July 02, 2021 9 min read

The muscles in your back are some of the largest and most important in your entire body.  And, doing exercises such as chest-supported rows is one of the best ways to fire them up.

Whether you're new to the gym or are a seasoned pro, they can be more intimidating than other row variations given that they require more of an equipment set-up.  

However, we're here to tell you that, once you get the set-up and technique down, chest-supported rows are one of the best row variations out there because they're particularly good at isolating your back muscles so you gain as much mass as possible.

Here's exactly what makes chest-supported rows so good for your back and how to do them correctly:

man flexing arms and showing his back muscles

Muscles Worked By Chest-Supported Dumbbell Rows

Like all row exercises, chest-supported dumbbell rows primarily target your back muscles. And, more specifically, these key back muscles:

  1. Latissimus dorsi (lats):  The lats are the primary pulling muscles in your back. Not only that, but they're also the largest muscles in the entire upper body. They span practically the entire area of both the lower and mid-back in order to connect the upper arms to the spine and hips. And, they help create that desirable "V shape" that all bodybuilders are going for. 
  2. Trapezius:  The trapezius is a kite-shaped muscle that spans your upper back. Vertically, it runs up your lower neck and down through your spine towards the mid-back. Horizontally, it spans the width of your upper back to come across your shoulders. Its primary role is to initiate movements from as well as stabilize the shoulder blades.
  3. Rhomboids:  The last key back muscle that gets worked is the rhomboids, a diamond-shaped muscle in your upper back. It sits in-between the inner shoulder blades and underneath the trapezius. It is made up of the rhomboid major and rhomboid minor. Together, these two muscles help you pull your shoulder blades back as you initiate either a pushing or pulling movement.

In addition to working these key back muscles, you also target a few other muscle groups in your upper body and arms including the:

  1. Biceps:  The first of the secondary muscles used in chest-supported rows is the biceps.  They help flex the elbow so that your arms can bend and pull the dumbbell up during the exercise.
  2. Teres major:  A small yet crucial muscle is the teres major.  Located deep within the upper back muscles, it assists the larger latissimus dorsi in lifting the head of the humerus.
  3. Teres minor:  Last but not least, the teres minor is a small yet important muscle within the rotator cuff.  Its function is to help initiate movement of the deltoid muscle.

Benefits of Chest-Supported Rows

There are many different row variations... traditional cable rows, t bar rows, barbell rows, bent-over rows, and, of course, chest-supported rows just to name a few of the most popular versions. So, what makes chest-supported rows different from the other variations aside from improving pure muscle strength? Here are the top benefits of doing chest-supported rows:

  1. Maximizes back muscle isolation:  Because you use a bench to achieve proper positioning, you're able to focus purely on isolating your back muscles rather than whether or not you're positioned properly. With that said, your back gets more of an isolated workout than if you were to do rows without any supportive equipment. So, to build back muscles as big as possible, chest-supported rows are the best variation to practice.
  2. Takes the strain off of the lower back:  In certain row variations, particularly bent over rows, people tend to improperly hunch their back and resultantly develop back pain. Plus, rows without supportive equipment require lower back stabilization which can further contribute to that pain. However, chest-supported rows remove the need for lower back stabilization and keep your chest propped up to prevent hunching. So, if you're currently experiencing back pain or don't want to risk developing it, chest-supported rows are the way to go.
  3. Removes the need for core stability:  In addition to lower back stabilization, less-supportive row variations also require a lot of core stabilization to maintain proper form.  However, chest-supported rows remove the need for core stabilization thanks to the support of the incline bench.  That allows you to further focus on developing your back muscles.
  4. Improves upper body posture:  With stronger back muscles and less strain on your lower back and spine, your posture improves.  And, with good posture, you're less prone to developing potentially debilitating injuries such as herniated disks or general strains.  Not to mention that, with good posture, you naturally stand up straighter and exude more confidence.
  5. Is great for beginners and veteran lifters alike: Regardless of how many years someone has spent in the gym, everyone can benefit from regularly practicing chest-supported rows.  For beginners, not only does the exercise help build up strong back muscles, but it also ensures that they're practicing good form.  Because chest-supported rows offer a lot of support for the upper body, it's easier to maintain good form throughout the exercise.  For veteran lifters and even those involved in bodybuilding, chest-supported rows allow them to focus on purely isolating the back muscles alone.  As a result, they're able to build as much muscle mass as possible

How to Do Chest-Supported Rows Correctly

Thanks to the incline bench for support, it's typically easier to do chest-supported rows with good form than it is other types of rows. However, lifters still need to be conscious of whether or not they're getting the proper positioning down to prevent potential injuries. Here's exactly how to do chest-supported rows with perfect form:

  1. Set up your incline bench:  Before getting started, make sure that your incline bench is set up properly.  It should be within the range of a 30 and 45-degree angle.  The closer to 45-degrees, the easier it will be to do the exercise with the proper form.
  2. Approach the bench:  Hold one dumbbell in each hand and approach the bench.  Straddle the bench and rest your chest on the padded, angled portion of the bench. 
  3. Position your body correctly:  This is where things usually start to go wrong for people.  Restonly your chest and torso on the bench, not your neck or head.  Both the head and the neck should be over the top of the bench and create one long line with your entire spine.  Allow your arms to hang straight downwards and pull your shoulders down.  Release all of the tension in your back and shoulders as well as your lower body including the hamstrings and glutes.  Plant your feet firmly on the floor.
  4. Lift the dumbbells by pinching the shoulder blades:  When you’re ready, face your palms towards one another, exhale, and row the dumbbells up towards the ribcage by pulling your elbows back.  Your elbows should drive straight back along your body and towards the chest, not out to the sides.  As you lift, your upper chest should lift slightly up off the bench.  Squeeze your shoulder blades back as far as they can go without disrupting the neutral position of the head or neck.
  5. Release the shoulder blades:  Once you’ve pinched your shoulder blades back as far as they can go, slowly release the pinch by dropping your arms back to hanging.  Your upper chest should also return to resting on the bench.  
  6. Repeat:  As you make your way through the set, make sure that you’re keeping your entire chest resting on the bench and not curving your back in any way.  If your back starts to curve, that’s a good sign that you might be lifting too heavy of dumbbells.  But, how heavy should your dumbbells be?

How Much Weight to Use for Chest-Supported Rows

Now that you know how to do chest-supported rows with proper form, it's equally important to know how heavy your dumbbells should be. Lifting too heavy could lead to form-related injuries while lifting too little won't help you grow the muscles that you desire.

To figure out exactly how much you should be lifting, start by asking yourself the following question: Do I want to focus on hypertrophy or muscular endurance?

If your focus is hypertrophy, then you need to do fewer reps with heavier weights.  This is best for stimulating maximum muscle growth.  If your focus is muscle endurance, then you need to do more reps with lighter weights. 

Now, to figure out exactly how much weight to lift, follow the steps of this test:

  1. Start off by grabbing two dumbbells that feel as if they’ll be too light for you.
  2. Get into position for chest-supported rows.
  3. With the lighter weights, make sure that you can doat least 15 rows.
  4. If you are able to do 15 rows with the lighter weights, grab a heavier set that seems more realistically challenging for you OR grab lighter weights if you couldn’t make it to 15 reps.
  5. If you are going for hypertrophy, then try to do between 6 and 8 reps of the exercise with the heavier weights.  If you are feeling the burn about midway through but not too much as to break your form, then that’s your ideal weight.

OR, if you are going for muscle endurance, try to do between 10 and 15 reps of the exercise with the heavier weights.  If you start to feel the burn at around the 5th rep but you can still keep your form, then that’s your perfect weight

The goal is to find a weight that works your muscles without causing you to break proper form.  And, don’t forget that as you continue to train chest-supported rows that you need to progressively increase the weight of your dumbbells.  If you don’t, your gains will plateau and you’ll stop seeing muscle growth.   

Kettlebells swing exercise bearded man workout at gym

Chest-Supported Row Progression Exercises

Want more back exercises to help increase your maximum chest-supported row load? Look no further. Each of these exercises is great to add to your back day routine if you want to get better at rows:

  1. Inverted rows:  Set the bar of a Smith machine to a height where you can lay right underneath it and almost reach it with an overhand grip. Then, lay directly underneath the bar and grab hold of it so that your entire body minus your feet are hanging from the bar. Exhale and row yourself up towards the bar by squeezing your back muscles. Hold the position, then release back to hanging.
  1. Supermans:  Another great bodyweight exercise that works out not just your back but your full body is supermans. Lay flat on the floor with your legs hip-width apart, arms straight above your head, and back in a neutral position. When you're ready, exhale and lift your arms and legs so that they're hovering above the floor. Your weight should be balanced on your pubic bone. Hole the position for 5 seconds, then slowly lower back to the floor and repeat.  You’ll know you’re doing this right if you look like superman flying over town.
  1. Kettlebell exercises: Exercises with kettlebells such as the traditional kettlebell swing target your back muscles while simultaneously giving you a full-body strength and aerobic workout.  Here’s our guide to doing a kettlebell workout
  1. Row machine: Last but not least, opt for the rowing machine instead of the treadmill on your next cardio day. You'll get the aerobic benefits while also building up some strength and stamina in your back muscles.

Additionally, the chest-supported row can be a progression exercise itself for even more challenging upper body exercises. Here are some of the exercises that chest-supported row training will help you improve at:

  1. Bench press:  The bench press is mostly known as a chest strengthening exercise, but it’s also excellent for working the upper back.  And, more specifically, the trapezius.  As you already know, the chest-supported row is excellent for strengthening the trapezius.  Therefore, get to work on the rows if you want to improve your bench press load.
  1. Deadlift:  We've said it once and we'll say it again, deadlifts are the king of all exercises. Or, at least one of the top ones. They work your back, glutes, hamstrings, arms, and more. Working on the chest-supported row will help give you the necessary back strength to drive the barbell up and forward in a deadlift. Here's exactly how to do deadlifts with proper form.
  1. Pull-ups:  Last but not least, working on the chest-supported row will help strengthen many of the same muscles used for doing pull-ups.  Including the latissimus dorsi, trapezius, rhomboids, and the teres major and minor.  Moreover, pull-ups work just about all of the same muscles that chest-supported rows work.  So, if you want to be able to do more pull-up reps, then start by training rows.

Final Thoughts

If you want to strengthen your entire back with an exercise that reinforces good form and is great for lifters of all experience levels, then chest-supported rows are the way to go.  They have the double benefit of isolating your back muscles for maximum growth while the support of the incline bench promotes the proper form.  Grow stronger safely with chest-supported rows!

Bonus tip: The warm-up is almost as important as the actual workout for muscle growth. Here are our favorite bicep stretches that you should do before doing chest-supported rows!


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