Exercises You Should Be Doing: Deadstop DB Row

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Without blinking an eye, I’ll be the first to admit that my favorite body-part to train is the upper back.  For me at least, when I see someone with a thick or defined upper back, I know (s)he has put her work in at the gym.  Comparatively speaking, there are a lot more people walking around with six packs than there are those with an impressive upper back.

I mean, what looks more impressive, this (AKA: the walking bag of douche who will inevitably make this his Facebook profile picture)

Or this (Oleksandr Kutcher’s upper back)


Not even close if you ask me.

To no fault of their own, though, most trainees like to train what they can see, and the back often gets the shaft in favor of things like the pecs, abs, and biceps; or, the mirror muscles.

That said, while things like deadlifts, barbell rows, and chin-up variations are undoubtedly the “go to” movements for sculpting a powerful upper back, one of the more underrated, or less utilized exercises out there is the dumbbell row.

As a matter of fact, I’d argue that the dumbbell row is one of the more underrated upper back exercise, since not only does it help build a thick upper back, but it’s also a great movement for the lats as well.

Unlike the aforementioned exercises listed above, dumbbell rows are a single limb movement, which carries its own advantages in the sense that it’s easier to ascertain whether or not there’s a strength imbalance or weakness between the left and right side.  Too, due to the lack of equipment needed (all you need is a single DB), anyone can do them at any time.

First things first, however, as simple as the dumbbell row might appear, it’s surprising how much this movement is actually butchered.  Simply put, what most trainees feel is a dumbbell row is anything but, and is often nothing more than a test to see how long before my eyes starting hurting.

Before we get to the actual exercise, here are some common technique flaws that I tend to come across.

Explosive Arm Curl Guy:

Here, there’s really no emphasis what-so-ever on the upper back itself.  Instead, the movement resembles some sort of explosive arm curl with momentum taking over.  Worse still are those guys who do this and grunt as if they’re giving birth to a bowling ball on every rep.  LOOK AT ME, LOOK AT ME, LOOK AT ME!!!

Rotating Upper Torso Guy:

This one is quite common, where you’ll see someone performing a “row,” only to completely rotate their upper torso because they’re using too much weight to do it correctly.  Ideally, the torso should stay completely stationary, with the chest/nipple line pointing towards the bench the entire time. 

The I’m Completely Using the Worst Form Ever Guy:

This one should look familiar to anyone who trains at a commercial gym – rounded back, head protruding forward, absolutely no scapular retraction (adduction) taking place.  I cringe everytime I see this.

Which takes us to today’s exercise of the day

Deadstop DB Row

Who Did I Steal It From:  strength coach, and fellow t-nation.com contributor Tim Henriques

What Does It Do:  As noted above, this is a fantastic exercise to build a thick upper back (big biceps, too, since they’re in the direct line of pull), but also targets the lats as well in addition to providing a nice stretch in that area to boot.

Key Coaching Cues:  While maintaining a neutral spine position throughout (the body should make a straight line from the head to lumbar spine), start with the dumbbell resting on the floor.  Grab the handle and crush it – gripping it as hard as you can.  Doing so will single the rotator cuff to fire and to pack the shoulder back through a process called irradiation.

From there, I like to tell people to pretend they’re starting a lawn mower – rowing the dumbbell by bring their elbow towards the hip (not just going straight up and down).  Effectively, you’ll be “pulling through the elbow,” finishing at the top by retracting (technicaly, adducting) your shoulder blade towards the midline of the body.  In other words, squeeze your shoulder blade like a mofo at the top.

To finish, you’ll return the dumbbell back to the floor, coming to a complete STOP.  Pause for a second or two, and repeat for desired number or repetitions.

Of Note:  for those with shorter arms, you may want to grab a stepper or a few mats to place on the floor to decrease the range of motion.

And there you have it.  Try it out today and let me know what you think!  Also, just a friendly reminder, if you found this post useful, be sure to click the “Like ” button located at the bottom.  I’ll be your best friend forever if you do.

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Comments for This Entry

  • Jonathan Goodman

    Thanks for the article Tony. I've been using 1s pauses to encourage proper firing for the last couple months now with my training in addition to most of my clients and it's working wonders. I think you need a new question below though. Some people who read this blog might find rocks to be light.

    April 19, 2011 at 6:26 am | Reply to this comment

  • Peter Poletti

    I really like how you've demonstrated a few common errors before demonstrating correct form. I'd love to see that applied more often. The deadstop here sounds interesting, definitely going to give these a try.

    April 19, 2011 at 6:44 am | Reply to this comment

  • Bret Contreras

    God those "bad form" one's made me laugh! It's always fun filming them.

    April 19, 2011 at 7:09 am | Reply to this comment

  • Benjamin Pickard

    Hey Tony, I also like pointing out common exercise errors and giving a solution... would like to see more of this type of article down the road! What are your thoughts on 'Kroc' Rows? They look awfully similar to 'explosive arm curl guy' but they seem to be popular and I know personally they work great for my upper back. Do you avoid them with your athletes/clients in favor of deadstop or strict rows? Thanks, Ben

    April 19, 2011 at 7:17 am | Reply to this comment

  • josh

    Well crap. I think I might be "explosive arm curl" guy. And I thought I had good form on dumbbell rows...doh! Thanks for the article, and thanks for the great videos. I'll have to give the deadstop variation a try on Thursday.

    April 19, 2011 at 7:21 am | Reply to this comment

  • Domenic

    LOL @ worst form ever guy that is almost every guy haha. @ Benjamin Pickard - I think someone doing Kroc Rows would be considered: "Using a weight too heavy and too large to complete a full range of motion rep so I just hope there is some benefit to using a bunch of body english to hoist a 150lb dumbell 20 times guy"

    April 19, 2011 at 7:29 am | Reply to this comment

  • Michael Gray

    I'm glad you included the "pull to the hip" cue. I think this is one of the most commonly missed components to DB Rows. Nice job TG!

    April 19, 2011 at 7:30 am | Reply to this comment

  • Tony Gentilcore

    @ Bret: I know, right? Although I have to say that trying to purposely perform stuff "wrong" is kinda hard. We had to take several takes because we were laughing so hard! @ Benjamin: I'm pretty familiar with Kroc rows and have nothing against them at all. My only issue is when guys who can barely do 50 lbs with good technique, start throwing around heavier loads with know real purpose other than to make my eyes bleed. Personally? I've never really gone out of my way to include them in any programming because I feel most trainees would be better served to learn to row correctly. But that's just me.

    April 19, 2011 at 9:28 am | Reply to this comment

  • Faben Cruz

    I LOVE me some DB rows! I find that trying to pull with your pinky really helps with back recruitment.

    April 19, 2011 at 9:58 am | Reply to this comment

  • R Smith

    Tony, I'm just glad you didn't do a "shrug-to-row guy" video. Yeah, that was me. Love it.

    April 19, 2011 at 1:19 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Kashka

    I'm definitely the explosive arm curl guy, but I do squeeze and pause at the top. Ain't bentover row and db row supposed to be power movement? I guess the way you do it have more time under tension to build muscles.

    April 19, 2011 at 2:08 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Pete K

    I have a hunch that Oleksander Kutcher didn't build that back with controlled one arm db rows. So I'm not sure how you came to the conclusion that this movement is "the best" upper back movement. And I agree with Domenic. If it wasn't Kroc who "invented" Kroc rows, then he would probably be barbecued by the form police. It's like I used to tell my girlfriend about Bowflex commercials: Those models didn't build that body with a Bowflex.

    April 19, 2011 at 4:03 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Tony Gentilcore

    @ Pete: I didn't say Kutcher built that back with DB rows. I first said that deadlifts are the "go to" upper back exercise. And believe me, like I said, I have NOTHING against Kroc Rows. Shit, the guy does them with over 200 + lbs, of course form isn't the main objective.

    April 20, 2011 at 6:30 am | Reply to this comment

  • Pete K

    I'm having a hard time distinguishing "go to" lifts with the "BEST MOVEMENT for upper back". Does "best" trump "go to"? ha ha.. One of the bad form videos looks suspiciously like a Kroc row, as previously mentioned. This variation Kroc came up with specifically to strengthen his upper back for DL lockouts. I just wasn't following/agreeing with your logic here for the first time in forever. I'm probably missing some nuance. Great blog!

    April 20, 2011 at 10:35 am | Reply to this comment

  • Laurent

    Hilarious, as always. Going to the gym in a few, will try it! Thank you!

    April 20, 2011 at 5:36 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Tony Gentilcore

    @ Pete: shit, you're right. I went back and changed the wording. I suck.....;o)

    April 21, 2011 at 1:53 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Paula

    As an ex-rhythmic gymnast (the "pretty" posture made my scapulae angle the wrong way from unequal muscle development) and now a corporate office whore (yeah, desk worker... not much to add), I LOVE me some upper back exercises! The different form videos were extremely hilarious, and helpful too. Glad I got a link to your blog from someone else I follow :D

    April 21, 2011 at 7:11 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Candice

    To be honest Tony, 90%+ of ladies 18-25 will take Mr. Walking bag of douche's body over the powerlifter lad's crazy thoracic erectors, (though his personality may detract a little I will admit ;)) though that isn't to say he's the perfect specimen by any means... Hate to say it but there's a reason underwear models are normal guy fit rather than jacked, and that's because in the real world very large muscles on guys are much like very fashionable clothes on girls...they mostly exist to impress and get compliments from heterosexual members of the same sex :D

    April 22, 2011 at 1:50 am | Reply to this comment

  • Ryan

    great exercise! I see this getting butchered at the gym all the time.

    April 22, 2011 at 11:56 am | Reply to this comment

  • Pete K

    @Tony: Now don't go making me feel guilty, T.. You absolutely don't suck!! As a matter of fact, you're pretty freaking brilliant. My favorite blogger, and it's not even close.

    April 22, 2011 at 9:01 pm | Reply to this comment

  • YourGhey

    Your quite a pussy. Tell Kroc his rows suck.

    November 8, 2012 at 10:57 am | Reply to this comment

    • TonyGentilcore

      LOL. Yep that's exactly what I was implying. Lets do this: I'll tell Kroc that his rows suck (which they don't, I actually perform Kroc rows quite often), when you actually use your real name and/or come to my facility and train (free of charge) and see if you can even sniff the high school leader board on ANYTHING.

      November 9, 2012 at 9:47 am | Reply to this comment

    • Michael Thompson

      Tony is what he eats and with a back like his he must be full often!!! This is to Tony, "Please keep being awesome brother!"

      November 9, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Michael

    Tony, do you find you can use heavier weights for dead stop reps than regular since you're giving the muscle a small break between reps rather than constant tension the whole set (like how a deadlift is higher than an rdl)? Or do you use lower weight because you're not getting help from the stretch reflex (like how a dead stop squat is lower than a regular squat)? Looking forward to giving these a try.

    June 24, 2013 at 11:01 am | Reply to this comment

  • Josh

    Great article! I can count on my hand the amount of times I see ppl performing dumbell rows properly, the hilarious thing is its usually the girls lifting the 10kg dumbells who are using proper form. Whereas the guys using 40kg dumbells are lifting in pure lawn mower fashion. I have found pausing at the bottom has made the exercise 20X more taxing and sweat inducing and has decreased the amount of weight I can use but by the same token I now feel my lats and rhomboids being sore the next day not my forearms! Lastly who gives a fuck how much you can lift on a DB row or a bicep curl, save the heavy weight for the deadlift. Thanks Tony, great work.

    December 3, 2013 at 2:14 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Brawn

    I couldn't agree more with your technique analysis. It's disheartening to witness improper form and wasted effort in the gym. Explosive arm curls and rotating torsos only hinder progress. Your detailed breakdown of the Deadstop DB Row is fantastic. The emphasis on maintaining a neutral spine, proper grip, and the 'pulling through the elbow' motion are essential for maximizing results. Thanks for sharing such valuable tips!

    July 5, 2023 at 8:40 am | Reply to this comment

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