Exercise of the Week: Barbell Chest Supported Row
At Optimize Fitness & Performance, we want our clients to achieve great fitness results. For us, an ideal exercise is one that allows you to push hard and become incredibly strong but with a minimal risk.
Each week, head coach Devin Gray, CSCS, will introduce one such exercise. You’ll learn how and why to perform each exercise, as well as key technique tips to maximize your performance. This week, Devin is teaching all about his favorite rowing exercise: the Barbell Chest Supported Row.
Barbell Chest Supported Row
Type of Exercise: Horizontal Pull
Muscles Emphasized: Lats, Rhomboids, Posterior Deltoids, Biceps, Forearms (Upper & Middle Back + Arms)
- Squat Rack with outward facing & adjustable J-Hooks
- Adjustable Incline Bench, capable of supporting over 400lbs (commercial quality)
- Barbell pad
- Swiss Barbell or Attachable Handles to allow for a variety of grips to be used
- Lifting Straps
- Fat Gripz for extra grip, forearm, & bicep training
Video Tutorial: Barbell Chest Supported Row with Neutral Grips (Attachable Handles)
Why Perform Barbell Rows
Barbell rows are a fantastic exercise for strengthening the upper back, the lats, the biceps, and the forearms. For men, they’re invaluable for developing wide lats, thick forearms, and big biceps. For women, they’re valuable for sculpting the upper back.
From a postural perspective, rows are important for shoulder health and maintaining a proud, upright posture. Many lifters focus on their “mirror muscles” and overdevelop their chests – leading to rounded, sunken shoulders. Strengthening the upper back, especially the scapular retractors in the middle of the back (rhomboids), will go a long way towards preserving an attractive and athletic posture.
For those of you that drive long distances or spend too much time in front of a computer screen, this goes double.
A strong upper back will also support a stronger bench press, squat, and deadlift. Anecdotally, a stronger upper back has improved the strength of many lifters on their big 3. I like using heavy barbell rows to develop grip strength, as well.
Tip: Your Barbell Chest Supported Row should be very close to your Barbell Bench Press for a set of 5 reps.
Why I Prefer Barbell Chest Supported Rows to T-Bar Rows, Bent Over Rows, and Seated Cable Rows
Unfortunately, many lifters perform barbell rows incorrectly. T-Bar Rows are a classic, but they’re straight-up painful to watch. I’ve seen far too many lifters standing over a bar and futilely humping the barbell as they jerk the barbell up with their entire body. Not a great look and it’s a one-way ticket to lower back pain with some seriously busted up discs. I’ve met several people with severely damaged lower backs from sloppy seated cable rows, as well.
Bent Over Rows and Pendlay Rows are great, but they require strong hamstrings and spinal erectors. You need to be able to hold a hip hinge to practice the exercise, which is a challenge for many novice and intermediate lifters. If you’re unable to perform a decent Romanian Deadlift, bent over rows and pendlay rows are out of the question.
What’s more, all of these row variations are out of the question for many exercisers with weak or injured lower backs. I have several clients who will likely never be able to perform those variations safely. And for beginners, it may take months to develop the technique needed.
At Optimize Fitness & Performance, we’ll have beginners start with barbell chest supported rows. This way we’re strengthening the upper back and arms with appropriate weights right on Day 1. We’ll simultaneously learn the deadlift and hip hinge. The upper body won’t have to wait for the lower body to develop.
Personally? I’d rather use a Barbell Chest Supported Row right on Day 1 and build strength in the upper back as soon as possible.
That way they can lift heavy enough weights on the row to get a good training effect while learning proper form on the deadlift and hip hinge during their lower body training sessions.
The Advantages of the Barbell Chest Supported Row
First: the BCSR lets you use very heavy weights with a minimal risk of injury.
By lying flat on the bench, it becomes difficult to involve the lower back. This prevents cheating. Most men can reach 135lbs for 10 reps quickly. A good first goal for men is to row bodyweight for reps
Second: the BCSR is a great way to teach form.
Strength coach Dan John advocates the “batwing” exercise for teaching rowing technique. Simply perform a row with heavy weight, pull the shoulderblades together, and hold on for anywhere from 10-30 seconds per rep. It’ll burn up your rhomboids and is great for fine-tuning row technique.
With a barbell pad, you can pull hard against the bench right at the endrange of the exercise. It’s great for teaching body awareness. It’s also great for hypermobile lifters, like myself, who tend to pull the elbows too far past the body (therefore risking damage to the rotator cuff and/or biceps tendon).
Third: the BCSR is better than dumbbell chest supported rows.
Dumbbell rows are a fine option, but it can be awkward to grab both handles. You need to put blocks under the bench, otherwise you have to sidebend to grab the weights. This can be problematic for lower backs that are painful with spinal side bending.
The BCSR allows you to use J-Hooks to adjust the height of the lift. By setting them at arms length, both long-limbed and T-rex arm lifters can grab the bar with ease for a full range of motion pull.
Fourth: full range of motion.
You get a better range of motion than bent over rows, where people tend to be too upright. As mentioned, it’s easier and safer than Pendlay Rows.
Note: BCSR’s may be uncomfortable for women, especially bustier women. Cable rows or inverted rows may be a better option if the BCSR is just plain painful to perform.
How to Setup and Perform the Barbell Chest Supported Row
- Squat Rack with outward facing & adjustable J-Hooks
- Adjustable Incline Bench, capable of supporting over 300lbs.
- Barbell pad, thick or thin, to for explosive rows without worry of damaging the barbell or bench
- Swiss Bar for a variety of row grips
- Lifting Straps to overcome grip strength deficits
- Attachable Handles to jury-rig a neutral grip row, similar to those hung on pullup bars
- Fat Gripz for extra grip & bicep training
- Position an incline bench at a moderate incline (45-60 degrees) and lie face down with your arms hanging vertically to the floor
- Position the J-Hooks on the outside of the squat rack so that the barbell is right at arms length
- Place a barbell pad on the barbell. This will protect your bench.
- Slide the incline bench over the center of the barbell so that your shoulder blades are right over the bar, more or less.
- Lie face down on the bench. My bench has the attachable rollers for a leg extension, which provide great support if you put your feet in front of them. Otherwise, it may take some time to find a strong position.
- Grab the bar with an overhand, underhand, or neutral grip (if using a Swiss Bar, attachable handles.
- Row the barbell to the bench in an explosive manner. Hold the bar to the bench for 1 second and lower for a 2-3 second count.
- Repeat for as many reps as prescribed.
This setup is so much simpler and faster than most of the setups I see out there (like this one, no thank you)
- Keep your collarbones 1” off of the bench. This will keep your thoracic spine (upper back) properly aligned. Think “chest up”.
- If you feel it in your lower back, you’re arching too high off of the bench. Chill out a bit, relax the lower back, and brace your abs against the bench. (Don’t hump the bench and learn how to row from the upper back, in other words)
- Always hold the bar to the bench for one second. This promotes proper technique and prevents excessive cheating.
- Lower for 2-3 seconds to emphasize the eccentric portion of the lift. This is where you’re the stronger, but also where the most muscle damage occurs. More damage = more soreness = better gains.
- Tempo of 2-1-1-0 or 2-1-X-0. 2 second lower, 1 second hold, 1 second to lift or an explosive lift.
Eric Cressey – 8 Ways to Screw Up a Row. Most people have lousy rowing technique. I learned a lot from watching this video and it’s a staple for most of my new clients. I guarantee that most people are making one of these mistakes when they row.
Dan John – Batwings. These are a great exercise for finetuning where you should feel rows and how to perform them. And they’re a natural fit for the barbell chest supported row, given the hard-stop provided by the bench. Now, I prefer to stop the elbows by the side, a la Cressey’s recommendations above. These are a key exercise for teaching proper rowing technique.
Article from Dan John on Batwings: https://www.t-nation.com/training/reawaken-your-rhomboids (recommended reading for everybody, honestly)
Meet the Author: Devin Gray, CSCS
Personal Trainer and Nutrition Coach
NSCA-CSCS, FMSC, Pn1 Certified
B.S. in Exercise Science – Texas A&M University, Cum Laude
Devin is the owner & head coach of Optimize Fitness & Performance. He is an exercise geek, with a long list of certifications and coursework for personal training, nutrition coaching, and injury post-rehabilitation. In his personal workouts, Devin combines gymnastics drills, free weights, and kettlebell exercises to stay fit.
You can e-mail Devin at email@example.com.