at the hips, this exercise is useful for teaching you how to maintain proper hip flexion and optimize the hip hinge. This can help you when you do other exercises that involve hip flexion, like deadlifts.
On the downside, you can’t work one side independently of the other and you don’t engage your core as much as when you do a one-armed dumbbell row. You’re basically working your back muscles, similarly to dumbbell rows. Barbell rows target the lats, middle and lower trapezius, and the rhomboids. Your biceps also get some stimulation when you row using a barbell.
Interestingly, in a study where researchers measured EMG activation of the muscles in the back during five types of back exercises, bent-over barbell rows led the pack. It activated the back muscles more than one-arm dumbbell rows, T-bar rows, lat pulldowns to the front, and seated pulley rows. Sounds like an exercise you want in your routine!
Inverted rows are a type of horizontal pulling exercise, in contrast to pull-ups, a vertical pulling exercise. Inverted rows work your upper back and your biceps and doing them consistently can help you gain the strength you need to do a pull-up. The reason they help you progress toward completing a pull-up is they strengthen the muscle that helps retract and depress your scapula. This is a prerequisite for doing this most difficult bodyweight exercise.
To do inverted rows, you need either a bar or a suspension trainer to pull yourself up while you’re positioned at an incline. Especially when you start out, avoiding pulling yourself up to the top of the bar, as this places added stress on your elbows and shoulders. Instead, pull your body up to within 3 inches of the top.
This is a row variation where you lie face down on an incline bench and hold on a dumbbell in each hand while using a neutral grip. Then, raise the dumbbells to the level of the hips so that your arms are at a 90-degree angle. Squeeze your shoulder blades at the top. Now, return to the starting position in a controlled manner. Repeat 8-12 times. You can also row one arm at a time to isolate the muscles on one side. Chest-supported rows are a good beginner move when you’re just starting to row, but it mainly targets the upper back. You won’t get the same degree of core activation as when you do a one-armed dumbbell row and you won’t activate the mid and lower back as much as when you do barbell or one-armed rows.
The Bottom Line
Why not include a variety of rows in your workout? Based on EMG studies, barbell rows are one of the most effective exercises for targeting the muscles in your back, particularly your lats. So, if you have access to a barbell, make sure barbell rows are part of your routine. One-armed rows have the benefit of letting you target one side more than the other if you have an imbalance.
Stack.com. “Know Your Row: The Pros and Cons of 8 Different Back Exercises”
Morey J. Kolber, PT, Ph.D., CSCS,2 and Jonathan E. Haimes, BS, CSCS2. Department of Exercise Science, Lehman College, Bronx, New York; and Department of Physical Therapy, Nova Southeastern University, Davie, Florida.
Musculi.com. “EN: Most Effective Exercises per Muscle Group Using Electromyography”