Top 3 Back Exercises for Dragon Boat (Plus: Free Back Workout)

The back muscles are critical players in a stroke and thus a huge target of dryland training. We often get the questions like: 

“What are the best back exercises we can do?”

“Where should we focus our efforts?”

Without further ado, we’ve compiled the Top 3 Back Exercises to make you the best paddler you can be.

[Read until the end for a FREE back workout]

1) KB High Bench Row

This exercise is a fantastic way to strengthen the upper back; an area which often gets over looked in training. This exercise improves posture and promotes balance around the shoulder joint, helping you stay injury free.

The KB and DB variations are preferable to the barbell high bench row because they allow a greater range of motion, forcing the back muscles to work harder while maintaining mobility in the shoulders. Using the high bench also limits the amount of cheating that can occur.

Many other rowing variations are easier to cheat on; you lean back too much, use too much momentum or compensate with other body parts, ultimately redirecting the focus away from the upper back.

What you need:

– High Bench (preferable) or an adjustable incline bench

– Kettlebells  or dumbbells


How to perform:

How to implement?

The KB high bench row is normally used an accessory lift. We use this variation with a rep range between 8-25 reps and use anywhere from 3-6 sets. Upper back tends to respond to higher reps and higher volume.

2) Deadstop Single Arm Dumbbell Row (Deadstop SA DB Row)

Probably the most unconventional of the three back exercises, the Deadstop SA DB Row can be a powerful tool in your dryland arsenal. The deadstop variation improves the force you can generate from a static position.

How does this apply to you?

Well, I’m not aware of any race where you start moving. The boat always starts static and it’s up to you to bring it up to speed. The Deadstop SA DB Row will help you achieve more force in your starting strokes allowing you to reach max velocity faster so you can win the big prize.

Due to the unilateral nature of dragon boat, the single arm is preferable to any bi-lateral (both sided) rows because it emphasizes symmetry between limbs. Balance is important when you want to stay healthy and strong for the entire season.

What you need:

– Adjustable or flat bench

– Kettlebells or dumbbells


How to perform:

How to implement?

The single arm deadstop row is normally used an accessory lift with an emphasis on power development. We use this variation with a rep range between 5-15 reps per side and use anywhere from 3-6 sets. We like to keep the reps a little lower because we want the focus to be on accelerating the weight off the ground rather than induce fatigue associated with higher rep ranges.

3) Pull-ups

Many people have touted and the pull-up is the king of upper body exercises. Now we don’t like to claim one exercise does it all, but the pull-up does rank pretty high up on the scale of upper body exercises.

The pull-up effectively trains all the back muscles involved in paddling and if you could only do one back exercise, this would be an excellent choice. It also requires minimal equipment and can be done almost anywhere making it the most versatile exercise on this list.

The pull-up is also a great indicator of performance, optimal body composition and strength to weight ratio. Our general guidelines for the pull-up are, men should be able to perform ten plus, and women should be able to perform at least three pull-ups.

If you aren’t at those levels yet, don’t worry it’s something you can work towards. Either you need to build some more strength, or drop some extra bodyweight. Both will help you on your quest to be a better dragon boat athlete.

What you need:

– A bar


How to perform:

How to implement?

The pull-up can be used as your main strength exercise or assistant work. We use anywhere from 1-15 reps and 2-10 sets with our athletes. The ranges are so large because there are numerous ways to implement the pull-ups. They can be done with additional weight, at bodyweight or use bands to assist you if you aren’t as proficient.

Putting it all together here is what a sample pulling day might look like.

Sample Back Workout

Pullups 4×5 + 1 AMRAP (as many reps as possible) @ Bodyweight
Deadstop SA DB Row 4×8/side
KB High Bench Row 4×15

 Hopefully this shines some light on effective pulling exercises for paddlers. These aren’t the only variations, but ones we consider will give you the biggest bang for your buck.

Stay tuned for next week’s Top 3 upper body PUSHING exercises for dragon boat!


[grwebform url=”” css=”on”/]


Join the Conversation over on Facebook