Rowers love “the core,” but what exactly is the purpose of this muscle group in rowing performance and how can we train it most effectively for faster times, better technique, and reduced risk of injuries? The purpose of this article is not to convince you to do core training for rowing, because you probably already are! Instead, we’ll discuss some key features of core training for rowing, explore some relevant rowing research, and I hope to introduce you to a few exercises beyond planks and crunches to add to your core training exercise bank.

Key Points: “The core” includes more than just the “six-pack” rectus abdominis muscle and core training for rowing should include movements for the other abdominal muscles and the posterior trunk muscles around the lumbar spine. Static plank holds are fine for an entry point into basic strength training, but the core muscles do not act statically in the rowing stroke. Rowers need to progress to exercises involving more movement at the extremities and hips with a stable spine for core strength to carry over to improved performance and reduced risk of injuries. The seated rockback exercise is my favorite direct core exercise for rowers, offering many different variations and progressions to keep core strength training engaging and effective.

Table of Contents

core training for rowing

The Anatomy: Muscles and Movements

Let’s get familiar with our core muscle anatomy before moving into the specific features of core training for rowing performance. 

If you want to start an argument at a coaching convention, ask the group what their definition of “the core” is. Some people will immediately ridicule you for not using their preferred nomenclature of “the trunk,” “midsection,” or “abdomen.” There seems to be a general consensus that we need to think of “the core” as including both anterior and posterior muscles of at least the lower torso area. Some coaches may include all muscles that interact with the lower abdomen and spine, including the hip and mid-back muscles. I’ve heard that a certain popular rowing strength coach includes “everything between the knees and elbows” in his definition of this elusive muscle group.

Personally, I consider the trunk flexor muscles (referred to from here as “the abdominals”) and the trunk extensor muscles (or “posterior trunk”) to be “the core.” I think it’s a stretch to include the glute or the scapular muscles in this definition, because that seems close to the “knees-to-elbows” definition which then encompasses 85% of the muscles in the human body and makes for difficult discussion.

We will focus specifically on the muscles of the:

Here is a helpful video illustrating these muscles and how they work together to create torso stability when standing. In the next section, we will discuss how these muscles work together to create torso stability and movement when rowing. There are notable differences compared to standing or performing other activities, which shapes our core training practices for rowing.

Research on Core Training for Rowing

Rower, physical therapist, and contributing author of the World Rowing Low Back Pain Pathway Dr. Fiona Wilson (2008, with co-authors Gissane, Gormley, and Simms) studied 20 international-level rowers (12 male, 8 female) to better understand injury risks and factors for rowing injuries. It’s commonly held that core strength is important to protect rowers’ backs, but Dr. Wilson and co-authors found that time spent performing core stability training was significantly correlated with injuries. (The most significant predictor was monthly time on ergs, with time spent lifting heavy weights as the third highest correlation.) Correlation isn’t causation, but this study at least informs us that simply spending time on general core training does not inherently protect backs or reduce risk of injury in rowers.

Pollock et al. (2009) wanted to better understand core muscle function in the rowing stroke. Nine rowers from the Canadian National Team did a full 2km test on Concept2 ergs with video analysis and surface EMG readings to quantify muscle actions of the abdominal muscles of the transverse abdominis/internal obliques, external obliques, and rectus abdominis, as well as the posterior trunk muscles of the lumbar and thoracic spinal erectors, the latissimus dorsi (aka “lats”), the gluteus maximus, and the biceps femoris (hamstring). Remember, “the core” isn’t just the anterior abdominals, and to understand muscle function we need to look at all the muscles working to stabilize and move the torso.

The researchers found very high activity of the posterior trunk muscles in the early drive phase with very little activity in the anterior core muscles, then a clear differentiation in the late drive phase where the anterior core muscle activity was highest and the posterior trunk muscles were minimally active. I’ve included the researchers’ depiction of the EMG findings below, as well as some illustrations of me on the erg showing when muscle activity is highest.

From: Pollock, C., Jenkyn, T., Jones, I., Ivanova, T., & Garland, J. (2009). Electromyography and kinematics of the trunk during rowing in elite female rowers. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 41(3)

core training for rowing patterns

There are three key points from this study to understand core muscle function in the rowing stroke.

#1: The early drive phase is characterized by high activity of the trunk extensor muscles (spinal erectors, gluteus maximus, and hamstrings). These muscles are working against the resistance of the water (or flywheel, on the erg) to stabilize the torso and transmit force to move the rower. From the video movement analysis, they observed that the rowers maintained a relatively fixed spinal position during this time, using the spine as a “rigid lever” on which the legs can transfer forces to the handle of the erg or oar.

#2: There is minimal co-contraction between posterior trunk extensor and anterior abdominal muscles at any point in the stroke. The early and mid drive phases of the stroke are characterized by high trunk extensor forces, and then the late drive phase is characterized by high trunk flexor forces, with a clear differentiation between the two phases of high activity. This blows a hole in the “all planks, all the time” practice for rowing of relying on exercises that involve very high co-contraction of anterior and posterior muscles.

#3: The abdominal muscles are most active in the late drive phase. The researchers propose that the primary function of the abdominal muscles in rowing is to act as a “braking mechanism” during the late drive phase, slowing the torso swing as the rower approaches layback and then reversing torso direction into the recovery. If the abdominal muscles didn’t exist here, torso momentum from the early drive phase would simply knock the rower over backwards during the late drive phase.

Core Training for Rowing Exercise Progression

With a clearer understanding of core muscle demands in the rowing stroke, we can now discuss best practices for core training for rowing. I reviewed the Pollock et. al (2009) article in a 2020 issue of Science of Rowing, when fellow rowing strength coaches Blake Gourley, Joe DeLeo, and I started that publication. We developed a categorization system and general progression of core training for rowing based on research findings and our personal experience training rowers at all levels of the sport. You can watch the demonstration video below, and then read on for details on the exercises and progression.

I think of these more as categories for exercise selection than strict stage-based progression. Beginner rowers (or those beginning strength training) will typically do more exercises from the early stage to build up basic muscular strength and coordination in the torso muscles, but I’ll also use the seated rockback or erg stick plank as a teaching tool performed at low fatigue. Movement quality is the priority at all times. If the athlete cannot maintain good spinal stability, we reduce the sets, reps, or time of the exercise or pick a less challenging exercise. Advanced athletes will do more of the stage two and stage three exercises, but I keep the full-tension plank in my full-body warmup for each session and think there is great value in maintaining the movements of the curl-up and side planks for abdominal muscle coordination.

The big thing for me is that I observe a lot of rowers “stuck” on planks and spinal flexion exercises and lacking imagination or instruction for what else is out there to challenge the core muscles, and in many cases, challenge the core muscles more effectively for rowing. I want to see rowers using a greater variety of core exercises that challenge torso stability from different directions and with different emphasis on certain movements and muscles.

Stage One: Stable Torso

  • McGill Curl-Up: Learn basics of abdominal flexion with minimal compensation from hip or neck flexors
  • Side Plank: From knees or from feet to develop frontal plane stability and deep supporting muscles of the trunk and hips, especially the quadratus lumborum
  • Full-Tension Front Plank: Use the abdominal and posterior hip and trunk muscles to create full-body stability in a simplified, isometric setting

Stage Two: Stable Torso with Movement at Hands/Feet

  • Bird Dog: Build your torso brace into the rest of the full-body system with movement at the foot and hand.
  • Dead Bug Variations: Torso bracing with movement
  • Plank Roll: Torso bracing with movement, including both sagittal and frontal plane stability.
  • Side Plank with Row: Frontal plane stability for the torso with added movement challenge
  • Stability Ball Rollout: From knees or standing to get rotational movement around a stable torso
  • Ring/TRX Walks: Unilateral movement around a stable torso
  • Ring/TRX Stir-the-Pot: Challenging variation of the stability ball stir-the-pot

Stage Three: Stable Torso with Hip Movement

  • Erg Stick Plank: Dial in the torso strength and specific demands of each major position of the rowing stroke, with contribution from the latissimus dorsi as well as the anterior abdominal muscles and posterior trunk muscles
  • Seated Rockback: Work the back end of the stroke rhythm with firm heel pressure to minimize contribution from hip flexors. I regularly coach rowers who are very strong in terms of plank times and crunch variation reps, but who still struggle with rowing technique errors commonly diagnosed as “poor core strength” and are challenged by even the most basic seated rockback variation. Read on for more about this exercise below, including a detailed tutorial video on all the different variations and progressions.

The Best Core Exercise for Rowers: The Seated Rockback

The seated rockback is my favorite exercise for core training for rowing to build the anterior trunk (abdominal) muscles and general supporting torso muscles in a manner specific to the rowing stroke technique. I coach this as an on-land version of feet-out rowing, emphasizing contact between the floor (or footplate), an upright posture, and using the abdominal muscles, not the hip flexor muscles, to control the movement of the trunk.

The emphasis of this exercise is control of the back-end of the stroke, training the trunk muscles in their role as a braking mechanism to slow the body swing from mid-drive into the release, and then reversing that movement into the body-forward recovery position. The seated rockback is especially valuable for rowers who struggle with feet-out rowing, or with sitting too upright or slumping at the release position.

Key technique points:

  • Actively push the feet into the floor during the entire exercise. This reduces contribution from the hip flexor muscles and focuses the exercise on the abdominal muscles. I will walk around with a PVC pipe when coaching and lightly push sideways on rowers’ feet to make sure there is firm contact.
  • Sit at the front edge of the seat and rock back only as far as you can control with an upright torso posture and foot contact with the floor. Your layback position should be similar in the rockback exercise, on the erg, and in the boat.
  • Breathe normally throughout the exercise. It’s tempting to hold your breath to create more torso stability, but this won’t help us in the aerobic sport of rowing. Breathe deeply during layback holds, and then try to use a 1-to-1 breathing pattern similar to rowing in the moving rockback: exhale on the rock-back (drive) and inhale on the rock-forward (recovery).

seated rockback rowing core training exercise errors. keep an upright torso, the ribs down, sit at the front edge of the seat, breathe low, and maintain heel pressure.There are a number of layers to this exercise, which makes a great challenge progression in stability, load, and movement. All stages offer benefit, so don’t be in a rush. Watch my demonstration video below for all of these variations, and remember the key technique points. Increasing load and movement challenge is only beneficial with good technique. Adding load or challenge with poor technique is getting worse, not better.

  • Progression #1 (Stability): Seated on an erg with PVC pipes, then without PVC pipes, then on a bench or box, then on a stability ball
  • Progression #2 (Load): PVC pipes, hands-in-front, hands-behind-head, hands-overhead, add load
  • Progression #3 (Movement): Hold with PVC pipes, hold at layback, slow tempo rock, rock to a faster rate
  • Progression #4 (Time Under Tension): 3-4 sets of 10, then 15, then 20, then 25, then 30 seconds of output using whatever variation you choose from the above
  • Additional Variations: Side-loaded “suitcase” position, side-loaded “rack” position, side-loaded with resistance band

I got together with my friend and fellow rowing strength coach Blake Gourley to produce “The Ultimate Seated Rockback Tutorial” video. It’s 13 minutes of all of the different progressions and variations that we use in our coaching with voiceover explanation of key features. Check it out below and read more from Blake in his core training article.

Core Training Exercises I DON’T Use with Rowers

I like to use a variety of core exercises, but there are a few popular exercises that I do not use with rowers. These exercises are not necessarily inherently bad, but fail to train the core muscles in a rowing-specific manner and/or expose rowers’ spines to increased risk of injury. We must always consider spine health as a primary factor in core training for rowing, not just effectiveness of the exercise in isolation or for a general population. The lumbar spine is the most commonly injured area in rowers and is the most frequent cause of missed rowing time. Some exercises that may be fine for non-rowers may simply be too much stress on the spinal structures when considered in the context of the rest of rowing training.

Crunches, sit-ups, and the fallaciously named “scullers,” are first on my do-not-use list. Spinal flexion (rounding and extending) is an anti-goal for rowing, with multiple rowing researchers noting the role of excessive spinal flexion and extension in low back pain (one, two, three). Pollock et al. of the 2009 EMG trunk muscle study from earlier in this article noted that their national team rowers were skilled at making their spine a “rigid lever” on which to transfer force from the lower body to the handle, and that any spinal flexion and extension during the drive decreases force transfer to the handle.

Direct spinal extension exercises like “Supermans” or back hyperextensions expose the rower to excess stress and strain on the spinal structures and have low utility compared to other more full-body movements. Remember, we do not want the spine to flex and extend on its own when rowing, so I don’t think we need to train and load that isolated movement on-land either. Use hinging exercises instead to train the posterior trunk muscles as part of the full-body athletic system.

I also do not use torso twisting or side-bending exercises with rowers, such as “Russian twists,” side crunches, or standing side bends holding a weight. These exercises also fail to train the core muscles in a rowing-specific manner, and, like the spinal flexion exercises, also expose the spine to potentially injurious forces. We can do better by building frontal plane stability without excess movement at the spine (see side plank and variations), reducing injury risks and improving specificity to rowing, a sport without an active lateral flexion element.

The ab wheel is an exercise that I only use when I know I can coach it closely. It is a hard exercise to do correctly and an easy exercise to do incorrectly, and I have found that rowers often push this exercise far beyond the range of good technique and controllable movement for the sake of getting more reps. Many rowers also do not have the build or mobility to get into a good overhead position with the small handle width of the average ab wheel. Watch my video below for a demonstration of good technique, major errors, and how to modify the exercise for easier starting points.

How to Train the Core for Rowing

A quick summary of the key points bringing us to the conclusion of this article:

  • “The core” includes more than just the “six-pack” rectus abdominis muscle, and should also include the transverse and obliques abdominal muscles, as well as the posterior trunk muscles of the spinal erectors and quadratus lumborum (with maybe the glutes included as well, depending on how broad the definition is).
  • Research on rowing injuries indicates that simply spending time on core training does not protect rowers from injury or reduce back pain, and can even increase it.
  • Research on erging indicates that the posterior core muscles of the hip and lower back stabilize the torso and transmit force during the early drive phase, while the anterior core muscles of the abdominals act as a braking mechanism on torso swing during the late drive phase and into the recovery. There is minimal co-contraction of anterior and posterior core muscles at any point during the drive.
  • Core training for rowing should include exercises with movement at the extremities and/or hips in order to more closely simulate the unique demands of the rowing stroke with a mobile hip and stable spine.

The core muscles, even using our broader definition including the abdominals and posterior trunk extensors, mostly exist to stabilize the torso and transfer power from the footplate to the handle. The posterior trunk extensor muscles of the hip and back transmit some of their own force too, but for the most part, the role of the core is to create the “rigid lever” to effectively transfer force from the footplate to the handle.

Emphasizing core muscle development without greater focus on the power-producing muscles of the lower body and upper body is building a great transfer system for not a lot of power. I think the “30-minute core circuit” is one of the most overrated elements of popular rowing training for this reason. What good is having a super strong core to transfer power if we aren’t generating much power from our lower body to begin with?

I typically spend no more than ten minutes on direct core muscle training in a standard 60-75-minute strength training session for rowers. This seems a proportionate amount to the other training demands, uses of strength training, and caution around excessive spinal loading with rowers. Consider that “the core” is also working to stabilize the trunk during all of our other full-body strength training exercises. Rowing is a full-body sport with a long range-of-motion. It makes little sense to me that rowers would use a lot of single-joint, isolation, or machine-based exercises in strength training when the sport is the exact opposite. My strength training priority for rowers is learning how to move their body to generate and transmit force through effective biomechanical positions, and this goes for core training as well.

You can find sample programs throughout my website (start here with “The Basics of Strength Training for Rowing”), all employing a general session template of:

  • Full-body warmup
  • 1-2 “main work” exercises: full-body exercises performed with heavier weights for moderate sets and fewer reps and an emphasis on generating force
    • Example: overhead press, squat variation, deadlift or hinge lift variation.
  • 3-4 “assistance work” exercises: upper or lower body exercises performed with moderate weights for fewer sets and higher reps and an emphasis on muscular development
    • Example: horizontal pressing, row or pulldown exercises, single-leg squats, smaller hinge lifts like pull-throughs and glute-ham raises.
  • 2-4 additional exercises: specific exercises for the shoulders, glutes or hips, and core muscles
    • Example: band/cable pull-apart, face-pull, or YWT raises for the shoulder muscles, mini band walks, clamshells, or side-lying abductions for the glute/hip muscles, any core exercises from the above list.

We may select one or two exercises per session from that final category for direct core muscle training. Again, remember that we’re already training the core muscles as part of the full-body athletic system as we flex, extend, and stabilize the torso through all of our other bodyweight and free-weight strength training exercises.

Last updated January 2023.

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  1. Thanks for this. Apologies if it is somewhere, but having read your book and allot of articles, i fail to see any mention of the weights invovled for the “Assistance” D-E work loads. I’m assuming weight of the bar, maybe + 20kg at most? Or are they inline with the hypertrophy/strength/power type goals at the time?

    1. Hi Christopher,

      Thanks for buying my book! Assistance work weights will entirely depend on the individual, the goals of the exercise like you mentioned, and the individual exercise itself. In general, I would shoot for the final 1-2 reps of each set to be difficult, but doable, staying away from failure. If the last 1-2 reps of your first set aren’t difficult, raise the weight a bit for your next set.

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