When it’s time to write an in-depth article on exercise technique, there are definitely some go-to choices. Usually, it’s a technically complex movement, such as an Olympic lifting variation or the always reliable squat, deadlift and bench press. There’s usually less love for exercises with lower levels of risk or complexity. That’s a shame because seemingly unrelated exercises are often an excellent opportunity to move essential technical components forward.
If you’re a coach or personal trainer, you know the bittersweet feeling of watching someone perform a set of beautiful deadlifts only to turn around and contort themselves like a monster in a Japanese horror film to move weights around. And you’ve probably yelled about the universality of technique and how it serves a purpose. I feel your pain. Your goal (OUR goal) should be to help people ingrain the important mechanics to the level that they’re performed automatically. This means looking for opportunities to practice everywhere.
"If something is important, do it every day." One of the greatest wrestlers of all time, Dan Gable told us that. "If something is important, also look for more opportunities to practice it." A substantially less capable wrestler said that second thing. It nevertheless remains true; every exercise is an opportunity to practice and refine motor skills.
Most of these opportunities are hidden in exercises with low levels of complexity or risk
I recently asked some people in my network what exercises they most commonly see fall prey to poor technique. Most of the discussion revolved around the usual suspects. Somewhere in there, however, the dumbbell row was mentioned. That’s when I realized how little attention the exercise gets in spite of the fact that almost everyone employs it. And yes, there is some rough technique out there.
Do we even need to think about the dumbbell row? Seriously? Don’t you just grab a weight and pull the thing? It’s ridiculously simple, right? Well, I could argue about how mechanically simple a barbell good morning is. Just throw a bar on your back and flex/extend your hips! A little more thought is warranted, though.
I will certainly concede that the margin for error is far greater on a row, but I would also suggest that a lower injury risk doesn’t give you carte blanche to ignore the finer details. More importantly, those fine details may help you elevate other important qualities. Forget about the dumbbell row as an island unto itself. Think about it as an opportunity to connect your clients more strongly to other exercises.
Matt Kroczaleski has earned the right to go a little heavier than your average bear
Most of the time you see dumbbell rows being performed less than ideally, you’ll see liberal use of rotation, elasticity and momentum. All of this will be stacked on top of uneven hips and asymmetrical shoulders. Is this inherently dangerous? The odds are no. However, existing pathologies, notably anterior impingement of the shoulder or hip, could easily be fed into. At the same time, the opportunity to practice great movement strategies could be missed. This has less to do what’s wrong and more to do with what could be more right. This dialogue can start by asking what we want out of the exercise to begin with.
Pro tip: Ticking a box that says horizontal pull is not enough.
Forget about functional explanations. Unless you’re on a professional lawn mower starting team, the dumbbell row is unlikely to come anywhere close to replicating a sporting movement. Rows are non-specific. They’re most often used as an assistance movement for bigger payoff exercises, such and chin-ups or deadlifts or as a means to hypertrophy the lats and biceps. However, if we’re training people to move better (which is to say, developing broader and more refined movement options), there are some additional things we can gain from the dumbbell row:
1. The stability and awareness to counter trunk rotation
2. Strong, mechanically efficient support in a quadruped pattern (I’ll explain this in more detail soon, so very soon)
3. Reflexive core stability (proximal to distal activation of musculature)
4. Efficiency of force transfer (minimization of energy leaks)
5. Reinforcement of biomechanically sound positions (again, I’ll get to this)
One of the primary functions of the core (or whatever you want to call it) is help maintain stiffness and integrity under dynamic stresses. In other words, it helps you to maintain your position when something else is trying to break it. This is not only protective in nature, it ensures greater efficiency of force transfer. Overcoming rotational forces is one of the most universal athletic traits, whether we’re talking about baseball or sprinting.
While linking hip and shoulder rotation can certainly be a desirable motor skill (making room for arguments about more ballistic rowing variations), the best way to begin the process is with a quasi-isometric position. In this case, it means that the hips and shoulders are square (and static) while dynamic movement takes place through other joints. In this case load is manipulated via movement at the elbow and gleno-humeral joint. Speed and load can be added to stress this position without breaking it.
Again, I’m not telling you not to perform ballistic dumbbell rows with your clients. I am, however, suggesting that you should first be able to demonstrate a clean, non-ballistic variation of this exercise. This means maintaining the same shoulder and hip position throughout. This is a prerequisite that demonstrates the ability to counter torsional forces and perform the movement without compensation. Can they do it already? Terrific! If they cannot, developing some loading guidelines would be a swell idea.
Everyone is, of course, different. However, if I had to give you a rule of thumb, I would suggest that someone should be able to perform dumbbell rows at about 1/2 bodyweight, give or take 10 lb. without significant displacement of shoulders or hips.
Owning the quadruped position
There’s been a resurgence in interest in fundamental movement patterns in general and crawling specifically. This is great! Homo sapiens are probably moving more poorly than at any other time in the history of our species. Getting back to basics is a great idea.
Any training system that emphasizes the importance of the developmental motor learning process will also place importance on the ability to crawl decently. Crawling is considered a prerequisite for more advanced contralateral movement patterns such as walking and running. You don’t have to be on the same philosophical page to agree that you should be able to support some of your bodyweight (i.e. in a quadruped position) without breaking down. Possible compensations include hanging off of the glenohumeral joint or shoulder capsule for stability (as opposed to using the lats to actively connect the arms to the trunk) or perhaps a shoulder blade sticking out of your back as if you were a great white shark. Unless you’re a great white shark. In that case, as you were.
Again, we know that the greater the level of stiffness you can create, the better you can protect your spine and minimize energy leaks during force transfer. The scapula should be able to perform a stabilizing role. When required, so should the extremities. More specifically, your arm should be able to create a strong link to the ground without relying on passive structures (see above and add the olecranon process and proximal and distal phalanges, carpals and metacarpals, etc.) If this is the most stable way to link yourself to the ground during a crawling pattern, why would we train hand/elbow/shoulder position differently during a row? More to the point, why wouldn’t we use rowing as an opportunity to strengthen crawling patterns (and vice-versa)?
If you coach other human beings, you should know that the power of words is limited. On the other hand, if you can put a client in a position where good movement choices become automatically apparent, you have set them up for success. Most of the examples we see of insufficient stability can be fixed with a dramatic increase in challenge. That’s why overly light weights often do your clients a disservice. Load has to be used strategically to provide information on the movement choices people are making.
A great example of reflexive stability is a heavy sled push. If you set someone up in the right position (i.e. not flat-footed or with their elbows flared to the side), and they move a loaded sled from Point A to Point B, a number of important things are happening. These include stiffness through the extremities, responsive proximal (core) stability and reasonably efficient transfer of force into the ground. If any of these things are missing, the sled simply doesn’t move. Abracadabra! Instant feedback!
The interesting thing about the sled push is that, if the load is too low, a person may be able to move the sled without the qualities I’ve just described. External load can be a great teacher. And not just for the sled push! The same concept applies to deadlifts, kettlebell swings, Olympic lifts and on and on and on. Obviously (or maybe not so obviously), trying to introduce fundamental technique with a huge external load may not be the best idea. That’s where smart programming comes in.
By setting your clients up in a good position to row, proper sequencing of the core musculature and the stability that comes with it should be automatic and natural.
Reinforcement of biomechanically sound positions should always be a goal. Just because an exercise is superficially unrelated to a movement goal, it doesn’t mean that ample opportunity isn’t there to move things forward. As I’ve already mentioned, proper positioning of the static arm can help strengthen a person’s quadruped position. Strength there should transfer to shoulder, elbow and wrist health, as well as strength in the pressing movements.
What else can we look at?
The hip hinge is, without a doubt, one of the most important and fundamental movement patterns. Whether we’re talking about building a mammoth deadlift or a powerful broad jump, practice makes perfect. As a matter of fact, anyone performing at a high level with either of the above will have a well-organized, highly consistent set-up process for the movement. Again, the dumbbell row may not have the same level of risk (or payoff) but that doesn’t mean that the details don’t matter.
Foot and hand positions matter. This doesn’t mean that everyone needs to be forced into the same positions. However, it does mean that consistency of practice will pave the way for consistency of training. If weight distribution through the hand varies from set to set or passive stresses are put on the wrist joint (as opposed to active stresses through the wrist flexors). A foot may fall into valgus during a running stride and still be an optimal movement strategy for an athlete. However, if their feet are collapsing during a quasi-isometric movement like a dumbbell row, it likely points to a lack of awareness and unintentional energy leaks.
Set up procedure:
1. Hinge back
2. Place static-side hand on bench
3. Roll weight forward to load the hand
4. Flex knees and static-side elbow to grasp dumbbell
5. Extend knees and static side dumbbell
The dumbbell row is just one example of an exercise that can be used to peripherally bring up other competencies. It’s a great one, though! Remember to look for opportunities to move your people forward every day.