row2k Features
Coach Kaehler
Lower-Mid Back Strength Conditioning for Rowing Performance
April 8, 2010
Bob Kaehler

Racing with back issues is a fact of life in rowing

The sport of rowing inherently places great stresses on the entire body and being conditioned to such stresses can mean the difference between rowing all season or simply recovering on the injured list. Conditioning for the rowing movement is essential for injury prevention, maintenance of fitness level and peak performance in competition.

The rowing sequence is broken into four phases- the catch, the drive, the finish, and recovery. During each phase of the rowing sequence the lower- mid back and resulting musculature play a pivotal role in the transfer of power from the legs to the oar in the water. Optimally, there would be no loss of power but the structure of the human body is not designed for flawless operation in such a sequenced motion.

We can, however, lessen the gap by conditioning these areas that may be weakened, inflexible, or suffering from an imbalance. Though there are numerous modalities to train for this rigorous sport, this article will discuss the biomechanics involving the lower-mid back during the rowing sequence, pathology of injury to this area, structure and function of optimal spine stiffness necessary for peak performance as well as two strength exercises to elicit such gains.

The biomechanics, specifically involving the lower-mid back, during the rowing sequence was best described by Thomas Mazzone, MD. He observed that during the catch phase the erector spinae are relaxed, with trunk flexion occurring via the abdominals. The drive phase has primary leg emphasis with stabilizing muscles supporting, body swing completed from back extension and contraction of the erector spinae group. During the drive phase the latissimus dorsi and erector spinae group are highly active and are continually contracted through the finish phase. The upper arms are internally rotated by contracting the latissimus dorsi. The recovery phase involves the abdominals flexing the torso.

When examining how injury occurs to the area, we can look at the structure of the spine. The anatomy of the vertebrae is that each is separated by an intervertebral disc connected by a facet joint and the annular ligament. The facet joint allows flexion and extension of the joint but restricts rotational movement in the lumbar spine region. Muscles run parallel to the spine and attach to each vertebra, holding the spine erect. During the catch phase and initiation of the drive there is a large amount of tensile and rotational stress placed upon the lumbar spine. The subsequent stress resulting from this repetitive motion can cause injury for many rowers. This stress is exacerbated by a farther reach, placing increased stress on the front edge of the intervertebral discs and therefore locking the facet joints more so, forcing the muscles to work harder to keep the torso erect and limiting rotation further. Clearly, maximal spine stiffness and strength is needed for peak performance and injury prevention.

In regards to rowing performance and injury prevention, spine stiffness is optimal. This equates to coordinated (balanced) muscle contraction and the ability of the spine to retain its original shape under increasing loads. Spine stiffness is synonymous with spine stability, which is paramount in rowing.

When choosing strength conditioning exercises best suited to increase spine stiffness and low-mid back musculature for rowing, two exercises may immediately come to mind- the bench pull and the standing bent over row.

The bench pull can be described as being performed while lying prone on a raised bench, a barbell underneath and the individual pulling the bar up towards the underside of the bench in a rowing fashion. This exercise is a common strength training modality among rowers but may not be as beneficial as was once thought for optimal performance, which will be discussed further.

The bent over row can be described as being performed while standing, bent forward with a neutral spine, a barbell hanging in the individuals hands, and lifting the bar towards the torso in a rowing fashion. A recent article examining the comparison of different rowing exercises for trunk activation and spine stiffness by Fenwick, Brown, and McGill reports that individuals with higher muscle activation had a better "safety-margin" in terms of spine stability than those with lower muscle activation.

Training goals should be taken into consideration when choosing between the exercises; those who are rehabilitating an injury or in a decreased training phase should be interested in modest muscle activation with low spine loads, while those with peak performance aspirations should strive for exercises with highest muscle activation and largest spine loads.

The bench pull retains neutral spine angles and allows the body to be supported by the bench to which the individual is lying prone. This exercise, when studied through electromyography, was shown to elicit higher activation of the latissimus dorsi, upper back, and hip extensor muscles than the standing bent over row. It also elicited low activation of the lumbar erector spinae group, due to the support of the bench.

The standing bent over row did produce high muscle activation, though it was less activation of the latissimus dorsi, upper back, and hip extensor than a bench pull style exercise, and symmetrical activation across the upper and lower back. The standing bent over row also elicited the largest spine load and subsequent stiffness. The standing bent over row creates a large external moment arm when the barbell is being held and the thoracic and lumbar spine must synchronously act to correct this, therefore resulting in increased muscle stiffness that will stabilize the spine.

One drawback to the bench pull is that is produces asymmetrical loads and higher muscle activation in the upper back musculature versus the lumbar spine, this imbalance has been shown to be present in those with a history of low back pain. It can be an effective exercise for those rehabilitating injury or still developing in their training, but it seems contraindicated for anyone interested in peak performance in rowing.

The standing bent over row is a slightly more complex exercise that can be learned easily and elicits balanced muscle activation throughout the back and promotes optimal spine stiffness and stability needed for increasing rowing performance.


  • Comparison of Different Rowing Exercises: Trunk Muscle Activation and Lumbar Spine Motion, Load, and Stiffness. Fenwick, Chad MJ; Brown, Stephen HM; McGill, Stuart M. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 23(5):1408-1417, August 2009.
  • Kinesiology of the Rowing Stroke. Thomas Mazzone, MD. NSCA Journal. Volume 10, November 2, 1988.
  • Sport-Specific Conditioning to Prevent Injuries in Rowing. Allen, Kristen; Jones, Margaret T. Strength and Conditioning Journal. February 1998.

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    Log in to comment
    10/06/2017  1:01:28 PM
    Have video and still photos of yourself made when rowing. Observe the angles and stretch of the arms and back, and back and hips, when rowing. Then in the weight room, find the same angles to work at for strength exercises.

    Normal bench pull is moderarely effective, but not completely. Why ? 1) If the rower is leaning forward when initiating the arm pull, the bench would need to be at a slight angle head down to achieve the same angle and benefit of the musculature. 2) If the rower pulls down to his lap at the finish on the water, common to improve the finish though with slight wash out, then a pull to the chest center only partially uses the same muscles. Again, the slightly head down bench improves strength development, as finishing the pull would be lower on the torso. And can be simulated well with the standing BOR, which can be done at slightly varying angles.

    As for low back strength development in the weight room, again either mimick more accurately boat movement of the rower, or consider stroke alteration to take greater advantage of weight room strength gains. Not impossible, but also completely contrary to "modern" biomechanical analysis of rowing. Perhaps go from the strongest action to the strongest rowing technique, rather than the accepted rowing technique however unsafe, and try to strengthen the body to tolerate it better and improve performance while trying to avoid injury.

    Can the stroke be initiated in a modified deadlift position, or squat position ? Some scream HERESY. Or INCREASED STERN CHECK. But it has been done, and with REDUCED stern check. Timing of the catch and torso swing becomes very different for this. According to my coach, years ago, a 4+ crew won Gold at the Mexico City Olympics.

    Before going off against this, please figure it out first. Only a bit of a Rubik's Cube, but just solvable. Theoretical arguments will not override physics laws and and biomechanical safety issues. A few people have rowed like this, and can teach it to others.

    08/31/2010  9:57:17 AM
    I've never trusted BOR as it seems to carry a lot of risk as many have noted. In place of Bench Pull and BOR and to go along with Squats, RDL, Power Cleans and Single Leg Squats how about adding... ?

    Supine Row in full plank with heels elevated onto bench. Scapula squeezed back and down along the spine. Keep the hands low and pull the lower rib cage to the bar. Couple with Push ups in an EDT Protocol set.

    Kettlebell/Dumbbell swings. Two hand or alternate hands. Continuous 10 minute sets, using 1 pood/16 KG/35 lb bell. Relaxed arms and shoulders, upright neutral spine, strong hip drive, strong hamstring/glute contraction. Similar to the hip opening in the stroke.

    04/16/2010  3:01:01 PM
    In the interest of some clarity, I would like to see a picture of the standing bent over row. What's the position of the knees, the pelvis? Because if it's what I'm imagining you can kiss your L4-5 disc goodbye even before you add any weight....

    04/15/2010  3:10:54 PM
    respectfully agree with Mr Siegel. Dead lift and squat for spinal stability. In addition, assuming that the rowing stroke is only as strong as the weakest link in the kinetic chain, must go with Power Clean for sport specific muscle integration. Pretty much the same neuromuscular pattern as the stroke just a different plane.

    04/15/2010  1:47:03 PM
    why is the deadlift, one of the world's best back exercises, excluded from this recommendation? The same with back extensions done in a GHD or even reverse hyper extensions (which is a great exercised for low back mobility)? A bent over row is really just a variation of deadlift that is more complicated, harder to do (and teach) correctly and cant be loaded as high. Why not go straight to the simplest easiest lift?

    02/17/2011  1:54:27 PM
    The straight leg deadlift CAN be a phenomenal exercise (or variants single leg w/ or w/o a balance challenge (disc pillow). However, many people do this exercise incorrectly, if done properly the spinal muscles are in stability mode only, most work should be done by glutes/hams (knees are bent during SLDL) and NOT the back. Agreed the BOR can be a great exercise but many coaches miss the opportunity to encourage good posture and body discipline....

    04/15/2010  2:57:53 PM
    x2 on the reverse hyper (which is also good for lumbar maintenance and injury prevention) and the deadlift. I might add that a correct deadlift is relatively difficult and shouldnt be done without the proper strength and conditioning coach... I know a lot of rowers and non rowers that have herniated dics dealifting. Just my .02.

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