When it comes to building that classic upper body you’ll be hard-pushed to find two better exercises than barbell rows and bench press.
However, something that’s always puzzled me is the difference in weight that I use to perform the two movements.
I wasn’t sure whether my ratios were good or whether I had a potential strength imbalance.
Basically, should you row as much as bench, row less, or row more?
Here’s what you need to know.
Most people will typically row 12-21% less weight than they bench. The main reason for this is that your body is braced and supported by the bench whenever you bench press. A better comparison would be the incline bench press to the bent over row. If you find that you can row as much as you bench, this may indicate “cheating”, typically caused by starting rows with momentum from your legs.
You Should Bench Press More Weight Than You Row
That’s right! You should actually bench press more than you row.
In fact, according to strengthlevel.com’s comparison between bent over rows and bench press, men should be rowing up to 12-21% less weight, whereas women should be rowing up to 18-21% less weight.
A better comparison would actually be between the incline bench press and bent over row.
There are 3 main reasons why you flat bench more than you row, and I’ll cover these now.
Bench Press is “Supported”
When you bench press your body is braced and also supported by a sturdy bench.
However, when you perform bent over rows you have to leverage your lower back to provide support.
In effect, you simply have to lie on a bench, then lower and then press a barbell upwards when you bench press.
Okay, I’ll admit there’s more to it than that, but you could almost say that the bench press exercise is actually aided by the bench.
However, when it comes to rows, it’s just you and the barbell.
So, the only form of stabilisation you get with rows is provided by your lower back, and there’s only so much that it can do.
Do You Bench Press More Often Than you Row?
Whether you want to admit it or not, most people will prioritize the bench press over rows.
Let’s face facts, the bench press is the most “bro” lift there is, i.e. “How Much Do You Bench Bro?”
For some reason we are all attracted to the bench press and it’s probably one of the most performed exercises in the gym environment.
Realistically, we should pull approximately twice as much as we push, but in truth, this rarely happens.
So, it’s a simple cumulative effect over time – the exercise you perform more often is generally the one you’ll get stronger at.
Bench Press Back Arch and Leg Drive
Now, some people will say that arching your back and driving with your legs when benching is cheating.
But, it certainly isn’t, and these are both legitimate ways to help you bench more weight.
Okay, there may be a case for overdoing it, but you can still use both these things to help provide leverage whenever you bench press.
Unfortunately, there is nothing similar that you can do when rowing, and if you did, I would consider this cheating.
Are You “Cheating” in an Attempt to Row More?
Now, even though I’ve said that we should all bench more than we row, there are those who claim that this isn’t true.
In fact, there are even people who say that they actually row more than they bench press.
However, simple physiology and biomechanics tells us that it would be extremely difficult to achieve this.
I will actually go as far to say that those who row more than they bench press will be cheating.
Basically, when you perform bent over rows, you will activate the legs, glutes, and hips to some effect.
This simply comes down to your body position.
But, you can actually create momentum by starting rows with your legs.
Sometimes this may not even be noticeable to you, but I can guarantee that anyone watching will immediately see it.
Once you get yourself into the bent over row position your body should stay completely still.
The only movement will be in your hands and arms.
However, I will say that you should always lead with your elbows, rather than your hands, when you row.
Nevertheless, you’ll often see people perform a slight “bounce” movement when they row.
This is simply momentum being created by their legs, and unfortunately means that you’re not rowing with strict form.
I will also say that I frequently see people stop the barbell about 3-4 inches away from their chest when rowing.
This is about the time that the smaller, stabilising muscles need to retract the shoulder blades, and the lats go into full contraction.
So, if you’re someone who’s stopping just short of your chest when you row, this indicates either a weakness in the lats and stabilising muscles, or that you’re rowing with too much weight.
The One-Arm Dumbbell Row Anomaly
Things are a little different with the one-arm dumbbell row.
I would hazard a guess that most people one-arm row more than they dumbbell bench press.
If not, it’s close to being equal.
Additionally, you’ll typically find that when the weight of your one-arm row is doubled this is very close to your flat bench press weight, if not more.
However, you have to consider that the one-arm dumbbell row is also supported, much like the bench press, which explains this “anomaly”.
When you one-arm row you’ll typically have one hand and one knee on a bench.
This now means that the row is supported and braced by a bench rather than your lower back.
I will also say that it’s easier to cheat with one-arm rows than it is with bent over barbell rows.
I’ve already mentioned the momentum that is typically created by the legs to “cheat” the barbell row.
However, as your body weight is supported during one-arm rows you can use momentum and body English much more safely.
The same use of body English during barbell rows will usually involve using the lower back.
And you definitely don’t want to be using your lower back to help you row more weight.
Are Your Forearms & Grip Affecting Your Row?
Something else to consider is your forearm and grip strength.
And this is especially true if there’s a huge disparity between how much you row and how much you bench.
I’ve mentioned the 12-13% difference, as quoted by strengthlevel.com, but I’m sure there are many of you who notice a greater discrepancy between the two lifts.
For the vast majority of us, our forearms and grip will fail well before our back muscles.
So, in effect, your mind tells you to put the weight down, and this is well before your back has even been tested.
In other words, you may not be rowing with the same intensity as you bench.
I know that many people use wrist wraps when they row, although personally, I’ve never been a fan.
You may also find that your grip is affected if you don’t deadlift regularly.
Plus, many of us hardly ever train our forearms and grip.
Whereas, those who do regularly train them, do so in an attempt to help with the big compound lifts, e.g. deadlifts and bent over rows.
So, it could be the case that your bench press is regularly improving, but your back is never trained with the same intensity.
Therefore, your back muscles will stay the same strength, or perhaps, get even weaker.
Frequently Asked Questions
Should Your Back Be Stronger Than Your Chest?
If only it was that simple!
While aiming for balanced strength between your back and chest is crucial for preventing injury and achieving optimal performance, the concept of “stronger” isn’t always black and white.
Here’s what you need to know.
Factors to Consider
Individual Differences: Your training goals, body mechanics, and injury history all play a role. Athletes with pulling-dominant sports (rowing, pull-ups) might naturally have stronger backs. Beginners might start with weaker backs due to underdeveloped posterior chain muscles.
Strength vs. Muscle Mass: Muscle mass doesn’t always equal raw strength. Your back might have more muscle mass due to larger muscles like lats and traps, while your chest might be denser with smaller, stronger pecs.
Exercise Choice and Technique: Different exercises target different muscle groups within the back and chest. Bench press primarily hits the pectorals, while barbell rows engage various back muscles like lats, traps, and rhomboids. Proper form also affects perceived strength, as engaging more accessory muscles in your back during rows can make it feel “stronger” even if the weight lifted is similar to bench press.
Benefits of Balanced Strength
Preventing injuries: A strong back provides stability and protects the spine from imbalances and overextension, especially during pushing exercises like bench press. Strong core and posterior chain muscles (including back) also improve posture and support your entire body.
Improved performance: Balanced strength across different muscle groups leads to better overall athleticism and movement patterns. For example, strong back muscles contribute to powerful pulling motions in sports and everyday activities.
Aesthetic benefits: Building a balanced physique looks more proportional and aesthetically pleasing, with a defined chest alongside a strong and sculpted back.
So, what’s the ideal ratio?
There’s no single answer! Focusing on building good strength levels in both your back and chest, while considering individual factors and goals, is more important than a specific ratio.
That being said, although different exercises, I have previously spoken about a good push up to pull up ratio, which obviously targets similar muscle groups.
Nevertheless, some general guidelines:
Beginners: Start with basic pulling exercises like bodyweight rows or seated cable rows before progressing to barbell rows. Gradually increase weight and volume for both back and chest exercises to achieve balanced development.
Advanced lifters: Those focusing on strength might prioritize barbell rows and deadlifts to build a strong back base. However, maintaining chest strength with exercises like incline bench presses and push-ups is still crucial for balanced movement and injury prevention.
Specific sports: Athletes in pulling-dominant sports might emphasize back exercises more, while those in pushing-dominant sports might prioritize chest work. However, maintaining some level of balance is still recommended.
Should Barbell Rows Be High or Low?
This will largely depend on your goals, body mechanics, and specific exercise variations.
So, let’s break it down!
Benefits of High Barbell Rows
Greater lat activation: The higher hand position puts more emphasis on the upper and middle lats, which contribute to back width and thickness.
Improved posture: The high barbell row strengthens the mid-trapezius and upper back, promoting better posture and shoulder retraction.
Easier on the lower back: The straighter torso minimizes stress on the lower back compared to low rows.
Benefits of Low Barbell Rows
Increased hamstring and core engagement: The bent-over position recruits more hamstring and core muscles, improving overall pulling power and stability.
Greater range of motion: Some lifters find a deeper stretch and more potential for muscle activation with the lower hand position.
More challenging for the grip: Low rows can be tougher on your grip than high rows, which can be beneficial for grip strength development.
Things to Consider
Individual factors: Consider your goals (muscle growth, strength, posture improvement) and body mechanics (shoulder mobility, lower back sensitivity) when choosing the row variation.
Exercise variations: High and low stances within each hand position also influence muscle activation. Wider stances add leg drive, while narrow stances put more focus on the back muscles.
Form and technique: Maintain proper form with a neutral spine, engaged core, and controlled movement, regardless of hand position.
Beginners: Start with high rows due to their easier form and reduced lower back stress.
Advanced lifters: Explore both high and low variations, incorporating them into your routine based on your training goals and preferences.
Listen to your body: Choose the variation that feels most comfortable and allows you to maintain proper form throughout the exercise.
Here are some additional tips:
- Warm up properly before performing any barbell rows.
- Focus on quality over quantity, choosing a weight that allows for controlled repetitions.
- Don’t round your back during the row. Maintain a neutral spine and pull with your lats, not your biceps.
- Incorporate other variations for complete back development, such as seated cable rows, pull-ups, and deadlifts.
Should I Train Chest and Back Together?
Whether you should train chest and back together depends on several factors, like your training experience, goals, and preferences.
Let’s explore both sides of the coin
Pros. of Chest and Back Training
Efficiency: Combines pushing and pulling movements into one session, saving you time in the gym.
Enhanced hormonal response: Training opposing muscle groups simultaneously can trigger a greater release of growth hormone and testosterone, potentially boosting muscle growth.
Improved balance and posture: Alternating pulling and pushing exercises throughout the workout helps maintain overall body symmetry and posture.
“Pump feeling”: Back-to-back chest and back training can lead to a satisfying muscle pump and increased blood flow, which can feel motivating.
Cons. of Chest and Back Training
Fatigue: Both muscle groups demand intense focus and energy, increasing fatigue and potentially compromising form later in the workout.
Recovery considerations: Training large muscle groups back-to-back might require longer recovery periods than separate sessions.
Focus and intensity: Maintaining high focus and intensity for both pushing and pulling exercises can be challenging, especially for beginners.
Not for everyone: Individuals with specific injuries or limitations might benefit from separating chest and back workouts.
Tips For Best Training Approach
Beginners: Consider starting with separate chest and back workouts to focus on form and technique individually.
Advanced lifters: Experiment with both approaches and see what suits your recovery and performance needs.
Body composition goals: For muscle growth, either method can work, but consider prioritizing the lagging muscle group first in the combined session.
Time constraints: If time is limited, combining chest and back might be a practical option.
Tips for Training Chest and Back Together
Warm up thoroughly: Prepare both muscle groups properly to avoid injury.
Prioritize compound exercises: Focus on multi-joint movements like bench press and rows to maximize efficiency.
Superset chest and back exercises: Alternating pressing and pulling exercises can keep the workout dynamic and improve blood flow.
Choose manageable weight: Don’t compromise form for heavier weights, especially when fatigued.
So, as you can see, you should actually be benching more than you row.
In fact, it is estimated that you should row approximately 12-21% less weight than you bench.
There are various reasons for this, although the most common is simply that your body is braced and supported when you bench press.
Additionally, you have the option to use back arch and leg drive when you bench, and most people typically bench press more often than they row.
So, you could say that bent over rows are the more “strict” of the two movements.
If you find that you are rowing an equal, or perhaps even more, weight than you bench, this could be down to poor form and the use of body English.
Then again, if you row significantly less weight than you bench press, this may point to weak lats, forearms, or grip.
If you want to take your muscle-building, strength, and even fat loss to the next level then you want to check out the workout program created by fitness entrepreneur and bodybuilder, Frank Rich, Massthetic Muscle.
Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.