Last updated on February 12th, 2023 at 03:46 pm
If you don’t feel dumbbell rows in your back, then I’m sorry to say that you’re really are missing out.
For me, the dumbbell row is my go-to free weight exercise for my back.
In fact, I’ll go as far to say that I MUCH prefer it over the bent-over barbell row.
So, here are my tips to ensure that you feel dumbbell rows in your back.
When performing dumbbell rows you should use your elbow rather than your hand to pull the weight, almost as though you’re trying to elbow someone behind you. At the top of the movement your elbow should be in line with your body, and the dumbbell nearer to your waist than your upper torso.
Raise and Lower Dumbbell to the Correct Position
This is probably the main issue when it comes to not feeling dumbbell rows in your back.
When raising the dumbbell you should stop the movement when your elbow is in line with your torso.
Most people end with their elbow much higher than their torso because they believe that this provides increased range of motion.
However, the further your elbow goes past the line of your body, the more the biceps will come into play.
Now, before I go any further, I’m not saying you should never pull your elbow higher than your body.
In fact, the vast majority of dumbbell row training videos will show the elbow going much higher than the torso.
There’s nothing wrong with this, as I say, it allows for greater bicep activation.
However, if your primary concern is to feel dumbbell rows in your back then stop pulling as soon as your elbow is in line with your body.
Additionally, the dumbbell should finish more in line with your waist than your upper body.
There is a tendency to pull the dumbbell straight up, which means that it will end higher up on your torso.
This will activate the rear delts more than the lats.
Furthermore, I feel that many people don’t lower the dumbbell enough.
Your arm should be fully extended at the bottom of the movement, almost as though you’re reaching for the floor.
Obviously, don’t actually touch the floor with the dumbbell.
Pull With Your Elbow Not Your Hand
You’ll want to use your hands almost like a hook around the dumbbell.
This will ensure that when you pull the dumbbell up you lead with your elbow rather than your hand.
Many of us tend to have too much concentration in pulling with the hands, which once again will involve the bicep much more.
You could actually change your grip on the dumbbell to ensure that you’re not pulling with your hands.
I often perform dumbbell rows with a thumbless grip and really concentrate on using my elbow to raise the weight.
You’ll generally feel the dumbbell row much more in your back, as opposed to your shoulders or biceps when using this technique.
In fact, I even now perform pull ups with a thumbless grip, which once more helps me to feel my back muscles working rather than my biceps.
I typically liken the use of your elbows to trying to elbow someone who’s standing behind you.
Talking of Elbows
As I’m on the subject of elbows, I may as well cover another common mistake.
Now I understand that the wide-elbow dumbbell row is a great exercise in its own right.
However, the wide-elbow variation will work the rear delts and lower traps much more than the back.
This also why many trainees state that they feel barbell rows in their traps.
So, if your aim is to feel the back during rows then keep your elbow tight to the body.
That being said, I know that the “elbow flaring out to the side unintentionally” is a frequent error made with standard dumbbell rows.
As I’ve just said, keep those elbows tight to the body if you want to work your lats.
Don’t Grip The Dumbbell Too Tight
Not gripping the dumbbell too tightly fits in perfectly with using the elbow, rather than the hands, to lift the weight.
I know from a personal experience that I used to grip the dumbbell as tightly as possible when performing dumbbell rows.
However, I soon learned that this was simply because I was trying to row too much weight.
Don’t get me wrong, I was more than capable of lifting the weight, but unfortunately I found that my rear delts and biceps were getting a far better workout than my lats.
It was time for me to leave my ego at the door, drop the weight, and perform the dumbbell row with proper form.
Reduce Weight and Increase Reps
I guess this also fits in nicely with what I’ve just mentioned.
Now the dumbbell row is a great lat and upper back builder.
In fact, I much prefer it to the bent-over barbell row, which I actually find quite an awkward exercise.
I’m not sure whether that’s just me, but I feel the muscles working a lot more with dumbbell rows.
If you don’t feel dumbbell rows in your back my suggestion would be to reduce the weight.
Forget what anyone else thinks or says, I would recommend dropping the weight by up to 25% initially.
Depending on how many reps you’re performing at the moment, this may mean that you’ll be doing 12-15 reps (or more) with the lighter weight.
So be it.
By reducing the weight for your dumbbell rows you can focus far more on better form.
I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that better form will equal better results.
This is almost a case of learning the exercise all over again, and gradually adding weight, while still adhering to strict form.
Work on the Mind-Muscle Connection
I’m a great believer in the mind-muscle connection.
You will never know just how many exercises I perform with my eyes closed.
Sounds weird, right?
But, it works for me.
There are various exercises that we perform regularly where we don’t “feel” the target muscle working.
For me, I like to contract the muscle prior to the lift, close my eyes, and really concentrate on using that muscle during the movement.
So, for dumbbell rows, I’ll contract the lats first.
Then I’ll close my eyes, but really focus on my lats, and then I start to row.
I find that this creates a far better mind-muscle connection and it really works for me.
I actually do the same with my glutes when I squat, and with my chest when I’m doing push ups.
Now, if I’m honest, I probably get lots of weird looks from other people in the gym, as they watch me working out with my eyes shut.
But, do you know what?
It doesn’t bother me because I can’t see them anyway.
Allow the Shoulder Blade to Move
I often see people perform the dumbbell row, and they adhere to everything I mentioned so far, but they still don’t feel it in their back.
This is typically because they pin the shoulder blade in place and don’t allow it to move throughout the entire movement.
The shoulder blade should actually be moving whenever you dumbbell row.
Okay, obviously I’m not talking excessive movement here, which is commonly seen at both the top and the bottom of the row.
But, the shoulder blade should be allowed to move around the rib cage.
If you pin the shoulder blade in place by simply retracting it, I believe that the rhomboids come into the equation a lot more.
So, in essence, you’ll be taking the attention away from the back again.
Don’t Worry if You “Feel” it Later
Another common complaint is that you don’t feel dumbbells rows in your back at the time.
However, a few hours later, or even the following day, you definitely feel sore in the lats and back.
This in itself proves that you’re working the back while doing rows.
It’s a bit of a weird one, but we are all built differently, and therefore we may “feel” exercises differently as well.
I know there’s many exercises when I don’t feel the target muscle working at the time, but they’re sore as hell the following day.
Once again, this could be an opportunity to work on the mind-muscle connection.
That being said, the issue of “not feeling it at the time” shouldn’t be a huge concern.
As I say, if you feel the muscle afterwards, then the exercise has done its job.
What if You Don’t “Feel it” Afterwards
If you perform dumbbell rows and you don’t feel it in your back at the time, or the following day, or the day after that, then it may be time to stop using the exercise.
You can follow everything I’ve mentioned here and perform dumbbell rows with the most strict and perfect form ever.
However, you may still never feel the exercise in your back.
I mentioned above that we are all built (and may feel exercises) differently.
Even if a movement is a traditional exercise or seen as a “must-do” exercise, it doesn’t mean that it’s for everyone.
I know for a fact that many people won’t barbell back squat (which is probably viewed as one of the “main” exercises) simply because they don’t feel it and it causes them discomfort.
Our anatomies are NOT all the same, so what may be great for one person, may be awful for another.
So, don’t beat yourself up over it.
If you’ve tried dumbbell rows, and you use strict form, but you still don’t feel it in your back, the exercise may just not be for you.
Key Learning Points
- Ensure you don’t allow the dumbbell to travel too high or too low.
- Always lead with your elbows and not your hands. When you row imagine someone is standing behind you and attempt to “elbow them in the gut”.
- If you grip the dumbbell too tight you’ll work your biceps and rear delts more than your lats.
- Dumbbell rows don’t need to be heavy. In fact, you’re far more likely to feel your upper back and lats activated with lighter weights and higher reps.
- Work on the mind-muscle connection. Use “singles” (or close your eyes) to help you achieve this.
- Don’t NOT lock the shoulder blade in place, but rather allow it to move freely.
- Simply because you don’t feel rows, or any exercise for that matter, at the time doesn’t mean you aren’t working the target muscle correctly. Fairly often you’ll “feel” the target muscles at a later time post-workout.
Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.