What are the most important abdominal muscles to strengthen for rowing?

Rowers often spend significant time working on leg strength BUT if these large forces can not be transferred to the oar the boat does not go faster!

Rowers need a strong and stable trunk to be able to transfer forces coming from the legs and open the body from the pelvis through the drive. As the body moves backwards the muscles on the front of the trunk work very hard to ensure the spine moves with the pelvis from the mid to late phase of the drive. The forces that the trunk is required to withstand are directly related to the forces coming from the quads (leg muscles) and gluts (bottom muscles). If the abdominal wall lacks strength or endurance, spinal movement is not controlled through the drive and low back pain can be the result.

Doing core stabilising exercises for the deep layer (transversus abdominus) of the abdominals is not enough. The muscles that work hard during the mid to late drive are the rectus abdominus (6 pack muscle) and oblique muscles (on the sides of the trunk). These muscles can be strengthened in the position that they are used with a short range abdominal crunch exercise.

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Strong trunk position at the end of the drive – abdominal muscle work evident
Short range crunch exercise designed to challenge the strength of the abdominal wall

There are elements of this exercise that make it challenging for the abdominal wall;

  • Performing it on an unstable surface assists the stabilizing muscles to activate
  • Tilting the pelvis up ensures the rectus abdominus muscles is loaded at the pelvis end and reduces hip flexor activity
  • Having the fingers on the ears and elbows in line with the body loads the upper section of the rectus abdominus muscle and moves the load laterally to load the obliques
  • Performing the exercise in a slow and controlled way keeps the abdominal wall engaged (rowers should not bounce their body off the ball)

Aim for 2×20 slow and controlled reps for a good indication of strength. Building up to 5×60 slow and controlled reps trains endurance so that these muscles can be repetitively used for the duration of a race . Having good trunk control at the finish ensures the leg forces continue to be transferred to the oar.