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Row Your Way to Health

Did you know that rowing has been a competitive sport for hundreds of years (and an official Olympic event since the modern Games began)?

At lower intensity levels, rowing is a great training tool. As long as rowing form is correct and efficient, people of all ages, sizes and abilities will enjoy better cardiovascular and muscular function from rowing regularly. Rowing can strengthen your aerobic system, making it easier to take care of kids, work around the house, use the stairs at work and race from one meeting to the next without running out of breath.

The rowing ergometer (affectionately called the “erg” in the rowing community) is like any fitness machine: If you use it properly, there is little risk of injury. Jacque Crockford, MS, CSCS, ACE-certified personal trainer and exercise physiology content manager at ACE, explains how.

Basic Biomechanics

The biomechanics of rowing are pretty simple—the activity uses just about every body part! In fact, research has shown that we use approximately 70% of our muscle mass while rowing (Steinacker 1993; Ogurkowska, Kawałek, & Zygmańska 2015; Hagerman 2010), so forget the notion that rowing is all upper body. Beginning at the ankles and going all the way to the wrists and fingers, nearly every joint in our body goes through some degree of flexion and/or extension.

The lower body, specifically the quadriceps group, does a tremendous amount of work on the “drive” phase of the stroke (as the rower pushes away from the foot stretchers). The upper body and back are engaged just at the end of the stroke. The hamstrings are also very important during the recovery phase of the stroke, as they work to apply the brakes, or eccentrically slow the body, when needed to allow a controlled recovery up the slide. Core stability can also improve through rowing. While core musculature maintains trunk position as the hips swing open and closed, force transfers through the feet, increasing stroke power and saving the lower back from injury.

Proper Rowing Form

Use these suggestions to row safely:

  • Sit tall at the “catch,” with arms straight, spine erect, knees bent and ankles dorsiflexed. Engage the lats to set the shoulders, and recruit the core muscles to protect the lower back.
  • “Drive” by pushing with the legs first, maintaining engagement in the trunk. When the legs are fully extended, hinge open at the hips and lean the trunk back at approximately 45 degrees—backward from 90 degrees seated upright (Ogurkowska, Kawałek, & Zygmańska 2015). Last, pull with the arms, bringing the handle into the trunk between the bellybutton and the nipples (exactly where will depend on trunk and arm lengths).
  • To “recover,” allow the arms to extend first; hinge at the hips, bringing the trunk over the legs; then return to the catch by bending the knees last.


If you have a pre-existing condition such as a lower-back injury, consult a doctor or physical therapist before adding rowing to your exercise routine. Rowing places additional load on areas of the lumbar spine (Ogurkowska, Kawałek, & Zygmanska 2015).

Here are some of the major mistakes to watch out for when using a rowing ergometer:

  • not engaging the core while pushing with the legs, which creates a “shooting” of the hips
  • allowing the back to round and shoulders to slump forward, which places undue stress on the lower back and shoulders
  • allowing the knees to bend first on the recovery instead of letting the body swing back over the legs, which causes a timing issue for the tension chain


Hagerman, F.C. 2010. An update of rowing physiology. Department of Biomedical Sciences, Ohio University. Accessed Nov. 10, 2016: http://archive.usrowing.org/docs/default-source/resource-library/8A-6.pdf.

Ogurkowska, M., Kawa┼éek, K, & Zygma┼äska, M. 2015. Biomechanical characteristics of rowing. Trends in Sports Sciences, 2 (22), 61–69.

Steinacker, J.M. 1993. Physiological aspects of training in rowing. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 14 (Suppl. 1), S3–S10.


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