There are many ways to target your upper back, be it for strengthening, toning or muscular hypertrophy (big gains). From isolating exercises to compound lifts, cables to barbells, it is easy to get an upper back workout into your routine. But which is the most effective?
Many argue that the chest-supported dumbbell row is everything that you need and more to build upper back muscle mass and improve your bench press and posture at the same time.
In this article, we will discuss how to do this exercise, which muscles it works and variations you can try out as you progress.
How to do the chest-supported dumbbell row
You’ll need an adjustable bench set at 30-45 degree angle.
- Climb on, face down with your legs outstretched behind you. With a dumbbell in each hand, hold them in a neutral grip with your neck also in a neutral position.
- Your shoulders should be down and back. Keep your chest on the bench and don’t hyperextend.
- Bring the weight up in a rowing action so that they move towards your ribs while keeping your lats contracted at all times.
- When you reach the top of the row and your muscles are contracted, hold this position, squeeze your shoulder blades together, and slowly bring the weights down to the starting position.
Don’t bring your shoulders into play, feel this in your back by minimizing the vertical lift and bringing the weight towards your ribs rather than your shoulders in a sweeping motion.
It is a common error to make this exercise all about your hands and grip. While, yes, it does improve your grip, you should focus on the involvement of your elbows. Lifting straps can help you here.
Every rowing exercise is about muscle contraction, so ensure that your back muscles are contracting when you lift on the way up and back down again.
The neutral grip is considered the more comfortable, but there’s no rule against trying something different and altering the angle to experiment with different tension as you progress.
To build muscle, aim for 6-8 reps for a month’s worth of workouts. Then increase the weight and decrease the reps to 3-5.
What muscles does the chest-supported dumbbell row work?
The chest-supported dumbbell row puts your back and rear shoulders to work while also improving your posture and, believe it or not, enhancing your bench pressing ability.
It targets the overall mass of your back, namely your lats, traps, rhomboids and the smaller supporting muscles that come into play in your upper-middle back, which is why many consider this to be the ultimate back exercise.
Variations of the chest-support dumbbell row
Single-arm dumbbell row
Starting in the standard starting position take a dumbbell in just one hand. With your chest flat to the bench, wrap your free arm under to keep yourself close and tight with no wiggle room.
Perform the row with your weighted hand, focusing on the sweeping, smooth motion to your ribs and avoiding jagged, sudden pulls that lift you from the bench.
The trick with this variation is keeping yourself steady and stopping your torso from rotating to assist the lift.
Single-arm dumbbell row with iso hold
For this one you will use two dumbbells and begin in the standard starting position. Lift both dumbbells to start and keep one contracted at your hip. This is your starting position.
Now perform your reps with the non- contracted arm. Perform a full set this way and switch to the other arm.
Alternating dumbbell rows
This involves one single row at a time.
Begin in the standard starting position and row one arm. Complete a full rep and return to the starting position, then do the same with the other arm.
Alternate this action for each arm. 6-8 reps on each arm for one set.
Rep progression with shrugs
This exercise is a kind of superset, a combination of two exercises that will effectively target your upper back muscles. This approach is a great way to overcome plateaus and to get an extra pump.
Begin in the standard starting position and perform one standard row. Then perform a slow, steady shoulder shrug. This is the model for the set. Next comes two rows, followed by two shrugs, and so on until you do five reps of each.
Take home message
It’s no wonder why some say that chest-supported dumbbell rows are all you need to build back muscle. The incline used in this exercise makes you use multiple back muscles against gravity, meaning optimal gains.
On top of that, the benefits of correctly executing the chest-supported dumbbell row include the fact that you can’t cut corners. With rows, it is an easy mistake to use momentum instead of contraction, and this exercise involves muscle contraction alone as you work partially against gravity.
It’s also suited for anyone struggling with lower back troubles, given the support the bench provides.
So if you’re wanting to build or tone your back, give these a try!