Experts Explain How To Get a Rower’s Body

Rowing is an increasingly popular way to train, be it on a machine or in the water.

With that, the body type of a rower or crew team member is becoming more and more desirable to fitness lovers and beginner gym-goers alike.

The appeal isn’t unexpected—this physique is not only impressive aesthetically, but its function is nothing to discredit, either.

But what is a “rower’s physique” and how can you get a body like a rower?

Rowing team on the water

To build a rower’s body or physique — lean and powerful with a well-developed back and biceps — you’ll need to develop elite performance on the rowing machine and supplement with weight training that targets the key muscles involved in rowing.

But that’s only the short answer!

I asked some personal trainers for their best tips for anyone who wants a physique like they’re on an Olympic crew or rowing team.

What Are the Hallmarks of the Rower’s Physique?

A rower’s physique is laden with muscle.

Most notably you’ll find broad shoulders and bulging biceps, though the rest of the body isn’t muscle-free either.

As rowing activates muscles all over your body, there’s mass there to prove it.

Other hallmarks include:

  • Wider-appearing hips, even in men, thanks to strong glutes
  • Toned, tough legs
  • Strong and visible back muscles

Despite these visible muscles, rowers are also quite lean — like a bodybuilder in a smaller package.

This comes down to the unique demands of rowing, as discussed by personal trainer, Sean Orlando:

“The athlete needs to be able to repeatedly generate power to propel the boat forward, and they need to be able to generate this power without excessive bodyweight.

“This leads to a beautiful combination of a lean physique with well-defined muscles.”

How a Rower’s Physique Functions

Function is just as important as looks in anyone’s body.

Broad shoulders and strong legs mean nothing if they can’t help during exercise. 

The strongest part of a rower’s body is arguably the back, which is exercised repeatedly during rowing motions.

Arms and hips also play a large part in the movement.

Both have lots of motion—the hips constantly rocking back and forth, the arms pushing and pulling.

This leads to muscles and joints that can take a lot of resistance and repetitive motion comfortably, while also being powerful. 

The muscle isn’t just for show, there needs to be endurance there as well as strength.

The joints around the muscles should be healthy too, so they can move fluidly and without pain or extreme fatigue.

10 Training Tips to Achieve a Rower’s Body

To achieve both the look and the function there are several training techniques and exercises to implement.

Dr. Jordan Duncan says:

“People who want to attain this look would train in a way that targets their back, shoulder, quadricep and gluteal muscles.”

So how exactly do you target those in a way that covets a rower’s physique?

#1. Eat Clean, Get Lean

Nobody’s saying you need to eat nothing but salads, but shedding excess weight is a start.

Rowers tend to have lots of muscle and minimal fat.

As fitness instructor Joe Johnson says, “Don’t gain too much weight in your pursuit of more muscle, because any extra fat gained ‘masks’ the muscle.”

Don’t think just because you’re lifting and working out regularly that the fat will just disappear. You’ll have to examine your diet, too.

If you’re eating calorie-dense, fried, fatty foods regularly, you might want to rethink things.

You don’t want to cancel out your gym efforts as soon as you get home with a big bucket of KFC.

Instead, look at lean proteins and healthy fats, such as:

  • Non-fried chicken
  • Lean beef
  • Eggs
  • Fatty salmon

Carbs are also a good idea if you’re trying to overload on energy, but ensure they’re valuable carbs like vegetables, or filling like potatoes and rice.

The trick is to fuel your body and performance without adding excess fat to your frame — in fact, you’ll want to lose a good bit through a daily calorie deficit to get the lean, toned rower’s body.

#2. Get Rowing

A female crew team rowing on the water

How do real rowers build their body?

By rowing, of course.

You can either join or a rowing club or try an exercise with less commitment: the rowing machine.

There are several types of rowing machines, and plenty of rowing machine pros and cons to consider before diving in.

First, choose the rowing machine you feel most comfortable on if there are several types at your gym.

If purchasing one, consider trying a few out at a gym first, or reading up on them in-depth. 

Once you’re ready to row you should start slow, in short and steady bursts.

Don’t tire yourself out quickly.

Personal trainer Sean Orlando suggests you consider interval training, as Olympic rowing events only last 5–10 minutes.

Here’s Sean’s suggestion: “five sets of 250 meters. Row at 2000 meter pace, rest.”

A 40-second rest is a solid choice for this workout.

You can get some excellent rowing machine results with regular training, and for some people, it’s enough to use this machine alone.

Eventually you’ll need to build up to elite performance levels on the rowing machine if you want to look like you’re on a crew team.

However, one of the main cons of rowing is that it’s tedious and repetitive, so check out the few next tips.

Rowing on the water is a terrific option, as well, but it’s not practical for most people on a regular basis.

#3. Supplement Your Rowing with Weight Training

Be sure to include lots of “rowing friendly” exercises to boost your performance.

That means practicing movements that emulate rowing or target the same muscles.

Instructors and trainers recommend the following exercises:

  • Dumbbell rows
  • Deadlifts
  • Bent-over barbell rows
  • Chest-supported rows, with both arms and one arm at a time
  • Kettlebell swings

Kettlebell swings are particularly helpful, given that they somewhat mimic a strong rowing motion only in an upwards trajectory.

Increasing the weight of the kettlebell is like increasing the resistance on the rowing machine.

The higher the weight and more reps you can do, the better your endurance is.

All of the exercises above can help, though, as they target your shoulders, biceps, and several key back muscles including the lats and lower traps.

#4. Work Your Back… A Lot!

Focusing on training your back on its own is vital, too.

While big compound movements like the barbell row or pull-ups will help, you may want to give the rear delt and lat pulldown machines a visit, too.

These will help you develop a strong, thick, broad back that helps rowers build strength and stamina.

Some other exercises you can use to work on your back are:

  • Pulling apart a resistance band—particularly great for training at home
  • Quadruped dumbbell row—emulates the arm’s rowing motion
  • Renegade dumbbell row—targets each side individually
  • TRX row—fantastic for upper-body strength and learning to keep your core and glutes tight

#5. Curate Core Training

Speaking of the core, what’s a strong back without a solid core to go with it?

Rowers don’t have the smallest waists or largest abs, but they do have that strong, powerful core.

This can boost your power and strength, not to mention look fantastic if aesthetics are your top priority.

Here are some simple exercises for core strength that you can do at home or at the gym:

  • Bridge
  • V-ups and V-sit
  • Plank
  • Elbow plank twists
  • Plank shoulder taps

Don’t just rely on sit ups and crunches — go for more challenging movements.

If it involves planks in any way, you can be certain it aids in core strength.

Balance and keeping a straight, rigid spine are vital. 

Another exercise you may not realize aids in core strength is squats.

So long as your feet face forward and you keep your back straight and angled vertically, you’re getting something out of it core-wise.

#6. Train Your Glutes

Speaking of squats, that’s one of the exercises that many trainers recommend for strengthening your glutes.

Your glutes are highly engaged when rowing, particularly as you slide back when using a rowing machine, so it makes sense to target these with other exercises, too. 

Any form of squat is beneficial, be it a bodyweight squat, kettlebell squat, goblet squat with or without a weight, or any variation you can think of.

This exercise can help loosen up your hips too, especially as you start getting lower with each squat, and faster with the exercise.

You can do squats at home, alongside these other glute-targeting moves:

  • Lunge
  • Side-lying clam
  • Figurehead
  • Feet-on-ball hip thrust
  • Wall sit
  • Lateral band walk

If you want to take your glute training to the gym, hit the weights.

Trap bar deadlifts, barbell hip thrusts, weighted Bulgarian split squats and more are all in the glute-training arsenal. 

(Check out what to do if you hate squats but still want powerful legs, glutes, and core muscles.)

#7. Don’t Forget Your Legs

Too many people neglect leg day at the gym, but legs are an essential part of the rower’s physique.

Whether you’re on the water or on the rowing machine, you’re going to feel some resistance in your legs, and that takes endurance to keep up.

It also builds visible muscle.

Many exercises that work for the glutes are also great for your legs, like squats and lunges. You can also try:

  • Step-ups
  • Single-leg deadlifts
  • Bridges
  • Resistance band leg presses
  • Exercise bike use

Be careful with overdoing it on the exercise bike.

A spin class every now and then or 10 minutes on the bike at the gym every other day is fine.

However, remember that cyclists have their own body type, and it’s not the one you’re trying to achieve.

#8. Vary Your Pace

Rowing comes in all different speeds, so change up your speed when on the machine.

That way you can learn to row in powerful bursts then slow down into something easier to maintain, but without a break in between.

You need to know you’ve got that power in you, as well as the ability to go slow and steady.

You can apply this tactic to every exercise you do.

Go at a comfortable pace, push yourself, then resume your previous speed.

Try this in intervals to help get your blood flowing and your strength building.

This form of training is sometimes known as interval training, or HIIT — high-intensity interval training, and it’s a highly efficient way to boost your performance.

#9. Change Up Resistance

Like with pace, rowers deal with different levels of resistance, too.

Sometimes the water is much harder to plow through.

Change the resistance on your rowing machine, use heavier weights, or use bands with more resistance.

Making an exercise tougher helps you build your strength and can help you create more endurance for easier versions of the exercise.

Never increase resistance or weight before you’re ready, though.

Start slow, build it up, then vary the resistance in your workouts to shake things up.

#10. Build Stamina Using Intervals

Not every rowing race will be the same length, and your workouts don’t have to be, either.

Work out at full intensity for five minutes, then take a 40-second break.

After your break, do another five minutes. Tomorrow try six minutes.

Over time you can incrementally increase exercise time and your overall performance.

You may only be able to handle a minute or two as a beginner, and that’s fine.

Everyone has to start somewhere, so tackle what you can handle and never stop pushing yourself.

This is similar to progressive overload in weight lifting, where you slowly add weight and/or reps over time to build strength.

Wrapping Up

To obtain a rower’s physique you not only have to train rowing, but target the key areas involved in rowing motions.

Row frequently and build your performance over time by varying pace, resistance, and workout length.

Regularly mix in weight training to build a powerful back, rock solid core, and well-developed legs.

And, of course, alter your diet to drop the extra fat from your body in order to get the lean and functional rower’s physique.

It won’t be easy and it’ll be painful at first, especially as a total beginner, but eventually, you’ll end up with that rower’s physique that you crave.

Before you go, check out:

Hope this helps!