6 Best Rowing Machine Shoulder Exercises to Do Off the Rower
Rowing is great at working a large variety of muscles in your body. It works muscles all the way from your neck to your feet, which is why so many people say it gives you a full body workout. Checkout this article at Concept 2 where they show you a lot of the muscles you use when rowing. Even though a ton of muscles get worked, there are some that don't get as much attention. This article is going to focus on the upper body and shoulder area specifically. If you are looking for information on the upper back, at the bottom of this article is a helpful video. If you are looking for some information on the lower leg, this article on shin pain and some exercises might be useful. So let's dive into the shoulder.
What Shoulder Muscles Does the Rowing Machine Work?
At different part of the rowing stroke, different muscles are used. However to keep it simple, the main muscles in the upper body that are used are your latissimus dorsi (lats), triceps, forearm muscles (wrist flexors and extensors), rhomboids, biceps, trapezius (traps), and deltoid. You can see where a majority of these muscles are on the image to the right.
When it comes to rowing, we set up our shoulders and body into good positioning by engaging our lats. Once we start gently pulling on the handle, our wrist muscles, deltoid, lats, triceps, and trapezius engage to help with the movement of the handle. Then we get to the finish part of the stroke, we add a little more back shoulder muscle use with our rhomboids, traps, and posterior (back) deltoid muscles.
It's important to remember that even though these muscles are being used, the arms only contribute to about 20% of the rowing stroke. This means that even though we are using these muscles, they aren't getting a HUGE workout like our legs are. If you are getting any aches or pains in the arms, please take a look at this article and it can help you pinpoint what might be happening.
What Shoulder Muscles Does the Rowing Machine NOT Work?
Since we talked about what muscles do get used on the rowing machine, it's important to note that it isn't a list of ALL the muscles. This means that some muscles get used in such tiny amounts that it's not super helpful to mention. But it also means that some muscles really aren't strengthening as much or at all. So what are they?
Pectoralis Major/Minor (The Pecs): These muscles are responsible for adduction, abduction ,internal rotation, flexion, protraction, and extension of the shoulder. The pec major's main functions are rotating the arm inwards, and bringing your arm in towards your body. It also assists in bringing the arm up in front of you and back behind you. The pec minor's main function is to bring the shoulder forward and rotate your arm outwards. It also brings the arm out to the side of your body.
If you think about the rowing movement, we don't really bring our arms largely into any of those positions, which means these muscles aren't used a lot. We do a tiny bit of shoulder flexion and extension, and a tiny bit if rotation, but not much if any. If your hands are super close together, you might be using these muscles more, but definitely something to look at.
Subscapularis, Infraspinatus, Supraspinatus, Teres Minor (Rotator Cuff Muscles):
Supraspinatus controls internal rotation and lifting of the arm.
Infraspinatus allows you to externally rotate your arm at the shoulder
Teres minor helps your arm rotate outwards
Subscapularis controls bringing your arm out to your side
The four muscles listed above are what make up the rotator cuff. If you are wondering if rowing strengthens the rotator cuff, keep reading. These are all small muscles, some in the front of the shoulder and some in the back. They help stabilize your shoulder with a lot of movements and are really key muscles to strengthen, especially if you are prone to shoulder injuries. The movements are similar to the pec, and therefore are movements we don't really do a lot of in rowing. Rowing neglects these muscles, but we shouldn't!
These muscles work together with one another to create a compression mechanism at the shoulder joint, allowing for optimal stability as you move your shoulder in different planes or directions of movement. If these muscles are not working with one another the right way, that is when we may have issues of pain and/or potential injury.
Serratus Anterior is a small muscle that sits on the rib cage and is responsible for bringing the shoulder blade forward. It's also responsible for helping move things for lifting your arm overhead, which is not something that happens in rowing unless you are carrying the boat, so if you only row on the machine, it's not being used much, if at all.
The serratus anterior is such an important muscle for shoulder girdle performance and health, but it's rarely strengthened in programming. If this muscle is weak or has poor control, the shoulder blade doesn't move as smoothly along the rib cage, which will often lead to winging of your shoulder blades. Other muscles also might jump in to help give support, which can contribute to shoulder injuries like impingement, rotator cuff tendinopathies, or more.
The Rhomboids are muscles that bring your shoulder blades together. We use these at the very end of the rowing stroke during the finish when our elbows are by our sides. However, we often don't use them through the full range of motion, so giving these muscles some attention off the rowing machine can be beneficial.
Is the Rowing Machine Good for Shoulder Health?
Absolutely, rowing is great at using so many body parts like mentioned earlier, but there are muscles that aren't used and are just as important, if not more important to keep strong for a happy and healthy shoulder. The muscles listed above in the muscles that aren't used section are ones to pay attention to. Since these muscles are responsible for making our shoulder do movements that aren't on the rowing machine, we need to strengthen these when we are off of the rowing machine.
What Exercises Can I do to Strengthen my Shoulder?
First, if you are having shoulder pain, please reach out to either your doctor, physical therapist, or feel free to reach out to me as well. If you are not having shoulder pain and are just looking for some strengthening exercises to compliment your rowing, keep reading. Here are 5 different shoulder exercises that will be very beneficial at getting the muscles I mentioned above that aren't used as much during rowing, nice and strong.
Here are some videos to show you both options. But the premise is that you are raising your arms overhead while keeping your forearms on the wall or foam roller. If you decide to do it with the bands, start gentle and work your way up, as it is more difficult than it seems.
For the bands, I recommend getting a pack of bands like these resistance bands. It comes with a variety of different resistances so you can combine or switch as needed.
You shoulder feel this in your shoulderblade are or around your ribs. Try not to shrug your shoulders too much and keep those forearms on the wall or the foam roller.
Rotator Cuff Exercises
Open Can Arm Lift Exercise
To do this movement, the setup will be a bit different depending on what method you choose, so checkout the videos linked in the paragraph above depending on what you are using. With bands, stand on them, dumbbells just grab them, and weight machine, get the arm as low as you can and bring it up to where you are standing with your arm(s) out a little. Keep your shoulder blades strong, elbows straight, thumbs pointing UP, raise your arms to about your shoulder/head height. If you look at your arms they aren't straight in front of you or straight out to the side, they are in between making a V in front of you. Slowly lower down to your starting point and repeat. You can hold it at the top. The first video above shows some variations and progressions you can try as well.
This video shows the banded and some variations, of it, but the second one at 28 seconds in is what we are focusing on here. If you need bands for this, something like these work great.
You should feel the outside muscles of your shoulder blade working. Try not to shrug your shoulders, lean too much, or arch backwards. Also remember to keep those elbows straight! If you need to bend them, the weight might be too much.
For the video with the weight machine, remember to lift more halfway to the side and halfway in front of you, instead of straight out to your side.
This can be done with weights or with a band. For this, grab a towel and put it between your body and your upper arm. Hold it there with the arm tight by your side. You can do this in sidelying, with the arm you want to work up towards the ceiling, or standing with a band in the door or around something. Just make sure no one is going to open the door on you. You can use the same bands mentioned above for the Open Can exercise.
Bring your arm out away from your body, keep your elbow in by your side. You should feel this in the back of your shoulder blade, not really in the arm (deltoid or bicep). If you feel it there, try decreasing the weight but also taking a break as usually once the deltoid or bicep helps with this movement, it needs some time to not help with this movement. So take a break, do something else, and come back to it with a light weight and see where you feel it.
This is the opposite of the exercise above and can be done with weights or a band as well.
Use a towel just like you do for the external rotation, except pull in towards your body instead of away from your body. Elbow tight by your side and at 90 degrees bent. This video to the side shows both the internal and external banded one. You should feel this in the back shoulder blade area and the same things as noted above in the external rotation exercise are the case for compensations if you don't feel it there.
Triceps, Pecs, and other shoulder muscles...even the serratus anterior!
I know...they might be hard, but they can be really helpful. And if you add an extra press when you are at the top, it can even work the serratus anterior muscle!
Setup for a pushup that is at the correct difficulty level for you, arms under your shoulders, slowly lower yourself down, keeping your elbows by your side to really engage those triceps too, then get as low as you can without plopping on the floor, and push yourself back up by pushing the floor away from you. At the top is the "plus" part that engages the serratus, so don't forget it!
If doing a pushup like my husband in the video is too hard, try doing it on an elevated surface like the back of a couch or a bar or counter. At 8:10 in this video I show the elevated version, but don't forget the extra push at the top. You should feel this in the front of your shoulder, arms, and back of shoulder blades even.
Here is a shoulder complex exercise that will give you a burn. I made this video for a client, so until I make a new one, hope it helps!
You will need a band like the ones for the serratus slides above. You will likely feel this in a bunch of places, but it shouldn't hurt. The video talks about how much to do and how to do it. There are a few positions your arms will go in for this exercise.
Alright I hope this helps get you started and give you something to start doing for your shoulders. Remember, if you have pain, some of these might help, but some might not be appropriate, so please follow up with a healthcare provider.
If you found this helpful, you can grab a copy here of my book, Beginner's Guide to Indoor Rowing for more info on how to adapt the rowing technique for you and common things to look for that might cue you into adaptations you might want to make to avoid getting hurt.
You can also join our community of rowers!
Please remember, this is NOT medical advice, and is a forum. If you would like medical advice, please follow up with a healthcare provider or feel free to reach out to me and we can chat on how I might be able to help or help you find someone who can.