Rowing Machine Exercise for a Person with Cerebral Palsy

Classified as a Type 7 (CP7) Hemiplegic




David L. Debertin




I am 62 years old, and hold a doctorate from Purdue University. I have been a college professor (agricultural economics) at the University of Kentucky for about 35 years. At a very early age, I was diagnosed as having a mild form of Cerebral Palsy that affected movement in my arm and leg on one (in my case, the left) side. Technically I suspect that I would be categorized as a category 7 (CP7 Hemiplegic). I am directing this article primarily to others who have a similar mild form of Cerebral Palsy, with a particular focus on those of you who are affected both arm and leg but only on one side.


How Will You Know if you are a Category 7 (CP7) Hemiplegic?


These points are based on my own experiences:

  1. As an adult, live independently without assistance of others
  2. Drives
  3. No learning sight, hearing or speech problems
  4. Can walk without crutches, braces or supports
  5. Can run, but probably never ran a footrace
  6. Long walks can become tiring and result in soreness in affected leg
  7. Probably learned to ride a bicycle but a little shaky on this one—not the preferred mode of transportation
  8. Perhaps swim though poorly, and usually on the back not breast stroke. Weakness in affected side makes this tricky
  9. Limited fine motor control in left hand. No piano playing, but other instruments requiring limited fine motor movement in left hand (I played trombone in the HS band. For a left side hemiplegic, trumpets work well too, as would baritone horns as none of these require left-hand finger dexterity. If your right side is affected, the instrument of choice is the French horn)
  10. Outsized Achilles tendon in affected leg that tightens. Probably had surgery on Achilles tendon in affected leg as a teen, perhaps younger. This is relatively simple and useful surgery, although your leg will be in a cast for several weeks as the lengthened tendon knits itself back together
  11.  On the affected side
    1. Affected leg smaller than on the other side, and perhaps a little shorter
    2. Affected arm smaller than on the other side
    3. Affected shoulder/upper body—smaller and weaker appearing than unaffected side
    4. Fine motor skills in affected hand not good. This rules out doing some things with that hand but not others. For example playing piano with two hands is all but impossible, and rules out two-handed musical instruments such as clarinet, violin, guitar and saxophone.


In the remainder of this article I want to specifically focus on exercise programs and other ideas for category 7 hemiplegics, as specified above.


Rowing Machine Exercise


Perhaps the biggest problem faced by a category 7 hemiplegic is not the inability to do certain things that one would like to do, such as becoming proficient at swimming or playing the piano, but rather that the hemiplegia announces to the world that something is wrong. Obviously, for the hemiplegic, the gait is less than perfect, and favors the affected side. Perhaps even more important is that one’s appearance is lop-sided.


The rowing machine exercise will not resolve all of these problems, but it is helpful in coping with some of them. The exercise focuses on building strength in the upper body and especially the shoulders. To the extent that one shoulder is smaller than the other, rowing should help to rebuild the weaker of the two sides, while strengthening the stronger side.


One of the nice things about rowing is that it is generally seen as an aerobic exercise, like running or bicycling, but as will be seen below, there are muscle building benefits as well. Category 7 hemiplegics are frequently fairly limited in the amount of running or bicycling that they can do, but the rowing exercise can be pursued for as much time as you want to. Further, unlike other exercises it is easy on the feet, knees and other joints.




Starting off, shoot for spending 15 or 20 minutes of time on the rowing machine, gradually working up to longer times. Generally currently I go in 30 minute sets with at least 15 minutes between sets, but have been known to do as much as a total of 2 ˝ hours during a single day. That much effort exhausts the muscles, but other than that there is little if any pain. Blood vessels in the arms and legs get bigger with the exercise.  Adjust the resistance of the “oars” (arms, handles) to provide comfortable resistance for your weakest arm. Remember, you do not want to overgrow arm and shoulders on the other side, as this will just make your shoulders still appear to be uneven.


Rowing machines can be tough on the lower back. The trick here is to always keep your lower back vertical while rowing, and in particular do NOT try to pull the handles of the machine using the muscles of your lower back. If you do this, your lower back will quickly inform you of the error you made. When rowing, I light to use a lighter weight weightlifting belt around my waist and lower back. This supports my lower back a little, as well as acting as a constant reminder to use good form.


You can either bend your arms while pulling back or pull back keeping your arms straight. These are actually slightly different exercises, and you can alternate the two within a single rowing lesson.


Basic Benefits


Generally you should notice that your weaker arm is strengthening, and the flexibility in your shoulder as well as the ability to raise your arm above your head is improving. Your front pectoral and chest muscles are increasing in size, as are the muscles that cap the shoulders. Gradually your lateral chest muscles improve to the point of giving you a more nearly triangular shape. Do not expect any improvement in the fine motor movement in your affected hand, however. Take note, however, that after a sufficient amount of time on the rowing machine, the overall strength of your upper body will be significantly improved.


A common problem for type 7 hemiplegics is that the Achilles tendon overgrows and tightens. There is generally a strap on the footpads of the rowing machine which means that your foot will be held in place. Rowing back and forth stretches the affected foot and tends to loosen the Achilles tendon. Generally the size (diameter) of the affected leg is smaller than the unaffected leg. The rowing machine is helpful in increasing the size of the affected leg while strengthening it.


Expect to see growth in the leg muscles in both affected and unaffected legs, particularly thin the muscles along the outside of each leg.


Other “Fringe” Benefits


Whether or not you have CP, rowing machines do a better job of peeling weight off the waistline than practically any other form of exercise. If you are particularly interested in trimming weight off your waistline this is an excellent exercise.


Expect improvements in your entire internal cardiovascular system leading to improved blood flow.


For men, at least men my age, this improvement includes the entire system of blood vessels supporting the entire male plumbing system. I have noticed a significant improvement here, and suspect that this might work as well for many other guys about my age. Some studies document a link between exercise, muscle building and libido, the connection here being that in the process of re-growing after exercise, damaged muscle tends to generate testosterone as a consequence of the rebuilding process and I have observed this effect first-hand.


I continue to do a lot of rowing while watching movies etc and also some lifting on my weightlifting machine. My left shoulder is still smaller than my right, but I think I continue to see some improvement. Here is a recent photo taken at age 63 and one taken a few weeks ago. I keep wearing out the wheels on my rowing machine seat about every 6 months. I stay a pretty steady 150 lbs. I turned 67 in November, 2010.


Finding a Rowing Machine


Twenty years ago it was common to be able to find rowing machines in sporting goods and discount stores along side the stationary bicycles and treadmills. Now they are more difficult to find, but can still be obtained from on-line vendors.

My current machine is the Stamina 1205, a basic unit with ball bearing seat wheels manufactured by Stamina Products There are larger units, some with tilted seat tracks and air resistance, but to me these machines are unnecessarily complex, bulking and often expensive. The Stamina 1205 retails for under $200, and a quick Google search with uncover any number of on-line vendors.



---David L. Debertin