Lower-Mid Back Strength Conditioning for Rowing Performance

May 16, 2012

Coach Kaehler MSPT, CSCS

Column Editor:

By Bob Blaisdell


The sport of rowing inherently places great stresses on the entire body and being conditioned to such stresses can mean the difference between rowing all season or simply recovering on the injured list. Conditioning for the rowing movement is essential for injury prevention, maintenance of fitness level and peak performance in competition. The rowing sequence is broken into four phases- the catch, the drive, the finish, and recovery. During each phase of the rowing sequence the lower- mid back and resulting musculature play a pivotal role in the transfer of power from the legs to the oar in the water. Optimally, there would be no loss of power but the structure of the human body is not designed for flawless operation in such a sequenced motion. We can, however, lessen the gap by conditioning these areas that may be weakened, inflexible, or suffering from an imbalance. Though there are numerous modalities to train for this rigorous sport, this article will discuss the biomechanics involving the lower-mid back during the rowing sequence, pathology of injury to this area, structure and function of optimal spine stiffness necessary for peak performance as well as two strength exercises to elicit such gains.

The biomechanics, specifically involving the lower-mid back, during the rowing sequence was best described by Thomas Mazzone, MD. He observed that during the catch phase the erector spinae are relaxed, with trunk flexion occurring via the abdominals. The drive phase has primary leg emphasis with stabilizing muscles supporting, body swing completed from back extension and contraction of the erector spinae group. During the drive phase the latissimus dorsi and erector spinae group are highly active and are continually contracted through the finish phase. The upper arms are internally rotated by contracting the latissimus dorsi. The recovery phase involves the abdominals flexing the torso.

When examining how injury occurs to the area, we can look at the structure of the spine. The anatomy of the vertebrae is that each is separated by an intervertebral disc connected by a facet joint and the annular ligament. The facet joint allows flexion and extension of the joint but restricts rotational movement in the lumbar spine region. Muscles run parallel to the spine and attach to each vertebra, holding the spine erect. During the catch phase and initiation of the drive there is a large amount of tensile and rotational stress placed upon the lumbar spine. The subsequent stress resulting from this repetitive motion can cause injury for many rowers. This stress is exacerbated by a farther reach, placing increased stress on the front edge of the intervertebral discs and therefore locking the facet joints more so, forcing the muscles to work harder to keep the torso erect and limiting rotation further. Clearly, maximal spine stiffness and strength is needed for peak performance and injury prevention. In regards to rowing performance and injury prevention, spine stiffness is optimal. This equates to coordinated (balanced) muscle contraction and the ability of the spine to retain its original shape under increasing loads. Spine stiffness is synonymous with spine stability, which is paramount in rowing.

When choosing strength conditioning exercises best suited to increase spine stiffness and low-mid back musculature for rowing, two exercises may immediately come to mind- the bench pull and the standing bent over row. The bench pull can be described as being performed while lying prone on a raised bench, a barbell underneath and the individual pulling the bar up towards the underside of the bench in a rowing fashion. This exercise is a common strength training modality among rowers but may not be as beneficial as was once thought for optimal performance, which will be discussed further. The bent over row can be described as being performed while standing, bent forward with a neutral spine, a barbell hanging in the individuals hands, and lifting the bar towards the torso in a rowing fashion. A recent article examining the comparison of different rowing exercises for trunk activation and spine stiffness by Fenwick, Brown, and McGill reports that individuals with higher muscle activation had a better “safety-margin” in terms of spine stability than those with lower muscle activation. Training goals should be taken into consideration when choosing between the exercises; those who are rehabilitating an injury or in a decreased training phase should be interested in modest muscle activation with low spine loads, while those with peak performance aspirations should strive for exercises with highest muscle activation and largest spine loads. The bench pull retains neutral spine angles and allows the body to be supported by the bench to which the individual is lying prone. This exercise, when studied through electromyography, was shown to elicit higher activation of the latissimus dorsi, upper back, and hip extensor muscles than the standing bent over row. It also elicited low activation of the lumbar erector spinae group, due to the support of the bench. The standing bent over row did produce high muscle activation, though it was less activation of the latissimus dorsi, upper back, and hip extensor than a bench pull style exercise, and symmetrical activation across the upper and lower back. The standing bent over row also elicited the largest spine load and subsequent stiffness. The standing bent over row creates a large external moment arm when the barbell is being held and the thoracic and lumber spine must synchronously act to correct this, therefore resulting in increased muscle stiffness that will stabilize the spine. One drawback to the bench pull is that is produces asymmetrical loads and higher muscle activation in the upper back musculature versus the lumbar spine, this imbalance has been shown to be present in those with a history of low back pain. It can be an effective exercise for those rehabilitating injury or still developing in their training, but it seems contraindicated for anyone interested in peak performance in rowing. The standing bent over row is a slightly more complex exercise that can be learned easily and elicits balanced muscle activation throughout the back and promotes optimal spine stiffness and stability needed for increasing rowing performance.

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Comparison of Different Rowing Exercises: Trunk Muscle Activation and Lumbar Spine Motion, Load, and Stiffness. Fenwick, Chad MJ; Brown, Stephen HM; McGill, Stuart M. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 23(5):1408-1417, August 2009.

Kinesiology of the Rowing Stroke. Thomas Mazzone, MD. NSCA Journal. Volume 10, November 2, 1988.

Sport-Specific Conditioning to Prevent Injuries in Rowing. Allen, Kristen; Jones, Margaret T. Strength and Conditioning Journal. February 1998.

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