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Barbell and dumbbell rows both aim to target our back muscles including our latissimus dorsi, trapezius and rhomboids. But is there a reason why we choose one over the other? First let's examine the two exercises in question.

Dumbbell Rows

There are two types of dumbbell rows; the one arm bent over row and the bent over two dumbbell row.

  • One Arm Bent Over Row - This is generally performed with your non weighted hand and the same sided knee on a bench with the other leg on the floor and the other arm holding the dumbbell. Bracing yourself and contracting your abdominals, slowly retract your back to initiate the movement of bringing the dumbbell up to your side. Once your weighted arm makes a 90 degree angle, hold before allowing the dumbbell to slowly come back down. Once your arm is back in the original position - this is counted as one repetition.
  • Bent Over Two Dumbbell Row - This exercise is similar to the barbell row in that you're in a deadlift position; feet shoulder width apart, knees slightly flexed, torso flexed forward just above parallel to the floor and eyes focused just slightly ahead of your feet. Arms by your side and holding dumbbells. Bracing your abdominals, slowly retract your back to initiate the movement of bringing the dumbbell up. Again, once your arms make 90 degree angles, hold before allowing the weights to come back down. Once your arms are back in their original position - this is counted as one rep.

Barbell Row

  • Barbell Row - Same as the bent over two dumbbell row, except that instead of dumbbells; you're holding a barbell. For the upward movement, once the the bar touches your lower chest of upper abdomen, slowly lower the bar to the starting position. Once your arms are back in their original position - this is counted as one rep.

So Which is the Better Exercise?

As the bent over two dumbbell row is quite similar to the barbell row, it is more relevant to compare the one arm bent over row to the barbell row. In terms of muscle recruitment, it seems that the barbell row recruits a slightly higher percentage (93%) of the lats than the one arm bent over row (91%) as determined by EMG studies - refer to article 'Back Training'. This however accounts for perfect form, which many trainers don't exhibit, especially when they are lifting heavier weights.

Unfortunately barbell rows require such neural drive to maintain a correct posture throughout the exercise to prevent injury that it can actually detract the exercise. The erector spinae, glutes and hamstrings can also be highly recruited as compensation, to the extent that there’s minimal activation of the lats, which are meant to be the focus of the exercise! This problem is less of a concern when performing the one arm bent over row as you are already on a stable base. By focusing on the one arm dumbbell rows, you can easily lift more weight. In order to achieve structural balance, for every set of chin ups, complete a set of dumbbell rows. Strong athletes will need heavy rows to achieve results. You can vary this by using thicker gripped handles and thus your requirement for weight will decrease by 10-15%.

In this author's opinion, both exercises should be incorporated into your workouts to vary the stresses it places on your muscles. Greater stress can help provide better adaptations and to prevent plateaus. As long as perfect form is utilised, both exercises are similar in their ability to work the lats and to give you the massive back that will make you respected in the gym.

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