dumbbell rows, rowing barre

Dumbbell Rows vs. Barbell Rows: Which Is Best?

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Very often in seminars or internships I get the following question asked in one form or the other:

I have not seen you mention barbells rows in your workouts. Agreed, most people do not perform them correctly. But what are your reasons to ignore this great exercise? Could you provide a quick primer to barbell rows? Just in case I get bored by chin-ups.

Of course, you can build a great back using barbell rows, look at Paul Carter’s back or Dorian Yates.

The reason that I don’t mention barbell rows is simply that they are not your best option for developing the upper back. Even when performed correctly.

Why? Because there is too much neural drive expended in firing the muscles involved in maintaining the postural aspect of the exercise.

There is a great neuromuscular demand on firing the erector spinae, glutes and hamstrings at the same time. So much that the level of recruitment finally left over for the lats is too minimal to be worth it.

I would rather stick to variations of one arm dumbbell rows.

To develop optimal structural balance, I strongly believe that for every set of chin-up done, one should do a set of dumbbell rows. For both arms, of course.

One arm dumbbell rows allow for even distribution of the load on both upper extremities, and great range of motion (particularly for the scapulae retractors).

One thing with dumbbell rows is that you need some heavy ones for your strong athletes. Having thick handles ones, like the ones made by Watson Gym Equipment, somewhat reduces the need for a heavy load by 10-15% depending on hand size, but builds more transferable strength to the sporting World. I also like long handle kettlebells as they permit a greater range of scapulae retraction than the dumbbells.

I can hear the functionalist cult already on their soap box: “What about function? This is a primary movement”.

My answer to that is: if you already did a good job in the loading parameters for the squat and deadlift exercises, why overtrain the posterior chain?

For example, after a severe deadlift workout, bent-over barbell can put a greater toll on the lower back.


Give one-arm dumbbell rows an honest try and see how it benefits your upper back development.

Stay strong,

Coach Charles R. Poliquin