Number 1 workout to build a stronger back for rowing

Rowing is a sport that requires a tremendous amount of pulling strength. This means that the majority of your power will be coming from your back. In this article our sports science specialist, Dan writes about how to most efficiently build your strength to develop a stronger stroke.


The science of building stronger muscles

Before we begin looking into the actual movements, sets, and reps, let us take some time to understand the different styles of workouts that people can do and how they will change their bodies. The average Joe or Jane that walks into a gym is usually looking to lose weight (they want to lose fat) and develop a toned muscular look.

Firstly, to burn/lose fat we fundamentally need to be in a calorie deficit. This means that when you get in bed at the end of a long day you need to make sure that your body has used more calories than it has taken in. The quickest and easiest first step for most people is to get out and walk more. 10,000 steps a day will help to burn those extra calories that you need to use up to maintain that deficit. All of the diets out there have the same goal. They all want you to eat fewer calories that use.

Now to build and grow muscle you need to go through a scientific process called hypertrophy. This is where your muscle fibers are ripped apart through exercise, then rebuilt stronger, this should lead you to have more muscle than before. Hypertrophy workouts can be good for rowers, but we are not trying to put on muscle mass and overall size. We aim to become quicker, more powerful. To do this we will be doing a different style of a rowing workout.

Back workout

The workout will be split up into repetitions (reps) and sets. Repetitions are the single movements you will do ie. every time you contract your muscles. The sets are the groups of repetitions. So one movement may look like this; Lat pulldown: 3 x 8. This would mean that you would be doing the Lat pulldown movement awith 8 repetitions in one set. You would then rest for 1 minute, unless stated otherwise, then you would do another set, then rest again for 1 minute, then one more set. This is 3 sets of 6.

To ensure we help achieve elite-level strength and power we are going to use lower rep ranges during this rowing workout. This means between 3-6 reps and will help guarantee that your body is experienced enough heavy physical stimuli to mean it needs to change to meet these new requirements.


Warm up

Warming up for any activity is important. We have seen a shift in ideas since the early 2000s. Whereas maybe 20 years ago you would have run on a treadmill for 10 minutes and then stood statically doing some stretching for another 5 minutes, we now understand that warming up for a rowing workout, is best done on the rowing machine or in the rowing boat.

10 minutes of rowing at a slow but consistent pace will bring enough oxygenated blood to the muscles to prepare them for maximum effort.

1. Bent-over row

A strong pull is the foundation of any elite rower. The bent-over row and lat pull down will help to develop pulling strength to shoot you through the water. Most exercises will start with 2 warm up sets of 10 reps to get the muscles ready for 5 working sets. The working sets should be hard, and by sets 4 and 5 you may well be failing the last reps of the sets. This is good and means you are giving all you can give. Remember a stronger pull is key.

2 x 10 warm up sets

5 x 6 working sets

2. Lat pull down

2 x 10 warm up sets

5 x 6 working sets

3. Barbell squat

woman lifting barbell
Photo by Li Sun on

The Barbell squat and deadlift are the kings of any workout session and they will impact the majority of muscles in the body and kick your central nervous system into the gear that it needs. As a rower, you need to have leg and lower back power to start each stroke. The squat and deadlift will give you the stability needed to rip through the stroke using all of the required muscles. More stability equals a stronger foundation.

So how does this apply to rowing? When we break down the rowing action we have the push and pull movements. We push hard with our legs to drive us backward which starts the stroke. Then we pull with our arms and back. Now I know this article is about developing a bigger and stronger back. Well, the barbell squat requires you to use a tremendous amount of muscles in your lower back. Especially for stability, which is key in rowing.

The first and primary movement is the leg push. So this should help show us the value of the squat. The muscles worked in the barbell squat can be listed as:

  • Gluteus Maximus, Minimus, and Medius (buttocks)
  • Quadriceps (front of the thigh)
  • Hamstrings (back of the thigh)
  • Adductor (groin)
  • Hip flexors.
  • Calves.

If we can strengthen all of these muscles with one movement then that will help with our efficiency as well. Go to your gym twice a week and both times complete 5 sets of 10 reps on the squat. Repeat this training week for 6 weeks. I guarantee that after this period of training you will come out of it vastly stronger, with a greater level of power, muscular endurance, and overall strength.

2 x 10 warm up sets

5 x 6 working sets

4. Deadlift

2 x 10 warm up sets

5 x 6 working sets

Developing a bigger stronger back is only going to help you with your rowing strokes. As rowers we are not looking to just ‘get big’, but we do want to have the required muscle mass to be as powerful as possible. Size does not necessarily mean strength!

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