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Strength Training Programs: No Chest-Supported Row? No Problem.

Written on September 15, 2010 at 9:35 am, by Eric Cressey

Without a doubt, the chest-supported row is one of my favorite strength exercises.  It is a great upper-back-builder and shoulder health exercise to include in strength training programs because it keeps folks strict with their rowing by forcing them to keep the chest in contact with the pad.

And, while I absolutely love the fact that we have a specific chest-supported row set-up at Cressey Performance, I understand that not everyone has access to one of these bad boys.  Fortunately for those of you in that position, though, we have a few excellent substitute strength exercises for the chest supported row that you can use that offer similar benefits without the "cheating" you often see with a traditional bent-over barbell row.

First up is the chest-supported dumbbell row.  While you can't use a pronated grip here, it still keeps you honest.  The only potential problem is that some benches have cumbersome "leggings" on the outsides that get in the way of ideal range-of-motion.  Most work out just fine, though.

Your second option is one you can do just about anywhere: the head-supported dumbbell row.  While you don't have the chest in contact with anything, you do have to put the head in contact with the pad at all times (you can use an incline bench, glute-ham raise, or other set-up at that height).  Just make sure that you keep a neutral spine and tuck the chin so that the cervical spine is in a neutral position.

Both these modifications are featured in the "Exercise Modifications" chapter and accompanying video database in my e-book, Show and Go: High Performance Training to Look, Feel, and Move Better.  With over 175 exercises in this video library, one of the central pieces of Show and Go is that it's versatile – and I'll help you to make modifications to the program (2x/wk, 3x/wk, or 4x/wk) based on your equipment restrictions – whether you train in a commercial/university gym, at home, or in a souped up high-performance training center.  For more information, check out www.ShowandGoTraining.com.

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25 Responses to “Strength Training Programs: No Chest-Supported Row? No Problem.”

  1. Poul Hanse Says:

    Love the exercises you describe here. They have saved a few of my friends shoulders (the ones that will listen) and helps the bodybuilders among them get better contact to mid and lower traps.

  2. Timothy Evangelista Says:

    I am a fan of chest supported rows as well and have been using the bench version for years. I find putting the seat up and kneeling on it helps to prevent any forward or backward sliding. It also puts you a little higher on the bench to avoid the wider bench footing. This doesn’t work to well for taller guys though as the top of the bench puts a lot of pressure on their abdomen.

    Nice post.

  3. Brad Wellsley Says:

    Eric,

    Do you find that doing these is preferable to using a 1-arm DB row and using the non-working arm for support, or is this simply presenting ways to have a “supported” bilateral option for when your program may call for chest-supported rows?

  4. Clement Says:

    Good post, Eric! Personally, I don’t do the rows supported. It’s either inverted or standing. Unless it’s the single-arm DB row. It’s just my preference to remain standing. Anyway, I can’t wait for your new programme. Already saving up on my allowance for it!

  5. santiago Says:

    when you put your head on the bench

    why not just put your chest there?

    reducing the risk on the cervical spine

    if the pad is somehow to wide…maybe you can adjust a piece of foam roller there to get more separation

    cut a piece where you can slide it into the pad

    just a toght

  6. David Burk Says:

    I have a bench top (no legs). I’ve duck taped it above two longer 2x4s. I can lay this across my power rack pins, lay on it chest down, and row with a parallel-grip deadlift bar that has raised handles. Very safe and strong, full range of motion.

  7. Scott Umberger Says:

    Niiiice! The second one on the adjustable bench is a fantastic alternative. I use it all the time with groups because I only have one chest supported row were changing weights can be a pain.. switching between Db’s isn’t.

  8. Benjamin Kusin Says:

    IMO the classic barbell row is a superior exercise to the chest-supported version and all other versions. But you are right that most people cheat it and get some atrocious lumbar flexion in the process.

    If it helps, I have found that some hip abduction (ie glute contraction, “spread the floor”) helps with maintaining form on the BB row and so does lifting off pins/blocks. Tha latter allows a reset between every rep and keeps you from using momentum from the amortisation phase to cheat.

    I understand you don’t program BB rows much lest people cheat and blow their backs but instead of using an inferior exercise to avoid this, they need to learn to do the superior one properly.

  9. Roberto Says:

    Aren’t these exercises for the lats instead of the upper back muscles?

    I know they are (upper back muscles) involved as well but the main muscles worked are the lats, aren’t they?

  10. Ben M Says:

    Eric,
    What are your thoughts on the DB elbows-out chest-supported row shown below?

    http://www.t-nation.com/free_online_article/sports_body_training_performance/inside_the_muscles_best_back_and_biceps_exercises

    Looks like it tolerates around half the loading, but activates way more lower- and mid trap?

  11. Fredrik Gyllensten Says:

    Great post, just started doing this exercise myself, and love it!

    Btw; the guy who recommended me to do this, Eirik Sandvik, who I’ve just hired as my personal trainer, was an intern with you for a couple of weeks in ’08 :-)

    http://www.atletiskutvikling.no/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/frame_Cressey-lite.jpg

  12. Crystal Says:

    Is there an alternate exercise for the kneeling cable external rotation? I don’t have a double-sided cable column available.

  13. RagingRanter Says:

    I find that free standing bent-over dumbbell rows also work great. You tend to get more of a squeeze in the upper back with the chest supported dumbbell row, while the free-standing dumbbell row hits mainly your lats. Both are great exercises.

  14. wrestler strength Says:

    Great options Eric! Quick question on the Chest Supported Row- my handles came set up the opposite way on mine (the neutral grip handles face away from the chest pad, not towards like your above video). No major difference, right? Elite must have just sent me the “special” version, lol!

  15. corey Says:

    I tried the row with my head touching the bench and when I was done I had a red mark/bruise on my forehead that wouldn’t go away all day. =[

  16. Tim Peirce Says:

    More good stuff. Thanks Eric.

  17. mark Says:

    Eric, has anyone ever gonked their noggin using the first apparatus in your video?….

  18. Eric Cressey Says:

    Mark – Fortunately, no!

  19. Josh Bryant Says:

    Good Post Eric! Love the Bill Pearl style head supported rows.

  20. Brian Seelos Says:

    Great alternatives here. I have been using the head supported row for years and find that it really focuses on good form and uses a much lighter weight to accomplish the same ends.

  21. Scott Gunter Says:

    Eric,

    Big fan of this post for a few reasons:
    1. I literally read for all of 2 minutes (at most) and gained approx. three gems.
    2. The head supported could also be tweaked to make a good exercise for training neck strength in MMA fighters.
    3. I realized why I’m a big fan of your blog: Unlike many blogs where two line’s in they are already trying to sell you something, or in most cases where they will give you a teaser of information and useless bit of advice and prompt you to pay for their pdf where the true info is, you offer real advice for free to all those willing to read. Yes, everyone has to do a little promo here and there, but thanks for offering truly helpful tips and cues first and for showing that you care more about the future of the fitness industry than digits on our credit cards.

    -SG

  22. Michael Says:

    Hi Eric

    I’d love to get your opinion on my own version of this. I use the low pulley on my cable stack and lie on my incline bench set at 45 degrees. It seems to approximate the action of your specific chest-supported row set-up quite well, although the resistance would be constant via the cable.

    Your thoughts?

  23. Tim Says:

    Have you ever seen the flat version of this exercise. You can use dbs or a barbell, but it is a rare piece of equipment. I would have to consult my notes to determine what company makes them (from a trainer’s presentation I saw who uses it).

    My friends made a makeshift version utilizing a flat bench on top of two plyo boxes- you can row dbs, a barbell, or trapbar straight up to the chest.

    If I had one, I would consider it as valuable as one of the “big 3″- antonymous to the bench press.

  24. Eric Cressey Says:

    Tim,

    Yes, I’ve seen one. You’re right, though; high benches like that aren’t very common!

  25. Eric Cressey Says:

    Michael,

    Sounds like another good option!

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