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Easy Rowing Machine Back Workout for Beginners from an Expert Rower

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Easy rowing machine back workouts for Beginners

It’s a fact that rowing machines offer a total body workout. When using proper technique, the majority of the benefits go to your legs, back muscles, and abs, as the muscles of the arms and forearms are only there to offer support and draw in at the finish.

With proper posture and technique, rowers should expect to use 60% legs, 30% back, and 10% arms when rowing.

In this article, I’m going to discuss proper technique for making the most of the rowing machine, especially focusing on getting a good workout for your back muscles. We will also take a look at a few CrossFit-style workouts that are really going to get you sore!  Side Note:  For more details watch our simple videos on correct rowing machine techniques for beginners to help you improve your rowing form.

How an Efficient Technique Provides a Full Body Workout

Max Secunda showing rowing back workout
Max Secunda showing a rowing back workout

An efficient technique on the rowing machine gives approximately 86% of your muscles the muscle tension they require to strengthen and grow – a really full body workout!

Muscles Used When Performing a Rowing Stroke

Let’s consider the different phases of a rowing stroke and see which muscles are engaged, assuming you perform each phase correctly.

At the catch, you are using your core, lats, legs, and arms. Pressing away from the catch with your legs and hanging on your lats and arms allow you to build tension and give your legs something to press against. As you hit the legs straight position (keeping your body and arms forward), the back muscles begin their work!

During the body swing phase, you’ll be using the erector spinae muscles, along with your glutes and hips. The erector spinae muscles help to provide stability and acceleration to the handle.

After the body has swung, the lats and muscle groups of the mid and upper back squeeze to draw the arms in. Much like how you’d perform a barbell row in the weights room – the shoulder blades retract and draw together, allowing the trapezius muscles, lats, and other smaller muscles do their pulling work.

On the recovery, most of the back muscles relax, as the trunk and midsection do their work to rock forwards and start sliding back towards the catch. Although relaxed, there’s still work for them to do in providing the torso with stability and balance – this is especially true in a boat and on the water where rowers are likely to be bounced about!

Setting Up the Rowing Machine to Work Your Back

Max Secunda setting up for a back rowing machine workout
Max Secunda setting up for a back rowing machine workout

Most of the workouts that I’ve written about are going to make your back stronger – this is a by-product of rowing, being a resistance training exercise!

This said, however, there are a few things that we can do with our setup on the rowing machine to really make sure that we’re getting a good back workout.

Reducing the Drag Factor

First of all, we can adjust the resistance of the machine (often referred to as drag factor). Lowering the drag factor is typically a brilliant way to force beginners into using proper rowing technique – to see good splits you have to drive with your legs and use proper rowing form!

Max Secunda demonstrating a back workout on an indoor rowing machine
Max Secunda demonstrating a back workout on an indoor rowing machine

This means that you’ll be forced into driving the stroke through your legs and maintaining the lean forward in the upper body. Consequentially, you’ll be using your back much more efficiently as you pull the handle through to the chest.

With low resistance on the rowing machine, you can do long pieces of steady state and really get a good workout. Steady state is when you work at a low stroke rate and a low intensity for a long period of time – typically 40 minutes plus (taking breaks every 20 minutes or so).

Increasing the Resistance

Conversely, we can also raise the resistance of the machine, but I would not recommend doing this for long periods as it can put too much stress on the lower back.

When working with high resistance on a rowing machine, consider doing a power-based workout – for example, 100m sprints or power strokes. These are going to give your whole body a really good workout, particularly your back muscle groups as you’re drawing in to the finish.

A benefit of all types of rowing workout is that they’re great for burning calories – and helping to burn away pounds of fat! In this video. I burnt approximately 16 pounds and thousands of calories from doing a lot of rowing and monitoring what I was eating over the course of a few weeks!

Rowing Machine Workouts for the Back

Before doing any of these workouts, please ensure that you take the time to learn proper rowing technique. Never attempt these workouts without knowing what you’re doing on the rowing machine – that’s a recipe for injury.

These workouts are going to help you build strength to your back muscles in particular, so we need to be sure that we’re not applying too much stress to them from poor form along with the hard workouts.

Also, take the time to consider your position on the rowing machine. Do you need to adjust your feet? Do you need to sit on a towel or seat pad to help you hinge forward from your hips? These are just a few considerations – make sure you can sit comfortably on the rowing machine so you can maintain good posture throughout the rowing stroke.

Max Secunda stretching by his Hydrow Rower
Stretching Before Working Out on a Rowing Machine

It is also important to warm up fully before you start rowing. If you just jump in and start rowing on cold muscles, you’re massively increasing your chance of injury. And since rowing is a full-body workout, you’re putting a lot of muscles at risk!

Consider yourself adequately warned, so please take heed of all the precautions.

Now here are some rowing machine workouts that will be good for your back.

Steady State Workouts

As mentioned above, low intensity and low rate (18-20 spm) rowing machine workouts offer a total body workout. Dropping the drag factor to a much lower than usual resistance will force you into contracting muscles harder and firmer to maintain a good split.

Below are some suggested steady state workouts for beginners:

  • 3 x 10 minutes at 18-20 spm, 1 minute rest
  • 4 x 12:30 minutes at 18 spm, 1:30 minutes rest
  • 2 x 20 minutes at 18-20 spm, 1:30 minutes – (Start doing this workout once you’ve built up some mental strength from the shorter ones, then gradually add sets until you’re comfortable to steady state for an hour and beyond).

Power Work

Sprints

Sprints
  • 10 x 100m (absolutely flat out)
  • 1 minute rest

This workout is going to force you to contract all your muscles as hard as you can. Aim for a very high stroke rate (40+) and consider using a shorter slide length than usual (1/2-1/4 slide is common in 100m sprints).

Although it’s only 100m, you’ll find that this will make you a much stronger rower and also help you understand the swinging and squeezing part of the stroke.

It’s also going to be surprisingly hard on your lungs – as you’ll rack up a big oxygen debt during the 100m that you then have to quickly deal with during the rest. As always, properly warm up before this workout!

Power Strokes

Power Strokes
  • 10 x 1 minute (strict rate 20), 1 minute rest

This is quite a simple workout but a very effective and tough one at the same time. The aim is to smash out 20 strokes as hard as you physically can, then rest for a minute, and go again. By the end of this rowing workout, you’ll find that your entire body is feeling it.

The benefit for your back muscles is that you’re going to be pulling through as hard as you can with your upper body and upper back – which is really going to help your back develop more strength.

The technique you’ll inevitably end up using whilst doing this is going to hyper-exaggerate what you should be doing with your back in general rowing. People typically end up leaning back farther than they usually do to try to increase their stroke length.

This is also another sneaky cardio workout – your lungs are really going to be feeling it after about the 4th interval!

CrossFit-Style Workouts

Philippines Rowing Team performing cross fit style workouts

CrossFit often looks to the rowing machine and rowing workouts for full body workout benefits. For a change, I’m going to borrow from the cross fitters!

Some of these workouts will require a few pieces of gym equipment, but I’ll also write one that uses bodyweight so that you’ll still be able to stimulate the muscle growth without the need for a gym membership!

Sprint Pyramid

This is going to be a circuit that attacks your upper body, mainly focusing on the back, but we’ll also throw in a bit of lower body work just for the challenge! Make sure you really push it in the ergo sprints – they’re meant to be hard!

You can do all these exercises at home, with the only equipment required being a pull-up bar or somewhere to do pull-ups from.

SET #
Sprint Pyramid
SET 1
  • 100m ergo sprint
  • 1 minute of negative pull-ups (by this I mean jumping up to a pull-up bar and slowly lowering your body)
  • 1 minute rest – use this time to set up rowing machine screen for the next round
SET 2
  • 200m ergo sprint
  • 1 minute of burpees
  • 1 minute rest
SET 3
  • 300m ergo sprint (really push it!)
  • 1 minute bodyweight rows
  • 1 minute rest
SET 4
  • 200m ergo sprint
  • 1 minute push-ups
  • 1 minute rest
Set 5
  • 100m ergo sprint
  • 1 minute squat jumps
END

Grind Ramp

This is going to be a full-on back attack along with a cardio smash! Be prepared to be clinging on by the end. Use appropriate weight in the exercises so that you’re not putting yourself at risk of injury.

The exercises are fairly simple, but be sure to get the basics right – maintain good form both with the weightlifting and the rowing!

This workout is going to be really good for burning calories as you’re going to be hitting the cardio as well as the weights! I’d be expecting to burn an absolute tonne of calories – so enjoy all the benefits that this workout provides!

SET #
Grind Ramp
SET 1
  • 750m ergo sprint
  • 10 barbell rows (remember to maintain a good posture when doing this exercise)
  • 10 push-ups (use a weight if required to make it harder)
  • 10 pull-ups (aim to be at ‘failure’ by the 10th rep – use a weight or a resistance band if you require)
  • 1 minute rest – use this time to set up the rowing machine screen and adjust weight on bars as required
SET 2
  • 500m ergo sprint
  • 10 barbell rows
  • 10 push-ups
  • 10 pull-ups
  • 1 minute rest – use this time to set up the rowing machine screen and adjust weight on bars as required
SET 3
  • 250m ergo sprint
  • 10 barbell rows
  • 10 push-ups
  • 10 pull-ups
  • 1 minute rest – use this time to set up the rowing machine screen and adjust weight on bars as required

I’m sure you’ll find these workouts useful in strengthening your back muscles. Just remember to do a proper warm-up and use the correct posture and technique in rowing, and you’re half-way there!