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The Ultimate Helms Row Guide [Video Included]

Christian Pinedo


If you want to build a big back and keep your shoulders healthy, the Helms row is one of the best choices.

woman doing a helms row exercise
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So, today, we’re providing a complete guide to Helms row for building muscle – especially bigger back muscles around the shoulder blades, including:

1.     What is the helms row?

2.     How to perform the Helms row with perfect form

3.     Muscles worked with the Helms row – and why you should use it

4.     How you fit this rowing variation into your back workout

5.     How it compares with other types of rowing for back muscles and strength

6.     And what to do if you can’t do a Helms row yet!

Let’s get started with the most important question for beginners…

What Is The Helms Row?

The Helms row is a chest-supported dumbbell row – a barbell row alternative – and one of the best back exercises for building muscle. You can use an overhand grip, underhand grip, or neutral grip to change the movement.

Pendlay rows and barbell rows might use more weight, but the Helms row is more versatile, focuses on better movement, and really targets the Latissimus Dorsi (lats). This makes it a competitor with other options like the chest-supported row, Pendlay row, and even seated cable rows.

It’s popular because it produces results: a long-range rowing variation that picked up in bodybuilding to build great back muscles. Your lats, lower traps, and rhomboids can grow rapidly using the Helms row for high reps. It’s building the arm muscle, shoulder width, and back strength – without a bar!

How To Perform The Helms Row – With Perfect Technique

You can perform the Helms row with perfect form very easily by simply selecting the right bench height, keeping your chest big, and drawing a big arc with your elbows. The exercise is simple enough, but may require some practice.

Here’s how to perform a Helms row:

1.     Set up a bench so you can rest your chest on it with a nearly-90-degree hip bend.

2.     Set yourself up with a dumbbell in either hand and your chest on the bench, with your weight distributed comfortably (do not let your balance move).

3.     Start the exercise with your arms directly below your shoulders and your arms at around 45-degrees to your body.

4.     Start pulling by bending the elbows and sweeping the dumbbells towards your hips slightly, actively using your lats.

5.     Half-way through, as the elbows are at 90-degrees, start squeezing the shoulder blades together and down, keeping your chest big.

6.     Keep pulling your elbows back and together as far as possible until they’re at the end of range.

7.     Hold the end-range position for a moment, squeezing the shoulder blades together to clench the muscles (lats, lower traps, and rhomboids).

8.     Complete the rep by lowering the dumbbells to the start position under control.

The posture of the Helms row is crucial. If you get that wrong, you’re going to neglect the upper back. Instead, you need to keep everything except the arms and shoulders in one place throughout.

Muscles Worked With The Helms Rows

The Helms row will work the muscles of the back – the lats, rhomboids, and lower traps. You’ll also build muscle in the rear delts, keeping your shoulders and posture healthy.

It’s a great way to balance out other exercises that move you in the opposite direction – like the incline bench press.  

The Helms row is particularly useful if you’re trying to build a stronger rotator cuff – 4 small muscles at the back of the shoulder. Weakness here can cause injuries, making the Helms row perfect to stay safe while you get bigger and stronger.

Are There Drawbacks To A Helms Row?

There are no real drawbacks to a Helms row – except that it uses time and energy you can’t use for other exercises!

It’s one of the best rowing exercises out there and competes with things like the Pendlay row and ring row in workout programs. Overall, it’s one of the best around for functional strength and muscle gains.

Using The Helms Row In A Workout

I like to use the Helms row as a “mid-level” rowing exercise between heavy and light back exercises – maybe 2nd or 3rd in a workout.

It is using dumbbells so it won’t be as heavy as a barbell row, but offers greater range – perfect for those 8-15 rep mid-heavy sets. Obviously, you can use heavy, medium, or light Helms rows in your workout – and here are some of the best ways to use each:

Heavy version: perform a 12-rep max, then 3-4 sets of 12 with 10% less weight.

Medium version: 5 sets of 10-15 reps, after a big barbell row exercise, working at good weights to build more work capacity.

Light version: superset 10-12 reps of Helms row with either (1) incline bench press, or (2) seated cable rows.

You can also prime for the Helms row by starting with 1-2 sets of light reverse flyes or face pulls with a pause.

Comparing Back Exercises: Why Use The Helms Row?

Let’s compare the Helms row with other back exercises that have the same ‘muscles worked’ – but different focuses:

Helms Row vs Pendlay Row[LGR1] : the Pendlay row is heavier and takes up more energy because it’s a 2-handed barbell exercise. You should be doing both within a 1-2 week training program. Usually, Pendlay rows first since they’re more taxing.

Helms row vs T-Bar Row: The Helms row gets a lot more activation for the latissimus dorsi because of the wider hand position and active ‘sweep’. We definitely prefer the Helms row, but the T-bar can go much heavier (like bent-over rows and Pendlay rows).

Helms row vs Seated Cable row: the cable row is a good retraction exercise, but the Helms row has far more sweeping for better lat activation. This makes the Helms row a better choice for the whole back, if you have to choose between the two.

Final Thoughts

The Helms row is a great exercise that more people should use! It has less back stress than a lot of options, lets you train the whole back very quickly and effectively, and uses huge range to build healthy shoulders surrounded by big muscles.

This is one of the best variations for width and thickness alike, and its popularity is deserved. Try it out for yourself, and you’ll see why it’s lauded as one of the best rowing exercises around!

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Christian Pinedo

Hey there, Christian here. I'm a former fat guy who just wants to help you succeed in your fitness journey. I share my own experiences and experiments right here on this site. Let me know how I can be of help by leaving a comment below. If you want to learn more about my 50 lb weight loss journey, click here.

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