Rowing is a popular fitness activity among all sorts of athletes, from runners to weightlifters. Stroke by stroke, athletes work to generate maximum power and endurance using the whole body. Will this complex movement help build muscle?
A couple of months ago, my CrossFit gym organized a team rowing competition. The first part was to accumulate the maximum amount of meters during 4 weeks. The second part was to complete a half marathon (21,097 meters or 13.1 miles) team relay in one session. This competition was meant to be done in addition to the regular CrossFit classes. Even if 4 weeks was not enough time to see big changes in our bodies, my gym buddies (me included) who joined the competition claimed to feel stronger, adding to that the beautiful toned arms we got!
All this made me wonder about the impact of rowing in the skeletal muscle (will rowing build muscle?), the muscles that are attached to bones and that we can control to produce movements of our body. Is it possible to increase muscle size, muscle thickness and volume through rowing?
The Sport of Rowing
Rowing is a sport normally held outdoors on the water, where athletes move forward using oars (paddles). Rowing as a sport was developed in London in the 18th century. The first competitions were races between athletes on the river Thames. By the 19th century, rowing was popular in Europe and had been exported to America.
In modern sports, rowers race against each other as individuals or in crews of two, four or eight.
The races are divided into sculling and sweep oar. Sculling races involve one boat that is manipulated by four or eight athletes. Each athlete has two oars, one in each hand. The Sweep events happen with one boat for two athletes, each athlete has only one oar held with two hands. The eight-person crews have a coxswain, who steers the boat and directs the crew, but in all other boats, one rower steers by controlling a small rudder with a foot pedal.
The boats used are racing boats, which are also called shells; they are long, narrow and semi-circular. The oars used are long (about 250-300 cm) and have a flat end which is also called the blade.
Rowing Indoors with a Rowing Machine
While there is nothing like enjoying a scenic view while rowing on the open water, this article is going to focus on indoor rowing using an air rowing machine. Air rower is one of the most popular types of indoor rowing machine. A good example of this kind of rower is a Concept2, that I’m sure you have already used at your local gym and you may feel familiar with it (at least more than a shell in open water). By understanding how a rowing machine works we are going to be able to make the connection with the muscles that are engaged and the potential effect on muscle growth and strength on those target muscles.
Air rowing machines produce resistance using air flowing over an internal flywheel. The wheel is connected by a chain to the rowing handle so when you pull the handle the flywheel spins. The faster you row, the faster the flywheel spins through the air, and so the greater the resistance.
For your muscles to build mass and strength, you need to work against an opposing force that exerts external resistance. In a real boat, this is provided by the water.
Another point is that this kind of machine allows for more control over resistance levels, giving you more control on your gains. Air rowers don’t have resistance controls that you can set manually, but they have dampers that you can use to regulate the amount of air that enters in the flywheel, which affects the resistance and the intensity of the stroke.
This machine has multiple purposes that can be used for a variety of training from low-impact workouts and low-intensity endurance development to high-intensity sprint intervals, full-body strength training, core training, and posture control.
Muscles Worked During a Rowing Machine Workout
Rowing engages all the major muscle groups of the body and works multiple joints through a large range of motion in a natural, powerful sequence in a no-impact manner. Research shows that rowing is a whole-body movement that uses 70 to 80% of your whole body’s musculature. In elite rowers, the legs produce almost half the power of the drive (46%) while the trunk around 32% and the arms 22%.
Rowing requires the coordination of many muscles at once to produce a smooth and fluid movement to achieve its benefits. Rowing works the muscles in the arms, legs, back, and core, building lean muscle, as well as toning. It builds and strengthens muscles without putting any strain on the musculoskeletal structure and helps to target muscle groups that wouldn’t normally be used in other exercises.
Rowing is an extremely demanding and technical sport. It requires complex biomechanical demands to perform the four main movements of a rowing pattern; catch, drive, finish and recovery.
Biomechanics of the rowing pattern: catch (a), drive (b), finish (c) and recovery (d).
Rowers start in a “catch” position with knees bent and arms extended. As the catch starts,the rower pulls the handle with both hands.
The drive has 3 parts, leg, body swing and arm pull. The drive starts by extending the legs, pushing the heels against the foot pads, and pulling the handle towards the upper body as the muscles of the shoulders start to contract. Peak power is generated from leg drive (hip and knee extension). Also, as the knees are reaching full extension, the hips begin to extend and back extension occurs. In the upper body, elbow flexion is also occurring. During this time, most of the muscles are contracting and there is high activation of the upper body muscles to finish the drive.
During the finish, the knees are extended while the muscles of the back and upper arms are contracting.
The recovery phase happens when the body shifts back to the starting position by allowing the arms to extend, legs and hips flex, and the ankles dorsiflexed.
Upper Body Muscles
Rowing makes your core stronger by working the neutralizer and stabilizer muscles, which are the same muscles that create balance within the body and prevent you from injuring your back when you pick up something heavy. Rowing engages the triceps, deltoids, lats and abdominal muscles all together.
Lower Body Muscles
Rowing activates your lower body muscles such as quadriceps, glutes and calf muscles. When you are in the drive of the stroke, pushing your feet off from the stretchers up until your legs are extended, you engage your legs and hip muscles. When you are finishing the stroke your hamstrings, glutes and calves contract as you slide your seat back to the starting position.
Using a Rowing Machine for Building Muscle
One of the beauties of using a rowing machine is that it gives you the benefits of both cardio workouts and strength training. Rowing is both an aerobic and anaerobic exercise. The anaerobic systems are active for quick, high-intensity bursts allowing for lower body power or explosiveness. Without this, a rower or a boat team may not be successful even if their aerobic capacity is efficient.
In general, to gain muscle size an exercise workout needs to involve resistance against movement to give your muscles and cardiovascular system a challenge. Rowing machines provide this when you pull the handle and slide back on the rail. It is a kind of resistance training which will help to strengthen your muscles.
Angela Hart, director of the Indoor Rowing Training Institute, makes a comparison between rowing and the movement of a deadlift. Angela says that in the drive (work) phase, the legs initiate the power, and arms remain straight. Then the hip flexors and torso muscles maintain the power through the leg and hip drive. Finally, the arms finish the stroke with an accelerating pull toward the torso that completes the smooth handoff of power from lower body to torso to upper body. So, while performing the drive movement we can mimic concentric and eccentric loaded positions (depth jumps and squat jumps) that can assist training the target muscle groups’ metabolic efficiency resulting in more muscle mass and strength.
Serious rowers use this information in their favor to be more efficient. They can get peak power using their body composition. Studies showed that body mass and muscle mass are the best predictor of performance for female rowers, while for male rowers the height is more significant for a better performance.
Depending on your fitness goals, if you want to gain mass and strength in a more effective way, you should combine rowing with weight training. For instance, you can do a rowing workout with a HIIT (high intensity interval training) modality by rowing for 20 seconds with high effort and then resting for 20 seconds, repeating this sequence for 10 minutes. In addition to this workout, you can structure your strength training targeting each muscle group twice per week, specially the ones that you want to increase in volume. You can work each muscle group with three to four sets of eight to twelve reps. Don’t forget to rest one to two minutes in between movements.
Technique for Rowing Machine Workouts
Rowing is a highly advanced discipline and we need proper technique to get the best out of this exercise. Even more if you are interested in increasing the ratio of muscle mass and the amount of force it can produce. Angela Hart, has published an article about rowing technique to be performed with an air rowing machine. Here is a summary.
- Begin rowing from the catch position, with shins vertical, torso angled forward from the hip to create subtle forward spinal flexion, arms fully extended with fingers curved around the handle, abdominal muscles engaged and the navel pulling back away from the thighs, and shoulders relaxed down (not hunched up), with slight scapular retraction.
- Initiate the drive with the legs, giving a quick,powerful push (kick) off the catch while maintaining the forward body angle for the first half of the drive (roughly ten to fourteen inches of the slide, but variable depending on the length of the legs). Continue pushing with the legs while opening the body angle with the strength and explosiveness of the legs and core body strength, resulting in suspension. Let your mass work to your advantage, allowing the weight of the body to combine with muscular strength and endurance to produce maximum power output.
- As your legs reach extension, finish the stroke with a powerful arm pull, accelerating the handle as you pull it away from the flywheel and back to your upper abdomen. At the end of the drive, your legs will be straight with a bit of flexion at the ankle (i.e., slightly up on the balls of your feet) to prevent hyperextension of the knee joints; your body will be angled back about thirty degrees from vertical with activated trunk muscles; and your arms will be bent with the elbows behind the torso and the handle almost touching your abs).
- Return to the catch by extending the arms and allowing the handle to pull the body into forward flexion. Flex forward at the hips, aligning the chest over the thighs, and then slide the seat up toward the feet with slow control. Overall, the recovery phase should take about twice as long as the drive phase.
Another interesting way to keep learning the proper technique is to watch the film The Novice. It’s about a college freshman girl who joins her university’s rowing team. Heads up, besides being a sports film, it’s a deep drama and psychological thriller. In the film, Coach Pete (Jonathan Cherry) keeps repeating during the workouts “legs, body, arms. Arms, body, legs” and this is the sequence you want to follow to get a fluid movement where the energy of your muscles is used efficiently. Hopefully, this mantra will follow you during your rowing exercises.
Final thought: effective hypertrophy (muscle gain) requires a balance between training, nutrition and recovery. So yes, rowing is a complete full body workout that will help you gain muscle size and build muscle strength but you need to add the other components into your exercise routine to get the best results and achieve your fitness goals.
Giuliana is a yoga instructor and Crossfitter from Peru who is currently living in Chiang Mai, Thailand with her Crossfit Coach (and husband) Tim.