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Rowing exercises require your torso to be held isometrically, which has an inherent risk of lower back injury. The load from the barbell mixed with the force of gravity is not the safest combination. Luckily, the exercise becomes much safer by removing the horizontal lean and swapping equipment.
The safest row exercise is the chest-supported seated row. Since the upper body is supported, there is reduced strain on the lumbar spine. You also don’t have to lean forward and risk the lower back rounding, unlike in a bent-over row.
Not convinced this is the safest rowing variation? Or maybe you’re not sure how to set it up or do it properly. In either case, I’ll cover those topics below.
Table of Contents
Why Chest-Supported Seated Rows Are the Safest
Chest-supported seated rows can be performed with cables, resistance bands, or a dedicated machine. Each variation is performed with the torso upright and the feet planted while the resistance is pulled toward your stomach.
Not to mention, the chest will be supported by a pad or an incline bench. Your spine will be in a safe position this way, allowing you to focus on pulling the resistance with your middle and upper back muscles.
Unlike many rowing exercises where the torso is bent horizontally with the floor, you won’t have the excessive pressure from gravity pushing you toward the ground.
For example, during the barbell bent-over row, you hinge through your hips to lean your upper body parallel to the floor. You then engage your spinal erectors (lower back muscles) so gravity doesn’t pull you to the ground.
This can be difficult, especially if you’re recovering from a back injury or are simply new to strength training. Limitations aside, bent-over rows are beneficial for back development, which I previously covered.
Here’s why seated rows with chest support are safer than standard bent row variations:
- Requires less lower body stability.
- You don’t have to brace your hamstrings to maintain the bend in your hips.
- Most chest-supported rows also have foot plates, allowing you to maintain a more stable position.
- Reduces lumbar fatigue.
- Oftentimes, the muscles around the lumbar spine are the limiting factor during rows.
- However, when the chest is supported these muscles aren’t working as much.
- This allows for heavier weights to be lifted using the lats and upper back muscles.
- Requires less core strength.
- If your core is weak there’s simply no safe way to perform bent-over rows.
- Luckily the chest pad somewhat replicates the stability produced by the core muscles.
- You should still keep your core tight while performing supported rows. If you do end up losing solidity though, the impact on your spine is minimal compared to bent rows.
- You can simply let go of the handles if your form breaks down without falling on your face.
Rowing exercises are an amazing backbuilder, but the popular bent-over row can be taxing to the spinal erectors. If I had to choose one safer variation, it would most definitely be the seated row, with or without chest support.
As a general rule, seated rows are safe because your torso is vertical to the floor. This means the lower back muscles won’t have to stabilize as much during the movement. Ultimately reducing the chance of the lumbar spine becoming strained and preventing discomfort.
The chest support makes the movement even better since you can use the pad as a stabilization point. Just make sure your chest and stomach remain against the pad and you won’t have to worry about the lower back rounding.
How To Do Chest-Supported Seated Rows Safely
Whether you’re doing rows with or without chest support, the safety of the movement depends upon your form. If they aren’t performed properly, you have a greater risk of injury even with strong back muscles.
The safest way to do rows is by sticking your chest up slightly and planting your feet firmly on the ground while pulling your elbows past your ribs. These cues will keep the lower back in a neutral position and maintain stability in the rotator cuffs.
Performing them from the seated position with the chest support makes keeping the feet planted and the chest tall much easier.
To perform chest-supported seated rows:
- Set up an incline bench in front of a cable machine.
- Attach d-handles to the cables and position the pulleys to the height that your middle abdomen will be at while sitting on the bench.
- Grab the handles with your palms facing each other.
- Sit reverse style on the bench with your chest and stomach tight against the inclined backrest, facing the cables.
- Let the resistance pull your arms straight and shoulder blades forward.
- Bend your elbows past your ribcage and squeeze your shoulder blades.
- Re-extend your arms under control and repeat for 4 sets of 12 reps.
Below is a detailed look at each of the main form cues.
1. Stick Your Chest up To Extend Your T-Spine
Extending or arching your thoracic spine helps hold the lower back in a neutral or flat position. Do this by slightly puffing your chest and bracing your core. You should also keep your stomach pressed against the support pad the entire time.
2. Press Your Feet Into the Ground While Pulling
Position your feet flat on the ground or centered on the footplates with the knees slightly bent. Press the middle of your feet into the ground as you pull.
Doing this allows you to pull with more force production. This means you’ll be able to lift heavier loads with more stability.
3. Pull Your Elbows Past Your Ribs
As you pull, drive your elbows back and slightly down while squeezing your shoulder blades together. This elicits greater activation in the upper back muscles and extends the thoracic spine. Keep your upper arms tucked by your sides with a 15-30 degree gap to engage the lats as well.
Properly engaging these areas of the back will prevent overcompensation from the lower back muscles. The rotator cuffs will also be much safer compared to having the elbows flared too high.
Safe Variations of the Chest-Supported Seated Row
As I said earlier, there are a few ways to perform the chest-supported seated row.
- Attach a resistance band to a sturdy pole at belly button height and sit reverse style on an incline bench.
- Use an actual chest-supported row machine.
- These usually have multiple grip options to accentuate specific back muscles along with seat height adjustments.
- The set-up is less time-consuming compared to using cables or bands.
- Set up an incline bench in front of a cable machine with the pulleys at belly button height.
- The cables allow you to pull in a comfortable path for your specific shoulder build. Converse to the machine version, which has pre-set mechanisms that are awkward for some users.
Perform these unilaterally if you’re trying to fix or prevent muscle asymmetries, or do them bilaterally to save time and maximize full back strength.