Dumbbell One Arm Rows and Pull-Ups are both excellent exercises for strengthening the upper back and developing muscle mass. However, they differ in their setup, execution and the equipment needed to be able to do each one.
And, even though they’re both very effective exercises – is one exercise better than the other? Which should you have in your training program? Should you be doing both?
In this article, I hope to answer those questions for you. I’m going to go over how to do each exercise and then compare how they stack up against one another depending on individual training goals and preferences.
Table of Contents
- One Arm Dumbbell Row
- One Arm Dumbbell Rows vs Pull-Ups: Is One Better?
- Final Thoughts
One Arm Dumbbell Row
- Bench (optional)
A bench is helpful, but not totally necessary. Bracing one arm against the rack or even on your leg can work as well.
- Latissimus Dorsi
- Teres Major
- Posterior Deltoids
- Trapezius and Rhomboids (at contraction)
- Secondarily: Biceps (Biceps Brachii, Brachialis, Brachioradialis)
- Grab a dumbbell and a bench*.
- Place the dumbbell next to the bench and set yourself up.
- If rowing with the right arm, place the left knee and left hand on the bench. Keep the right foot flat on the ground.
- Make sure the back is flat (neutral) to slightly arched.
- Brace the core and pick the dumbbell up.
- Row the dumbbell up, keeping the elbow close to the body as the dumbbell raises.
- Squeeze the back at the top of the rep and then lower the dumbbell down until the arm is fully extended.
- Repeat for the designated number of reps and then switch sides.
*One Arm Rows do not have to be done with one knee on a bench. You can keep both feet flat on the ground and lean forward and brace yourself with your off-hand on something sturdy. You can even lean your off forearm on your leg for support if necessary.
The most common mistake I see athletes make when doing One Arm Rows is not maintaining a flat back. The back should stay engaged and slightly arched – similar to the starting position of a Power Clean. Do not let the back round as this can cause unnecessary stress on the spine.
Also, do not twist and turn while rowing. You’re not starting a lawn mower. If you need to use your whole body to twist and rock the weight up then the dumbbell is too heavy. Lower the weight and maintain proper form.
Finally, make sure to give yourself enough room to ‘spread out’ and get into a good position.
Often times I see athletes place their off-hand too close to their knee on the bench and/or place their grounded foot too close to the bench. This leads to them being too cramped, making it difficult to achieve proper positioning.
Looking for additional alternatives for One Arm Dumbbell Rows? Here are 10 of my favorite One Arm Row alternatives.
Some of the benefits of One Arm Dumbbell Rows include:
- Increased upper body strength: The One Arm Dumbbell Row targets multiple muscle groups in your upper body, including your lats, biceps, and shoulders. As you progress with the exercise, you’ll be able to lift heavier weights, which can help to increase your overall upper body strength.
- Improved stability and coordination: The Dumbbell One Arm Row requires balance and coordination, as you need to maintain control of the dumbbell with one hand while performing the exercise. This can help to improve your overall stability and coordination.
- Increased muscle mass: By consistently performing One Arm Rows, you can build strength and size in your back, shoulders, and arms, which can contribute to an overall increase in muscle mass.
- Improved posture: By strengthening your back muscles, the One Arm Dumbbell Row can help to improve your posture and reduce the risk of developing poor posture-related issues such as rounded shoulders or a hunched back.
- Pull Up Bar (Either as part of a rack or a wall-mounted bar)
- Weight belt (For weighted variations)
- For modification purposes:
- Lifting Band (To assist in completing the pull-up or doing more repetitions with full range of motion).
- Lifting partner (To assist in getting your chin over the bar)
- Bench (To help reach the bar if it’s too high)
- Approach the pull-up bar and grab the bar with a pronated grip (palms facing away).
- Use a bench to get to the bar if it is too high.
- Later in the article, I will talk about variations, alternatives, and modifications where the supinated (palms facing in) grip will be discussed.
- Squeeze the bar and engage the core muscles and do not cross your legs.
- Engage the upper back and pull up until your chin is over the bar.
- Pause for 1 second with your chin over the bar.
- Slowly lower yourself back to the starting position.
Take your time and master the Pull-up. The benefits of doing sound pull-ups will pay dividends for your shoulder health and the potential to maximize your upper body strength.
I would highly recommend this movement to any lifter or athlete. It provides all the benefits of an upper-body pulling movement with little to no risk.
By far the biggest mistake I see in the pull-up is lifters not using a full range of motion. Hang all the way down and maintain great tension through the shoulders and abdomen (DO NOT JUST HANG IN THE BOTTOM). Pull all the way up and do not whip your head so that your chin barely makes it over the bar.
As with any exercise, do not sacrifice form for the completion or more weight.
Another mistake is lifters go too fast with their pull-ups. Pull-ups are commonly programmed for strength and hypertrophy. This means time under tension is key. Take them slow and perfect the movement to yield maximal results.
One Arm Dumbbell Rows vs Pull-Ups: Is One Better?
Now, let’s take a side-by-side look at the two exercises to see if one is better than the other for some common lifting goals.
Better For Developing Size and Strength: Pull-Ups
Let me start by saying that Dumbbell One Arm Rows is an amazing exercise for improving strength and building muscle mass. This is a true battle of two upper-body behemoths.
However, I believe that Pull-Ups are the most effective upper-body exercise for building size, strength and athleticism. It’s why Pull-Ups are one of my favorite exercises for football players. So, if you placed any exercise up against Pull-Ups (yes, even Bench Press), my answer will always be Pull-Ups.
If you’re not able to do Pull-Ups yet, there are Pull-Up modifications you can use to help assist you as you improve your strength. One Arm Rows also happen to be a great exercise for improving your ability to do Pull-ups.
Finally, the two exercises actually complement each other really well. Pull-Ups are a verticle pulling exercise and One Arm Rows are a horizontal pulling exercise. Ultimately, I would suggest finding a place for both exercises in your training plan.
Better For Beginners: Pull-Ups
Again, if the question includes Pull-Ups then my answer will always be Pull-Ups. Having said that, I would make one concession.
If you’re just starting out and you’re nowhere near able to do a Pull-Up, even with some assistance modifications, then I would suggest sticking with One Arm Rows and Lat Pulldowns if they are an option. In fact, here are 10 alternatives to Pull-ups that you can try out.
Continuing to try, and fail, at an exercise could lead to frustration – frustration that could cause you to want to quit your fitness journey before it’s even really begun.
For this reason, I would suggest sticking with exercises that you can perform with good technique. Improve your strength (and confidence) and give Pull-Ups another try down the road.
I’ve just spent the last section of this article comparing which is better – One Arm Dumbbell Rows or Pull-Ups. However, the truth is, there is no reason you shouldn’t have both exercises in your strength training program (assuming you have all the necessary equipment).
Both are excellent exercises for building upper-body strength and hypertrophy. Incorporating both into your training program can also add much-needed variety and keep your plan from getting stale.
So, my suggestion would be instead of trying to decide between the two exercises, figure out how you can utilize both Dumbbell One Arm Rows and Pull-ups in your training plan.