Summer Training: Fix Your Imbalances

If you’ve followed my blog and the block periodization method, you know that for most spring 2k rowers, the summer season general preparation block is one of your most productive training times to set up the rest of your year. The main goals of the general preparation block are:

  1. Rest, recover, and heal

  2. Build a foundation of strength and aerobic capacity

  3. Correct imbalances that result from rowing

  4. Enjoy summer and maintain your enthusiasm for the sport

#1 is largely accomplished by taking some time off after the competitive season. You pushed hard, probably developed some aches and pains, and need some time off to heal and rejuvenate for the next block of training. Do not make the mistake of pushing through too quickly and carrying aches, pains, and fatigue over from one season to the next as this is how overtraining and long-term injuries can develop and drag your training down for the rest of the year.

I have addressed #2 already, including my “Free Summer Strength Programs” post and “The Basics of Strength Training for Rowing.” Summer is NOT a time to take another try at that 2k PR that you missed during spring season or to bury yourself with crazy high volume and/or high intensity training. The General Prep block sets up the rest of your year for success by building this awesome foundation, not by peaking your performance when you’re the furthest away from competition.

#3 is the subject of this article as we will discuss some common imbalances, why imbalances are bad, and how to fix them.

#4 is a cautionary note from a rower who was once “that guy” who skipped out on fun summer activities because he was afraid to miss any training. Athletes young and old should be sure to include some enjoyable recreational activities, even if that means postponing a training session. While this may not be the popular hashtaggable HARDCORE method, this does ensure that you won’t burn yourself out over summer to find yourself in the dark of the winter erg room wondering, “why on Earth do I do this?” Your training can be flexible and still highly effective during the general preparation block.

Now, to discuss imbalances.

Every rower who only rows will develop imbalances. If you scull, you won’t enjoy the same side-to-side imbalances as sweep rowers, but all rowers will develop stronger “pulling” muscles than “pushing” muscles without some sort of intelligent strength training. These imbalances not only result in poor movement efficiency leading to slower times, but also a variety of chronic aches and pains, either short-term or lasting long after the athlete’s rowing career is over.

Common imbalances from rowing include:

  • Quadriceps dominance
  • Gluteus muscle weakness
  • Hip flexor tightness
  • Thoracic kyphosis (rounded upper back)
  • Internally rotated shoulders

Sweep rowers get to enjoy all of the above, plus:

  • Outside leg stronger than inside leg
  • Hips and/or torso posturally rotated, including scoliosis in the extreme
  • Outside arm stronger than inside arm
  • Outside shoulder posturally elevated compared to inside shoulder

Thus, summer training will focus on developing the muscles that rowing fails to: the gluteus muscles, thoracic extensors, shoulder stabilizers and external rotators, and upper body pressing muscles.

This does not mean to neglect the other, more rowing-specific muscles. We still want to accomplish goal #2 and build a foundation of strength and aerobic capacity across all muscles. The most effective way to address imbalances is through increasing exercise variety and including some additional assistance work to fit your goal. All of the following exercises mentioned can be found in the Exercise Index.

NOTE: Severe imbalances should always be referred to a medical professional. A qualified physical therapist will be able to identify and correct muscular and postural imbalances. The following recommendations are aimed at those with mild imbalances and those who wish to prevent imbalances, not as rehabilitation exercises for moderate-severe imbalances.

Quadriceps dominance — Gluteal weakness

Rowers almost always have a stronger anterior chain (quadriceps, hip flexors, and abdominal muscles) than posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes, and low back). Over time, this can lead to anterior pelvic tilt, low back pain, knee pain, and a host of other related injuries.

The Fix: Continue doing your squats, and be sure to include:

  • Romanian deadlift
  • Band Good Morning
  • X-Band Walk
  • Block Pull/Elevated Deadlift
  • Kettlebell Swing

These exercises provide great stimulus for the glute and hamstring muscles and will improve the strength of your posterior chain.

Hip Flexor Tightness

Rowing is unique as a seated sport, and rowers rarely reach full hip extension during their normal training. This combined with the realities of daily life as a commuter, desk employee, and/or student, sets the stage for severe hip flexor tightness.

The Fix: Mobility For Rowers, The Hip Flexors

Thoracic Kyphosis and Internally Rotated Shoulders

The “rowing hunchback” posture is most often caused by weak thoracic extensors (fine muscles of the mid-back) compared to dominant muscles of the trapezius and latissimus dorsi.

The Fix: Mobility for Rowers, The Thoracic Spine

  • Face Pull
  • YWT Raise
  • Batwing Row
  • Pull-Up
  • Band Pullapart

Side-to-Side Imbalances

As noted, sweep rowers need to be careful to evenly develop the muscles of both sides of their body. Sweep rowers who do not regularly row on both sides of the boat will develop stronger outside legs, arms, and sides of their back and abdominal muscles without adequate corrective strength training.

The Fix: For rowers without severe imbalances, continue your bilateral lifting such as squats, deadlifts, overhead and bench presses, and include the following unilateral exercises.

NOTE: With all unilateral exercises, perform your weak side first, then do no more than match your strong side to your weak side. For example, a port rower with a stronger left arm than right arm might do a dumbbell row to correct this. If this rower did 12 reps on their weaker right side, they would match this by doing 12 reps with their left side. The stronger left side will still be stimulated, just not to the extent of the right side, which will allow the right side to gain strength more rapidly than the left to correct the imbalance.

With dumbbell exercises, you could either alternate one entire set with the weak side, then one entire set with the strong side, or you could alternate each repetition, stopping according to the weaker side’s limitation. This video is an example of the dumbbell bench press performed in this fashion.

  • Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat
  • Reverse Lunge
  • Single-Leg Hip Thrust/Glute Bridge
  • Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift
  • Dumbbell Row
  • Single-Arm X-Band Row
  • Single-Arm YWT Raise
  • Dumbbell Bench Press
  • Dumbbell Incline Press
  • Dumbbell Overhead Press
  • One-Arm Pushup Progressions
  • Shoulder External Rotation (dumbbell, cable, or band)
  • Pallof Press and Lying Pallof Press

While some asymmetries are natural in the human body, rowers who do not strength train will develop much greater imbalances that can turn into pains and injuries, and that means missing time on the water. Consistent practice availability is one of the biggest determinants in athletic success, so minimizing injury risks by addressing imbalances is critical to both health and performance. Happy training, and don’t forget to enjoy your summer!

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