The chest supported dumbbell row is a great exercise for targeting the muscles of the back. It can be performed with either a barbell or dumbbells and is a great way to add size and strength to your back. In this article, we will discuss how to properly perform the chest supported row using dumbbells.
By the end of this article, you will understand how to perform the chest supported dumbbell row, why you would use them in place of other dumbbell row variations, how to avoid common mistakes, and how to make these a regular part of your strength-training program.
I will cover:
- How to perform chest supported dumbbell rows
- Chest supported DB rows Benefits and Common Mistakes
- Exercises that will help prepare you to perform chest supported DB rows
- Chest supported dumbbell row variations
- How to program chest supported dumbbell rows for your goals
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Video: Coach Thibaudeau Teaches the Chest Supported Dumbbell Row
How to Perform Chest Supported Dumbbell Rows
For this exercise, you will need a pair of dumbbells and an adjustable free-weight bench.
Step 1: Set an incline bench to a 30 to 45-degree incline and place a pair of dumbbells near the head of the bench.
Step 2: Straddle the bench with your legs and lay your stomach and chest on the bench, with your head lifted slightly (just enough so that your face isn’t squashed into the pad). If you are using an incline bench (which you should if at all possible), sit your butt on the pad, straddling the bench upside down.
Step 3: Reach down and grab your dumbbells, lifting them off the ground and holding them with a neutral grip (palms facing each other). Your legs should be bent with the balls of your feet on the floor for support. This is the starting position.
Optional Tip: You can also put your knees on the seat of your incline bench, with your feet crossed at the ankles. This takes away any leverage you can possibly get from your lower body – though it’s not my favorite way to do these.
Step 4: Retract your shoulder blades (squeeze them together) and drive your elbows toward the ceiling, keeping them close to your body. Focus on bringing the dumbbells toward your ribcage, not your chest.
Movement Tip: Keep your chest on the bench while raising the dumbbells. Avoid the temptation to lean back and use momentum to help.
Step 5: Pause and squeeze your lats at the top of the movement, then slowly lower the dumbbells back to the starting position.
Movement Tip: Lower under control for 2-5 seconds. Focusing on the eccentric portion of the movement (lowering the weight) increases time under tension and mTOR activation, both of which can lead to greater muscle growth.
Step 6: Without pausing at the bottom, repeat for the desired number of repetitions.
Form Tip: You can use a pronated (palms back) or supinated (palms forward) grip instead of a neutral grip. You can also row with your arms further out to your sides.
What Is a Chest Supported Dumbbell Row?
Horizontal pulling movements – rowing movements – are essential to strengthening and building the muscles of the back.
The dumbbell chest supported row targets the muscles of the back (primarily the lats) while minimizing stress on the lower back. This exercise can be performed with either a barbell or dumbbells and is a great way to add size and strength to your back.
Related exercise: dumbbell row
Muscles Worked by the Chest Supported Dumbbell Row
The chest supported row strengthens and develops the following muscles.
We all love training our pecs, but the lats are the real show-stopper muscles of the upper body.
You want to get and look bigger, build your lats! The lats are your primary pulling muscles and are the largest muscles of the upper body. The lats cover your mid and lower back and connect to your upper arms.
Developing them will give you the nice “V” shape we’re all looking for.
Big traps show that you’re a serious lifter, not just a frat boy with big arms trying to score on Friday nights. The trapezius muscles start at your neck, run down the middle of your back, and out to your shoulders, and assist in moving and stabilizing the scapulae (shoulder blades).
They are further divided into the upper, middle, and lower traps, each with fibers that run in different directions. Chest supported rows will target all three sections of the trapezius.
The rhomboids are small muscles located under the trapezius muscle, between the spine and shoulder blade. These muscles attach the shoulder blades to the spinal column and assist in scapular retraction (pulling the shoulder blades back and together). They are also responsible for stabilizing the shoulder blades during pushing and pulling movements.
Benefits of the Chest Supported Dumbbell Row
The chest supported dumbbell row is almost a contradiction in terms. When you add stability to an exercise you can usually lift more weight. More weight lifted equates to more muscle gained.
But the chest supported row also removes the ability to use momentum or cheat. You’ll often see lifters rocking, using momentum to help lift the weight. With this movement, the lack of cheat-ability means you’ll emphasize your back and biceps more…and lower your risk of injury.
Since you can’t cheat, you’ll handle less weight than if you can “English” the weight up. But you add stability, increasing the amount of force your back and biceps can generate.
All in all, you end up with an exercise that isolates your back and biceps while still allowing you to generate incredible force. This combination makes it a great exercise if you want to add mass and build a stronger back!
Isolating Your Back Muscles
This is the main advantage of chest supported rows. While most rows allow for some degree of body movement, chest supported rows definitely do not. By eliminating motion, you emphasize pure back strength.
Great If You Have a Back Injury
Avoid a back injury if at all possible. Trust me! But it seems that few of us active people make it to middle age without at least a minor, nagging back problem. Shit happens.
Most row exercises force you to use your lower back for stability. You end up hinged at the waist at anywhere from 90 to 15 degrees, with heavy weight pulling you down.
Chest supported rows allow you to keep your back in a neutral position. No hinging, no arching, and no lower back involvement whatsoever! This makes them great if you have a low back concern, or if your lower back is just feeling fatigued from previous exercises that session.
Stronger Force Production
Eliminating body motion does not always lead to lower weight. In fact, in certain versions, it may lead to lifting more weight!
During free-standing lifts, you rely on your core and lower back muscles to offer resistance to pull from. 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.
Great for Training Training To Failure and Intensity Techniques
Bent-over rows and Pendlay rows are amazing! However, these movements rely on your core and stabilizing muscles to maintain proper form. As the set presses on and you become fatigued, these row variations can lose their effectiveness – or even worse, result in injury. This is especially true for new lifters who don’t have great body awareness and mechanics. Their form often breaks down before they realize it, which increases their chance of injury.
And by taking your core and stabilizing muscles out of the picture, they won’t fail before the target muscles. This allows you to train to and beyond failure without increased risk of injury to these muscles.
Chest Supported Dumbbell Row Tips
The following tips will help you get the most out of your dumbbell chest supported rows.
Set Your Core
Because you’re supporting your weight against the bench, many people have the tendency to relax through their midsection. Brace your core as if you’re about to get punched in the stomach, and keep it tense throughout each rep.
This will prevent energy leaks throughout your kinetic chain, and prevent you from overarching your back.
Don’t let momentum take over during the movement. Keep the dumbbells under control throughout each rep and squeeze your back to lift the weight.
Keep Your Chest on the Pad
Don’t hyperextend your thoracic spine as you lift the weight. Keep your chest pinned against the pad and pull with your lats. Keeping your chest on the pad provides support, for added strength, and prevents cheating, which forces the target muscles to do the work.
Keep Your Head Neutral
You want to keep your spine neutral throughout the movement, and that includes not arching your neck to look forward. Pick a spot on the ground before you begin your reps, and focus on that spot the entire time.
Along with that, make sure your shoulder blades are down toward your ribs, not shrugged up toward your neck. Retract your shoulder blades as you pull the weight.
Pull To the Hips
Instead of pulling the dumbbell straight up toward your chest, pull toward your hips with a sweeping motion.
Your biceps, shoulders, and traps do the bulk of the work when you pull straight up and down toward your upper rib cage/chest. When you sweep toward your hips, you fully engage your lats.
Common Errors With the Chest Supported Dumbbell Row
Avoid these common mistakes to get the most out of your chest supported rows.
Not Retracting Your Shoulder Blades
This is one of the most common mistakes people make when performing this exercise. Remember to keep your chest on the bench and focus on driving your elbows toward the ceiling. This will help ensure that you’re retracting your shoulder blades and using your back muscles.
Rounding Your Lower Back
Another common mistake is to round your lower back when rowing the weight up. Rounding your back with this exercise won’t place your spine under undue stress like it can with non-supported rowing movement. So this isn’t an injury-increasing mistake.
Instead, rounding your back won’t allow you fully engage your lats. Instead, you’ll end up ding more of the work with your biceps, which isn’t why you’re doing this exercise.
Keep your back neutral or slightly arched so that you can fully engage your lats.
Avoid using momentum to swing the weight up. This takes tension off your back muscles and places it on your joints, which could lead to injury. Focus on using your back muscles to move the weight in a controlled manner.
Not Going Low Enough
If you don’t lower the weight all the way down, you won’t fully stretch your back muscles. This can limit muscle growth. Be sure to lower the weight under control and touch your chest to the bench at the bottom of each rep.
Not Going High Enough
Similarly, if you don’t row the weight all the way up, you won’t fully contract your back muscles. This can also limit muscle growth. Focus on rowing the weight up until your upper arms are parallel to the floor.
Too Much Biceps Involvement
Although your biceps will be involved and receive some stimulus, this is primarily a back exercise. Focus on pushing your elbows up toward the ceiling and back toward your hips. Not pulling with your hands. This will help you engage your back muscles.
Repping Too Fast
A common error with all back exercises, especially rowing variations, is to move the weight too fast. A great tempo for this exercise is 3-0-1-3 (eccentric, turnaround, concentric, turnaround). 1 second to raise the weight, 3-second pause at the fully contracted position, 3-seconds to lower the weight, and no pause at the bottom.
Your back muscles grow well from the forced eccentric emphasis of this tempo, as well as from the focused squeeze at the top.
Chest Supported Row Progression Exercises
The chest supported dumbbell row is very beginner-friendly because you don’t have to worry about supporting your body weight in a bent-over position. This allows you to just learn how to properly contract your back muscles and feel the movement.
But the following exercises can help beginners work on form and build the strength necessary to handle the additional weight of dumbbells.
Inverted rows are a great exercise for building the back muscles while also teaching you how to properly row. The inverted row is a bodyweight exercise that can be performed with a barbell set up in a power rack, Smith machine, or TRX suspension trainer.
Set the bar of a Smith Machine or in a squat cage/power rack so that it sits just below your chest. Grab the bar with a shoulder-width, overhand grip (pronated grip) and lay beneath the bar with your legs straight out in front of you.
Squeeze your back muscles and pull yourself up to the bar. Touch the bar and squeeze for 1-second, and then slowly lower yourself back to the starting position.
When you can perform 10 reps in a row with good form, lower the bar one setting. The lower the bar the more difficult the exercise.
I love Supermans! They are great for both beginners and advanced trainees, and work your entire posterior chain.
Lie face down on the floor with your legs and arms fully extended, your back neutral, and your face on the floor.
Tighten your entire body and squeeze your glutes, shoulders, and back muscles to raise your chest, arms, and legs off the floor. Squeeze and hold at the top for two seconds. Be sure to keep your head in line with your spine and your eyes looking at the floor throughout the entire movement.
Although not a bodyweight movement, machines take balance, stabilization, and core dependency out of the movement and force you to move through a fixed plane of motion. This is a great way for beginners to learn how to row without having to worry about their form.
Programming Chest Supported Dumbbell Rows
Now that you know why you should start doing chest supported rows and how to perform them for maximum effect, let’s look at some ways to actually add them to your program.
Start light! Remember, you want to really feel your back muscles throughout the entire movement. Choose light dumbbells (lighter than you think you need to) and aim for 3-4 sets of 10-12 reps. Squeeze on the way up, pause at the top, and then lower the weight slowly.
For Hypertrophy and Bodybuilders
Building muscle is all about feeling the target muscles work, creating muscle damage and activating mTOR, and being under tension long enough to cause metabolic stress. So, aim for a heavy enough weight you can lift for 4 sets of 6-8 reps with 3-5 seconds to perform the lowering (eccentric) phase of the movement.
For Strength and Powerlifters
Chest supported rows are great for building back strength. Aim for more sets with higher weight and fewer reps. Start with 5 sets of 3-5 reps, still with a slow eccentric.
Chest Supported Dumbbell Row Variations
The following exercises are similar to the dumbbell chest supported row and will give you some variability to keep your training fresh.
A seal row is a chest supported row, performed on a flat bench instead of a bench set to an incline. You can perform these with either a barbell or dumbbells. Most people will need to elevate the bench on a couple of stacks of plates to keep the dumbbells or barbell from touching the floor in the fully extended position.
Single-Arm Chest Supported Dumbbell Row
Similar to performing a standard dumbbell row, try doing chest supported rows one arm at a time.
Wrap your free arm around the bench to keep your upper body stable and prevent rotation, then perform reps on one side as normal.
Single-Arm Chest Supported Row With Iso Hold
This is a mix between the standard two-arm version and the single-arm version.
Raise one dumbbell to the fully contracted position, near your hip, and hold it there. Now perform standard reps with the other arm.
Alternating Chest Supported Dumbbell Rows
Hold a dumbbell in each hand at the starting position described above. Perform a rep with one arm while the other arm hangs at the starting position.
Complete one rep with your right arm, then perform one rep with your left arm while your right arm hangs. The key to making this version super effective is to maintain tension in the arm that is hanging. Don’t just let it hang there completely inactive.
Alternating Chest Supported Row With Iso Hold
This is similar to the standard alternating row, except instead of performing a rep with one arm while the other hangs, you perform a rep while the non-working arm holds the dumbbell in the fully contracted position near your hip.
Chest Supported Barbell Row
This is exactly the same as the dumbbell version.
Place a barbell on the floor in front of you and lie chest-down on an adjustable bench with your upper chest and torso supported by the bench.
Reach down and grab the bar with a pronated (overhand) grip.
Keeping your back flat, pull the bar up until it touches the support bar of the bench, between your lower chest and belly button. Then try to crush your body against the bench by pulling the barbell as hard as you can for 1-3 seconds.
If you’re weightlifting or training for hypertrophy, save up and get a set. You’ll want a variety of weights to follow your progressive overload pattern. If you’re into functional fitness or just want to get in shape, pick up a pair of 35s or 50s.
Titan Fitness Hex DBs – these are inexpensive as far as dumbbells go, but they’re good quality. I have a pair of 50s and they’ve lasted.
Titan Fitness Adjustable Bench – inexpensive, decline, flat, and incline positions, and it’ll handle enough weight for pretty much any home gym.
Rogue Adjustable Bench – a bit more expensive than the Titan Fitness version, but the quality is out of this world!
Conclusion: The Chest Supported Dumbbell Row
Adding chest supported rows to your program can have a big impact on your strength and physique. Not only are they great for building muscle in the back, but they also help improve shoulder stability and promote better posture. These have been a major factor in building my back and are a staple in most of the programs I write for clients. The chest supported dumbbell row should be at the top of your back-training priority list