The 3-2-1 Back Cure

Think you’ve tried everything to add strength and size?
Five minutes in a commercial gym adds credence to your desperation—a painful blend of bosu-ball jumps, awkward eye contact on the adductor-abductor machine, and exercise form bad enough to make a crossfitter cringe.

It only gets worse with one-arm dumbbell rows—a terrifying blend of herky-jerky, seizure ¼ reps and your decrepit, hunched grandmother trying to pull start a rickety push-mower. An exercise should work what it’s meant to work. If you’re selling out your rows to pull more weight and reps at the expense of technique then you’re missing the boat.  You’re opening the door for imbalance, injury, and being invisible when you turn sideways. One-arm dumbbell rows performed with optimal technique and sufficient volume are among the best “bang for your buck” exercises in the high-performance muscle toolbox. The movement involves an anti-rotation, anti-flexion position and scapular retraction and depression under significant training load. Before we jump into my best-kept secret for one-arm dumbbell row dominance it’s important we cover the finer points of the exercise.

For Upper Body Pulling

The one-arm dumbbell row is great for developing strength and thickness through the mid and upper back while improving scapular movement, and core stability. Rows work the latissiumus dorsi, traps, rhomboids, erector spinae and to a lesser extent, the biceps and forearms. With dumbbell rows your grip and upper body pulling muscles will be stressed to the max, providing plenty of work to build an epic yoke and massive arms.

Anti-Rotation and Core Work

With proper execution of the row, the spine is neutral and torso stationary with the nipple-line facing the bench. Since the row is loaded unilaterally with a heavy dumbbell, there is a huge anti-rotation stress to the core and strengthens the trunk (Behm et al). Additionally, the lats cross the thoracic, lumbar, and sacral spine and play a huge role in the transfer of loads between trunk and limbs while contributing to stiffness of the lumbar spine. Maintaining neutral spine while challenging the lats makes the one-arm dumbbell row an important exercise for both performance and back-pain prevention (Somerset). Unfortunately, this benefit is rarely derived due to excessive torso rotation and failed attempts to “heave” as much weight as possible for max reps. Every exercise is a tool; an exercise performed optimally with less weight is much better than an exercise performed haphazardly with more weight. Problem is, we often look for the best of both worlds. No worries My Friend, with one-arm dumbbell countdown rows you’ll train plenty of muscle building volume with sufficient weight without sacrificing technique.

What the Heck is a Countdown?

A countdown is an advanced training method using the idea of the rest-pause with submaximal weight. As it currently stands, most research and information available on rest-pause techniques looks at heavy, near maximal loads performed for multiple singles to enhance strength gains. Typically a heavy weight (80-85% 1-RM) is used and performed to near-failure. Then, a 15 second rest is taken to improve recovery and ATP-PCr regeneration (fuel for high intensity, short duration tasks) and the set is resumed, allowing partial recovery and an overall greater training stimulus than what would otherwise be possible with straight-rep sets. This technique not only helps fatigue the muscle fibres, but can also help break through challenging strength and muscle-building plateaus. That method works very well, but we’ll need to change it to increase volume and create a greater muscle building response rather than a pure strength building focus.


Other high-rep sets and intensity boosting methods like the Kroc Row are great for testing your mettle and stimulating huge training gains—when performed with optimal form. The problem is that too many athletes let good intentions go awry.  They use technique to make a blind man cringe which minimizes the benefit of their iron-hurling efforts. Stop cranking the lawn mower for 12 “reps” and opt for dumbbell countdowns. Countdowns are simple—rather than performing straight sets where form breaks down, break-up the set and allow multiple short-duration breaks. By turning the set into a rest-pause set you will create a bigger training response by using heavier weight for cleaner reps and more volume.

Here’s How to Set it up

Countdown rows are a great auxiliary movement in your mass-building arsenal and should be programmed similar to moderate-high rep hypertrophy work sets. Most literature suggests 8-12 reps per set as the sweet spot, so let’s start there.  The plan is to take the reps you would normally do, say 3×12, and cut repetitions in half.

For Example

Instead of 3×12 (36 total Reps), implement the countdown and perform 2-3 sets of 3×6-5-4-3-2-1*. Two sets at the countdown would be 42 total reps and three sets would be 63 total reps. Instead of 8 Reps per set, Countdown 4-3-2-1 Instead of 10 Reps per set, Countdown 5-4-3-2-1 Instead of 12 Reps per set, Countdown 6-5-4-3-2-1 The higher reps originally planned will exponentially increase the total volume of your set, decreasing the number of sets necessary for a significant training response. I wouldn’t suggest going much higher than the 6-rep countdown depicted above as your volume increases exponentially and greater recover is needed. *Note: Perform 6 reps, rest 15-20 seconds, perform 4 reps, rest 15-20 seconds etc. **Note: Instead of ending 3-2-1 feel free to combine 2-1 and finish 3-3.

Sample Muscle Building Program

Much of my philosophy is focused on mastering the basics and improving strength levels. Sound principles with the focus of high quality execution of basic movements will always be superior in the weight room. Here’s a sample workout plan with countdown rows included on two separate workouts with different rep and volume amounts. Dumbbell countdowns provide a huge training stimulus and increase in volume while still emphasizing strength gain in major lifts. Ideally, this program would be done Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday with the remainder of the week focused on active recovery. If you’re an athlete you’ll need to emphasize movement/speed training before your training session and include exercises that are more specific to your sport.


1a.Close Grip Bench Press 3-4×5 1b. Band Pull-Apart 3-4×10-15 2a. Chin-Up 4×8 2b. Plank 4×30 sec 3. Dumbbell Row Countdown 3×4 (and down) 4a.Dumbbell Bench Press 2-3×8-12 4b. Biceps Curl 2-3×15


1a.Box Jump 3×5 1b. side plank/anti-rotation 3×30 sec. 2. Front Squat 4×5 3.RDL (hinge pattern) 3×8-12 4a. Goblet Split Squat/single leg 2-3×8-12 4b. Farmer Walk 2-3×30 seconds


1a. Chin Up 3-4×5 1b. Banded T’s 2-3×10-15 2a.Incline Press 4×8 2b. Palloff Press/anti-rotation 3×30 sec 3. Dumbbell Row Countdown 3×6 (and down) 4a. Triceps extension 2-3×15 4b.Hammer Curl 2-3×15


1a.Broad Jump 3×5 1b. side plank/anti-rotation 3×30 sec. 2. Trap Bar Deadlift 3-4×5 3. Back-Squat (squat pattern)  4×10 4a. step-back lunge/single leg 2-3×15 4b. single arm carry 2-3×30 seconds This would be a fantastic plan for beginner/intermediate level lifters with dumbbell countdowns being cycled out after four weeks or so.

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Rest Periods and Intra-set Recovery

Unilateral exercises like the dumbbell row inherently have a small intra-set recovery time while switching working limbs. Countdowns expand this rest period, allowing short periods of local muscular and ATP-PC-R recovery between limbs and between dropping reps throughout the countdown. The result: Extremely dense, efficient training. With increased recovery capacity rep quality is improved and greater loads can be used compared to training with straight sets.

More Muscle Growth

According to Brad Schoenfeild’s study THE MECHANISMS OF MUSCLE HYPERTROPHY AND THEIR APPLICATION TO RESISTANCE TRAINING there are three major mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy—mechanical tension, metabolic stress, and muscle damage. Here’s a glance at each mechanism independently:

Mechanical Tension

Mechanical tension is the tension placed on muscles through lengthening and shortening during flexion and relaxation of contractile tissues. Total volume, workload, mechanical levers, and time-under tension all play a role in mechanical tension.

Metabolic Stress

You know that burning pump in your muscles? That’s the result of significant time of tension and the build-up of metabolites like lactate, hydrogen ion, inorganic phosphate, and creatine (Schoenfeld). The metabolic stress achieved through long-duration work sets under fatigue can produce additional hypertrophic effects.

Muscular Damage

Resistance training results in localized damage to the muscle tissues being worked. As a result there’s an acute inflammatory response and the migration of cells to repair muscular damage. Crewther et al found that total-repetition responses were all superior in the hypertrophy scheme, compared with the power and maximal strength schemes because of the greater overall training volume. Additionally the shorter rest periods and longer total contraction times in hypertrophy schemes causes a greater stress on the endocrine and metabolic systems to increase muscular hypertrophy. Countdown sets use all these factors and are perfect recipe for muscle growth—mechanical tension with heavy load, metabolic stress due to a high volume and short recovery periods, and high levels of muscular damage.

Potentially Greater Anabolic Hormone Release

The research is mixed as to whether unilateral exercises can create a greater anabolic response to training, but further research is warranted. Larger muscle mass involvement and greater total volume of work during an exercise session are both necessary before endocrine increases are observed (Smilios et al). As it stands, endocrine response examined various combinations of sets and repetitions and observed that in general higher volume exercise protocols created a greater acute endocrine response. With that said a high training volume and metabolic demand are necessary with unilateral exercises like dumbbell rows to match bilateral exercises for equal training on both sides of the body.

Programming Dumbbell Row Countdowns

Countdown dumbbell rows turbo-charge training density to jump-start stagnant strength and muscle building. The shock volume and density shock from countdowns system is intense and they’re best programmed for short bursts and cycled through training. Three to four week bursts work best, followed by three weeks or four weeks of another horizontal row like chest supported rows.

Muscle and Strength Building

The primary focus is progressive overload in compound lifts like chin-ups, squats, deadlifts, cleans, and presses with countdown dumbbell rows being a key assistance lift for higher training volume. Beginners: Focus on straight sets and get strong and stable there first--you’re not ready to maximize countdowns. But, since you listen as well as a Doberman in a Butcher shop keep countdown rows lower in reps if you give them a shot. Don’t venture above 4 rep countdown sets (4-3-2-1) until you’re rowing significant weight with good or great technique.

Wrap Up

I used to be one of those dudes who thought heaving the heaviest weight possible regardless of form was the meal ticket to high performance, athletic muscle. Instead, I got a case of imaginary lat syndrome and minimal gains. Drop the weight and iron out your technique first, then increase your training volume with high quality countdown sets. Give your rows the love they deserve and you’ll be walking through doors sideways in no time.

About the Author

eric bach back cureEric Bach, CSCS, PN1 is a strength coach, writer, and consultant in Denver, CO. He is owner of where he coaches clients to take control and become stronger, shredded, and more athletic.


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