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Comparison of Different Rowing Exercises: Trunk Muscle Activation and Lumbar Spine Motion, Load, and Stiffness

Fenwick, Chad M J; Brown, Stephen H M; McGill, Stuart M

The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research: March 2009 - Volume 23 - Issue 2 - p 350-358
doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181942019
Original Research

Fenwick, CMJ, Brown, SHM, and McGill, SM. Comparison of different rowing exercises: trunk muscle activation and lumbar spine motion, load, and stiffness. J Strength Cond Res 23(2): 350-358, 2009-The objective of this study was to investigate 3 different rowing exercises and quantify the muscle activation of the torso and the hip musculature, together with the corresponding spinal loading and stiffness. Seven healthy men from a university population were instrumented to obtain surface electromyography of selected trunk and hip muscles and to obtain spine position using an electromagnetic spine position sensor, together with video analysis to calculate joint moments. The 3 rowing exercises investigated were the inverted row, standing bent-over row, and standing 1-armed cable row. The inverted row elicited the highest activation of the latissimus dorsi muscles, upper-back, and hip extensor muscles. The lower activation of the lumbar erector spinae muscles during the inverted row corresponded to the lower spine load measured. The standing bent-over row produced large activation symmetrically across the back, but it produced the largest lumbar spine load. The 1-armed cable row challenged the torsional capabilities of the trunk musculature. Some core exercises may be better for rehabilitation (e.g., having the training goals of modest muscle activation with low spine load), whereas other exercises may be better for athletic training (e.g., resulting in higher muscle activation and larger spine load). When prescribing core exercises, those wishing to spare the low back may choose the inverted row, given the lowest spine load exercise. The standing bent-over row elicited large muscle activation symmetrically from the upper to lower back; it induced larger spine loads but also, not surprisingly, the highest spine stiffness. If torsional endurance or strength is the training goal, the 1-armed cable row might be considered.

Spine Biomechanics Laboratories, Faculty of Applied Health Sciences, Department of Kinesiology, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Canada

Address correspondence to Stuart M. McGill,

© 2009 National Strength and Conditioning Association