Better Rowing Through Strength Training

Dr. Westcott

If you enjoy rowing, canoeing, or kayaking, then the information in this section should be most helpful for improving your rowing/paddling performance and reducing your risk of muscle overuse/imbalance injuries. The first objective is to strengthen the muscles used in these activities for more powerful rowing/paddling actions. To do this we will concentrate on those exercises that specifically address the rowing muscles. However, the second objective is to strengthen the muscles not used in these activities, especially the opposing muscle groups that must balance the prime mover muscles and maintain joint integrity throughout thousands of repetitive rowing movements. That is, you need a sound and sensible strength training program for comprehensive musculoskeletal conditioning. This will become more obvious when you realize how much musculature is actually involved in rowing/paddling activities.

Let’s begin with a basic analysis of the rowing action as produced by the contributing muscle groups, and the recommended resistance exercises for strength conditioning. The first movement in sliding seat rowing is extension of the legs, starting with the muscles that straighten the knees. These are the quadriceps muscles of the front thighs, the largest and strongest muscles in the body. The second and almost simultaneous movement is extension of the hip joint, which is accomplished by the opposing hamstrings muscles of the rear thighs. The single best strength exercise for the quadriceps muscles is the leg extension, and the single best exercise for the hamstrings muscles is the leg curl (either seated or prone). The exercise that most effectively works both the quadriceps and hamstrings muscles at the same time is the leg press. As shown in Table 1, these three leg exercises should be performed first in the strength training program, as they are responsible for the initial power production of every rowing action.

The next phase of the rowing action is extension of the trunk, which is produced by contraction of the lower back muscles. Although the erector spinae muscles can become extremely strong, the lower back represents a most vulnerable area of the body for many people. You must therefore train these important muscles in a careful and progressive manner to reduce the risk of injury during the strengthening process. Without question, the best exercise for safely developing stronger lower back muscles is the low back machine. However, to ensure comprehensive midsection conditioning you should combine the low back exercise with the abdominal machine and the rotary torso machine. These three exercises address the erector spinae muscles of the rear midsection, the rectus abdominis muscles of the front midsection, and the oblique muscles (internal and external) on both sides of the midsection, respectively. All of these midsection muscles are involved in efficient force transfer from the lower body to the upper body, and should be included in each strength training session. Due to their stabilization function in essentially every strength exercise, I recommend placing the midsection exercises at the end of each workout (see Table 1).

The next aspect of the rowing sequence is the arm pulling action that actually moves the oars through the water to propel the boat forward. Although always challenging, the arm pull is much easier when it is appropriately timed to immediately follow the trunk extension movement. The prime mover muscles for the arm pull are the latissimus dorsi and teres major muscles of the upper back, the rear deltoid muscles of the shoulders, and the biceps muscles of the arms, with assistance from the large shoulder retractor muscles (upper trapezius, middle trapezius, and rhomboids). The super pullover machine is most productive for isolating the latissimus dorsi and teres major muscles, and should be followed by the compound row machine that addresses these muscles, the posterior deltoid muscles and the biceps muscles, as well as the upper trapezius, middle trapezius, and rhomboids. Additional biceps conditioning can be obtained by using the biceps machine. These exercises should be performed in the order presented in Table 1. To ensure muscle balance and joint integrity in the upper body you should also do exercises for the opposing muscle groups, namely the pectoralis major, anterior and middle deltoids and triceps. As shown in Table 1, the chest press, shoulder press and triceps extension exercises achieve this purpose and should be included in your strength training program where indicated.

All of the strength exercises should be performed 2 of 3 days per week, typically in a total body workout that can be completed in less than 30 minutes. One properly performed set of each exercise should be sufficient, with approximately one minute recovery time between successive exercises. Proper exercise performance is characterized by full movement range and slow movement speed on every repetition. I suggest taking about 6 seconds for each repetition, with 2 seconds for the more challenging lifting movement and 4 seconds for the otherwise less challenging lowering movement. Use enough resistance to fatigue the target muscles within the anaerobic energy system, generally during a range of 50 to 70 seconds. At 6 seconds per repetition, this corresponds to about 8 to 12 good repetitions per exercise set. Whenever you can complete 12 repetitions in proper form, you should increase the weightload by approximately 5 percent (or less). For most exercises, this requires adding 2 to 10 pounds, which will of course reduce the number of repetitions that you can perform, accordingly. Train with the higher resistance until you can again complete 12 repetitions, then add an appropriate amount of weight to your next workout. Keep careful records of all your training sessions for purposes of progression and motivation.

Table 1. Recommended strength exercises and training order for increased rowing/paddling power.


Muscle Group

Rowing Relevance

Leg extension Quadriceps Power production
Leg curl Hamstrings Power production
Leg press Quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteals Power production
Super pullover Latissimus dorsi, teres major Arm pull
Compound row Latissimus dorsi, teres major, biceps, upper trapezius, middle trapezius, rhomboids Arm pull
Biceps curl Biceps
Chest press Pectoralis major, anterior deltoids, triceps Joint integrity
Shoulder press Anterior deltoids, middle deltoids, triceps Joint integrity
Triceps extension Triceps Joint integrity
Low back Erector spinae Force transfer
Abdominal Rectus abdominis Force transfer
Rotary torso Internal obliques, external obliques Force transfer

Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D., is fitness research director at the South
Shore YMCA in Quincy, MA., and author of several books including the new releases Building Strength and Stamina and Strength Training Past 50.

©2002 Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D. all rights reserved

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Written by Wayne L. Westcott PhD

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