The Complete Guide to the Helms Row: Muscles Worked, Proper Form, Variations & Benefits
The Complete Guide to the Helms Row: Muscles Worked, Proper Form, Variations & Benefits
The helms row is an excellent back exercise that targets your upper and middle back muscles. This chest supported row allows you to really focus on contracting your back while avoiding stress on your lower back.
If you want to build a thick, strong back, the helms row is a must-add exercise to your back day routine.
In this complete guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know about the helms row:
- What is the Helms Row?
- Muscles Worked
- Proper Form
- Helms Row vs Pendlay Row
- Exercise Variations
- Example Helms Row Workout
Let’s get started!
What Is the Helms Row?
The helms row is a chest supported barbell row variation created by strength coach Eric Helms.
This row exercise has you lying face down on an incline bench or other chest support with your feet firmly planted on the ground. You then row a barbell straight up from the floor by pulling your elbows back and contracting your back muscles.
The chest supported position reduces stress on the lower back while allowing you to focus on properly activating the muscles of your upper back. This makes it an excellent back exercise for bodybuilders and athletes.
The helms row works the muscles of the upper back including the lats, rhomboids, rear delts, traps, and biceps by pulling weight via a rowing motion while keeping the torso static.
It’s a great alternative to standing barbell or dumbbell rows that can be hard on the lower back for some lifters. The exercise is extremely isolated to the upper back musculature.
The helms row primarily targets muscles of the upper back:
- Latissimus dorsi - The lats are the large, V-shaped muscles that make up the sides of your back. Rowing motions strongly activate the lats.
- Rhomboids - The rhomboids connect your shoulder blades to your spine. Rowing works them isometrically.
- Posterior deltoids - The rear delt aids shoulder extension and external rotation during rows.
- Trapezius - Rowing uses the upper traps to elevate the scapulae.
Secondary muscles worked include:
- Biceps - The biceps assist the lats in the rowing motion.
- Forearms - Gripping the barbell strongly engages the forearm muscles.
- Upper back - The smaller muscles of the upper back stabilize your spine during the movement.
Because you are supported by the bench, the helms row avoids placing significant stress on the erector spinae muscles of the lower back.
Proper Form and Technique
To perform the helms row with proper form:
- Lie face down on an incline bench set to a 30-45 degree incline. Place your chest firmly on the bench pad.
- Plant your feet about hip-width apart on the floor to stabilize yourself.
- Keep your chest pressed against the bench pad throughout the set to avoid excessive arching of the lower back.
- Grip a barbell with a shoulder-width, overhand grip. Raise your torso up slightly and lift the barbell off the floor to begin.
- Keep your arms extended and let the barbell hang directly below your shoulders with your elbows straight.
- Initiate the row by pulling your elbows back, squeezing your shoulder blades together as you lift the barbell. Focus on contracting the muscles of your back.
- Row the barbell straight up towards your lower chest, keeping it close to your body throughout the movement.
- Slowly lower under control. Do not bounce the weight.
- Repeat for reps without letting your hips sag or lower back arch up off the bench.
- Keep your torso braced and maintain a neutral spine throughout. Do not round your back.
Really focus on squeezing your shoulder blades together and pulling through your elbows rather than arms to fully engage your back muscles. Use a controlled tempo and avoid using momentum to swing the weight.
Helms Row vs. Pendlay Row
The helms row and pendlay row are two popular barbell row variations. While similar, there are some key differences:
- Body position - The helms row is performed lying face down on a bench while the pendlay row is done standing bent over at the hips.
- Back support - The bench supports your torso during the helms row while your lower back must support the load during the pendlay row.
- Range of motion - The pendlay row uses a larger range of motion bringing the bar to the lower chest. The helms row has a more limited range.
- Muscles targeted - The supported helms row better isolates the upper back while the pendlay row involves more lower back, glutes, and hamstrings.
- Difficulty - The pendlay row allows more weight to be lifted but is a more technically challenging exercise to perform well.
In summary, the chest supported helms row places more focus on the upper back muscles while avoiding lower back stress. The pendlay row uses a larger range of motion and challenges stabilization more. Select the variation that best matches your goals.
Benefits of the Helms Row
Adding the helms row to your back workout provides several key benefits:
- Builds upper back strength - It targets the muscles of the upper back through a strong rowing motion with significant overload placed directly on the lats, traps, and rhomboids.
- Improves posture - Strengthening your back muscles with rows can improve posture issues caused by hunching over a computer all day.
- Works the back through a full range of motion - The chest support allows a greater range of motion compared to bent over barbell rows.
- Reduces lower back strain - Placing your torso on a bench takes stress off the erectors and minimizes risk of tweaking your lower back.
- More back focus - The helms row isolates the back muscles without other muscles limiting your strength on the row.
- Allows heavier loads - The supported position helps stabilize the body so you can row heavier weight than a standing barbell row.
- Works grip strength - Holding heavy loads engages your grip and forearms isometrically.
Add the helms row into your back workout if you want a challenging exercise that builds upper back strength or need a lower back friendly row variation. It's especially effective paired with vertical pulling exercises like pull-ups or lat pulldowns.
There are a few different ways to perform the helms row:
- Barbell helms row - The traditional version using a straight barbell as described above. Grip can be overhand or underhand.
- Dumbbell helms row - Use dumbbells instead of a barbell for more range of motion. Keep palms neutral.
- Wide grip helms row - Use a wider overhand grip to shift focus more to the lats and upper back.
- Underhand grip row - An underhand (supinated) grip emphasizes the biceps more. Can use barbell or dumbbells.
- Single arm helms row - Row one arm at a time to prevent side to side imbalance or provide unilateral work.
Experiment with grips, tempos, angles, and equipment (barbell, dumbbell, suspension trainer) to find the helms row variation that you enjoy most and that provides you with the best muscle activation.
Helms Row Workout
Here is an example back workout that incorporates the helms row:
- 4 sets x 6-10 reps
- Barbell Helms Row
- 4 sets x 6-10 reps
- Single Arm Dumbbell Row 3 sets x 10-12 reps per side
- Lat Pulldown
- 3 sets x 10-12 reps
- Seated Cable Row 3 sets x 12-15 reps
Do this workout 2 times per week with at least a day off in between sessions.
Perform 2-4 warm-up sets before your helms row work sets. Progressively increase the weight each set to maximize strength and hypertrophy.
Really focus on proper rowing form, contracting your back, and squeezing your shoulder blades together on each rep.
Pair this workout with pushing exercises like bench press and shoulder press for balanced upper body development.
The helms row is a phenomenal back exercise that lets you overload the muscles of your upper back safely thanks to the supported position.
It hits the lats, rhomboids, rear delts, and biceps through a strong rowing motion while avoiding lower back strain.
Use proper form, experiment with grips and variations, and add the helms row to your back workouts to build a thicker, wider back!
What’s your favorite row variation? Let me know in the comments!
Helms Row FAQ
What are Some Helms Row Alternatives?
Some alternatives to the helms row are the t-bar row, seal row, and any chest-supported row machine. You can also do dumbbell row variations. Experiment to find the best row for your goals and available equipment. The pendlay row is a common row alternative that is performed standing with a barbell. Cable rows and dumbbell rows are other excellent row exercise alternatives. Choose upright vs lying rows based on your goals.
What Are Helms Row Benefits?
Benefits of the helms row include building upper back strength, improving posture, allowing a greater range of motion, reducing lower back strain, isolating the back muscles more, and enabling heavier loads to be rowed.
Is There A Helms Row Variation?
There are several row variations including wide grip, underhand grip, single arm, dumbbell, cable, and machine rows. Vary your grip and equipment occasionally to work the back from different angles.
How To Use the Helms Row?
Use the helms row as a primary back exercise on your back day or pull workout. It can replace barbell rows if you have lower back issues. The helms row is a great addition for a thicker upper back!
What Back Muscle Does The Helms Row Work?
The helms row primarily targets the latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, rear delts, and traps. Secondarily it works the biceps, forearms, and smaller upper back muscles like the erector spinae.
Can I Use A Dumbbell To Do The Helms Row?
You can do the helms row with dumbbells instead of a barbell. This allows a greater range of motion but can be harder to stabilize heavier dumbbells. Adjustable dumbbells are very convenient for this exercise.
Does The Helms Row Require A Barbell?
The helms row is traditionally performed with dumbbellms. Use a shoulder width overhand or underhand grip. Take advantage of the supported position to row heavier loads with good form.
Is The Helms Row Different Than A Barbell Row?
The helms row allows you to row heavier loads with better form than a traditional standing barbell row where the lower back is more involved. It isolates the upper back muscles effectively.
Will The Row Exercise Build A Stronger Back?
Rows are a key back exercise to include in your routine along with vertical pulls like pulldowns. Horizontal rows are vital for width and posture. Do both chest supported rows like the helms row and upright rows like pendlay rows.
How Is a Helms Row Different Than A Dumbbell Row?
Dumbbell rows involve bracing the core more. But dumbbells allow a greater range of motion. Do dumbbell rows in addition to barbell rows for variation.
How Do You Perform the Helms Row?
To perform it, lie on an incline bench, plant your feet firmly, grip a barbell just outside shoulder width, pull your elbows back squeezing your shoulder blades as you row the bar up towards your lower chest.
How Do You Perform The Cable Row?
Cable rows allow constant tension but less load compared to barbell rows. Use both in your routine for comprehensive back development. Opt for a close, shoulder width grip.