Finding effective back exercises to add to your training program can be a challenge as there are so many out there to choose from.
Two very popular back-building exercises are pull-ups and dumbbell rows. Both have earned their places in back workouts everywhere but could one of them be better than the other?
Well, in this article, we compare pull-ups and dumbbell rows in terms of the muscles worked, difficulty, accessibility, and variability.
We also discuss some safety considerations associated with both.
By the end of it, you should have a much better understanding of whether pull-ups or dumbbell rows are the better choice of exercise for you and your fitness goals.
What’s The Difference Between Pull-Ups And Dumbbell Rows?
Pull-ups and dumbbell rows are very different exercises in terms of appearance, and to some extent, the way they work your back.
Pull-ups use your body weight as resistance.
They put a lot of focus on your lats while also bringing your shoulders, arms, chest, and core into the movement to varying degrees too.
They’re performed on a pull-up bar and are a great functional exercise.
They help build strength in the working muscles and can help build size, although strength increases will be the main benefit of pull-ups.
Dumbbell rows don’t rely on your body weight for resistance.
As the name suggests, they bring a dumbbell into play to help challenge the working muscles as much as possible.
They’re a back-focused exercise that works your lats, traps, shoulders, and rhomboids.
Dumbbell rows will add strength too (like pull-ups) but they’re usually better for hypertrophy programs where increasing muscle size and overall strength is the main goal.
While both pull-ups and dumbbell rows are back exercises, each one works your back in a different way and can impact your fitness goals in different ways too.
Which Exercise Is Best For Building Lower Back?
Although both pull-ups and dumbbell rows primarily target upper back muscles, dumbbell rows will bring your lower back into focus a little bit more.
This is mainly due to the position you’re in while performing the exercise. The bent-over position puts a bit of stress on your lower back.
If you add the extra stress caused by the weight being lifted during the exercise, you could actually feel quite a bit of effort in your lower back.
Pull-ups are pretty much all about your upper body, so your lower back won’t benefit too much from the exercise.
With all of this in mind, dumbbell rows are better for building lower back when compared with pull-ups.
Which Exercise Is Best For Building Upper Back?
Both of these exercises are extremely effective at building your upper back.
Trying to find which one is best for you will probably come down to your fitness goals.
For example, pull-ups are a more functional exercise, i.e. they help build strength in muscles that you will use in everyday movements.
Dumbbell rows are more about increasing the size of the working muscles as well as increasing your overall strength.
This difference (although small) could determine which of these upper back exercises will be a better choice for you.
For building functional strength in your upper back, pull-ups are best. However, for building size and overall strength in your upper back, dumbbell rows are probably your best bet.
Which Exercise Is Best For Building Traps?
Neither pull-ups nor dumbbell rows are particularly good for building traps as standalone exercises.
While your traps do activate and play a part in both, you probably won’t get too much benefit in this area from either exercise.
Pull-ups do work your lower traps though and dumbbell rows tend to require activation from your lower and mid traps.
In both exercises, your traps won’t be one of the main muscles being worked though so they’re likely equally as effective at building traps.
There’s a lot of muscle activation and movement required to perform pull-ups effectively.
As a compound exercise, multiple muscles and joints will be working simultaneously to make the movement happen.
The most challenging part of pull-ups though is that you have to lift your entire body weight using just your upper body muscles.
Although there are ways to do assisted pull-ups, there aren’t too many ways to gradually build up the weight you’re lifting during the exercise.
Unless you have a good foundation of strength already, pull-ups are a very hard exercise to add to your workouts.
The technique involved in dumbbell rows is quite a challenging one to master.
If your body position isn’t quite right or your technique is slightly off, it can shift the focus of the exercise onto other muscle groups which can place the wrong muscles under stress.
The bent-over position isn’t always particularly comfortable when you’re lifting weights either.
It can place stress on your lower back and adds an extra level of difficulty to the exercise.
Both pull-ups and dumbbell rows have a reasonably high level of difficulty.
If we look at which exercise is more challenging physically, pull-ups will be the winner as you have to pull your entire body weight up using just your upper body strength
This can be an extremely difficult thing to do which makes pull-ups a very challenging exercise.
If we look at the technique involved in the exercises though, dumbbell rows will be more difficult.
The body position is probably less comfortable and there are more points where mistakes can be made throughout the movement.
Pull-ups and dumbbell rows have an equally high difficulty level.
Pull-ups could technically be done anywhere that you can find a bar that can hold your body weight while you pull yourself up on it.
However, it’s usually a good idea to only do pull-ups on a bar specifically designed for that purpose.
In a gym environment, all you need to do pull-ups is a pull-up bar.
As your body weight is used as resistance, you’re always ready to do pull-ups anywhere you can find a pull-up bar.
This gives pull-ups an extremely high level of accessibility.
Dumbbells are a very basic and common piece of gym equipment.
While some people support themselves on a bench while doing dumbbell rows, you can do them freestanding which means you only really need a set of dumbbells to do the exercise.
As the equipment needed is so easily found in most gyms, dumbbell rows have good levels of accessibility.
Both pull-ups and dumbbell rows are extremely accessible exercises.
Dumbbell rows use only basic gym equipment but the deciding factor in this one is that pull-ups only require a bar to be performed effectively.
You always have the resistance you need with you as your body weight is what’s being lifted during the movement.
This gives pull-ups slightly better accessibility when compared to dumbbell rows.
There are quite a few variations to the standard pull-up movement.
Simply changing your grip and the position of your hands on the bar can adapt pull-ups enough to bring different muscles into the exercise.
There are also pull-up variations such as butterfly pull-ups that bring momentum into play throughout the movement.
Dumbbell rows can be performed one arm at a time or both arms simultaneously.
You could also switch from dumbbells to a barbell as well as changing your body position to challenge the working muscles in a slightly different way.
Both exercises have good levels of variability.
As you can change the equipment used a bit more in dumbbell rows, they have slightly better variability than pull-ups.
When it comes to compound exercises like pull-ups and dumbbell rows, your technique is probably the most important element.
Even small errors in your technique can lead to bigger issues throughout the movement which could potentially cause injury.
You also need to think about gradually increasing the amount of stress placed on the working muscles.
In dumbbell rows, this is done by simply increasing the weight being lifted gradually.
In pull-ups, it’s more about building enough strength to be able to do more pull-ups each set.
Dumbbell Rows vs Pull-Ups: Which Is Best?
Both pull-ups and dumbbell rows are very effective back-building exercises.
If you want a slightly more accessible but a bit more challenging upper back exercise, then pull-ups might be the better choice for you.
Dumbbell rows could be best for you though if you want to bring your lower back into play a bit more while only using basic gym equipment that gives you plenty of room for variation.
Adding both pull-ups and dumbbell rows to your back workouts could end up being the best choice for you to get the most help reaching your fitness goals.
That’s all for this article, but why do you get wrist pain during pull-ups? Or why do you get shoulder pain from pull-ups?
Hope this helped!
I’ve been in the fitness and strength training industry for nearly a decade. In that time, I’ve gained 30 pounds of muscle, written hundreds of articles, and reviewed dozens of fitness supplements. As for my educational background, I’m a currently studying for my Active IQ Level 3 Diploma in Personal Training.