Amongst bodybuilders and regular strength trainers, toning up your back and making it as wide and as strong as possible is a common goal.
And even though there are many different ways of doing so, bodybuilders will often tell you that their favorite will always be the row. So what exactly is the row and how does one perform it?
The row is a blanket term and it can cover a range of different exercises. However, hence the name, the trait they all have in common is that to perform it, you have to imitate some kind of rowing motion.
It is a widely used compound exercise and involves a range of different joints that move across a wide range of motion. It involves many muscles around the body, especially those in the back and shoulder, and therefore is great to develop upper-body strength.
Like all other exercises at the gym, there is always a degree of risk and difficulty involved in performing the row. If it is performed incorrectly, it could lead to injury and so it is always best to learn good form and technique from a personal trainer when first starting at the gym.
As the row requires such a high degree of flexibility and mobility, this becomes especially relevant for this exercise. It is imperative to keep your back straight and have a neutral spine throughout, and this applies to most other exercises at the gym.
However, even if the form is perfect and your movements are controlled, don’t think you are still not at risk from injury as this can always occur when putting your body under pressure.
Bent over rows are the most common back exercises gym-goers see yet it can put your spine in quite a compromised position. Over time, and after several years of lifting, it could be bad news for the discs in your back.
A good way to reduce this risk however is to perform exercises that are chest supported such as the chest supported row, yet still, isolate various back muscles.
The chest supported row is an effective variation of the row and can provide the same isolation benefits as a bent-over row, however, lowers any risk of injury.
The row is generally designed to target not only the back, but the shoulders too, and the chest supported row still provides these benefits and targets, yet removes any need for back and core stability meaning it’s not only great for those with a history of injuries but also allows you to row with much better form.
By leaning into a bench with your upper torso, you remove the need for your back to stabilize the movement, and unlike the bent-over row, your lower back and hamstrings aren’t put under so much pressure.
Barbell Chest Supported Rows
The chest-supported barbell row doesn’t require lots of equipment as some people may think, however, it is still important you set it up right to optimize muscle hypertrophy.
To set up this exercise properly you will need an Olympic bar, weight plates, an adjustable bench, and a squat rack with the hooks facing outwards. The squat rack is optional but very useful to begin the movement.
Additionally, as you choose your weight plates, make sure you choose a light or moderate weight, to begin with.
Once you have set up this equipment, you will need to follow the following steps.
- Set your incline bench close to the squat rack and at an incline angle of around 45 degrees. If you set the incline too high, this will cause you to be in an awkward position, and if you set the incline too low, it may limit your whole range of motion. This will in turn decrease how effective the exercise actually is.
- Next, you need to place the hooks on the outside of the squat rack. Make sure the height is comfortable enough for you to reach across at arm’s length. If you don’t have a squat rack, you are still able to perform this exercise, but another person will need to assist you in lifting the barbell.
- Next, you need to move the incline bench to the squat rack and ensure the bench is positioned over the center of the barbell. Your shoulders in this position should line up directly with the bar.
- Straddle the bench to get into position.
- Now, position yourself on the bench face first and keep your chest firmly pressed against the bench. You will be most comfortable with your head above the top of the bench if its possible.
- Make sure your feet stay grounded or if you can, straddle the bench tightly.
- Grab the bar with whatever grip you prefer, whether this be overhand or underhand. Switching up the grip position is actually one method of changing up your workouts.
- Now you need to start the rowing motion by grabbing the barbell tightly and moving the weight up and down whilst staying steady and controlled. In this exercise, you need to ensure your form is correct and form is a lot more important than weight. Control the weight instead of simply swinging it back and forth and sacrificing your form.
- For muscle hypertrophy, attempt to keep reps between only 6 and 12. Don’t try to go too heavy during the exercise but if you feel confident, you can increase the weight gradually if you feel you need to.
Dumbbell Chest Supported Row
Similar to a barbell chest supported row, the dumbbell chest supported row follows the same principles but there are a few tweaks and adjustments we need to make note of first.
The squat or power rack for example is no longer needed. You can place the dumbbells on the floor next to you and pick them up to begin the movement. However, if you still can’t reach the dumbbells, having another person on standby to assist you when needed is always helpful, whether this is a friend or trainer.
Otherwise, everything else we just explained in the above section, on how to do a barbell chest supported row stays the same. An added benefit however is that with a dumbbell chest supported row, there are usually more grip variations.
Dumbbells can be used with an overhand, and underhand, or even a neutral grip. Switching up the position of your grip can make your workouts exciting and add a new challenge to your set of exercises.
Muscles Worked with a Chest Supported Row
A lot of people think that chest-supported rows are only back exercises and whilst they do isolate the back muscles, this is generally a generic generalization.
Despite so many people thinking that the back is one large muscle that needs to be worked, the truth is that several different primary and secondary muscles are worked whilst performing the chest-supported row. These include
- Latissimus dorsi (Lats): When gym goers do a “back” day at the gym, they believe the muscles being worked the most are the lats. The lats make up a large section of the back and aid in giving that wide appearance when developed.
- Rhomboids: These muscles are smaller but still aid in the retraction of the scapula. These are secondary back muscles and are activated during a chest-supported row.
- Biceps: The bicep muscles are secondary muscles that are worked as a result of the chest-supported row. Biceps work on whilst targeting the back as you will often incorporate compound back movement which activates the biceps.
- Trapezius (Traps): Many people believe that to work on traps, you need to perform shrugs.
- Teres Major and Minor: If you’ve never heard of these muscles, you’re probably not the only ones. But this doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Many people would struggle to try and point out these muscles on an anatomy chart but don’t let this trip you up as it is crucial for adducting and rotating the arm.
Benefits of Chest Supported Rows
When doing a back workout, there are an array of choices to choose from when choosing which exercises to incorporate into your workout routine.
Whilst some back exercises are amazing for building muscle up, they still might have regular risks involved in performing them.
Chest-supported rows, however, are one of the best exercises you can do to improve your back muscles whilst also keeping the risk of injury. They are also one of best lat pulldown alternatives for building a wider back. Exercises such as the T-Bar rows or the Bent Over Rows are helpful when building back muscles yet they compromise the safety of your back whilst doing so.
By performing a similar movement to these exercises yet with the support of a bench against your chest, you are still able to receive the same benefits but reduce the risk of injury. Other benefits include:
- Limited Equipment Needed: Unlike similar back exercises, no complex machines or other pieces of equipment are needed to perform chest-supported rows. Your gym should already have a rack, the weights you need, and a bench. This is all that is needed.
- Isolates Back Muscles: Bent-over rows and other back exercises that are similar require you to use secondary muscles such as the hamstrings and the glutes. The chest supported row helps to keep your spine neutral and limits the number of alternative muscles used to perform the movement.
- Great Alternative Exercise for those with Injuries: Many people and regular gym goers especially, have a long history of injuries when performing different back exercises. Those who have a lower back problem or have had prior surgery are usually unable to do movements such as deadlifts, T-Bar rows, or bent-over rows. However, a chest-supported row can be done by individuals of all ages and abilities and by those with a history of injury.
- Learning Stepping Stone: The exercise can also be a great way to learn proper form. Often, beginners injure themselves quickly using improper mechanics and by lacking the knowledge of how to perform certain movements correctly. By learning the chest-supported row first, you are able to avoid future injury if you ever decide to change over to bent-over rows.
Chest Supported Row Alternative
If you are struggling with a lower back injury or have general pain in your lower back, the chest-supported rows are not your only option.
Several other exercises are just as effective as this type of row and one we recommend is the chest supported T-Bar row. Many gyms across the country have some kind of chest-supported T-Bar row.
This is a stationary designed bar that stays attached and helps to limit back flexion so that you can prevent any lower back injuries.
Usually, the chest support is adjustable and this allows you to find a proper height that will allow for optimum range of motion. Another advantage of the T-Bar row machine is that it usually has multiple grips you can experiment with and allows you to vary up your workout.
Longevity and success in the gym are increased by limiting any risk of injury and by performing the chest supported row or even the chest-supported T-Bar row, you will be able to stay healthier and perform better in the gym throughout your athletic journey.
Chest Supported Row vs Bent Over Row
Long-time gym-goers and fitness fanatics as well as bodybuilders have differing beliefs on the proper ways you should perform certain exercises. While some experts argue one exercise is necessary to grow and develop, you must always put your unique goals and weaknesses first.
Bent over rows might activate more muscle groups yet they also come with a much higher risk of injury. To perform a bent-over row correctly, you will need to have the correct hip hinge and keep a neutral spine.
While other muscle groups such as the multifidus and spinal erectors might be activated during a bent-over row, they significantly increase the risk of back injuries.
We would always tell you how important it is to understand your own body and prevent injury whilst doing so. This is a lot more important than listening to ‘experts’ that think they know what is best for everyone.
Bent over rows are a compound movement and can activate several muscle groups but they should only be performed with moderate weight and whilst maintaining the correct form. They are also one of the best pull up alternatives for targeting some of the major upper body muscles.
Moreover, if you have a history of back problems and injuries, that chest-supported rows must become your core back exercise so you can still isolate those muscles, build that strength, yet keep your risk of injury low.
Even if one exercise could be more optimal, always go by what your body tells you and don’t push it beyond what you can do. This will only cause more harm than do good.
We hope by reading this article you have gained a basic understanding of what the chest supported row is and how it can support you on your fitness journey without increasing your risk of injury. Next time it’s ‘back’ day, don’t be afraid to try one out.
Despite what injuries you’ve previously had, the chest-supported row allows you to isolate those back muscles and increase that strength, plus work on those gains.
It only requires a minimal amount of equipment and we promise, when you have mastered it correctly it could be your new favorite exercise to perform on ‘back’ day. So what are you waiting for? Head down to the gym and go try it out!
Also see what back exercises you can perform with a home gym pulley system.