How to Do Dumbbell Rows

Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

One-arm bent-over dumbbell row

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Targets: Back, shoulders

Equipment Needed: dumbbells, bench (optional)

Level: Beginner

Certain fitness moves can help you reach your goals more efficiently and faster than others. For example, if you’re looking to work your upper back muscles, as well as your biceps and shoulders, you may be interested in dumbbell rows. 

"Dumbbell rows recreate the muscle movement that you would be performing if you were to be rowing on a boat—pulling your shoulders back, sliding your elbows along your side, squeezing your shoulder blades that then lead to pulling your chest up towards the sky, bending your elbows and then extending your arms out again," explains Alicia Jones, National Coach of Canada (NCCP), Advanced Sport Nutrition, Certified Group Fitness Instructor, and Personal Training Specialist. "When you perform this movement with a weight in each hand, you strengthen your back, postural muscles, biceps, arms, and core all in one move."  

This might sound like a lot of coordination, but the movement comes quite naturally for most. The most important thing is to start by using a very manageable weight—whatever that might be for you. "This eases you into the movement and helps to avoid spine injury resulting from improper form," notes Robert Dodds, certified personal trainer, fitness coach, and founder of Nothing Barred Fitness. Additionally, Dodds recommends using a more stable dumbbell row variation, such as the chest-supported dumbbell row or a single-arm dumbbell row using the free hand to provide stability on a bench or rack. 

“Keep your head looking down so your cervical spine (neck) is neutral too, not hyper-extended by looking up or forward, and row the dumbbells slowly and towards your hip, not your chest,” says Dodds. 

Incorporating dumbbell rows into your fitness routine can help enhance your strength, posture, and overall mobility. It's an excellent addition to any strength program and can be performed anywhere—in the comfort of your home or the gym.

How to Do Dumbbell Rows

To start with your dumbbell row, it helps to have the right setup, which involves a bench at a 45-degree incline, according to Jones. This helps with proper alignment and ensures you don’t place added stress on your back. Next, grab a dumbbell in each hand and stagger your legs, one leg in front of the other. 

  1. Grab a dumbbell in each hand. If it's your first time, grab a light weight that feels doable yet for at least 15 repetitions.
  2. Stagger your legs. Place one leg in front of the other, and then bow down. “You want to [imagine] a straight line from the top of your head all the way to your bottom almost as if you had a quarter and you place it on the top of your head it would gently roll all the way down your back and then from there, place the weights in front of your toes,” explains Jones.
  3. Slide your elbows along your side and squeeze your shoulder blades together as you lift the weights. Make sure that your shoulders are held down your back and your neck is long.
  4. Hold for a second and then gently extend your arms while placing the weight back to the start position. When returning to the starting position, the dumbbells will be in line with your feet.
  5. Continue this motion for 15 repetitions before repeating on the other side.

“To properly get out of this move, you want to stand up tall, roll your shoulders back, bring your feet together, and then either place your weight on the weight rack or, if you need to, place the weight on the ground,” explains Jones. “Put your feet shoulder-width apart and squat down with [a] straight back to bring the weights to the ground.”

Benefits of Dumbbell Rows

Dumbbell rows effectively work your back muscles, also known as your rhomboids. These are the groups of muscles that are being worked when you squeeze your shoulder blades together. Exercising this muscle group will help you achieve a strong back and help you maintain proper alignment and posture, explains Jones. Here’s a look at some of the key benefits of performing dumbbell rows. 

Tones the Upper and Middle Back

One of the main reasons people choose to perform dumbbell rows is because they are good for toning the muscles of the upper and middle back. The specific muscles targeted include latissimus dorsi (the muscles located in the upper arm area between your elbow and shoulder, your rhomboids, triceps, biceps and pecs, according to Jones.

“These are the muscles that squeeze your shoulder blades together and they're in charge of keeping your posture so when you have strong rhomboid muscles and back muscles, that allows you to pull your shoulders back and into proper alignment,” she says. “Your shoulders also rest in their natural alignment, so you're not hunched over, you're tall and you're strong.”

Improves Posture

Proper posture goes far beyond helping you sit or stand up straight—it helps increase blood flow and supports healthy bones and muscles. It also supports everyday movements, such as typing on a computer or driving, explains Jones. 

“Better posture means you reduce your risk of injuries and activities that [may occur] with poor posture,” she says. “[One example of poor posture includes] holding your grocery bag [when] you're hunched forward. [In this instance,] you're more likely to hurt your shoulder or your chest. If you've got [proper] posture, you’re working with your back properly and are unlikely to have a shoulder issue or a back injury.”

Helps Promote Symmetrical Strength 

When one side of the body is stronger and more dominant than the other, it can result in chronic injuries and tension in your shoulders, neck, low back, and lower body joints, warns Rachel Welch, certified health coach, yoga instructor, and founder of Revolution Motherhood. 

“Isolating one side of the body at a time forces the weaker muscles to engage on their own and develop strength that rebalances your body and results in stronger function overall,” says Welch. 

Common Mistakes of Dumbbell Rows

As with any exercise, it’s important to make sure you’re doing it right—not only so you reap the benefits, but also so you don’t wind up with an injury. Here are some common mistakes to avoid when performing dumbbell rows.

Rounding Your Back

Rounding your back might be your reaction to make the exercise a little easier, however, doing so can cause added stress on your spine, warns Bill Daniels, C.S.C.S., C.P.T., founder of Beyond Fitness. When you round your back, he explains that you change the shape of your rib cage, which actually makes it more difficult for your shoulder blade to move efficiently.

Yanking the Weight

When you get fatigued during a workout, you might look for ways to move the weight more easily and, in the process, you may not actually use the intended muscles, explains Daniels. 

“If [you] want to work on the upper back muscles, [you] don’t want to yank the weight up,” he says. “This is only going to increase injury risk [and] put less stress on the muscles that you actually want to work. Keep [the hand weight] under control and you will get more from the exercise.” 

Forgetting to Breathe

You know that breathing is important for our overall wellness and survival, however, maintaining the breath while exercising helps fuel the muscles and brain, provides functional stability to the core and spine and so much more, explains Daniels. If you find that you’re having trouble breathing through your dumbbell row exercises, he recommends working on breathing patterns outside of exercise or during meditation. 

You may also want to reduce the weight that you are lifting if you feel that you're struggling to maintain a consistent breath pattern.

Safety and Precautions

Follow these tips to ensure you’re performing dumbbell rows in a safe manner that won’t leave you injured. 

Start with Light Weights

Don’t try to lift more than you're able. Instead, start small and work your way up. If you push yourself through the exercise with a weight that is too heavy, you might not use the proper muscles and may even wind up with an injury, warns Jones. 

Maintain a Neutral Spine

A neutral spine will ensure you’re performing this exercise correctly. Dodds recommends using a mirror to get into the right position at the start to make sure you’re aligned properly. 

Stop at Any Onset of Pain

It’s important that you listen to your body and are aware of the difference between a sore muscle that’s the result of a hard-earned workout and actual pain that could yield injury. 

“Muscle aches from an exercise tend to be over a whole area, they aren't specialized to one specific area and they tend to be a dull ache instead of any sort of sharp or severe pain,” explains Jones. “If you are feeling sharp, severe, and localized pain in one specific area, it's time to back off and not do this exercise.”

Try It Out

Incorporate this move and similar ones into one of these popular workouts:

1 Source
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Garrett ZK, Pearson J, Subudhi AW. Postural effects on cerebral blood flow and autoregulation. Physiol Rep. 2017;5(4):e13150. doi: 10.14814/phy2.13150

By Jenn Sinrich
Jenn Sinrich is a Boston-based freelance editor, writer, and content strategist. She received her BA in journalism from Northeastern University and has more than a decade of experience working as an on-staff editor for various publications.