I did 60 dumbbell renegade rows every day for a week — here's what happened

Man performing dumbbell renegade rows
(Image credit: Getty Images)

The first definition of renegade in many dictionaries contains words such as "deserter" and "betray," so not only is it an unwelcome label but also it has no bearing on exercise.

The second definition, however, conveys a far more attractive, rakish image, using adjectives such as rebellious and unconventional. Now that’s more like it. I’m sure most of us would like to think that we have — or had, at least in high school — a touch of the renegade (second definition) about us.

Of course, it still has nothing to do with a tough exercise, but it sounds as if it could if it just applied itself. And so I, always the low-key rebel, suggested to my editor that I do the renegade row for a week. Then I’d buy a massive motorbike and hit the open road to taste some of that delicious freedom.

What is the renegade row?

The move seems to have been popularised, if not developed, by a coach named John Davies, founder of Renegade Training. That seems plausible, though it does rob the name of the exercise of its drama and mystery.

It’s sometimes known as the plank row, which is a better description but far less evocative of something or other. Whatever you call it, it’s a popular move because it targets a wide range of muscles, including those in the upper back, which are frequently neglected.

It also hits the core, the shoulders, and the upper arms. Your leg muscles and glutes will be called into play to stabilize your body, but this is primarily an upper-body exercise in which you raise and lower weights (dumbbells or kettlebells) from a high plank position.

I used dumbbells (if you do, go for those with a hexagonal shape, as you don’t need the extra trouble of your weights rolling away from you and leaving you looking like Bambi on ice).

How to do dumbbell renegade rows

  • Begin in a high plank position, holding the handles of the dumbbells, with your arms directly under your shoulders and your legs about shoulder-width apart for stability (wider if you have to). 
  • Engage your core and glutes, and bend your right elbow to raise the weight towards your right hip, keeping your arm close to your torso.
  • Your hips and shoulders should remain square to the floor; do not rotate at the hips. Good form is crucial, so also make sure you don’t raise your butt as you tire, and keep your shoulders in line with your hands.
  • Lower back to start position and repeat the move with your left arm.
  • Even with a light weight, this is a hard one, so aim for three sets of 10 reps (five on each side) to begin with.

I did renegade rows every day for a week — this is what I learned

I didn’t like wine when I first tasted it; now I love it, thanks to dogged persistence and an aspiration to one day order a glass of Pinot Noir without sounding as if I have something against France.

And I wasn’t wild about Springsteen when I first heard his music (I think it was Max Weinberg’s mighty drumming), but I knew it was good, so I kept listening and I’m profoundly glad I did.

In the same way, I hated the renegade row on day one. The thing is, I felt the same way on day seven. Sometimes, persistence isn’t enough. Of course, everyone will like different things, and that's okay too. 

There were a few sore points

I know this is an excellent exercise. I could feel it in my core and my upper back, which I don’t give the attention it deserves, so I knew it was doing me some good. But I couldn’t get past the discomfort I felt in the palms of my hands.

I noticed it on the first rep on day one, which was bad news, and it didn’t get any better in the reps, sets, and days that followed. I started with two 16lb weights but went down to 10lb ‘bells — with wide neoprene handles — after the first day.

Of course, the weight I was lifting wasn’t the issue; it was my body weight bearing down on one palm at a time as I lifted with the other hand. I haven’t spent much time digging for rocks with my bare hands, but neither am I a stranger to manual labor and I’m regularly called upon to open tight-fitting lids. 

However, there wasn’t a moment as I performed the move when I was not aware of the ache in my palms, especially around the pads of my thumbs. If you try them, you might be able to mitigate this with gloves like these Adidas Essential Adjustable Fingerless Gloves

The Renegade Row — my verdict

I wanted to enjoy this exercise, but I couldn’t. I started the week with three sets of 20 (10 on each side) and finished with three sets of 30 (15 on each side), but I found I was being pulled away from focusing on my form by the continuous pressure on my hands.

What was I doing wrong? As far as I could tell, nothing. But when such thoughts intrude, the exercise becomes less effective and much less appealing, and that makes it hard, if not impossible, to make it a regular habit. 

My feeling is that if any discomfort you feel during an exercise has nothing to do with the physical challenge, and it doesn’t ease, then it’s time to move on. And so I will.

That said, I can take something positive from the experience: because the renegade row left me feeling my upper back had had a workout, I know I need to spend some time on this area.

My top choice is the standing bent-over row; a study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found it produced major muscle activation from the lower to the upper back. The renegade row works a greater range of muscles, for sure, but I don’t need one move to do everything. 

I recommend you try this exercise, but don’t feel at all discouraged if you find it’s not for you. After all, Tom's Guide's Fitness Editor also tried it and had a similar experience. On the other hand, you might love it and make it a staple part of your workouts. 

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John Carroll

John is a writer and editor based in London. He was worked for magazines such as Runner’s World, Men’s Health, Women’s Health and Cosmopolitan. A keen runner, what he lacks in ability he makes up for with enthusiasm and excuses.