One of the biggest advantages of training with kettlebells is the ability to train your posterior chain (all the muscles on the back half of your body). In fact, unlike standard gym training where most people are training the ‘mirror muscles’. If you think about most of the common kettlebell movements very few are directly focused on the ‘mirror muscles’. There are almost no better variations at hitting those back muscles than kettlebell row variations, including the one arm kettlebell row. There are a few different ways to complete kettlebell rows and all of them offer a great workout for the back and quite often the core too.
The standard rowing technique applies to each of the following movements. You want to keep a nice neutral spine throughout and not let the elbow flare out away from the body. Two cues I like to use are; think that you’re pulling a lawn mower starter cord or that you're sawing a tree. One key feature when doing any row movement is avoiding the shoulder lurching forward (as seen in image 1 below) and the better technique is displayed in image 2 (which allows some rotation and also the pull is initiated by the upper back muscles). If you want to better understand these movement patterns, I would highly recommend the Rehab Trainer Express Online Course.
Image 1 - Wrong technique Image 2 - Proper Row Technique
Split Stance One Arm Kettlebell Row
This variation is probably the most similar to the standard dumbbell row movement you might see performed in the gym. You can realistically do this in either the split stance position or by leaning on a bench (or similar object).
You will use a single kettlebell and take a split stance position (similar to a lunge) and lean onto the front leg. From here row the bell. Personally, I like to get a little rotation through my torso with this movement. A lot of people will say stay square with your shoulder, in my opinion you improve the range of motion by adding a little rotation.
When and how to use it? Personally, for me, I like to use this variation mainly when working with a heavier weight. What is a heavy weight? This obviously varies from person to person, but, generally speaking you probably want to aim at between 5-15 reps (depending on the weight being used and the goal). If the weight is too light most people could do this movement for A LOT of repetitions. .
This variation can be done as a one arm kettlebell row, or with a kettlebell in both hands. Get in a strong athletic stance and hinge at the hips until your torso is almost horizontal to the ground, the kettlebell/s should be inside your feet.
When using one kettlebell you have two ways to complete the movement;
- Complete the rows as a standard movement. This can include rotation through the torso or not.
- Complete the row as a more ballistic variation. You will pull the bell more toward the midline of the chest and at the top of the movement (close to your chest), release the bell and catch it with the other hand. With this variation you will need to keep the shoulders square to the ground.
When using two kettlebells it can also be done a few different ways.
- One kettlebell at a time with the other either hanging or on the ground. This allows for some rotation through the rowing movement.
- Row both kettlebells at the same time.
My personal favourite way to complete this movement is with two kettlebells and alternating single arm rows with the kettlebell on the ground.
When and how to use it? I actually really like the single bell variation changing hands at the top of each row. It means you can get a really challenging workout without needing to use a heavy kettlebell. Using it like this I aim for more repetitions and really like it for a circuit style workout.
Bench Renegade Row
This is a great regression to a standard renegade row. The reason you use the bench is because if you were on the floor, there isn’t enough range of motion to complete the movement. The bench also makes it easier to complete because you’re at an incline. Get in the prone position over the bench, trying to keep your hands underneath your shoulders and not out in front of the body. The wider your feet the easier it is to keep balance. Use the standard rowing action to complete the movement. Work all the repetitions on one side of the body at a time, or alternate between each repetition.
When and how to use this one arm kettlebell row? I love this variation when working with groups. It is only a little easier than completing the standard renegade row, but you only need 1 kettlebell, which makes it perfect. Because you’re in the prone position you aren’t able to move the same sort of weight as a split stance row, so it is also great for when you don’t have access to heavier kettlebells.
Standard Renegade Row
Talk about full body exercise!! The renegade row ticks basically all the boxes, the only other movement that I can think of which would cover more of the body would be the Turkish Get Up. The biggest bit of advice for this movement is to use competition kettlebells (if you’re not too sure about what these are, find out more here) and a suitable ground surface. The reason for this is simple, keep things safe. Using small kettlebells or an uneven surface could be a recipe for injury if the bells were to tip over during the exercise.
Technique wise, get in a prone position, making sure the kettlebells are about shoulder width apart and placed inline with your shoulders. For your feet, a wider stance will make the movement a little bit easier by providing more balance. Row the bell by thinking about someone pulling your elbow up with a string. Try to keep your balance and keep your hips square to the ground. Typically, you would alternate sides for each repetition. Take your time, this movement is not a race.
When and how to use it? This is a better movement for 1-1 or small group sessions simply because you need 2 kettlebells for each person. It is such a great full body movement that is challenging in more ways than one. Doing it for high reps is really challenging so I typically aim for 5-10 per side. Spice things up by adding a push up between repetitions; left side row, right side row, a pushup - if you can repeat this sequence for 10 pushups you’re doing really well!
Swing High Pull
This variation stands out as, probably, the most unique option to kettlebells. Realistically, each of the other row variations I've covered so far you could essentially use almost any piece of weighted equipment to complete them. However, the swing high pull is unique to kettlebell training (no other bit of equipment, despite their marketing machine works better for swing variations than kettlebells).
The other reason this movement stands out is because it is a ballistic based movement (yes, the single kettlebell gorilla row can be ballistic, but not always). To complete this variation you need to start with a strong kettlebell swing (you can read more about kettlebell swings here). From here the trick is initiating the ‘pull’ at the right time, which is when you have a gap between your arm and body at about 45° angle (as seen in the middle image below). Similar to the other row variations to begin the pull, think about someone pulling back your elbow, but this time the arm won’t be as tight to the body (see the third image). You finish the movement by punching the bell back out and continuing back into a swing pattern.
When and how to use it? This variation is one I would be using with people who are more focused on learning the art of kettlebells. It is a great movement and the most complicated of the row variations. I personally use this in one of two ways; A - when people are still learning the movement pattern of a kettlebell snatch or B - when I might not want to do snatches, but want a similar training effect. Can be done for either high reps or to improve strength using a heavier weight.
So there are 5 best variations when it comes to the one arm kettlebell row.
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