While every bodybuilder ranks bent-over barbell rows, landmine rows, and seated cable rows as the top exercises for back growth, you won't find the incline dumbbell row (aka chest supported row) topping anyone's list.
Because, unlike the usual back building staples, they are hard to overload or cheat on.
Think about it...
Have you ever seen anyone perform an incline row with 60-pound dumbbells or more?
It's not a heavy exercise where you can go up by five pounds every week or use some body English to heave the weight up.
That means most guys won't see the value in doing chest supported rows.
Instead, they'll set the pin in the lowest hole in the stack and proceed to seated cable row with atrocious form.
The only thing growing from that is your ego, not your back.
Are Incline Dumbbell Rows Good For Building Muscle?
Not only do they pack serious muscle on your upper back, incline dumbbell rows are one of the best movements you can do for improved posture.
They're an invaluable exercise I include in every client's program to get rid of the el geeko physique (hunched-over shoulders, forward-protruding chicken head) that has become synonymous with the modern man.
What Muscles Do Incline Dumbbell Rows Work?
Many mistaken lifters believe this exercise primarily hits the lats or upper traps.
Are both involved?
Yes. But it's not the area you want to target.
You should feel incline dumbbell rows mostly in the rhomboids and middle/lower traps.
Rear delts also get some play. But it's not what gets hit the most.
What Is The Best Incline Dumbbell Row Angle?
The lower the angle, the more it hits your mid-upper back – right where you want.
The steeper the incline, the more the upper traps will take over.
Want mountainous traps up to your ears?
Do deadlifts and power shrugs. Don't waste your time on rows.
It would be like doing dumbbell curls for bigger shoulders. Pointless.
While you don't want a steep incline, setting the bench angle too low also comes with problems.
With most incline benches, 15 degrees puts you too close to the floor, so you won't be able to straighten your arms in the bottom position.
Now your range of motion is cut, and you won't feel the rhomboids stretch before pulling the dumbbells up.
To overcome this issue, place a bumper plate or two under the bench. It works in a pinch, but I'd save myself the hassle if I can avoid it.
I prefer a 30-degree incline (typically two notches up from a flat position) for these reasons.
You get full range of motion and target the mid-upper back for maximal muscle gains.
Incline Dumbbell Row Form
As I said before...
Don't get too caught up trying to add more weight in every session.
Or let your technique slide, just so you can bang out a few extra (shitty) reps.
You want strict reps and huge pumps here.
Holding a dumbbell in each hand, lie face down on an incline bench.
Bring your feet under your hips to create a strong base of support.
Puff your chest out (no sunken chest here!) without overarching your lower back.
The most common mistake I see is pulling your hands toward your chest. This targets the upper traps – a big no.
As with any other row, the elbows (not the biceps!) initiate the movement.
Keeping your elbows fairly close to your body, drive them toward your back pockets (so your hands land somewhere around your upper abs) to hit the mid-upper back.
Another thing to avoid?
Over-rowing – a dead giveaway of a jackass gym bro who doesn't know what the hell he's doing.
Your elbow should NOT land above your shoulder in the top position. It will stay below the shoulder, in line with your torso.
Squeeze your shoulder blades together on every rep. Focus on getting a big burn in the muscles between/around your shoulder blades.
As you bring the dumbbells down under control, think of reaching into the floor.
This produces a nice pre-stretch, which leads to a stronger contraction on the way up.
Sets & Reps
The smaller postural muscles of the upper back respond well to massive pumps.
So we want high reps/long time under tension (TUT) here.
Stick with regular reps in the 12-20+ range most of the time.
Holds in the contracted (top) position also work extremely well.
A favorite of mine (which clients hate!) is 3-4x8-10 with a 2016 tempo.
That six-second hold at the top forces you to go light and squeeze the target muscles HARD for some nasty pumps.
You could also begin your set with a 10-second hold to pre-fatigue the muscles, perform 10-12 normal reps, then finish with another 10-second isometric.
These are just two tricks to fire up your back in ways you have never felt before.
Enjoy the skin-splitting back burn!
Best Incline Dumbbell Row Alternatives
You don't have access to dumbbells and an adjustable bench?
What dismal gym do you train at?!
Anyway, you can still build impressive back thickness with barebones equipment.
Add some inverted rows on rings/TRX, face pulls, and standing bent-over dumbbells rows (focusing on the mid-back, not lats) into your routine to replace chest supported rows.
The issue with standard back exercises like bent-over barbell rows, seated cable rows, and landmine rows is that once the weight gets heavy, you use more and more momentum.
This takes stress off the muscles you're trying to target.
By supporting your body on an incline bench, you create more stability, and take the lower back and legs out of play.
Now you're able to better isolate the mid-upper back.
If you're not seeing much success with the usual back movements, make incline dumbbell rows a staple in your routine.
Huge pumps from high reps and/or long isometric holds produce excellent results.
Once I added those into my workouts, my back growth took off.
I'm sure they will do the same for you.