A sound training program can never be fully complete without having a compound horizontal pulling exercise incorporated in it. Using dumbbells in pulling exercises is a great method for adding size to your lats and thickness in your middle-back muscles, as well as stimulating other smaller muscles like the rear deltoids and the biceps.
Barbell row vs Dumbbell row, which one is the better option ?
The big question is which exercise is the better choice in regards to building muscle and strength: is it the barbell or the dumbbell row? Do they both have the same impact or there’s a reason why you prioritize only one variation?
In this article, we present you with several reasons why you should choose the dumbbell variation over the barbell variation and how it pertains to back muscle hypertrophy and the minimization of the risk of injury.
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Why dumbbell rows are the better option!
Before we dig into details, we first need to point out that this article is not intended to diminish the barbell row’s effectiveness or label it a bad and dangerous exercise, nor that we advise against using it as a part of your training regimen.
It’s quite obvious that there are thousands of lifters who have used this exercise with great success and have managed to build jaw-dropping backs and there’s absolutely no question that barbell rows are an incredibly effective exercise when executed with proper form.
But, if we’re debating the best way to maximize back muscle hypertrophy and we’re forced to choose between the barbell row vs dumbbell row, there are several reasons why the dumbbell variation is the superior.
The main reason why you should choose dumbbell over barbell rows is that if you want to use the barbell row in order to build muscle you will need to exert additional mental focus and effort to maintain the right body posture during the execution of the movement.
Considering the fact that your body will be at a 45-degree angle to the floor while you’re holding a loaded barbell without having any kind of chest or lower back support, your glutes, spinal erectors and hamstrings will be forced to use more energy in order to maintain the angled position during the entire set.
This will inevitably decrease the focus which should instead be placed on what’s really important in the exercise, which is maximal stimulation of your mid-back muscles and lats.
Additionally, during a classic bent-over barbell row, a big majority of lifters are forced to drop the barbell because of the built-up fatigue in their lower back and leg muscles, not because the lats and mid-back muscles have reached their limit.
There are some people claiming that is an added benefit of the barbell variation since it transforms the movement into a “functional” one, just because it stimulates the posterior chain muscles, although it’s hard to see how this can become a valid argument.
If you already do squats, deadlifts, the variations thereof as well as any type of posterior chain movement, then you shouldn’t worry too much about training this area since it’s already getting enough stimulation.
This nullifies the reason why you should use barbell rows for training that area. If your primary goal is to build an impressive back, then the choice of movements you do on a back training day should reflect that goal and should help you achieve it faster and safer.
Given the fact that you are already doing deadlifts, squats and other similar posterior chain movements during the training week, you will want your lower back muscles to be well rested and as fresh as possible.
If you fatigue them on other exercises like the bent-over barbell row, then you sabotage yourself by spending the energy and strength you’ll otherwise need on the big compound movements.
For all of the aforementioned reasons, it is recommended that you use the one-arm dumbbell rows as you primary free weight rowing movement.
When you do this variation your opposite hand rests on a bench or any other support which will also keep the lower back rigid. This will force you to keep your entire focus on the rowing, which will stimulate your mid-back and lats to the highest possible degree.
In addition to decreasing fatigue in your lower back muscles, the dumbbell variation will also decrease the risk of injury, not to mention the lessened strain on that muscle group throughout the exercise.
Considering this is a movement where each arm is trained separately, there’s one more benefit in that it’ll help prevent strength and size imbalances because there’s no way to cheat like there is in the barbell variation.
Now, let’s go into a bit more details on how to properly set up and execute the one-arm dumbbell row:
Set-up and execution
There are a couple of different variations of the one-arm dumbbell row, but this is the most common approach:
- Stand behind a bench with the knees bent slightly and the feet at shoulder-width. Grab a dumbbell with a neutral grip.
- Hold the bench with the other hand to support the upper body.
- From that position, row the dumbbell toward the waist until you feel a good contraction in the lats and mid-back muscles. Lower it back down until the arm is fully extended toward the floor. That’s one rep.
Some additional tips that’ll help you improve the exercise’s effectiveness:
- If you want to achieve a greater tension in your back muscles instead of the shoulders and biceps, you should think of using the elbow for rowing, instead of your hand. Imagine your hand and your forearm as “hooks”, that don’t work at all and serve as connections between and the dumbbell and the elbow. Then, you can place your entire focus on getting the weight back up using only the elbows.
- Ensure that you row the weight at a slight angle instead of going straight up and down. This will additionally stimulate the back muscles.
- As you row the weight towards your waist, you should squeeze the shoulder blades together.
- To stimulate the back muscles further, you can try using straps or hooks that will help you eliminate your grip strength from the movement
Another commonly used option is using a flat bench and placing both the opposite arm and knee on the bench to support yourself while placing the other foot on the floor.
Both variations are equally effective and you can choose whichever makes you feel most comfortable. There are two additional dumbbell variations you can try which will keep your lower back and chest supported and allow you to use two dumbbells in each hand at the same time.
These variations are called incline-chest supported row and dumbbell seal row.
Barbell Row vs Dumbbell Row – The Conclusion
Now, let’s make a brief recap of the things we described in this article. Even though the barbell variation is an effective movement when it comes to eliciting maximal back muscle gains, here’s how the dumbbell variation improves it:
- Enables you to put your entire focus on training the mid-back muscles and the lats without having to force your legs and lower back muscles to use additional energy in order to keep your angled posture.
- Decreases the risk of injury because the lower back muscles are fully supported during the movement.
- Keeps the lower back muscles fully fresh and recuperated. It saves up energy that would be used for performing the big compound movements like overhead presses, bench presses, deadlifts, and squats.
- Helps prevent the development of strength and size imbalances by forcing each hand to move the weight separately and independently, thus making you unable to cheat during the movement.
If you somehow can’t manage to train with dumbbells that are heavy enough or you prefer to train with a barbell that is perfectly fine.
However, if you had to choose between the barbell row vs dumbbell row, it’s recommended that you always choose the dumbbell variation.