The kettlebell one-arm row is a back exercise variation and alternative to other single-arm back exercises. However, unlike the dumbbell or machine row, a kettlebell is a uniquely shaped implement that provides a different challenge for the person doing it.
This medieval-looking training tool really became popularized in CrossFit and it turns out kettlebells are an incredible piece of equipment that everyone should be using in their training routine.
We’ve created a guide to the kettlebell one-arm row where we’ve discussed what muscles it involves, proper movement execution, why it’s beneficial, what variations we recommend and how you can incorporate it into your workouts.
In This Exercise:
- Target Muscle Group: Back
- Type: Hypertrophy, strength
- Mechanics: Compound
- Equipment: Kettlebell
- Difficulty: Beginner
The infraspinatus is one of the rotator cuff muscles along with the supraspinatus, teres minor, and subscapularis. These muscles help to aid in the mobility and stability of the shoulder joint. The infraspinatus assists in external rotation of the shoulder joint, scaption, and lateral rotation of the humerus.
The latissimus dorsi or lats for short is a broad, flat muscle that spans the lower posterior thorax. It works with the teres major and pectoralis major to adduct and medially rotate the humerus, and it helps to extend the humerus with help from the teres major and the sternal head of pectoralis major. The lats are also involved in moving the trunk forward and upward when the arms are positioned overhead.
You may have seen bodybuilders or very muscular individuals that look like they have wings under their armpits; well, the lats are the muscles responsible.
The teres major is a thick muscle of the shoulder joint that medially rotates and adducts the arm and stabilizes the shoulder joint. Unlike the teres minor, it’s not a rotator cuff muscle.
The teres minor is a rotator cuff muscle that, along with the other rotator cuff muscles functions to stabilize the glenohumeral joint. Its specific function is lateral, or external, rotation of the arm at the shoulder.
The transverse abdominis is a deep core muscle that acts as a weightlifting belt to stabilize the spine. It draws and compresses the belly button into the spine.
Leaning forward and having to support the weight of kettlebells should force you to activate this muscle group.
Trapezius Lower Fibers
The trapezius lower fibers are part of the trapezius muscle located on the upper back shaped liked a trapezoid. It depresses the scapula and aids the upper fibers in upward rotation of the scapula.
Most back exercises work the trap muscles that, when well developed, stick up on either side of the neck.
Trapezius Middle Fibers
The middle fibers of the trapezius muscle, between the upper and lower trap fibers, adduct (retract) the scapula.
Trapezius Upper fibers
The upper trap fibers elevate and upwardly rotate the scapula and also function to extend the neck. Rows and shrugs especially activate these muscles.
The brachialis is located deep to the biceps muscle on the outer portion. It’s a pure elbow flexor that gives width to the upper arm when developed.
While this muscle isn’t visible on most people, when well-developed on a leaner individual, you can see it poking through the outer upper arms between the biceps and triceps.
The brachialis does add some extra size to the upper arms and can help to fill out those sleeves just a little more.
The brachioradialis is a muscle located in the lateral forearm. It’s an elbow flexor and forearm supinator and pronator.
Pulls and rows work this muscle.
The deltoid posterior, also known as the rear delts, are one of the three heads that make up the shoulder muscles. With the other two heads, the deltoid posterior assists in abducting the arm past 15 degrees. It also helps the anterior head to stabilize the arm while the lateral head abducts the arms from 15-100 degrees, and works with the latissimus dorsi to extend the arm while walking.
The rear delts are known to be a neglected muscle in the weight room. This could be for a few reasons including that they are not as popular compared to other posterior muscles, many think they get enough work from back exercises, or you cannot see these muscles when looking in the mirror.
But it’s a mistake to not give them some special attention because they do contribute to a balanced physique both functionally and aesthetically. Underdeveloped rear delts can throw off a physique especially since all pressing movements train the front delts that are often overdeveloped.
How To Do The Kettlebell One Arm Row
We really like the fact that this exercise is both simple and effective. Different people will have their own way of performing this exercise, but we’ve included step-by-step instructions to ensure you get the basics down. While not complex to do, row variations are commonly done incorrectly which limits the potential for muscle and strength gains.
- There are a few different ways to do this exercise – using a bench or your own leg for support or relying on your core strength to maintain proper lifting posture. Either is fine but it depends on your preference and what you’re trying to accomplish.
- You can also either use a split (one foot in front of the other) or hip-width (feet next to each other) stance.
- Choose your kettlebell weight and set it on the floor with the handles horizontal.
- Keeping your back straight and core tight, bend your knees, hinge forward at the hips and push your butt back.
- Pick up the kettlebell using a horizontal/overhand grip, and do a one-arm row by driving your elbow back and not outward, and toward the ceiling. As you pull the weight up, rotate your wrist and squeeze your back muscles.
- Slowly lower the weight and repeat.
- After you’ve completed one set, switch arms and repeat for the same number of reps.
Here are two video examples that show how to do both variations.
Kettlebell one arm row/what not to do
- If you’re new to this movement, always use a lighter kettlebell that allows you to first work on your form before using more weight.
- If you’re more advanced, this exercise can be loaded heavy to really take advantage of the strength and muscle building potential.
- By starting with an overhand grip and rotating the wrist during the row, many will find that they experience a better contraction in the back muscles.
- You want to avoid twisting your torso to either side during the row. Keep your back straight and do not allow it to twist or turn as you pull the weight up.
- Use a split or hip width stance. You may be able to lift more weight by resting the forearm on the thigh to support your bodyweight or by placing your knee and arm on a bench for support. However, using no support (hip-width stance) can increase your core activation. You have to decide which variation you prefer but you could also use both.
- Like the second video example, you can place the kettlebell on the floor in between reps. This will emphasize the concentric or positive portion of the exercise and therefore enhance strength and power.
Let’s talk about the benefits of doing the kettlebell one arm row.
Build your back
This one is obvious but bent over row variations are some of the best for building your entire upper posterior chain. In fact, one study from American Council on Exercise (ACE) found that the bent-over row was superior to other common back movements for activating all back muscles from top to bottom (1).
Other movements were shown to emphasize certain back muscles.
If you had to pick one back exercise you can’t go wrong with a bent-over row!
Strengthen your core muscles
Bent-over rows are a great way to strengthen your core muscles. You are forced to maintain a tight midsection and fight the resistance of an uneven load. Of course, you could support your core by leaning on a bench, however, doing it freestanding will really benefit your core.
Unilateral means affecting one side. These are exercises that involve working one leg or arm at a time such as dumbbell exercises, lunges, single leg squats, kettlebell rows, dumbbell curls. etc. This is the opposite of bilateral exercises that use both sides or limbs at the same time to lift a weight such as barbell squats, barbell bench press, etc.
There are advantages to doing this type of training and everyone should incorporate it into their workouts.
The benefits of doing unilateral movements include replicating real-life movement, identifying and correcting imbalances, improving core strength and stability, preventing injuries, and more.
But the cool thing about it is that when you train one side of your body, this also stimulates the other side that’s not working. This is referred to as cross education of muscles. So if you’re doing a one arm press, the same non-working limb will also be activated.
There’s very minimal setup for this movement – choose your desired weight and place it on the ground. This has advantages when you’re in a packed gym with limited equipment availability or when you want to grab and go rather than bother with setting up any equipment.
Using the same training tools can get boring after a while for a lot of people. Rather than using a dumbbell, mix up your training by using a kettlebell and you might even find that you feel it better in the muscles being worked due to the unique design of the kettlebell.
Kettlebell One-Arm Row Variations
While the kettlebell one arm row has its unique advantages over other variations, there are so many excellent back exercises similar to it. Here are ones we like.
Double kettlebell row
This was one you probably saw coming. Rowing two kettlebells at the same time is a great option because you have nothing to support your lower back and core muscles. That means they have to work harder to stabilize during the exercise which is great for the strength and development of these muscles.
This will have carryover to other hip hinge movements such as deadlift variations, heavy barbell rows, and athletic activities.
Dumbbell one-arm row
The advantage of using dumbbells is that they are more common in gyms and home setups. Additionally, you’ll usually find heavier dumbbells than kettlebells. Therefore, if you’re more advanced, you may be better off using dumbbells to do this exercise.
When done correctly, apparently you’ll resemble the body posture of a gorilla. This variation has many benefits and you can learn more about this exercise here.
The kettlebell alternating row
The kettlebell alternating row is done in a sumo (wide) stance and it creates more stability during the exercise. To do it, you’ll hinge your hips back, get into the bent over row position, and alternate rowing the kettlebells. As you row one kettlebell, you want to push the other one into the ground and this is what creates that stability.
This is a very popular variation that’s essentially a mix between a plank and row. The renegade row starts from a high plank position supporting your bodyweight using the kettlebells. You’ll essentially row one kettlebell while keeping the other one on the ground, place it back down on the floor, and repeat on the other side.
One-leg one-arm kettlebell row
If you really want a challenge and to take advantage of the instability that a kettlebell creates, try this variation, otherwise known as the Maxercist row (yeah it’s a strange name no doubt). Note that this is more of an advanced movement.
The setup is very similar to a deadlift except using one leg. So you’ll hinge forward, bend the knees, and grip the kettlebell but while also lifting the opposite side leg behind you. Then you’ll perform the single arm row.
How To Incorporate The Kettlebell One-Arm Row Into Your Training Regime
The kettlebell one arm row should be treated as any other muscle and strength building back exercise. It can simply replace other unilateral back movements. Although, we do recommend you use a variety of exercises for each muscle group for best results.
Mix up your routine to prevent boredom and feel the muscles working differently by changing your exercise selection.
Here’s an example workout that you can do that incorporates the kettlebell one arm row. You can determine the appropriate sets and reps depending on what you’re trying to achieve.
- Kettlebell bent-over row
- Dumbbell pullover
- Face pulls
Sets and reps
Hypertrophy – If you want to focus on building muscle, we recommend doing 3-4 sets in the 6-12 rep range.
Strength – If you’re looking to get stronger in this movement, do 3-4 sets of 4-6 reps.
Muscle endurance – For functional fitness and muscular endurance, we recommend 3 sets of 20-30 reps.
While some people will want to focus on one goal, we recommend including all types of training to be more-well rounded. It’s beneficial to use a variety of sets and rep ranges.
The kettlebell one-arm row is a badass exercise that everyone should try including in their back workouts. Some find that they feel the posterior muscles working more with a kettlebell than a dumbbell and it’s a good way to mix up your training to create some excitement and motivation to train.
There are also many great variations that you can try for even more workout variety.
We hope this guide was helpful and we encourage you to try this exercise in your next back training session.