Chest Supported Dumbbell Rows and Bent Over Barbell Rows are two excellent exercises for developing upper back strength. They’re both very similar movements, but they vary in the equipment used and their setup.
What you may be wondering though, is whether one exercise is better than the other for building strength or hypertrophy. If you don’t have the necessary equipment for one, can the other be used as a substitute? Which is better for beginners?
I’m going to try to answer all those questions in this guide. I’ll also explain how to properly perform each lift, along with its benefits and coaching tips. In just a few minutes you should have a good idea of whether Chest Supported Rows or Barbell Rows (or both) are a better fit for you based on your lifting goals and experience.
Chest Supported Dumbbell Row
- Adjustable Bench
- Back (Lats, Rhomboids, Traps, Infraspinatus)
- Biceps (Biceps Brachii, Brachialis, Brachioradialis)
- Shoulders (Posterior Delt)
- Set up an adjustable bench at a 45-degree angle.
- Lay on your stomach with your head hanging just above the edge of the bench.
- Grab a dumbbell in each hand and set up with a good posture – core and lats engaged and shoulders neutral.
- Row the dumbbells toward the top of the stomach and squeeze the back at the top of the rep.
- Finally, lower the dumbbells back to the starting position and repeat until all reps are completed.
Make sure to maintain good posture through the movement. Oftentimes I see athletes who allow their shoulders to slouch forward and drape over the edges of the bench.
Don’t have an incline bench? Here are 10 alternatives to Chest Supported Rows you may be able to use as a substitute.
There are several benefits to doing Chest Supported Rows, including:
- Building strength and hypertrophy in the upper back, including the lats, rhomboids, and rear deltoids.
- Improving posture by strengthening the muscles that support the spine.
- Reducing the risk of back injuries by strengthening the muscles that help to stabilize the spine..
- Providing an alternative to other rowing exercises like Barbell Bent-Over Rows, which can put strain on the lower back.
Bent Over Barbell Row
- Bumper or Iron Plates
- Lifting Straps (optional)
- Approach the barbell and take a shoulder-width stance. Your shins should be almost touching the barbell.
- Hinge at the waist and bend the knee until you can grab the barbell. Use a pronated grip (Knuckles facing the floor). I will talk later about the supinated grip (palms up) in this movement.
- Always keep a flat back, and a neutral spine, and keep your eyes focused slightly down about 1 foot in front of you.
- Take a deep breath, brace the abdomen, and pull the bar in until it makes contact right about the belly button.
- Pause for about 1 second. Squeeze the shoulder blades and lock in the rep.
- Slowly return the barbell back to the starting position (weights about 1-2 inches off the ground).
The initial setup and stance for Bent Over Barbell Rows should be specific to the lifters deadlifting and Olympic lifting goals. Having identical setups and grips will be great for the lifts to carry over to the compound movements.
I would highly recommend this movement to any lifter or athlete. It develops strength in the posterior chain and can be overloaded over time easily.
I typically recommend the pronated grip here for athletes. Especially athletes that are cleaning and snatching as the pronated grip will carry over to cleans and pulls.
However, there is some benefit to the supinated grip for general lifters and bodybuilders. The supinated grip will engage more of the biceps and can be a great time under tension movement for hypertrophy.
The setup here is very similar to the Deadlift. With that in mind, always remember to keep a nice neutral spine. DO NOT ROUND YOUR BACK.
Another common mistake is I have seen lifters go too heavy and therefore need to “hitch or yank” into a lock in position. Never sacrifice your form for more weight. You will get hurt eventually.
Some potential benefits of Barbell Bent Over Rows include:
- Building hypertrophy and strength in the upper and lower back and arms.
- Improving posture by strengthening the muscles that support the spine.
- Increasing grip strength, which can be useful for many sports or activities like rock climbing.
- Improving athletic performance, such as in sports that require upper body strength and power.
Chest Supported Rows vs Barbell Rows: Which is Better?
Now, let’s take a look at both rowing exercises side-by-side to see if one is better than the other for some common lifting goals.
Better For Developing Strength and Muscle Mass: Barbell Rows
If we’re comparing two similar movement patterns, the barbell variation will almost always allow the lifter to move more weight. Generally speaking, moving more weight is going to lead to increased strength and increased muscle gains.
I think this happens to be especially true when comparing these two rowing exercises because I always feel Chest Supported Rows can be difficult to get properly set up with really heavy dumbbells. It’s just awkward and can become annoying to try to go heavy. I prefer to use a little lighter weight, slow down the movement and focus on strict technique when doing Chest Supported Rows.
For these reasons, if we’re purely talking about developing strength and mass, I give the edge to Barbell Rows. Also, for what it’s worth, I think Barbell Rows are one of the best (maybe after Pull-ups) rowing exercises for building strength, period. So, it’s not really a knock on Chest Supported Rows to say that Barbell Rows are superior in this regard.
Better For Beginners: Chest Supported Rows
Bent Over Barbell Rows aren’t necessarily difficult to learn how to do. But, if performed incorrectly can end up leading to someone injuring themselves, specifically straining (or worse) their low back. This is because the setup position demands being able to set up in a good body position (flat back) and being able to properly brace the core.
Chest Supported Rows, however, are more beginner-friendly and much more forgiving of errors in technique when someone if first learning the movement. Because the chest is supported, the low back isn’t put in a position to maintain body position. Also, with dumbbells, a beginner can start as light as necessary and then increase weight as they become proficient in the technique.
Can I Sub One For the Other?
Let’s assume for a second that you have sound technique, but you don’t have access to a barbell or dumbbells. Can you sub one of these rows for the other?
Absolutely. As long as you have good technique, either exercise makes a great alternative to the other.
In fact, Chest Supported Rows are one of my favorite barbell row alternatives.
Can I Do Chest Supported Barbell Rows?
In theory, this sounds like a great idea. Why not use an incline bench to do chest-supported barbell rows?
In practice, this just doesn’t work. First, it’s almost impossible to get set up correctly. Do you grab the bar and then position yourself on the bench? Position yourself and then somehow try to grab the bar?
And, even if you have a partner hand you the bar, most benches will severely limit any range of motion you hope to achieve. Stick with dumbbells, or if you have access to one, a T-Bar Row machine.
I’ve just spent the last section of this article comparing which of the two rowing movements is better, Chest Supported Dumbbell Rows or Bent Over Barbell Rows. But, the truth is, assuming you have the necessary equipment there is no reason to not have both in your strength training program.
Both are excellent options for building upper back strength. And, incorporating both within your program can add variety and help keep your workout from getting stale.
So, instead of trying to choose between these two back exercises, my suggestion would be to figure out how you can utilize both Chest Supported Rows and Barbell Rows.