Tutorial Thursday #28 – Rowing

Row, row, row your boat…

Today we will take a closer look at a true classic of fitness exercises: rowing.Tutorial Thursday rowingThis basic pulling exercises is so popular for a reason. Whether it’s with a sling trainer, a barbell, dumbbell(s), a cable row, or with a rowing machine – if done correctly the exercise is really effective. Rowing incorporates many muscles: the wide back muscle (m. latissimus dorsi), erector spinae, shoulder blade muscles, and many other smaller muscles are activated, exert static efforts, and shorten themselves in order to pull the object (a barbell, your own body etc.) against a resistance.This exercise strengthens your back side and helps you keeping your spine erected. Thus, you will be able to better fixate your spine during your daily life and sporting activities. Therefore, you will be well-prepared for every heavy object that needs to be carried, pushed, and pulled.There are some differences, though, when it comes to choosing the device/equipment that you have to consider.

Rowing machine:

rowing with a rowing machineIf we talk about the most complete form of the exercise we need to look at the rowing machine. This is an ergometer on which you sit down and the resistance is created with air or water. The feet are fixed on a footboard and the seat can glide forward and backward on a rail.The most important feature of rowing on an ergometer is the fact that your full body is involved.

The correct movement:

  1. At the start of the movement the legs are almost fully stretched and the upper body is upright. Hold the handle with both hands and loose arms.
  2. Bend your legs so the seat moves closer to the footboard. The upper body is leaned slightly forward and your arms are stretched.
  3. At this point you stretched your legs and your hip, e.g. is lean back slightly, and as soon as your hands have passed your knees you bend your arms and pull the handle towards your body. The elbows are kept close to the body. The seat moves away from the footboard.
  4. It is important to make sure that your wrists don’t bend down in order to avoid joint problems.
  5. Keep your shoulders loose to avoid a stiff neck.

Suspension Trainer:

rowing with a suspension trainerSling Trainer exercises are effectively using your own bodyweight as a training resistance here. If you don’t have the necessary space and/or the wherewithal for a rowing machine, the suspension trainer is a good alternative for you. Small, handy, and very flexible. You can easily train your back muscles without a hassle.You don’t have to push from your legs with this one, and your hip is stretched the whole time, but you also incorporate the whole musculature of your body. Keeping up the body tension and holding yourself in the correct position is very challenging for your back side.

The correct form:

  1. hip-wide stand
  2. your body forms a line
  3. don’t sag with your hip
  4. your head is an extension of your spine
  5. arms are stretched
  6. move your elbows backwards close to your body (low) or wider apart in shoulder-height (high)
  7. your forearms form one line with the main rope
  8. consciously move your shoulder blades together
With suspension trainers like the aeroSling ELITE, you can additionally intensify an exercise like rowing with increased instability or side-isolation. As a little treat I have added a video about rowing with the aeroSling in which we describe the exercise pretty thoroughly (german only, sorry!).

Barbell / sandbag:

rowing with a blackPack sandbagRowing with a barbell (or a sandbag) is the third version in our list. Here, the back of your legs and your lower back are challenged more than when rowing with the aeroSling. You hold the barbell (or the sandbag) in a bend over position that resembles that of the deadlift, and pull it towards your chest. Gravity provides the resistance. It is very important to bend the upper body over as far as possible so that the direction of the movement is as horizontal as possible and takes place in the transversal plane of your upper body. It is especially the static effort and the fact that you can (theoretically) infinitely increase the training weight that make this version of rowing exercises one of the most challenging.

The correct form:

  1. shoulder-wide stand
  2. legs are slightly bend, head is an extension of your spine
  3. keep natural lumbar lordosis
  4. bend over with a straight back
  5. lift weight with stretched arms
  6. hold barbell/blackPack wide or narrow and pull towards chest
Selecting the rowing exercise is not only a question of equipment. However, you should obviously check first what options you have and what you want to include in your workouts. Consider the different priorities of each rowing variation next. The rowing with the rowing machine is primarily a cardio exercise. Rowing with a suspension trainer demands a high amount of coordination and can be easily adjusted in terms of resistance by changing your position towards the mount. Especially for beginners the suspension trainer is a good choice for rowing. Rowing with a barbell or sandbag, however, is great for classic strength training. If you have several options it can be reasonable to include different variations of rowing into your training schedule. See Variation is King for more on that. Now it is your turn. Row away! And let me know which variation is your favorite? Tell us in the comment section below!Row, row, row your boat… Get functional! Your Fabien

Author: Fabien Mpouma

Fabien is bachelor of arts sportscience (DSHS) and since his studies he is working in the sector of health- and rehabilitation sports. He was course instructor for several institutions in the field of rehabilitation and mental and physical disease. He has a lot of experience in prevention with adults, youths, and children. He worked as regional manager for Outdoor Gym and now as a Personal Trainer and Foodcoach. Since 2014 he is Manager for Training & Education and Head Coach for aerobis. In 2016 he opened his own facility for Personal- and Grouptraining in his hometown Siegburg. Stay in contact with Fabien by sending him an email

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