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Fact checked by Kirsten Yovino, CPT Brookbush InstituteFACT CHECKED
October 29, 2021
If you've been having problems with growing your back or are just looking for another back exercise to implement into your routine, you have to try the chest supported row. Chest supported rows are some of the best back exercises that will help isolate the back muscles YET still allow you to lift heavy loads. Heavy loads plus isolation equals massive gains in the strength and muscle growth department.
Even better, there are actually multiple variations of the chest-supported rows that you can choose from based on your goal and available equipment. In this article, we are going to give you all the information you need to start implementing chest-supported rows into your workout. This article is going to answer all the questions you have and go explain:
Rows with chest support. Obviously.
A bit of sarcasm but that's basically what they are. Chest supported rows are any row with a pad or surface on which you rest your chest. These can be performed in a range of positions, from laying face down to sitting straight up and everywhere in between. It doesn't really matter as long as there is an object that you rest your chest on.
Why do you want chest support? Well, the main reason is to prevent body motion. Body motion is not necessarily a bad thing, and it's actually a part of the movement in some exercises such as Kroc rows. However, using momentum can take away some muscle activation when trying to isolate the muscle. You could just try to stay still, but even the strictest lifters will still use some movement. In fact, you may genuinely believe that you're still even when you're not. Just the tiniest bit of body sway contributes a ton to force production, and you'll probably never realize how much until you do some chest-supported rows.
Because chest-supported rows stop this momentum, they force the back muscles to be the sole producer of force, allowing maximal muscle activation. Still, because you're generally resting your body weight, no energy is wasted on balancing, standing, or keeping good form. To be clear, good form is still very important but compare resting on a pad to the bent-over row where your entire posterior chain is firing like crazy just to maintain proper body position. Keeping proper form just got a lot easier.
As mentioned above, there are various ways to perform chest supported rows ranging from laying face down to sitting. While the force is still coming from in front of you, the muscles worked will be more or less the same (incline bench rows will affect muscle activation more, but we'll talk about that below). However, there are still some differences:
1) The pressure placed on the body will vary significantly based on the angle you use. For example, when you are lying face down, your entire body weight PLUS the bar's weight (or dumbbells) will be pulling down on you. While sitting upright, the only force on the chest will come from pulling yourself into it while performing the row. This isn't a huge issue, but lying chest support rows may be a concern for some obese trainees or those who have breathing trouble. The massive amount of pressure on the chest can exacerbate breathing difficulties, so these trainees would be better off performing sitting chest-supported rows.
2) Following the pressure issue, another difference is how much support is provided. When lying down, you can't really sway your back even if you wanted to due to your positioning. In other words, your body is 100% supported. In contrast, are sitting supported rows where the pad works if you use the correct form (we'll discuss below). The only time it will be supporting you is when you perform the row and pull yourself into it.
3) The last main difference is the equipment that is used for the two variations. Lying chest supported rows almost always use various pieces of free weights. These can be different benches, barbells, or dumbbells. On the other hand, sitting chest-supported rows almost always require a specific machine, whether that's a cable machine or a chest supported row machine. This means that you may not choose to do these if your gym doesn't have the right machines. If not, we'll give you an alternative you can do below!
One of the great things about chest-supported rows is that they're going to train literally every single muscle in your back. Plus, you're going to a good bicep muscle pump as you can't row without arm flexion. While all the muscles will be hit, their activation can also be altered using different hand-grips, changing your grip width and the angle of the force.
All that being said, studies show that rows tend to train the traps (upper, middle, and lower), infraspinatus, and rhomboids (study) to a higher degree than the other back muscles. While they will still cause high activation of the lats, there are better exercises to use, such as the pull-up. If you were to pair pull-ups with chest supported rows in your back workout, you’d be good to go!
However, wait until you get to the number 2 chest supported row to see a variation that is actually performed to target the lats!
Here are some of the ways you can alter your row to hit different muscles.
Many variations of the back row will allow you to use a barbell of a set of dumbbells; so what’s the difference. Here is a list of some pros and cons or each.
CHEST SUPPORTED BARBELL ROW
CHEST SUPPORTED DUMBBELL ROW
Either are awesome and one is not better than the other. You should use both..Variation is Key!
A general guide is to use chest supported barbell rows for strength and chest supported dumbbell rows for muscle hypertrophy.
Related: Barbells vs Dumbbells
Using at least one chest-supported variation is a fantastic idea that will definitely lead to better performance in the gym. In fact, two would be even better. Include 3 if you're really looking for massive growth. Here are the top benefits that chest-supported rows offer.
#1 Isolate The Back Muscles
This has already been discussed but it still needs to be included as it's the primary benefit. While most rows allow, or maybe even encourage, body motion (hello Kroc Rows). Chest supported rows will have none of that. By taking out the motion, you can be sure you're using pure back strength
#2 Stronger Pulling Force Production
In this case, eliminating body motion doesn't necessarily mean lower weights. In fact, in some variations, it may even mean lifting more weight!
This is because, during non-supported lifts, you rely on your core and stabilizing muscles to offer resistance to pull from. It's almost like you're playing tug-o-war with your own body. However, when you perform these movements into a chest pad, you can actually push into the pad to help generate more force.
This is similar to performing a bench press with proper form when you aim to drive your back into the pad to help press up. By pulling into a pad, you're actually allowing your muscles to pull more weight.
#3 Great For Those With Back Injuries
Things happen sometimes in the gym, meaning everyone goes a little too hard and tweaks their back. Perhaps you just finished some heavy deadlifts, and your back is fatigued. Or, maybe you're recovering from an old injury, or maybe you're even training the elderly population (perhaps you're a part of the elderly population which is badass). Regardless, other rows such as bent-over rows and even dumbbell rows can add strain to the lower back which has been shown in studies due to higher compressive forces (study), making them less optimal for the above individuals.
Chest-supported rows fix this issue as your body is supported, virtually eliminating any strain on your lower back. This makes them the superior choice for under such circumstances.
#4 Allows Training To Failure (And Beyond)
Movements like bent-over rows and Pendlay rows are 100% awesome, and we love them. However, there are a lot of moving parts and muscles involved to create perfect form. Unfortunately, when you start becoming fatigued and drift away from ideal form, many row variations begin to lose their efficacy; or even worse, it can lead to injury. Further, these other muscles generally fatigue before your back, meaning that you can never really perform these to true failure.
As your body weight is supported in one position, you are basically guaranteed to have good form (at least the part that saves you from getting injured). This allows you to work up to true failure without having to worry about getting injured.
Here is a list of the best chest supported rows. You’ll notice that many of 3 of these can be altered into a chest supported dumbbell row or chest supported barbell row. Instead of going over each specific variation, we will use the set-up as the exercise with the option of using dumbbells or barbells.
When many people refer to "chest supported rows", strength athletes immediately think of the flat bench row. This is because the flat bench row allows you to use the most weight out of all the variations. Performing flat bench rows may be to "isolate" the back but in no way does this mean you're going to use small weights. Everyone will need to experiment with weight, but 75% of your bent-over row weight would be good to start. Generally speaking, you will use a barbell when performing these but dumbbells would work as well.
Equipment Needed To Perform The Flat Bench Row:
Setting up the flat bench row may be the only negative as it can be cumbersome to prepare. This is because you will need to find some supports to place a flat bench on to be at a proper height. You will be lying face down on the bench allowing your arms to hang freely, so the height must account for that. PLUS, you need to consider the diameter of the weight plates you use (if you use a barbell and weight plates) as half the diameter will extend past your arms.
You're also going to need a flat bench that does not have a low support beam. You will want to pull the bar up, so it touches the pad and finds a bench that will get the job done. That being said, here's what you'll need
How To Perform The Flat Bench Row:
As mentioned above, you will need to determine the right height to set up your bench. The best method is to use plates at each corner to ensure stabilization. Other options include blocks of wood or plyo boxes. Regardless of what you use, be sure it's stable before performing the exercise.
Next, you'll need to set up the weights. The easiest way to do this is to first place the barbell under the bench and then put the weights on.
Lay on the bench face down and with your legs off to the side. Some people will place their legs on the bench, which is fine if it's stable, but we like to place our feet on the ground for more stability AND extra force production.
Grab the barbell in the same manner as a regular barbell row with a pronated grip (overhand) wider than shoulder-width apart. Settle in so that your chest is now all the weight is pulling down.
When ready, retract your scapula (pull your shoulder blades together) and pull the bar up to the bench. Your elbows should be out at about a 45-degree angle.
*A variation can be to use an underhand grip with shoulder-width grip. When pulling the bar up, keep your elbows tucked close to the body.
Why You Should Train The Flat Bench Row:
Because you're going to be able to pull a heavy load while isolating your back muscles for optimal growth and strength. The flat bench row will work your entire back and biceps but will target your upper back and traps using the traditional movement.
But remember, you can also use dumbbells and change the grip for variation.
The Helms row is most likely the newest exercise on this list. In fact, it is probably one of the latest exercises seen in gyms in general. However, it's still rare enough to be a bit of a surprise, meaning you will most likely be the only person performing these at your gym.
So what is it?
The Helms Row gets its name from its "creator," Dr. Eric Helms. If you don't know who Dr. Eric Helms is, here are a few of his accolades:
He's basically the guy who the experts go to for advice. All this being said, he created this unique style of rowing that targets the lats rather than the traps. Plus it just so happens to be done while resting your chest. However, the support is slightly different from other versions as your chest will only be supported by placing it on the end of an inclined bench. This means you'll be standing and only have a tiny section supporting your chest.
Equipment You Need To Perform The Helms Row:
To perform the Helms Row, you're going to need an adjustable bench and a set of dumbbells.
How To Perform The Helms Row
When setting up for the Helms Row, you will take the adjustable bench and set the angle so that when you bend over to rest your chest on it, your back will be almost parallel with the ground.
Once a good height is found, pick up your dumbbells and bend over so that your chest is in contact with the bench. Once situated, relax so that your weight settles on the bench and allow the dumbbells to hang freely straight down.
This next part, which explains the concentric portion, is very important as it's what really defines the Helms Row. Instead of pulling your elbows up towards the ceiling, you're going to let them swing down your body and up. A good way to think about these is to look at the exercise "swimmers" when your arms act like a pendulum sweeping down and back. This is using the same concept. Again, instead of pulling up and vertical, you're "swooping" down and back.
Hold for a second at the top, then come back down.
Why You Should Perform The Helms Row:
It's not very often we see an innovative movement that takes a common movement and alters it to effectively hit a different range of muscles. That's what the Helms Row does by changing the movement pattern enough to become a superb exercise to increase muscle size and strength in the lats. Again, this is due to the swooping motion that is used when performing it. This makes it stand out on this list as none of the other exercises use the same biomechanics.
These are almost always performed with dumbbells as they allow greater range of motion BUT nothing says you can’t use a barbell. You choice.
The incline bench row is the twin of the flat bench row. Exact same concept, but it's going to put a bit more emphasis on your upper back, depending on the angle. You can think of the upright row as the extreme end of the spectrum of an inclined bench row, and we know that's going to primarily hit your delts and upper traps.
One significant difference is that incline bench rows are almost always performed with dumbbells compared to the flat bench row. This is simply due to the set-up, as the body will be farther from the ground. Picking up a barbell would be near impossible, so using dumbbells is your best option. This isn't a bad thing at all, though, as it will allow you to train unilaterally and use a neutral grip.
Equipment You Need To Perform The Incline Bench Row:
You'll need an incline bench, adjustable or fixed. An adjustable will allow more variation but fixed will do the trick as well. Other than that, you just need a pair of dumbbells.
How To Perform The Incline Bench Row:
Set the bench up at the desired angle. These are generally performed at a 45-degree angle, but going higher will target the upper back to a higher degree as lower will target the middle and lower lats more.
Pick up the dumbbells and then sit on the bench seat while placing each dumbbell on a knee. When ready, gradually let your body lay down on the bench. If the backrest goes higher than your head, you'll need to tilt your head back a little.
Now, retract your scapula back, drive your chest into the bench, and then pull the dumbbell up.
This is not the Helms row so think about driving your shoulders up towards the ceiling similar to other rows.
Why You Should Perform The Incline Bench Row:
Because they add a bit of variation to the flat bench row. Think of these two movements as the bench press and the inclined bench press. Both are fantastic movements and hit the muscles just enough to make them unique.
And you should do both.
As the flat bench row is generally performed with the barbell and overhand grip, performing the incline bench row with dumbbells and a neutral grip will optimize your training.
As mentioned above, we will show you how to perform chest supported rows while sitting using free weights. This will be a great option to use if your gym doesn't have machines OR if you just want to have the ability to use a ton of variety. One of the awesome things about using a cable pulley system (which this will use) is that you can use different angles and attachments.
High rows, low rows, neutral-grip, single-arm, rope attachment, long bar…..
The list goes on, meaning you can have an almost unlimited (maybe not unlimited but a lot) amount of variations by using different combinations. For example, here are a few ideas
Equipment Needed To Perform The Sitting Chest Supported Cable Row:
As this section doesn't focus on one particular style, the equipment you need depends on what you want to do. That being said, you'll need at least a bench seat w/ firm backrest (to support your chest as well as a cable pulley machine. You'd also be able to use an incline bench as well to adjust the angle you're pulling from.
How To Perform The Sitting Chest Supported Cable Row:
This will depend on the variation you choose, but the general idea is to set the chair a good distance from the cable (4-5ft). Next, set up the cable with your attachment. Sit on the chair with your feet planted and your chest firmly pushing into the pad. Next, retract your scapula and perform your pulling motion.
Why You Should Perform The Sitting Chest Supported Cable Row:
Because of its versatility. You'll find no other set-up will allow you to perform the range of exercises that chest support cable row allows. Use these to your advantage and perform variations you can't do otherwise. Instead of a sitting row with a straight bar coming from directly in front of you, use an incline bench with a rope attachment coming from below your chest. Again, get creative!
*You can also use this same concept to train with a home workout using resistance bands. Use a chair, anchor the resistance band, and perform your back row.
All of the goodness found in T-Bar rows PLUS the added chest support for more isolation. One of the benefits of making movements like T-Bar rows so effective is that they lay somewhere in the middle of using a machine and free weights. While the weight does have the freedom to sway to and from, it also works along a path determined by the machine's arm. In other words, it acts as a pendulum.
This motion generally allows athletes to lift a bit more weight while still benefiting from free weights as it still requires stabilization. When chest support is added, you now have a machine that will allow a heavy load to be used while preventing any momentum, maximizing strength gains.
Equipment Needed To Perform The Supported T-Bar Row:
Simple. Access to a Supported T-Bar Row. While not the most common piece of equipment, the majority of real strength and bodybuilding gyms have one as well as other random gyms.
You'll also need some weight plates.
How To Perform The Supported T-Bar Row:
The only thing you will need to adjust is the chest support height. You want the top of the support to be just above the chest near the clavicle. If for some reason you need to choose, always go higher rather than lower. If it's set too low, you will be placing too much stress on your back.
Most supported T-Bar row machines have footrests with a bar behind the ankle that acts as a lever for support. However, most people will find placing their feet on the ground much more comfortable because the footrest does exactly what it's supposed to; it treats your leg as a lever. This can be uncomfortable and unstable so just place your feet on the floor.
Next, choose the handle and grip of your choice. You will almost always be able to use an underhand grip, overhand grip, neutral grip, close grip, and wide grip. Refer to the piece above to refresh your memory about how these can alter muscle activation.
Why You Should Perform The Supported T-Bar Row:
Supported T-Bar Rows will allow you to lift a ton of weight with no stress on your back. Plus, they allow a huge range of options for grip, plus it's effortless to change weights. Simply throw a plate on the plate bar, and you're good to go. You can use these either for strength training with heavy loads or hypertrophy weight and perform burnout sets.
Your last option is going to be your chest-supported row machine. The basic variations are going to be high pulls, low pulls, and neutral pulls. Your gym should have at least one variation, so finding at least one shouldn't be an issue. Regardless of the variation you have access to, chest-supported row machines will isolate the muscles even more as you will be pulling on a fixed track.
Machines are always a good choice for those in rehab or recovering from an injury or elderly trainees who are just starting. Or maybe you just really want that extra isolation you get to maximize hypertrophy. It doesn't really matter as any chest supported row machine will get the job done
Equipment Needed To Perform The Machine Chest Supported Row:
A machine chest supported row machine.
How To Perform The Chest Supported Row Machine:
Basically, every variation will have a similar set-up, and you will need to adjust 3 things; the seat height, chest support, and knee pad height.
For the seat height, you want the pad to hit the middle of your chest with the top of the pad near the clavicle.
Next, adjust the depth of the chest support so that when your chest is fully pressed into it, holding the weight, you are still holding 100% of the load. However, you also don't want to have to drop the weight at the end of your set either. Therefore, you want the chest support to allow you to hold the handles while the load is barely in the air.
The last piece is the knee pad which allows you to drive your knees in for more support and added force. The knee pad should be at a level so your leg can be straight out from the seat but tight enough to allow you to drive your knees into it.
Why You Should Perform The Chest Supported Row Machine:
Because it gives that added bit of isolation as the load moves on a fixed path. These are awesome to use for high reps and burnout sets as they allow that little extra oomph. Other than that, these should be your go-to variations if you are recovering from an injury as these provide extra stabilization.
Any of the above back rows would be perfect to add to your back training day or your pulling session. Above you learned 6 variations and each of those have variations. Variety is key to maximizing growth potential so you definitely want to use a good mix. This means using some strength variations, hypertrophy variations, and burnout variations where you can push your limit. Below are the best options for each of these.
1) Strength (4-6 reps): Flat Bench Row, Chest-Supported T-Bar Row, Helms Row, Incline Bench Row
2) Hypertrophy (8-12 reps): Incline Bench Row, Chest-Supported T-Bar Row, Chest-Supported Row Machine, Sitting Chest-Supported Cable Row, Helms Row
3) Burnout (15+ reps): Machine Chest-Supported Row Machine, Sitting Chest-Supported Cable Row
Ideally you use one exercise for each movement each week. That means using 3 chest-supported exercises a week. However, you can just cycle through them as well.
Other than that, be sure to use variation. The one variation you should definitely incorporate is the Helms row due to its uniqueness. You should also attempt to use dumbbells for one exercise for unilateral training as well as alter your grip. Doing so is going to make your back training well-rounded; exactly what your back muscles need.
Remember to continually increase the load and intensity and you’ll have a massive, thick back in no-time.
Be Sure To Add Some Of These Into Your Back Training
Now that you know the progress you’ll see incorporating chest supported rows into your back workout routine, there’s no reason not to. You are definitely going to notice the difference of chest supported back rows and once you try them, you’ll wonder where they’ve been all your life.
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