Rowers love the core. No rower disputes the merit of having strong trunk muscles of the rectus abdominis, obliques, and muscles of the lumbar spine. The purpose of this article is not to convince you to train your core, because chances are, you already are!
First, let’s talk about spinal flexion training, with exercises such as crunches and sit-ups. Much has been written about this topic from a spine health perspective and whether or not loaded spinal flexion puts excess pressure on the intervertebral discs. From a rowing performance perspective, I don’t feel that it’s a movement all that useful, as spinal flexion is not a desired part of the stroke. There are plenty of other ways to train the trunk muscles that don’t risk excess spinal loading or train movements with limited carryover to rowing.
Here are my top four exercises to build a strong core for rowing:
#1 Full Tension Plank
The plank is a great exercise to train trunk stabilization and ingrain the motor pattern of correctly braced trunk muscles. However, many rowers turn planks into endurance tests of the spine and willpower, hanging in the plank position for minutes at a time and ingraining incorrect bracing patterns.
The full tension plank solves this, and I think you’ll find it difficult to maintain for more than 20 seconds on your first time out.
#2 Standing Pallof Press
The Pallof Press is a great exercise to train rotational trunk stability and can be done with a band or cable machine. Sweep rowing is a rotational sport and successful sweep rowers have great mobility and core stability to allow them to transfer a boatload of power from a position of full reach and compression. However, many sweep rowers only row one side of the boat and overdevelop their stroke-side trunk muscles in doing so.
If you’re a sweep rower, I predict you’ll really feel the Pallof Press on your non-stroke side abdominal muscles, as well as your glutes to maintain a straight forward body alignment. Preventative care must be taken to avoid injuries in rotational sports by developing the off-side.
#3 Lying Pallof Press
The lying version takes the lower body stability muscles out of it, allowing you to focus solely on abdominal engagement.
#4 Compound Full-Body Exercises
The purpose of the core muscles is to transfer power from your lower body to your upper body. Because of this, compound exercises are also great at training core stability. Incorporating more squats, deadlifts, overhead presses, and barbell/dumbbell rows will train your trunk muscles much more effectively than a routine consisting of isolation exercises and machines. Some specific core training is certainly necessary for rowing, but doing full body barbell and dumbbell lifts is an excellent 2-for-1 to train the core while training large muscles involved in rowing.
Putting it all together
My rowers spend the vast majority of the year doing two full-body workouts per week in the weight-room, in addition to 5-6 days on the water and 2-3 additional erg sessions. There are so many qualities to train for rowing and so much time and effort invested in the sport that I feel this is the most effective amount of weight training for almost all rowers. Weight-training sessions always begin with a full-body warmup, then move to a large compound exercise for lower body, a large compound exercise for upper body, followed by assistance work, before finishing the session with a circuit of core training and a few isolation exercises for injury prevention. If you are training in this manner, you’re getting a lot of core training through compound exercises and therefore don’t need entire workouts dedicated to core training. A fall season (head race/6k timsession from the specific preparation block might look like this:
- A. Warmup
- B. Front Squat: 3-4 sets up to a 5RM
- C. Strict Overhead Press: 4 x 8
- D1. Batwing Row: 3 x 12
- D2. DB Bench: 3 x 12
- E1. Pallof Press (both sides): 4 x 10
- E2. Full Tension Plank: 4 x 15 seconds
- E3. Face Pull: 4 x 15