How to get a back and shoulders like an Olympic rower

How to get a back and shoulders like an Olympic rower

Most rowers have huge backs. Each and every muscle trained to propel a boat down the river in a constant, linear, back-and-forth movement. It also looks pretty good with a shirt on top. The owner of a particularly impressive back is James Cracknell. Sitting next to the double-Olympic champion in a golf buggy as we tour the grounds of Chewton Glen as part of his Fitter Stronger fitness weekend, we ask how we can get ours to look like his – strong, functional with a classic V-shaped torso that begins with a pair of wide shoulders and ends in a narrow waist. Here’s how to do it.

Part one: cardiovascular

  • Five 500-metre rows (two minutes rest between)

Part two: strength

  • Five sets, eight repetitions of lat pull-downs
  • Five sets, ten reptitiions of bent-over rows
  • Five sets, 12 repetitions of single-arm rows

Building Your Back

James says, “Too many people rely on the arms when rowing. In reality your legs and back physiologically represent the strongest points in your kinetic chain.” For those who missed this physics lesson at school, your “kinetic chain” relates to how well your muscles and joints work together in harmony. Or to use its official definition created by Dr Arthur Steindler, one of the early pioneers of this theory, it’s “a combination of several successively arranged joints constituting a complex motor unit.”

For rowing, the National Strength & Conditioning Association Journal states, “The stroke is a coordinated muscle action that requires repetitive, maximum, yet smooth application of force” which can be achieved by, “Breaking the stroke up into the follow sequence:”

  • Catch The muscles of the spine are relaxed. This allows you to bend at the trunk and reach as far forward as possible during “the catch”.
  • Leg Drive The muscles in the legs are the most powerful in the kinetic chain. Therefore each stroke should begin with a powerful “leg drive”.
  • Body Drive As the legs become fully extended continue the movement’s momentum. Drive with the entire body. Hinging at the hip and fully extending the back as part of the “body drive”.
  • Arm Drive Only once all other aspects of an efficient rowing stroke have been completed should you finish the movement with an arm drive. The biceps represent a very small muscle group during this entire movement. This is why each stroke should finish with an “arm drive”. Too many people begin the movement with this.

Underestimate the importance of rowing kinesiology at your peril. Minutes into my workout my arms were on fire, it felt like I was rowing in lactic acid and I was in desperate need of a pre-workout. James said, “Drive with the legs. Think big movements”. I was glad he did, since that’s where my second lesson began.

Better technique, better back

Bad technique means you won’t build a better back.

Simple. This, again, is based on research from the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research that wanted to test, “Muscle activation in a six-minute simulated race.”

Taking eleven healthy, well-trained subjects – and using electromyography to test muscle activation – they found muscles in the spine (erector spinae) arms (biceps brachii) back (latissimus dorsi) and legs (gluteus maximus) were all efficiently trained when using correct technique.

Bad technique will only train the arms

James says, “Rowing is a lot like gymnastics. They’re sports that require many muscles to work cohesively to achieve a desired outcome. A well-rounded physique is often just a pleasant bi-product of good technique.”

Row yourself more muscle

In an attempt to build a better back most people venture to a commercial gym and jump onto the nearest machine that contains the word “back” in its description. They then avoid cardio like the plague in fear it will eat into their hard earned muscle. But this isn’t strictly true. It’s an old gym wives tale. The human body is far more complex than that and James is living proof.

He says, “Once the cardiovascular foundations are laid with long sessions mix this up with some shorter anaerobic (sprinting) workouts. It will hurt a bit more but are merciful in their brevity. Added to the heart and lungs work, resistance and flexibility training are key. Weight training and yoga can keep the body healthy, strong and ready for action.”

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