Specialized Strength training for Rowers
Rowing presents a training dilema. It is a “Power – Endurance sport”. In general, successful rowers are tall, well muscled athletes. They just don’t look like the typical ectomorphic marathoner. So, perhaps those of us who are not so hefty look at this and ask, “If I focused on lifting weights much more and gained a lot of muscle mass and strength, would I become a faster rower?”
Does absolute muscular strength matter for the rower? Absolutely. A rower must have OPTIMAL strength in every rowing muscle such that there is no speciifc weakness that diminishes technique. So, will the rower with the best squat or seated row strength in the weight room (MAXIMAL STRENGTH) automatically be the best in the boat (or even on the ergometer)? Absolutely NOT. Bigger and stronger is not necessarily better (faster over 1000 meters +)
However, the question of weight training for the rower is more complicated than that.
Most rowing programs around the world incorporate a structured strength program of some type into the overall training program. However, the relative volume of these programs varies considerably, and some of the most successful rowing programs do almost no weightroom based strength training. Even within one country’s national team, these differences are evident. The very successful Men’s sweep team in the US employs a very basic 3 day per week 30 minute program. The very successful Women’s team trains on weights for two hour sessions twice per week. The far less successful US men’s sculling team has often invested even more time in weight training, up to 40% of training volume. The back grounds of the different US national team coaches helps to explain the difference. My experience has been that Soviet/Eastern European trained coaches invest a great deal of training volume in weight training. The traditional Eastern European approach seems to be, “when the athlete can perform 200 squats in the weight room with a heavy load, then they will be ready to tackle the 200+ hard strokes of a race.” In my opinion, this has proven to be an ineffective training philosophy that is based on a poor understanding of the physiological limitations of performance. Athletes who perform well in this environment do so inspite of the excessive weight training, not because of it. For many athletes injury and breakdown (along with too little water time) are the result. Perhaps one reason for this approach is that the background of many Eastern European trainers is Olympic weightlifting. We often see the highly ballistic Olympic lifts advocated by these coaches, despite the fact that the force-time sequencing of the rowing stroke is much different in character than an Olympic lift. If a rower rowed like he performs a power clean, the boat would moving haltingly and slowly at best, despite tremendous exertion and accelerated fatigue by the rowers.
As best as I can tell, the training and the rowing stroke must conform with known physiology coupled with good biomechanics. My current perspective on the wieght training issue is that the very best strength training for rowing happens in the boat or on the erg while rowing!
When you look around and see the popularity of weight training in the fitness industry and its devoted application by almost all professional sports teams, it is easy to assume that lots of weight training will help your rowing. When we consider weight training as a component of our overall program, we have to understand what the goals of the weight training really are. Here are some educated questions to ask. Will weight training improve my VO2 max , lactate threshold, or rowing economy? Will weight room increases in strength automatically transfer to improved force production at the oar? Can weight training detract from rowing performance?
Here is my slant on this issue. I base it on research, observation and personal experience. I am sure there will be some who disagree with my views, and I welcome your comments. The performance limitations in rowing do not reside at the level of total muscle mass and maximal strength. By now you guys know that. Laboratory research has demonstrated it. Indirectly we see it is true by the lack of correlation among national team candidates between anaerobic capacity (500m ) and 2k or 6k erg score. Second, Strength is HIGHLY movement specific. Therefore, even if being stronger can make you faster, much of the weight training that is done in weight rooms across the rowing world does not transfer to the boat. In effect, these programs do not improve the functional strength of the rower in the boat. In general, it seems that the process of rowing itself is the best specific strength training for the rower. So, is it possible to create muscular overload that exceeds the normal rowing stroke during rowing? Yes. The suggestions I will make below are both from my own experience and from some good coaches. I offer them for your own inspection. What you will see with every exercise I recommend is that they are highy specific to rowing, both in terms of muscles used AND in terms of the pattern of force production. They also often directly incorporate elements of good rowing technique.
Besides direct performance enhancement, there are other reasons to employ a basic strength training program that make sense. One reason is to maintain muscular balance and reduce the risk of overuse injuries. Another is aimed at the over 55 crowd in whom muscle mass tends to diminish independent of endurance exercise training. Strength training can greatly reduce this muscle atrophy that accompanies aging. It is important to recognize that the volume of training necessary to accomplish these goals is not very great. Remember, we should not let our weight training prevent us from that which is most critical to maintaining/improving rowing performance, namely rowing!
General Strength Preparation for the New Rower
Weight Room Exercises
If you are a new rower who has come into the sport after a good endurance background in cycling or running, you may be initially frustrated by 1) technical problems, and 2) specific muscular weaknesses. that prevent you from really being able to “empty the tanks” while rowing. These two problems are in many ways interelated. Bad technicue leads to premature fatigue of certain muscle parts. For example, if the leg drive is ineffective due to late blade entry and “missing water”, the arms will prematurely fatigue as you attempt to accelerate the boat late in the drive. Conversely, if you have insufficient strength in the lower back (spinal extensors), maintaining a strong connection through the catch and mid-drive will be impossible.
Here are four good exercises for the beginning rower that address specific elements of the rowing stroke.
- 1. Close stance, high bar squatsThis is a normal back squat, with attention to two specific technique issues. First, place the feet at less than shoulder width, preferably the same width as in the boat. Second, place the bar at the base of the neck (muscleheads call this the “high bar” position), not in a “low bar” powerlifting position. This high placement helps to ensure that you maintain an upright body position when you come out of the bottom of the squat.The depth of the squat should be emphasised. I found that full, narrow stance sqauts were a good exercise because they allowed me to focus on an important component of the stroke in the weight room, unencombered by other technical elements. That is the importance of a strong early engagement of the hips and quads at the deepest point of the catch, while maintaining a firm back.Use a weight you can manage for 10 repetitions. The load need not be so great that you are “stalling” on the way up. We want to gain strength and motor coordination that has some resemblance to activities and force characteristics during the rowing stroke. In other words, squatting a moderate weight with good movement speed is more specific to rowing then doing very heavy squats that have you moving at a snail’s pace.
- 2. One legged SquatsThis exercise is both very practical and very effective at curing several ills. Strength with balance is the mantra of the rower, and these exercises are a reasonable weight room simulation. Find a high bench and stand on it so that one leg dangles over the outside edge. The bench needs to be high enough that your foot doesn’t touch when your other leg is in a parallel or lower squat position. At first you probably should have something to secure your balance in front of you, like a wall. Now, lower yourself slowly into the squat position and stand up. At first, you may find that you can’t go down under control to a thighs parallel posiiton, but stay with it. Eventually, shoot for 3 sets of 10 to 15 repetitions each leg, with no touching the wall, and your thighs below parallel before coming up. I like this exercise for several reasons. 1) It can help to cure strength imbalances that are either neural or muscular in origin. It is not uncommon to have one leg that is doing more than its share of the work in the boat and not even realize it. 2) It’s another way to work on whole body balance and fine coordination with big muscle groups . 3) In this exercise strength without balance and control is useless, just as in the boat.
- 3. Straight legged dead liftsThis is a good basic preparatory lift for strengthening the back extensor muscles. Use a barbell. With your knees just slightly bent for safety and a very straight spine, grip the bar at shoulder width and pull up to your waist. Lower the weight along your legs. If you do this lift correctly, your behind will stick out in back, counterbalancing your upperbody leaning out in front of your center of gravity. Focus on keeping the spine straight as you raise and lower the weight with your hips. Keep the bar very close to the legs as you execute the lifts, and do the movement slowly. Three sets of 10 repetitions will do.
- 4. Seated rowThe reason this exercise is important is not to build up enough shoulder strength to allow you to arm wrestle your way down the course. Rather, by allowing the back musculature to stretch at the “catch” (start of the lift), you learn how to let the arms relax and the stronger upper back muscles take the load. This is an important element of good rowing technique. In addition you will build up the supporting shoulder girdle musculature that is not well developed by cycling, running etc.The key focus of this exercise should be to begin the pull with the back, not the arms. If done correctly you will feel stretch in the “lats” and less burning in the biceps and forearms.These basic exercises, in conjunction with a few others for non-rowing muscles and the abdominals represent a safe weight program independent of rowing performance goals. However, for the competitive rower, I think other methods of specific strength training have greater potential benefit.
Strength Training on the Ergometer
Now we come to something more rowing specific. Here are some exercises you can do on your CII rowing ergometer that overload the rowing musculature in the correct movement pattern.
The defining measure of strength for the rower is force applied to the oar. I think the experienced rower will benefit more from the following exercises than from traditional weight room work because of the greater task specificity.
- HEAVY TENS Set the Model C ergometer resistance on a high value, 10 for men, perhaps 8 for most women. If you are using a model B, use small cog open vent. Now, the rest is pretty simple. After a good warmup, and some stretching, do the following workout on a day that you have scheduled strength training. Row 10 maximal effort strokes while carefully maintaining the stroke rate at about 14. It will be tempting to let the rate slide up, but keep it very low by really creeping up the slide. Every stroke is a highly specific strength training repetition involving all of the rowing muscles in the proper sequence. Really focus on maximal controlled pressure. Use the pace or watts screen as feedback regarding the quality of each strokeAfter each set of 10 (or a time of 1 minute if you prefer), rest for 60-90 seconds and repeat, for a total of 6 to 10 sets.
- SEGMENTED ROWING- As a variation on your row-specific strength training days, you can try this: Again use the highest resistance setting. Now do the following sequence. First row with “LEGS ONLY”, at a low rate of about 18 while maintaining the back in the catch angle (shoulders in front of hips throughout) and the arms fully out stretched. The whole focus is on engaging the legs at the catch, while maintaining the connection to the oar with the back musculature. After 1 minute of maximal controlled effort, rest for one minute. Next, row for one minute at maximal controlled pressure (18 spm) using only the normal body swing and arm draw, or “ARMS and BACK”. Do not over reach with the upper body. Rest one minute, then put the two together with one minute of maximal pressure controlled rate rowing at full slide (again 18 spm). Repeat this 3 exercise sequence 3-4 times for a good, rowing specific strength session.
- PEAK STRENGTH/POWER TESTING on the ergometer (CII) The ergometer can also give you good quantifiable feedback regarding your maximal functional (rowing) strength. Once a month or so, try this after a good warmup.1. PEAK ROWING STRENGTH- With the monitor on WATTS and the flywheel still, do ONE maximal effort stroke and record the watts value you achieve. Let the erg completely come to a stop and repeat this about 5 times to find your max value.2. PEAK ROWING POWER- Power is different from strength because it involves a velocity component. To find your peak rowing power, start with the same setup as above, but do a 5 stroke full effort racing sequence. The peak watt value that comes on the screen is your PEAK ROWING POWER and will probably happen on the 2nd or 3rd stroke. It will be somewhat higher than the watt value you achieved for the one stroke test.3. ANAEROBIC CAPACITY- Start the same as above except set the monitor timer on 30 seconds. Do an all out race effort and record the AVERAGE WATTS at the bottom of the screen. An alternative method is to do a 200 meter trial and record the time. This will require between 30 and 40 seconds.As an aside, I have noticed in my own rowing and ergometer training that my peak functional strength in the rowing stroke as measured above has not changed as a consequence of the volume of traditional weight room training I did (which I have varied considerably over the last 2 years). It has improved as a function of direct rowing exercises like those described above coupled with technical focus on the ergometer.
Strength Training on the Water
The final level of specificity is on-water training in which we create an overload on the muscular force generated during each stroke. These exercises both overload the muscle and help you to focus on proper sequencing for maximal stroke effectiveness. Here we are using specific methods of overloading the force demands of the rowing stroke both to induce muscle adaptations and to improve technique, or the application of force to the oar.
- BUNGEE CORD ROWINGThis works best in the single. Wrap a bungee cord (about 1 cm thick or so) around the bow of the boat about halfway between bow-ball and splash-board. Now you have a boat that sets up like a racing single, but runs out like a rec single due to the mangled hydrodynamics. As a consequence the catch will feel very heavy and you will be forced to work harder to accelerate the boat. This setup will allow you to be really overloaded at the catch and focus on a strong and early engagement of the legs. Bungee cord rowing is most effective if you row for 15-30 minutes with the cord on and then remove it for the remainder of the row. This is important for transitioning the “feeling” of a strong connection to the water and early and powerful leg engagment to the normal rowing condition.
- VARIATIONS ON THE SAME THEMEYou can also create this force overload/unload sequence in big boats by rowing by pairs in a four or eight, or even by singles in a quad. Let one rower begion with 15 strokes at full pressure with the rest sitting easy. Each 15 strokes rotate to a new man. Then after repeating this sequence several times, begin with one rower and add in a man every 10 to progressively unload the catch while increasing pull-through velocity. I can tell you from experience that hard rowing by singles in a quad is highly specific and highly exhausting strength training!
- RACING STARTSOf course, the part of a rowing race where muscular strength plays the biggest role. Peak force produced each stroke during the first few strokes of a rowing race is about 40% higher than that measured in the body of the race. If rowing were all about the first 250 meters, then we would recruit different athletes and also train very differently. Here we are feeding much higher power into the oar to bring the boat up to racing speed, or slightly above. So, a workout consisting of start sequences is actually a good method of achieving a very specific muscular overload. One modification that can be made is to add additional overload during the start by using a bungee cord around small boats, or towing something behind the big boats. Do two or three starts in this manner, then remove the resistance and repeat the sequence in order to transfer the “feeling” of loading the oar quickly to the faster condition.
SUMMARYMy opinion is that the young, or new rower can benefit from a general weightroom based strength training program of the type outline above. However, the already well trained rower probably has little to gain from further increases in “weightroom strength”. Movement specificity is critical. The strength training I have outlined really has it’s greatest application in either very short events such as the 500 meter dash, or to the brief acceleration phase at the start of a traditional 2k race. I think it is also very useful when it allows technical elements to be emphasized in isolation. But, remember, there is no correlation between short sprint performance (strength) and 2k performance on the ergometer in a group of similar sized elite guys or women. So weight train, but remember that the best training for rowing is still rowing!