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Single arm smith machine row: Grow your lats & fix your muscle imbalances!

By Lee Thomas
Last Updated on 8th July 2020

If rows and pulldowns have been your bread and butter back exercises for any length of time, then chances are you have visible muscle imbalances. And while you might not be able to see them clearly, these muscle asymmetries will be obvious to anyone looking at your physique from behind.

Dumbbell rows are the obvious solution.

However, few gyms carry dumbbells that exceed 50kg. Plus, even if your gym does have heavy dumbbells, your lat growth will quickly stagnate because your grip strength and stabiliser muscles simply cannot keep up with your back strength.

Enter the single-arm Smith machine row...

At this stage in my bodybuilding career, the one-arm row is a key part of every Smith machine back workout that I perform.

And you'll soon learn why.

Single-arm Smith machine row exercise details

  • Main muscles: Lats, traps, rear delts
  • Supporting muscles: Biceps, forearms, abs
  • Exercise type: Unilateral
  • Difficulty: Intermediate
  • Equipment needed: Smith machine
  • Recommended gear: Lifting straps, grip trainer, chalk
  • Exercise purpose: Place more emphasis on your back by using one arm at a time

How to do single arm Smith machine rows

  1. Set the Smith machine bar to just below knee height.
  2. Stand side on to the centre of the bar with a staggered stance—if you're rowing with your right arm, put your left leg out in front. Also, feel free to elevate yourself on a step-up platform for extra range of motion.
  3. Bend your torso over to a 45-degree angle while maintaining a neutral spine.
  4. Grab the barbell tightly and place your other arm on the frame of the Smith machine for support.
  5. Lift the bar off the hooks and then fully extend your elbow so that the weight is stretching your back muscles.
  6. Inhale, brace your core and then drive your elbow backwards.
  7. Row the bar until your elbow is just past your torso.
  8. Hold the contraction for a second and then lower the bar down under control, once again allowing the weight to stretch your lats.
  9. Repeat for 3-5 sets of 8-15 reps.

Single arm Smith machine row form tips

Keep your back flat

young woman doing yoga inside

Keep your back flat. Seems easy enough, doesn't it?

However, you'd be surprised at how many so-called "bodybuilders" just don't get it.

Maintaining a neutral spine during rows—and not rounding your lower back—can easily mean the difference between building a broad, imposing physique and being saddled with a child-like body for the rest of your adult life.

Put simply, if you don't keep your back flat, your traps and lats can't contract, and they most certainly won't grow.

If you don't believe me, just try it. You'll feel of a ton of tension in your rear delts and brachioradialis, but virtually nothing in your upper back.

"Arse back, chest up, head up" isn't the most eloquent advice. But I can assure you; it'll make you feel every rep deep within the muscle fibres of your lats and traps. Your back will be screaming. And your muscle imbalances? Well, give it enough time, and they'll be sent packing!

Row with your elbows

muscular man doing a barbell row

It's natural to feel some bicep activation during the Smith machine single arm row because your arm is essentially in the hammer curl position. However, you still need to initiate every rep by squeezing your back. This way, the tension is on the target muscle from the word go [1].

This little rhyme might help you to remember the technique:

Here's what you should know: If you want your baby lats to grow, if you wanna make your physique flow—then please—pull with your elbow during the single arm row.

Recommended training gear for single arm Smith machine rows

1. Lifting straps

I switched to Versa Gripps after trying out my mate's pair one back day, and I haven't looked back since.

blue versa gripps

I've always been a minimalist when it comes to training accessories—I don't like to spend a lot of money on lifting gear. However, I'll make an exception for the Versa Gripp Pros.

The first time I wore them, my barbell row 5-rep max shot up by 9kg. But admittedly, I had about 300mg of caffeine in me that day, so I tried them on deadlifts—caffeine-free— to make sure that my gains weren't a fluke.

Same thing happened. My deadlift strength shot up. This time my 1RM increased by 15kg. And that's compared to deadlifting in regular lifting straps, not barehanded.

"The big mistake I see in back training is a failure to use straps or Versa Grips [...] your back strength should overshadow your grip strength."
Steve Shaw
Massive Iron

Funny how so-called testosterone "boosters" are worse at increasing your strength than a simple yet well-made pair of Versa Gripps. But I suppose I shouldn't be that surprised considering that our grip plays a major role in just about every exercise we do. A strong grip is really quite crucial when you think about it.

However, I don't want to rave too much about Versa Gripps since I know that not everyone can afford them.

close up of recommended lifting straps

I've also got the Beast Gear Weight Lifting Straps and have no complaints with the durability or grip. These things are a little rough around the edges, and they certainly aren't as comfortable Versa Gripps. However, as far as maintaining a firm grip on the bar goes, these Beast Gear Wrist Wraps are as reliable as the industry's best.

They'd definitely be my top choice if I was a cash-strapped twenty-something again.

2. Hand grip trainer

Ever since I discovered how to get big arms, my biceps and triceps have always been my strongest body parts. And as much as I enjoyed the frequent compliments, I was embarrassed about my comparatively weak grip strength.

captins of crush gripper in its packaging

In fact, I remember giving this skinny lad an arm wrestle and getting absolutely thrashed. To say I felt embarrassed was an understatement. People must have thought that my arms were pumped up with air or something.

From then on, I made a promise with myself to start taking my grip and forearm training seriously. I ordered 4 Captains of Crush Hand Grippers and started using them after every arm and back workout.

At first, I could barely close the CoC Sport—the 3rd lightest out of IronMind's 11 grippers.

However, by sticking to my initial commitment, I've managed to work my way up to closing the CoC No. 1 for sets of 10—and my forearms look much better for it.

Plus, all the weights feel so much lighter now that I can actually lift them like an adult man. And boy, if ever see that skinny fella again, I'm gonna show him that hard work pays off!

3. Weightlifting chalk

liquid chalk sizes

In my opinion, nothing improves your grip like strong forearms and a quality pair of lifting straps.

However, there's something old-school about chalk that makes you feel like a true bodybuilder. I still throw it on my hands for an extra layer of good luck even though I use Versa Gripps.

I went with this Liquid Sports Chalk because it's quick-drying and doesn't leave a huge cloud of dust behind. It's a must-have if your gym isn't too fond of people chalking up their hands because it doesn't leave any evidence behind.

"If the gym that you train at doesn't provide chalk or doesn't have chalk available, you need to get your own and bring it to the gym."
Nick Delgadillo
Starting Strength Coach

Single arm Smith machine row muscles worked

Lats

Illustration of the latissimus dorsi anatomy

Few, if any back exercises stretch your lats more than the Smith machine one arm row does. However, by elevating your feet on a step-up platform, you can take the weighted stretch to the next level and make it eye-wateringly intense. It feels like an optimal version of dumbbells rows, except that you can lift more weight and get a better contraction [2].

Traps

Illustration of the trapezius anatomy

Since I'm going to recommend that you keep your elbows close to your torso in order to emphasise your lats, you won't get that much trap activation from the 1 arm Smith machine row. But this isn't necessarily a bad thing. Because from my observation, most lifters lack back width (lats) more than they lack back thickness (traps).

Biceps

Illustration of the biceps anatomy

Since the biceps supinate (turn over) the forearm and flex the elbow, they get a decent amount of stimulation from single arm Smith machine rows. However, as mentioned, the brachioradialis will be more active than the biceps because its sole function is elbow flexion, which occurs as you bring the bar closer to your body.

Forearms

Illustration of the forearm anatomy

My limbs used to resemble twigs before I started lifting (actually for my first 18 months of training too!). These days, however, I have fairly developed forearms from all the Captains of Crush grip training that I've been doing.

But even at my level of advancement, my forearms still struggle to keep up with my back endurance-wise. So I always make it a point to wear my Vera Gripps whenever I'm doing rows and pulldowns with a respectable amount of weight.

This way, I can be sure that my lats and traps are getting the full training benefit because my grip is never the limiting factor.

Single arm Smith machine row benefits

Lats like wings

bodybuilder showing off his physique

Because the single-arm Smith machine row lets you train each side of your back independently, you'll naturally develop an extremely potent mind-muscle connection with your lats.

All you need to do is add in plenty of calories and high-quality protein, and nature will take care of the rest. Or, in other words, row heavy, eat right, and your back will blow up like you're getting noob gains all over again [3].

Fewer muscle imbalances

bodybuilder showing off his back and arm muscles

You could have the biggest back in the world. But if that back isn't symmetrical, then nobody's going to take you seriously. Just like you'd perform dumbbell flys to sculpt proportional pecs, you need to do unilateral lat exercises to build a well-formed back.

I love dumbbell rows as much as the next guy. But for reasons that I've discussed above—deeper stretch, less stabilisation, stronger mind-muscle connection—I think that the single-arm Smith machine row is an all-round superior back builder [4].

Single arm Smith machine row alternatives

Smith machine bent over row

woman training inside a modern gym

The Smith machine bent over row takes all the advantages of the free weight version, removes the stabilisation requirements and makes the setup a whole lot easier. If you struggle to feel your back working during barbell training, then I definitely recommend giving it a try.

Smith machine inverted row

man performing an inverted orw

The Smith machine bodyweight row is the push up of back training. It's easy to perform; there's a ton of variations, and—if you wear a weighted vest—you can build some serious muscle mass.

Smith machine reverse grip row

man doing underhand barbell rows

If you're aiming for pro-calibre lats, then look no further than the Smith machine underhand Yates row. Dorian's lat development spoke for itself. And while you or I may never be Mr Olympia, we can still learn from the best and realise our own genetic potential by performing intelligent exercises such as the underhand row. It's the perfect complement to the Single arm Smith machine row.

Lee Thomas
Ey Up! I'm Lee, a Leeds-based strength and conditioning coach who's been helping serious trainees achieve their physical potential for the past 20 years. In my time, I've been a competitive physique athlete and a national powerlifter. I hope you enjoy my exercise guides.
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