A Common Dumbbell Row Mistake: Let the Shoulder Blade Move!

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I love training the back. To me nothing sends the message of “I lift weights” more so than someone who has an impressive looking backside.

And one of my favorite exercises to train the back is the 1-arm DB Row.

Photo Credit: Kellie Davis, who’s performing a lovely 1-Arm DB Row.

That said, most people don’t perform it correctly. In fact, I’d bunch both the 1-arm DB row and push-up together as two exercises most people roll their eyes at and think are easy, but fall woefully short in terms of passing the eyeball test.

You know the saying: if it looks like crap….

I’m not going to belabor the obvious talking points here. Most people understand that a good DB Row is performed with:

  1. An anatomically “neutral” spine position: the upper doesn’t round, and the head doesn’t protract forward.
  2. The elbow not going too far back (to the point where there’s excessive glenohumeral extension, and subsequent anterior laxity of the shoulder).
  3. To the point above, the arm should move in more of an “arc” movement (forward to back) rather than straight up and down. While there is scapular retraction happening (more on this below), I feel the 1-arm DB row is more of a lat exercise than it is an upper back exercise. I like to cue people to think about bringing their elbow toward their hip rather than straight up and down.

However, none of this matters if your name is Matt Kroczaleski and you’re a beast:

 

NOTE: don’t hate on me for the music. Chris Howard had control of the stereo during CSP after hours.

As noted above I do feel the 1-arm DB row is a fantastic upper back builder, but that it’s more suited for lat development than it is building superior scapular retractors. This isn’t to say it can’t (or shouldn’t be used) in that fashion, it can! But if we can appreciate the fiber orientation of the lats in conjunction with the actual arm (arc) action being performed with the exercise, we can then better appreciate why it shouldn’t be at the top of the exercise hierarchy with regards to training scapular retraction.

But lets discuss scapular retraction.

A common cue used with the 1-arm DB Row is to retract (adduct) the scapulae (shoulder blade) and then to “pin” it there throughout the duration of the set. Like this:

 

I believe this is wrong and goes against common shoulder joint mechanics. By pinning the shoulder blade in place you’re essentially forcing yourself to gain the brunt of motion through the glenohumeral joint, which can lead to more anterior (forward) translation of the joint itself; causing more anterior laxity.

In addition, keeping the shoulder blade retracted the entire time can lead to rhomboid dominance, which in turn can (not always) result in muscular imbalances such as downward rotation syndrome; a term popularized by physical therapist Shirley Sahrmann in her book Diagnosis and Treatment of Movement Impairment Syndromes.

And as we all know, downward rotation syndrome kills kittens. True story.

You don’t want to kill kittens do you?

Instead I prefer to coach people to allow their shoulder blade to move; or breath. Like this:

 

The shoulder blade should move around the rib cage.

So instead of gluing it in place, the shoulder blade has room to breath – can move – and can work in a more synergistic fashion with GH joint. You work the scapula both concentrically and eccentrically.

NOTE: you still want to avoid end-range on the way down and control the load. You should feel a nice “stretch” in the bottom position – not to the point where you’re “hanging” on passive restraints – and then return back.

It’s a subtle tweak, but has a profound influence on the efficacy of the exercise and shoulder health in general.1 Give it a try the next time you perform the 1-arm DB row and notice if you feel a difference.

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  1. Where it may not be a good fit is if someone has an already overly abducted shoulder blade. Aggressive protraction won’t be a good idea

  • Jeff Morton

    Great post! I’m a little confused though. If you are letting the shoulder blade move and retract, what makes the row not a great exercise for shoulder blade retraction? What exercises are better suited to train that quality?

    • TonyGentilcore

      I’m just saying that there “is” retraction involved….albeit I feel it’s not as “powerful” compared to other exercises like a standing cable row, seated row, or chest supported row.

      It wouldn’t be my first choice if strengthening scap retraction were the goal.

      • Jeff Morton

        Ohhh gotcha. That’s helpful. Thanks!

      • Joshua Naterman

        Hi Tony, I’m a fan and this is my first time posting here. Sorry for the lengthy post!

        A question for you, regarding this reply to Jeff Morton:

        Given your assertions here in this reply, how do you feel about the results of Bret Contreras’s self case-study in terms of EMG activity? https://www.t-nation.com/training/inside-the-muscles-best-back-and-biceps-exercises

        It appears that the exercises you mentioned do not achieve as high of an EMG signal strength, which we know is a corollary for muscle activation. Granted, it’s surface EMG so at least the mid trap values could be interpolated with rhomboids, but it is still pretty interesting… particularly when you look at the data from the prone weighted trap raises.

        Bret’s personal results indicate that there may be something of an opposite relationship in terms of indirect signs of muscle activity. I think we probably need more data points, like teres major, as well as some more angular data on body positioning (I’ve noticed a substantial difference in what muscles feel like they’re working when keeping the torso parallel with the ground vs the slight to moderate incline that is more common) and certainly an actual pool of subjects to really make meaningful assertions, but this is still an interesting case study.

        On a more personal level, I have noticed that I can feel my traps working harder with dumbbell rows and off-center single arm seated cable rows (which I haven’t seen anyone else do, I just thought about the joint moments and realized that my single arm cable rows probably weren’t as much of a trap challenge as a lat challenge, and added these in for the traps). I also experience a greater degree of… not soreness, because I don’t really get sore, but rather that low-level inflammation “full” feeling that you get after a good workout, in my traps with the dumbbell rows and the off-center single arm rows vs cable rows and single arm cable rows in the normal position.

        Do you think that this is just a case of personal variation, where YMMV, or do you think there may be something to this?

        I am asking more in terms of actually doing work with the muscles, though I realize that does get heavily influenced by activation patterns (and that the way you’d initially build/correct and strengthen those may not be with dumbbell rows).

        • TonyGentilcore

          Thanks for posting. Please don’t be shy in the future.

          I do feel a lot of other things come into play with regards to “activation” with this exercise; torso angle being one of them.

          I still don’t feel it’s at the top of my list as far as scapular retraction is concerned. It’s there, of course, I just don’t feel it’s at the upper echelon. Still a VERY effective exercise and one I love doing.

  • Interesting article, Tony. What about pulldowns and chins? Do you allow the shoulder blade to move on those exercises as well. I had read years ago that you wanted to keep it locked for the entire set, sort of an isometric effect.

    • TonyGentilcore

      It depends. I still cue the to “put the shoulder blades in your back pocket” with both exercises; packing the shoulders.

      I’ll allow for a little movement at end range. If someone is super hypermobile however, I may need to cue differently.

      Even with end-range with the chinup it’s not like I want someone to just let their shoulder blades “hang out” and then place too much stress on the passive restraints. The shoulder blade can move, but just not to full end-range. Can’t hold the chin-up (where ENTIRE bodyweight comes into the picture) to the same standard as a DB row.

  • ronellsmith

    Crazy that people still think an in-place scapulae during the row is a thing. Doesn’t even feel right.

    • TonyGentilcore

      I made this mistake as a coach for a while. It happens.

  • Hank Cho

    Totally agree, Tony. There’s a reason why the shoulders are able to work in so many different movement patterns at once, in different sequences, and frequently within the same “exercise”. There’s a lot of power available by combining the different movers.

    • TonyGentilcore

      Right on Hank!

  • Dean Smith

    I do a right angle row in full extension with an arm supported on a flat bench. The back is flat, but the active arm is completely extended and the dumbbell is lifted straight up, at first with only the scapula muscles and after they’re completely contracted, the arm starts to bend and the dumbbell is brought to the mid/lower chest. The dumbbell moves a good 9-10 inches off the ground before my arm starts to bend.

    • Tony

      Great serratus activation on the extended arm.

  • Teri Skinner Chadwick

    Would you coach the same for a suspended (eg: TRX) Single Arm Row?

  • I’ve never queued it this way Tony, thanks for the tip. Also, digging the Ke$ha jam…

    • TonyGentilcore

      You can thank Chris Howard. He’s obsessed with Ke$ha….;o)

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