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 anatomy and training, 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 for rowing.
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. Watch detailed video demonstrations of the TRX/gymnastics ring suspension trainer core exercises and my favorite core exercise for rowers, the seated rockback. These exercises offer many different variations and progressions to keep core strength training engaging and effective for rowers of all ages, types, and levels.
Table of Contents
- Core Muscle and Movement Anatomy
- Research on Core Training for Rowing
- The Seated Rockback Core Exercise
- TRX/Gymnastics Rings Suspension Trainer Exercises
- Core Training Exercises I DON’T Use with Rowers
- Summary: Core Training for Rowing
Core Muscle and Movement Anatomy
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. One coach even described the core as being “everything between the knees and elbows”!
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.
In this article, we will focus specifically on the following muscles:
- Anterior abdominals:
- Posterior trunk:
Here is a helpful video illustrating how these muscles 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 doing 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.
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 on the backside of the body work hard against the resistance of the water (or flywheel when 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. This means that there is clear differentiation and a shift between the early and middle drive phases versus the late drive phase of the stroke. The early and middle drive are characterized by high trunk extensor forces, and then the late drive phase is characterized by high trunk flexor forces. This means that relying on co-contraction exercises like planks where both posterior trunk extensor and anterior abdominal muscles are both working together at the same time is missing a crucial element of training how the core muscles actually work in rowing.
#3: The anterior 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 passes the middle drive phase and approaches the release or layback position, 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. This also means that we need to train the anterior abdominal muscles to be strong during eccentric muscle action, while they are lengthening from a position of forward trunk flexion at the catch to extension at the release. Crunches and situps emphasize the concentric action when abdominal muscles are shortening to move the trunk into flexion, so this misses the other crucial element of core training for rowing.
How to Train the Core for Rowing
The takeaways from these two studies together demonstrate why just doing general core training doesn’t necessarily improve rowing performance, reduce back pain, or prevent injuries. Core training for rowing has to be specific to the unique demands of the rowing stroke with a stable spine and mobile hips and shoulders. Rowers ideally make the spine into a “rigid lever” and achieve a stable spine without movement at the vertebrae during the drive and recovery phases of the stroke. The posterior trunk muscles of the back, glutes, and hamstrings work hardest on the early drive phase to hold the forward torso position while the legs work against the resistance of the water or flywheel. The anterior abdominal muscles of the transverse abdominis, obliques, and rectus abdominis work hardest in the late drive phase to slow the torso swing into the release, and then reverse all that momentum into the recovery phase to get the body forward.
Rowers who rely on static plank holds are training an isometric (no movement) exercise that emphasizes co-contraction of anterior and posterior trunk muscles with no movement at the hips, trunk, or shoulders. Isometric trunk movement only happens for a brief moment at the release while extracting the blade from the water, and this is only the anterior abdominal muscles working, not also co-contraction from the posterior trunk muscles. The hip joint is open, instead of flexed like in the rowing stroke. Finally, the rower is totally stable, connected with solid ground at the feet and hands, instead of in the dynamic, unstable environment of on-water rowing.
Rowers who rely on crunches, situps, twists, and other spinal flexion exercises are working the anterior abdominals, but not how these muscles actually work in the rowing stroke. These exercises emphasize the curling of the torso, with high movement at the spine, when we want the spine to be a stable, rigid lever to transfer force between hips and shoulders. This torso curling is also done concentrically, shortening to produce force, when the abdominal muscles actually primarily act eccentrically, lengthening to resist force as the rower swings from mid-drive into the release. The hip flexor muscles also tend to act highly in crunches, situps, and twists, especially if the feet are held down during the exercise, which teaches the rower to pull from the feet and use the hip flexor muscles instead of or strongly in addition to the anterior abdominal muscles. This is the exact opposite of what we want to do when rowing!
We’re missing out on greater core muscle benefits and transfer to the rowing stroke if planks and crunch variations are all the core training that we’re doing. If rowers are doing lots of core training, and yet rowers and coaches still identify errors in stroke technique as the fault of weak core muscles, and low back pain is still prevalent in rowing despite all of the core training efforts, we should question our methods rather than double-down and do even more of the same.
The seated rockback and suspension trainer exercises using a TRX or gymnastics rings are two types of exercises that better train the core muscles for the specific demands of the rowing stroke. The seated rockback is basically like the core training version of feet-out rowing, focusing on the specific action of slowing torso swing into the release and reversing it in the recovery phase with a mobile hip and stable spine. Suspension trainer exercises are more challenging plank variations that train a mobile shoulder with a stable spine. There are many variations to both of these exercises to keep core training engaging and challenging for rowers of all ages, types, and levels.
Read on below for more about each of these exercises, watch my detailed video demonstrations with voiceover explanations of what I’m thinking about and coaching, and then keep reading for core exercises I DON’T use with rowers, and how to put all of this together in your training program.
The Seated Rockback Core Exercise
The seated rockback builds the anterior abdominal muscles and general supporting torso muscles most specifically 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. I find that teaching this in the focused, stable environment of a gym helps rowers connect the fundamental physical skills with the technical skills for overall better learning than relying on on-water coaching alone. All you need to do this exercise is something you can sit on with knees at about 90 degrees and nothing stopping you from achieving the layback position.
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 on below for more, as well as more from Blake in his core training article here.
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).
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. 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
TRX/Gymnastics Rings Core Exercises
Suspension trainer exercises using a TRX or gymnastics rings are a great way to make plank variation exercises challenging and integrate the shoulder muscles into the trunk stability. Planks are fine for general core strengthening, but I prefer to use a more challenging variation on a suspension trainer than push the duration past about 45 seconds. I’ve coached athletes who can crush long sets of crunches and situps and ground-based planks for 2+ minutes really struggle to do even a 15-second ring plank, let alone more challenging variations with dynamic movement.
I demonstrate my progression in the video below from the basic ring plank to 1-arm walking, alternating walking, 1-ring stir-the-pot, 1-ring fallout, 2-ring fallout, and 2-ring stir-the-pot. You do need a TRX or gymnastics rings to do these exercises, but this is a relatively low cost, high impact piece of equipment that I highly recommend, especially for those in a homegym or boathouse gym. I also demonstrate versions of these exercises using an inflatable physioball or stability ball, if you have that but not a suspension trainer.
We can progress these in movement challenge by going from variation #1 to #7 as appropriate for the athlete. We can also progress by decreasing handle height to make each variation harder. Begin around waist-height and decrease from there to increase challenge. We can also progress through time under tension. I usually write these exercises in sets and times, like so:
- Week 1: 3 sets of 15 seconds
- Week 2: 4 sets of 12 seconds
- Week 3: 3 sets of 20 seconds
- Week 4: 4 sets of 15 seconds
- Week 5: 15 seconds, 20 seconds, 30 seconds
- Week 6: 4 sets of 20 seconds
- Week 7: 3 sets of 30 seconds
The triple progression system of handle height, exercise variation, and time under tension offers plenty to work with to keep suspension trainer exercises challenging and effective for rowers of all levels. Train with good technique, and terminate the set if spinal movement creeps into the exercise via flexion (rounding) or extension (arching), or if the shoulder start to shrug up and shift the load into the upper trapezius muscles.
Another key is to breathe deeply into the low abdominals. I find that a lot of rowers hold their breath during abdominal training or breathe shallowly into the chest. This is a lose-lose problem. First, we do an aerobic sport, so we definitely don’t want to race with breath-holding, and therefore we don’t want to train that way either. Second, breath-holding reduces engagement of the core muscles that we actually do use during rowing and erging. Holding the breath while training teaches the rower to lock everything together to create stability, and fails to develop stability without locking everything together. We then have no stability when we try to go to the performance environment where things cannot be locked together.
Core Training Exercises I DON’T Use with Rowers
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. The Nordic hamstring curl and glute-ham raise are also good exercises to train the back as part of the hip extension unit with the glutes and hamstrings together.
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.
Summary: Core Training for Rowing
Here is 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. If rowers are doing lots of core training and yet still having low back pain and problems in stroke technique attributed to weak core muscles, we should question and improve our core training methods instead of just doing more core training.
- Research on erging indicates that the posterior trunk muscles of the hip and 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 reversing position into the recovery. There is minimal co-contraction of anterior and posterior core muscles together at any point during the drive. The nuances of how these muscles work together in the rowing stroke matters for how we should train the core muscles for rowing.
- The goal of core training for rowing is to simulate the demands of the rowing stroke with a stable spine and mobile hips and shoulders through concentric (shortening), eccentric (lengthening), and isometric (no movement) muscle actions as they occur in the stroke.
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 “20-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 of training time and energy with 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 transferring power usually between the feet at the ground and an implement at the shoulders or hands. Rowing is a full-body sport with a long range-of-motion, so 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, YWT raises or kneeling rear shoulder raise for the shoulder muscles; lateral and rotational hip exercises for the glute/hip muscles; seated rockback or TRX/gym ring core exercises.
We may select one or two core exercises per session 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. If you have 20-30 minutes for general strength and movement training, rather than spend all of it on abdominal core exercises, branch out into the hip, shoulder, single-leg exercises, and beyond using a 30-30-for-30 kind of circuit design.
Last updated November 2023.