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Is Rowing Really All Upper Body Strength?

Updated on October 3, 2014

Ask the average individual which muscles are most important when it comes to being a good rower, most folks would respond by saying the arms and back. That’s an understandable answer because non rowers who watch rowers row only get to see the upper body. They see the rower pulling and pushing the oars with their arms, while engaging their back for reach. They don’t pay attention to what happens below the abdominal area.


Differentiating the Various Rowing Sports

Most folks think of rowing as any sport where a boat is placed on a water and uses people power to move (sailing and motor boating is not included in this category). In all fairness to the non rower, it’s up to the rower to explain the differences in rowing types and techniques used to power the boat.

Often times it is assumed that a rower has above average upper body strength. After all, with all the paddling and stroking how could this not be true? Well, it’s partially true, but in a sport such as sweep rowing where the power of the stroke is in the legs, the upper body may or may not be as strong as a kayaker’s upper body whose legs are not engaged in the paddling motion.

A Brief Overview of Muscles Used in Various Rowing Strokes

Muscles Involved in Canoeing/Rowing a Boat

The nature of a canoe forces the canoer’s legs and rear end to remain stationary. The seat of a canoe is raised above the bottom of the boat enabling the canoer to sit upright similar to sitting in a chair or on a low stool. A canoer engages the abdominal, back, shoulder, arm and neck muscles. Canoeing is a great upper body workout.

Generally canoeing is done recreationally. It is estimated that at a leisurely pace a 150 pound person will burn about 240 calories an hour canoeing.


A Kayaker’s Muscles

Similar to canoeing, the kayaker’s lower body is stationary. Unlike the canoe, however, the kayaks seat rests at the bottom of the kayak. Therefore, the kayaker’s legs are straight and stretched out in front. This seated position encourages the kayaker to work on leg and lower back flexibility. Tight hamstrings and kayaking don’t go hand in hand.

The remainder of the kayaking stroke takes place in the upper body. It requires core strength. The oblique, abs, and back help the kayaker to pivot from side to side while strong arms paddle and navigate the kayak. The need to paddle both sides of the kayak encourages a full range of upper body strength.

It is estimated that a 150 pound person will burn approximately 360 calories an hour. Of course it depends on how intense the kayaking trip.

Rowing Crew
Rowing Crew

Sweep and Sculling Muscle Requirements

Unlike the above two water sports, sweep rowing and sculling engage the total body. The rower’s seat is not stationery. It sits on wheels and slides back and forth while the feet are anchored in the shoes affixed to the boat. The rower’s feet and seat rest on the same plane. When the rower pushes the seat fully back, the legs are outstretched similar to the kayaking position. When compressed, the knees come up brining the seat forward. The rower gets to utilize the leg muscles in the stroke. As a matter of fact the more powerful a rowers legs, the more powerful the stroke.

Sweep rowers and scullers also engage the core muscles and upper body in the completion of the stroke. As with kayakers and canoers, sculling or rowing crew involves the upper body and core muscles.

The major muscular difference between sweep and sculling is that sweep rowers use one oar while scullers use two.

It is estimated that a 150 pound person would burn approximately 820 calories an hour of rowing crew or sculling.



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    • dusty cake profile image

      dusty cake 5 years ago from Cork City

      i hate when people say rowing is all upper-body strength,

      when in fact it is 60-70% lower body!!

      Whenever people hear rowing they automatically think of kayaking or canoeing

      which is all upper-body. Its quite annoying.