The Bent-Over Row Is Way More Than Just a Back Exercise

If you have time for just one move, you'll want it to work multiple muscles. Luckily, the bent-over row is that kind of strength exercise.

Wondering, "what muscle do rows work?" Well, while rows are primarily a back exercise, they recruit the rest of your body as well — which is what makes them a must-have for any strength-training routine. The dumbbell bent-over row (demonstrated here by NYC-based trainer Rachel Mariotti) is just one of many ways to reap the benefits of this movement, but it might be one of the most accessible.

Dumbbell Bent-Over Row Benefits and Variations

With the dumbbell bent-over row, "the main muscle group targeted is your back, more specifically the latissimus dorsi and rhomboids," says Lisa Niren, an ACE-certified head instructor at FITURE. You can even tweak the row slightly to target different parts of your back: "Pulling the weight higher to your chest works your upper-back muscles while pulling the weight closer to your waist works your mid-back muscles," she explains.

Take care to keep the shoulders "down and back" the entire time to ensure you're working the correct muscles, says Christi Marraccini, a NASM-certified trainer and chief content officer at NEO U in New York City. "Especially toward the end of your set, when you may be tempted to let your shoulders creep toward your ears," she adds.

The bent-over row (and any back exercises, for that matter) are important to incorporate into your strength routine to maintain the balance of strength between the back and front of your body. "The bent-over row is the perfect complement to the bench press because it targets the muscles on the opposite side of your body," explains Heidi Jones, TRX-certified Fortë trainer and founder of Sweat to Change TV. (Try supersets of the bent-over row with a dumbbell bench press or push-ups for a killer — but balanced! — lifting set.)

The bent-over row exercise also targets your biceps, as well as muscles in your shoulders and forearms — plus your legs and core. (Yes, really.) "The abdominal and lower-back muscles contract to stabilize (or keep your body in place) while performing the exercise," says Niren. "Strengthening these muscles improves your posture and spinal stability, reducing the risk of lower-back injuries," she explains.

On the flip side, however, the bent-over row may irritate the lower back in some individuals. A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that the standing bent-over row put the largest load on the lumbar spine compared to the inverted row or standing one-arm cable row. If the standing bent-over row causes lower back pain for you, try the inverted row with a suspension trainer or hanging under a barbell. Or, to make it easier overall, select smaller dumbbells.

Want an added challenge? Try flipping your hands to an underhand grip (dumbbells horizontal, parallel to shoulders and wrists facing forward away from your body) to target your biceps and lats even more, says Jones. If you want to load even heavier weight, try the bent-over row with a barbell and an overhand grip (palms facing your thighs).

How to Do a Dumbbell Bent-Over Row

A. Stand with feet hips-width apart and holding a medium- or heavy-weight dumbbell in each hand by sides. With knees slightly bent, hinge forward at hips until torso is between 45 degrees and parallel to the floor and dumbbells hang below shoulders, wrists facing inward. Engage core and keep neck neutral, maintaining a flat back to start.

B. Exhale to row dumbbells up next to ribs, drawing elbows straight back and keeping arms in tight to sides.

C. Inhale to slowly lower weights back to starting position.

Do 4 to 6 reps. Try for 4 sets.

Dumbbell Bent-Over Row Form Tips

  • Keep eyes focused on the floor slightly in front of feet to maintain a neutral neck and spine.
  • Keep core engaged throughout each set and try not to move torso at all.
  • Focus on squeezing shoulder blades together at the top of each rep.
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