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Why Rowing May be a Lot Better for You than Static Exercise Machines

Some biomechanical experts now think that today’s high-tech resistance machines are not only inefficient at improving muscle function, but they may actually increase the risk of long-term injuries and movement dysfunction.

Benefits of Resistance Training

There is virtually no doubting the benefits of resistance training – it can boost muscle mass (which improves body composition), increase flexibility and sports performance, and simultaneously give the psychological and physical benefits associated with exercise generally. However when we look back and see the changes in resistance training which have occurred over the last fifty years or so, we see some remarkable changes. Virtually all resistance training used to be performed using free weights – now a very high proportion is performed on static machines which isolate a particular body segment, and often a single muscle group. 

With increasing technology and ever lower manufacturing costs, the sophistication of the machines has accelerated at a rate only equalled by the increasing acceptance of this form of resistance training. Over the past 15 years, most gyms have come to rely almost exclusively on these machines for most resistance training.  

With an increasing “blame culture” and the Nanny State mentality the risks of free weights have led to their relegation to smaller and smaller corners of the average gym.

 

The Problem With Static Machines

So what? If machines can isolate a group and strengthen it isn’t that good? The problem is that the human body – and especially the human brain – have evolved over millions of years to perform complex movements, marked by highly complex natural sequences of muscle recruitment which share the load over as many joints as possible. Our muscles operate as teams, not as individuals. Every muscle makes its contribution, operating at optimal length, tension and orientation. Lift a bag, lift a free weight, climb over a fence – all these movements require your brain to process a vast array of information and send the right impulses to millions of motor units (small groups of muscle fibres each controlled by a single nerve ending). Contrast this with the situation on a resistance machine where every movement is restricted to a pre-determined axis and plane.

 

Restricted Movements and Pattern Overload

Our natural desire to share load across as many joints and muscles as possible is restricted in virtually all static exercise machines, even if the handles or footplates are mobile. And of course the crucial element of balance is missing entirely. Every time you perform a movement, the exercise follows the exact same path – in a free system, the path will vary on virtually every repetition. Research has clearly established that the nervous system actually rotates the motor units used as fatigue sets in – a process known as Asynchronous Stimulation. It is an essential adaptation enabling the conservation of energy and helps avoid unwanted overload in particular tissues. 

Free or 3-dimensional exercises enable load-sharing and asynchronous stimulation – fixed exercises machines at best restrict them and at worst almost eliminate them. In the case of a machine chest press, the same units will fire at the same point regardless of fatigue. The lack of asynchronous stimulation means the units most suited in the superimposed pattern will fatigue much earlier than when performing the same exercise with free weights. If this movement pattern is repeated often enough, the result is “pattern overload”, effectively RSI (repetitive strain injury) for athletes.

 

Rowing – the Most Complex Exercise?

Rowing in a boat, or rowing on a Rowperfect rowing simulator, represent perhaps the most complex exercise possible. Not only is the movement extremely complex in terms of the load - which is spread between the soles of the feet on the footstretchers and the hands gripping the handles and involves nearly every muscle in the entire body – but the entire movement is conducted in an unstable environment. So now added layers of complexity – requiring balance and dynamic interaction with a moving mass – have been added to an already complex skill set. When performed at maximal intensity, rowing is arguably the most complex of movements – certainly the most complex common resistance exercise – uni-cycling might be considered somewhat more complex, but it has yet to gain widespread popularity! 

Operating in an unstable environment crucially tends to involve excellent activation of the abdominal and spinal stabilising muscles – the core stabilisers we hear so much about today. Why are the core stabilisers so important? Clearly, it is this group which enables us to absorb or transfer energy or force between the feet/ legs and the hands/arms (remember - spreading the load over as many joints as possible….) while keeping the information processor (a.k.a. the brain) as safe and stable as possible – in summary, the core muscles tend to be working when we are avoiding pattern overload. 

The one thing which has restricted the more widespread adoption of rowing has been the difficulty of learning to row and perhaps the inaccessibility of suitable water. On-water rowing requires relatively long stretches of protected water – which may be difficult to access or require very early training sessions, and good weather. Until the development of the Rowperfect, the physics of a dynamic rowing boat were only accessible if you put a single scull on water and climbed in. The Rowperfect thus represents an historic moment in the development of indoor exercise – the physics of real rowing available on dry land. As we have discussed above the benefits of rowing for the whole body are exceptional – now they are truly easy to access. Whether you want the benefits of rowing for general health, or to improve your performance in any sport requiring balance, coordination, rhythm, strength or endurance, it is now truly easy to “get in a boat”!

 

As the Water Rat said in The Wind in the Willows: 

“There is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as messing about in boats.” 

And in exercise terms at least, it seems he was pretty close to the mark.

 

A Few Qualifiers

Although extraordinarily complex, rowing is not a complete exercise in and of itself. The leg adductors and abductors are certainly not used a lot in rowing, and the arm extensors and chest muscles are used to a lesser extent than the arm flexors and back muscles. So even if rowing is your passion, the very least you should ensure is that you exercise your leg ab- and adductors with some scissor-kick type exercises, and do some bench-press, dumbbell press or push-ups, as well as the standard rule of all exercise – Work on your Flexibility!

 

Summary

As part of a balanced exercise program, rowing in a dynamic environment is certainly one of the best methods to develop your body and your mind toward their ultimate capabilities. With the development of the Rowperfect, it became a whole lot easier to try.

 

Acknowledgement

The first part of this discussion is based on an article by Andrew Hamilton BSc Hons MRSC, published in Ultrafit Magazine Issue 86

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