You walk into a crowded gym on your upper-body or pulling day and you’re ready to do your rows, but you find that all of the barbells are taken. Here’s what you should do: spot an open weight bench near the dumbbells, get ahold of a pair of ‘bells and get to work. The chest-supported row is a great upper-body exercise that builds your biceps and back with extra support.
Supporting your chest during a row is a safe way to load your back muscles without sacrificing form. If you’re a seasoned lifter you’re going to be able to pull a bit heavier as you isolate the movement; for beginners, this is a great exercise to learn how to retract your shoulder blades and engage your muscles without taxing your spine.
Back exercises support a healthy posture and rowing with dumbbells will give you the benefits of unilateral training as well. There’s a lot to love on this one. Let’s dive into how and why to do the chest-supported row and some alternatives and variations to change things up.
- How to Do the Chest-Supported Row
- Chest-Supported Row Sets and Reps
- Common Chest-Supported Row Mistakes
- Chest-Supported Row Variations
- Chest-Supported Row Alternatives
- Muscles Worked by the Chest-Supported Row
- Benefits of the Chest-Supported Row
- Who Should Do the Chest-Supported Row
- Frequently Asked Questions
The chest-supported row involves using a bench for built-in stability so you can protect your lower back and hammer your lats safely.
You’ll target your biceps and back as you press into the floor and the bench to help you engage your core and glutes. Here’s a step-by-step breakdown for the exercise. You’ll need an adjustable weight bench and some dumbbells, but do note that you can perform a chest-supported row with basically any type of free weight.
Step 1 — Lay Down on the Bench
Set your bench to a 45 degree incline. Grab your dumbbells and lie chest-down on the bench. Hold your weights by your sides with your palms facing each other. Press your toes into the floor and squeeze your glutes and abs to begin building tension.
Coach’s Tip: Pressing into the bench helps create stability. Take a moment here to create maximum tension from the starting position.
Step 2 — Row the Weights
Initiate the chest-supported row by retracting your shoulder blades and then follow through by pulling your elbows up toward the ceiling. Keep your upper arm tucked tight to your torso the whole way.
Coach’s Tip: Maintain a neutral spine by keeping your abs engaged. Try to retract your shoulder blades without overly extending your spine.
Step 3 — Lower the Weights Back Down
After pausing momentarily, slowly lower your weights back towards the floor, keeping your elbows in. Maintain tension by keeping your shoulders down and abs engaged. Stay engaged at the bottom of the lift.
Coach’s Tip: Moving slowly with control during the eccentric phase — or lowering down — of an exercise can help you build muscle and strength.
Whether your goal is hypertrophy, strength, or endurance, you’ll want to choose your sets and reps accordingly. Here are a couple of different ways you can program the chest-supported row:
- For Muscle Mass: Do four sets of 10 reps. You should be able to do one or two more reps at the end of each set, so you can complete all four with good form.
- For Strength: Perform five sets of five reps with heavy dumbbells.
- For Endurance: Do three sets of 15 reps. Choose a moderate load that you can maintain your form through your high reps.
The chest-supported row is easier than the bent-over row in the sense that your body doesn’t need to work as hard to stabilize your posterior chain. The extra support may make the exercise seem easier, but there’s a few common mistakes that you should be mindful of.
Going Too Heavy, Too Soon
If you’re used to doing heavy rows with a barbell, you understandably might assume you can immediately load up the chest-supported row. However, holding two heavy dumbbells may tax your grip sooner than you are used to and cause you to drop the weights and fail. Start with a weight you can comfortably do 10 reps with and go from there.
Overly Extending Your Spine
For beginners just learning the movement pattern of rowing, it’s common to hyperextend your thoracic spine when trying to retract your scapula. If the cue to squeeze your shoulder blades together throws you off, think about also driving your elbows towards the ceiling.
During the chest-supported row, you shouldn’t be arching your back to the point of your chest peeling off the bench.
Using Momentum (Instead of Control)
If you are trying to build strength or muscle with an exercise like the chest-supported row, it’s better to lean into the design of the movement and prioritize strict control over loose momentum. Engage your muscles on the concentric (lifting) and eccentric (lowering) phases. You can also pause for a second at the top of the lift.
If you’re unable to perform these actions with control you may want to lower the weight to build up some more strength.
You can change some aspects of the chest-supported row if you’d like to do a variation. For example, try doing it unilaterally to train one side at a time, or lower the height of the bench to increase difficulty. Here are a few chest-supported row variations to try out.
Chest-Supported Single-Arm Row
If you want to target one side of your back at a time, try the chest-supported single-arm dumbbell row. If you have an asymmetry in your strength, muscle, or mobility, unilateral exercises can help even things out.
There are a few ways to approach unilateral free-weight exercises. You can alternate sides — leave your left arm down while your right arm rows, lower your right arm, row your left arm, and continue. You can also leave your left arm down while you complete reps on your right side, and then switch sides.
Lastly, try this with an isometric hold. Row both arms up, and then hold your left arm at the top of the lift while you complete reps with your right side.
The seal row is a type of chest-supported row that requires an elevated flat bench. By changing the angle of the bench, you’ll find that you have less leverage and a longer range of motion.
The full-body support of the seal row protects your lower back while also adding in a small element of balance, since no part of your body is connected to the floor as you row.
Dumbbell Bent-Over Row
If you want to try a non-supported variation give the standard bent-over row a shot. Note that this progression doesn’t involve supporting the non-working side of your body on a bench.
The bent-over dumbbell row provides the same level of challenge to your upper back muscles while calling your posterior chain into action as well. Expect this movement to tax your lower back, glutes, hamstrings, and core in equal measure.
If the chest-supported row isn’t doable for you, here are a few alternatives. You’ll still be building pulling strength while working your back, lats, and biceps with these movements, though, rest assured.
Seated Cable Row
The seated position of the cable row gives you some support, but you’ll have to use your core to maintain a good posture and neutral spine. Changing up your equipment can be a nice challenge for your body; cables provide more consistent mechanical tension than free weights, and your back will certainly feel the difference.
You can play with a close-grip handle or wide-grip handle to target different muscles in your back. Beginners will benefit from learning this movement with a light weight, but advanced lifters can go a bit heavier. Be careful not to hyperextend your spine as you retract your shoulders and keep your ribs down.
You can also do a single-arm cable row with one handle, but use two hands if you want to keep it similar to the chest-supported row.
A TRX row is a bodyweight exercise, but don’t underestimate it. You’ll learn to keep your full body engaged as you use your back muscles, lats, and biceps to pull yourself up. To make this exercise similar to the chest-supported row, turn your palms to face each other with a neutral grip.
Keep your body straight by engaging your core and squeezing your glutes. To progress this row, gradually adjust your body such that it is closer to parallel to the floor, rather than standing upright.
The inverted row is a more advanced bodyweight row, typically done while holding onto a barbell. Inverted rows generally require you to use an overhand grip, however, you can hold the bar with your palms supinated to get your biceps into the game as well.
Inverted rows can help you build bodyweight pulling strength that will carry over to other movements such as pull-ups. They will work your upper and mid-back and are another opportunity to practice good spinal mechanics as you retract your shoulder blades.
The chest-supported row is an upper-body exercise that works just about every muscle in your upper back (with the exception of your lumbar spine, of course). Here are the major muscle groups at play.
Your latissimus dorsi (lats) are your largest back muscles. Your lats are responsible for keeping your arm towards the middle of your body, or adducting, as you row your dumbbell. (1) Your lats also assist in scapular movements, and are the prime mover during all rowing variations, including the chest-supported row. (1)
Your trapezius, or traps, are comprised of three parts: upper traps, mid traps, and lower traps. Your traps function to move and stabilize your scapula. Your mid-traps are responsible for scapular retraction. (2) Your lower traps help to depress your scapulae which is key to keep your shoulders pulling down when you perform your rows.
Your rhomboids are a pair of deep muscles in between your shoulder blades. They assist in moving your upper arms and stabilizing your shoulders and scapulae. (3) When you squeeze your shoulder blades together at the top of your row your rhomboids are working.
These muscles are often underworked if you sit slouching at your desk, and strengthening them through exercises like the chest-supported row may help to improve your posture.
Your biceps consist of a long head and a short head in the front of your arm. Your biceps are responsible for flexing your forearm and assist in flexing your elbow. (4) As your back muscles work to retract your scapulae, your biceps help your arm bend at the top of your row. Notably, your biceps also help in stabilizing your shoulder blades. (4)
[Read More: The Best Biceps Exercises For Greater Growth]
Your biceps are also responsible for supinating your forearm. If you opt for a supinated grip on your rows, you’ll get some more biceps work in.
The chest-supported row is all about that support. You’ll have some built-in stability that will protect your back and allow you to focus hard on the muscles that matter. Training your back can benefit your posture, and using dumbbells helps to address imbalances.
Built-In Stability Has Got Your Back
In any exercise, it’s always important to engage your core to resist spinal movement under load. The chest-supported row guarantees you some extra stability and, while you still need to keep your spine still, it’s overall much easier than doing any form of unassisted bent-over row.
Unassisted rows are great, but may not be suitable for you in all cases. For instance, if you are recovering from a back injury, the chest-supported row may be a viable alternative to still hit your rows with extra protection.
You Might Be Able to Lift Heavier
Supporting your spine may help you lift heavier weights, since you don’t need to worry about bracing your core or flexing your lower back throughout your sets.
[Read More: How To Train The Brain For Bigger Lifts In The Gym]
As such, the chest-supported row lets you put all of your focus and energy into your upper body. This may allow you to lift heavier, and can be beneficial if your goal is hypertrophy or strength. Older adults and anyone who may have limitations with standing can also benefit from lifting heavier with added support. You can reap the bone health benefits of weight lifting while limiting external risk factors.
Get the Benefits of Unilateral Training
Lifting dumbbells will give you the benefits of unilateral training — working one side of your body at a time. If you have strength, muscle, mobility, or stability imbalances, unilateral lifting may help to even them out. (5)
In the chest-supported row, even if you are lifting both arms at the same time, holding a separate weight in each hand will call for more recruitment and stabilization of each side than rowing with a barbell.
The strength gains you make with unilateral rowing may carry over to your bilateral rows. Unilateral training has also been shown to potentially boost sports performance. (5)
May Improve Posture
Training your upper and mid-back may help improve your posture. Spending time sitting at your desk or looking at your phone can cause your shoulders to round and your head to jut forward. Some literature has shown that regular exercise can help reduce the pain and stress on your spine caused by sitting. (6)
[Read More: The Best Posture Exercises To Help Ease Back Pain]
Although you will be sitting in the chest-supported row, you can use the extra support as an opportunity to really focus on pulling your head up, depressing your shoulders, and maintaining a neutral spine. Strengthening your upper and mid-back muscles can help support a healthy spine and posture.
The chest-supported row can be beneficial for lifters of all levels. If you fall into one of these camps, it might just be the exercise for you.
If you’re new to strength training, the seated position and the stabilization provided by the chest-supported row will help you learn to engage your core and resist spinal movement.
You can learn the horizontal pulling pattern and how to retract your scapula without overly extending your spine. When you are new to the gym, you can make a lot of progress quickly, and you’ll benefit from safely lifting heavier in this position to start strengthening your upper body.
Bodybuilders can take the chest-supported row as an opportunity to target individual muscles like their rear deltoids. You can also change the angle of the bench, your grip, and hand position on your dumbbells to hit different aspects of your back or cultivate a strong mind-muscle connection.
The chest-supported row may be a compound exercise, but the seated position gives you a chance to really hone in on your upper back. Working with heavy dumbbells can even help you build up your forearm muscles.
For strength athletes looking to move as much weight as possible, slowing it down with a unilateral chest-supported row can help you build strength that will carry over to your main lifts. Training your grip with dumbbells can also be beneficial when you are training with barbells.
The chest-supported row works your lats and can help you stabilize your shoulders. Hitting your biceps here is also going to help increase your pulling strength. It can be a great accessory movement to throw in when you are changing up your program.
The chest-supported row is a great exercise that will majorly strengthen your back and biceps from a seated position. That extra support will give you some built-in stability to protect your spine so you may be able to lift a little heavier.
This makes it ideal for anyone from beginners to advanced lifters. If the gym is packed or you just want a break from barbells to change it up, grab some dumbbells and try it out.
Got questions about the chest-supported row? Let’s get you some answers.
Is the chest-supported row bad for my lower back?
The chest-supported row may be safer on your lower back than a standing variation. Since you do not need to support your full body weight and hold the hip hinge position, you can focus more on your form with your upper body.
What other equipment can I use for the chest-supported row?
The chest-supported row can be done with a barbell though it’s a little difficult to set up. You can do it with cables or as a seated row on a machine with chest support. You can also try out the T-bar row.
Will the chest-supported row work my shoulders?
The chest-supported row mainly targets your upper and mid-back as well as your lats and biceps. It will also hit your rear deltoids. Your shoulders will help to stabilize this movement. Training it can be beneficial to the health, stability, and mobility of your shoulders.
- Jeno SH, Varacallo M. Anatomy, Back, Latissimus Dorsi. [Updated 2023 Mar 5]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan-.
- Ourieff J, Scheckel B, Agarwal A. Anatomy, Back, Trapezius. 2023 Mar 11. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan–.
- Farrell C, Kiel J. Anatomy, Back, Rhomboid Muscles. 2022 May 20. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan–.
- Tiwana MS, Charlick M, Varacallo M. Anatomy, Shoulder and Upper Limb, Biceps Muscle. [Updated 2022 Aug 30]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan-.
- Liao KF, Nassis GP, Bishop C, Yang W, Bian C, Li YM. Effects of unilateral vs. bilateral resistance training interventions on measures of strength, jump, linear and change of direction speed: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Biol Sport. 2022 Sep;39(3):485-497.
- Kim D, Cho M, Park Y, Yang Y. Effect of an exercise program for posture correction on musculoskeletal pain. J Phys Ther Sci. 2015 Jun;27(6):1791-4.
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