Why Strength Matters in Rowing

The short-and-sweet answer to why strength matters in rowing was concisely tweeted out by my good friend and Strength Coach Roundtable co-host Blake Gourley few months ago, that increasing strength decreases the amount of effort required per stroke, which increases endurance. I dubbed this “Twitter-coaching at its finest” in the conversation, however, I know many are interested in the full answer. Here’s about 5,500 characters (and no emojis) more on how we get to this beautifully concise answer.

We have to go to the research and do a bit of maths.

In “Strength and Power Goals for Competitive Rowers” (2005), authors Ed McNeely, David Sandler, and Steve Bamel outline their proposed strength and power standards for male and female rowers in the different categories of sport from lightweight to heavyweight and junior, U23, club, national, and Olympic levels. Personally, I think the standards are a little low, which I credit to how the sport has grown and progressed in the 12 years since this article was published. The data was collected over the previous 10 years, so we’re looking at standards based on rowers from 1994-2004, so some “performance inflation” is natural to occur. (more…)

A Better Deload Week for Rowing

My rowing programs always have a deload week every 4-12 weeks. Being natural pain-addicts and work-a-holics, most rowers resist this.

Hey, I get it. I love lifting. Sometimes I have trouble falling asleep the night before a workout I’m really excited about. My dad bought me a used bench and concrete weight set when I was 12 and I’ve been lifting in some way ever since. I still deload every 6-10 weeks.

I don’t always feel like I need the rest at the time, butt I always feel better starting the next block of the program after the deload. Previously, when I’ve tried the “rest when you’re dead” method, I’ve always found myself burned out or injured after about 12-14 weeks.

This doesn’t make for sexy hashtags, but if it’s a simple matter of taking a half-step back during the deload week in order to take three steps forward during the following training block and train with better energy, less risk of injury, and renewed focus, then those 5-8 reduced load training weeks are well worth it over a 52-week annual training plan.

Most programs just block out a week out of the gym for the deload week. Rest and time away from training is fine and a necessary part of any program. If you enjoy lifting or time out of the gym causes you more stress than it’s worth, we can design the deload week to still achieve the same goal of rest and recovery while still getting after it in the gym.

Why Deload?

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My Greatest Mistake as a Coach

“There’s nothing really good that comes from a 14-15 year old thinking that you really like them.” “I try to keep my personal side out of it as much as possible.” “I’m more like going for 80% impact.”

Is that the kind of coach I am or want to be?

There was some context to these words, but as I thought about and listened back to my guest episode on the Winning Youth Coaching Podcast, I wanted them back.

From fall 2016 to spring 2017, I drove over 2500 miles to coach both rowing and lacrosse as well as volunteer at and attend clinics. I spent thousands of dollars on gas, books and coaching resources, equipment, plus tuition at the University of Denver to help me become a better coach. I spent hundreds of hours away from home, my girlfriend, and dog, many of them uncomfortable hours in the cold, rain, early morning and late night, and many more hours studying, thinking about, and talking about coaching and my athletes with my co-coaches. In addition to all my personal effort, I had the lives and athletic pursuits of 45 young people entrusted to me by themselves and their parents. And yet, I’m only “going for 80% impact”?!

I knew immediately that I was unsatisfied with my answer, but it took me most of last season to figure out exactly why and what I could do to change it.

I Underestimated

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Bundle: Summer Strength Training for Rowing

Beyond the sun, warm weather, and vacation time, summer is also a wonderful time to make gains to lay the foundation for the rest of your training year. If you’re a spring 2k rower following the block periodization system, summer marks the turning of the page into the next training year. Whatever you accomplished, however many medals you won, and no matter what PR’s you hit in the previous spring, training for more and faster starts now. Summer strength training will follow the general preparation phase model of block periodization.

“General” is the name of the game for this block of 10-16 weeks. Forget about your 2k or 6k erg time and set some goals outside of short-distance rowing. No one cares how fast you are or how strong you are in July, so don’t waste time and effort trying to hit 2k PRs or new 1-rep maxes now. There’s plenty of time for that later, and working on some different goals now will help you now and in the future. The whole goal of summer strength training is building a broad base and foundation for the rest of the year. High variety of exercises, high variety of rep ranges, and high variety of cross-training.

Why is strength training important for rowing? The answer is simple. Increasing your strength decreases the amount of effort required per stroke, which increases your endurance. Read more about this in the first article below.

Overview

Learn the Lifts

Summer is a great time to start strength training if it isn’t a part of your training already. The single biggest factor in your program’s success is how well you perform the lifts. Make sure to get instruction from a qualified coach or trainer if you’re beginning to lift.

Improve Your Mobility

Build Your Knowledge

  • Blake Gourley, Joe Deleo, and I host The Strength Coach Roundtable podcast. Every 1-2 months we do a deep-dive into a topic in strength training for rowing with the occasional guest. We’re always taking questions, too.

Roundtable Recap: Deadlift for Rowers

We changed up the format a bit for this episode and spent the whole time just talking about one lift. If there’s only one lift you can do for rowing, we could make an argument for the deadlift. It’s an awesome lift with a ton of carryover to rowing, both for performance, reinforcing technical cues and coaching, and long-term back health. In this episode, we give some backstory on the deadlift, why it’s such a great lift for rowing, our progression for teaching it to new lifters, variations on the deadlift that we use in our training, and of course, how to actually train it with sets, reps, and intensities for in-season and off-season.

Hear it also on Soundcloud and iTunes

0:00 — Brief update and news from our coaching and learning

3:15 — Overview of the deadlift and why it’s beneficial for rowing

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How to Warm Up for Rowing

The warmup is a critical time to set you up for the best and most productive rowing or weights training session possible with the least risk of injury. Most rowers are great about doing warmups for rowing training, because it’s naturally built into the practice. A short erg or jog, running oars down, some dynamic stretching, walking the boat down, and then skill-and-drill by pairs, fours, or sixes, provides 20-30 minutes of excellent warmup time. warmup rowingThe first important thing a good warmup accomplishes is gradually increasing heart rate and circulation. This is important to lubricate joints, increase blood flow to muscles, and prepare the lungs and heart for pumping a lot of oxygen and blood during training. The second thing a good warmup accomplishes is priming the muscles for efficient, precise movement. Both of these things play a vital role in reducing risk of injury as well as improving performance in training and competing.

Warming Up for Strength Training

The best rowers will treat all parts of their training just like they treat rowing training. You or your coach spends hours planning your rowing training, you read rowing blogs, do rowing mobility exercises, you think about technical elements of the stroke, physical elements of on-water training, maybe you even do mental skills for your rowing training, and of course, you spend hours actually executing the training. The very best athletes apply this same level of focus, dedication, and consistency to their strength training, nutrition, and recovery.

This should take you no more than 20 minutes from the time you walk into the gym to starting your first working set. If you don’t have 20 minutes to safely and effectively warm up, you don’t have time to train. It’s as simple as that.

#1. 5 minutes of low-stress aerobic activity

To erg or not to erg…

In general, I’m fine with rowers using the erg as their warmup, but I can see the counter argument as well.

Many rowers have bad habits or movements on the erg that we’re trying to use strength training to fix. If a rower opens their body early on the stroke, having them erg a bunch before deadlifting increases the chance of them carrying that error over to the deadlift. Many rowers also don’t know “easy warmup speed.” Put two rowers side-by-side and more often than not, the 5-minute warmup will turn into a battle paddle. (more…)

Building a Home Gym for Rowing Training

I’ve been living the home gym lifestyle for a few years now, enjoying the flexible hours, dog-friendly policies, whatever equipment I need for my goals, and no lines waiting to use it. Here is my list of required and preferred equipment as well as some tips and tricks for building your home gym for rowing and strength training for rowing.

Required Equipment

#1: Barbell and Weights

There is no substitute for a barbell and a couple hundred pounds of weights and it should be the very first thing you buy for your home gym. While dumbbells, kettlebells, and other forms of weight are great for assistance exercises and other forms of training, a barbell is absolutely necessary to achieve significant loading and apply enough of a stimulus for growth and strength gains.

There are many, many barbells on the market these days ranging from the very cheap to the very expensive. I love my Texas Power Bar and have also enjoyed using Rogue Fitness’ Ohio Bar and Rogue Bar in the past. Any of these bars should be lifetime bars, which is the main advantage they offer over cheap barbells that can be found at sporting goods stores. If you’re going to be using the bar a lot, it might as well be one of decent quality.

Metal plates are cheaper than bumper plates, and because I don’t use Olympic lifting in my programs, they are perfectly fine for my needs. Metal plates can often be found for good deals used through used sporting goods stores or Craigslist-type websites.

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Why I Hate the Bench Pull

I’ve mentioned several times on the Strength Coach Roundtable as well as in a few different articles my disdain–no, my hatred–of the bench pull (also referred to as the “seal row”) exercise, but I’ve never fully written out the case against it. The bench pull is the single most overrated and dangerous lift in rowing. It has low specificity to rowing, is a known cause and risk of rib stress fractures, and there are too many other exercises superior to the bench pull to make it worth doing.

#1. The bench pull has low specificity to the rowing stroke

The picture below shows me in the bench pull position (left) and then at the finish of the stroke (right). The only similarity between the two is that my arms are bent. In the bench pull, your entire body is supported, your torso is relaxed, you aren’t transmitting force from your feet to the implement, and you’re pulling from a dead-stop position. At the finish of a rowing stroke, your body is supported only by the seat and foot stretchers, your torso muscles are working hard to keep you upright, you are transmitting force from your feet to the implement, and you’re pulling with momentum. Even though the bench pull develops some of the same muscles used in the rowing stroke, it does so in a way far too non-specific to carry over to the rowing stroke.

bench pull rowing compare

There are coaches who omit the arms-only part of the pick drill because it doesn’t sufficiently apply to the stroke and teaches athletes to break their arms when catching the water. We spend too much time at practice trying to get rowers to stop doing exactly that to want to have them practice catching with their arms, plus to get stronger at doing it.

At best, the bench pull has low specificity, at worst, it is ingraining bad habits that will just have to be undone with more coaching. (more…)

Rowing with Low Back Pain? Give these a shot.

9 times out of 10, when one of my rowers says, “coach, my back hurts,” a few sessions of this stretching sequence plus some general foam rolling of the lower body has them right before their next workout. Even with these stretches, it is crucial to address WHY you are experiencing low back pain, whether it’s a muscular weakness or a technical deficiency, but these stretches should get you up and moving in the meantime. This is also a great 10-minute mobility series during heavy training times and as general prevention of low back pain in rowing.

Hold each stretch for 30-60 seconds. Breathe deeply and try to sink deeper into the stretch with each exhalation.

  1. Pigeon Stretch & Elevated Pigeon
  2. Half-kneeling lunge stretch, 3-way hip opener, lunge with band distraction
  3. Banded figure-4 (link here to orange band)
  4. QL stretch

Roundtable Recap: Sport Psych for Rowing

What a monster this one was! Blake, Joe, and I had a great talk with Sara Hendershot about sport psych for rowing and how to develop a strong mindset for success. We talked for almost 90 minutes straight and I feel like we could’ve all kept going. Whether you’re wrapping up winter season, preparing for spring racing, or just blew up at the CRASH-B’s, I hope this will be helpful to you in your athletic pursuits.

Hear it also on Soundcloud and iTunes

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