With its unique demands as a seated sport and a taxing repetitive motion, rowing requires an informed and specific mobility regimen to maximize performance and minimize risk of injury. In this four-part mobility for rowers series, you’ll learn how to effectively target common problem areas with a combination of self-manual therapy, dynamic stretching, and static stretching for improved performance and longevity in the sport. Ideally, you’ll implement these routines before you experience pain, restriction, or another problem. Each area only takes 10-15 minutes to work through, so these are great to incorporate into your training as a regular part of your recovery plan. Simply taking care of your body with a little extra attention goes a long way toward preventing minor aches and pains through a hard rowing season.

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Part 1: The Thoracic Spine
Part 2: The Hip Flexors
Part 3: The Glutes
Part 4: The Ankles

For most athletes, practicing and competing in their sport is a daily break from the usual routine of sitting necessitated by the lifestyle of a student or desk-bound employee, but not so for rowers. While mobility work is important for all athletes, it is especially important for rowers to maximize performance and minimize risk of injury in both the short-term and long-term. Rowing is a difficult repetitive motion requiring great flexibility, stability, and strength. If you lack range-of-motion to even achieve basic positions of the stroke, how can you expect to generate and sustain race-pace force from those positions? 

Flexibility

First, we should understand broadly what “tightness” is and why mobility becomes restricted. “Tightness” has less to do with the structure of a muscle, and more to do with nervous system feedback, as few people have muscles that are inherently too short for their skeletons. True structural problems in muscles occur when a muscle is torn or artificially kept in a shortened position for an extreme amount of time, such as an arm kept in a sling for 6-8 weeks. Instead, when someone says, “my _____ is tight,” what they likely mean is, “my nervous system recognizes my instability in a fully stretched position and will not allow me to reach that point.” This article on PainScience.com provides more information on neural inhibition, trigger points, and flexibility if you are interested in greater detail.

The important takeaway is that end-limit flexibility is not the be-all and end-all to the mobility issue. Yes, you need to be flexible to achieve basic positions in the rowing stroke, but then you need stability to be able to generate and sustain force from those positions. If you cannot support or stabilize yourself in a given position, the nervous system will continue to restrict range of motion to keep you out of that position. Static stretching and foam rolling or trigger point work are all important in improving flexibility.

Strength

Strength is highly important to mobility to build stability from those hard-to-reach positions in rowing. Getting into position is an important first step, but if sitting up at the catch in correct position is so difficult that your upper-back cramps with effort, we need to strengthen those muscles before you can expect to be able to generate force from that position. In the case of the thoracic spine, rounding over at the catch CAN be a flexibility issue, but it can also be a strength issue if the athlete simply isn’t strong enough to hold their position. Both are important to assess.

Technique

Once you can achieve the main rowing positions, and have strength to support yourself in those positions, we need to build up the motor pattern of the rowing stroke so that you consistently find those good positions on every powerful stroke. Every stroke is an opportunity to ingrain good technique and teach your body how to generate force effectively. Steady state rowing and erg training is a great way to train for postural and technical improvements at lower intensities. Simply row or erg until your form breaks down, rest, do some of the mobility work, and then do it again. Changing a technique or habit is painstaking, but well worth it to achieve greater performance, longevity in the sport, and decreased chance of injury.

The Thoracic Spine

Now that you know a lot about why flexibility, strength, and technique are all important factors in the mobility puzzle, each article in this series will detail a different target area where rowers are particularly susceptible to mobility restrictions that decrease both short and long-term performance as well as health. In this article, we’ll talk specifically about the thoracic spine.

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Restriction: Thoracic spine

Location: Mid and upper back, vertebra T12 to T1

Muscles: The Thoracic spine includes the scapular muscles (supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres major/minor), posterior deltoid, rhomboids, lower/middle trapezius, and latissimus dorsi muscles.

Test: Easy thoracic spine mobility test. If you can’t maintain contact between your hand and low back while reaching overhead with the other arm (keep it straight), there is a restriction. The “scapular wall slide test” is a good one as well.

Rowing fault: Hunchback posture, inconsistent handle heights, rounding during the stroke (finish, recovery, and/or catch), or over-reaching at the catch.

Explanation: Restriction of these muscles most often displays as a rounded upper back, referred to as thoracic kyphosis or hunchback posture. The inability to reach thoracic extension or maintain a neutral thoracic spine under load causes uneven handle heights and difficulty with a “soft hands” approach at the catch, as rowers will naturally round further at the catch, making it more difficult to smoothly place the blade in the water. This also may look like overreaching, but it is really just what the rower perceives as a neutral spine because neutrality feels like extension to them. Finally, hunchback posture puts great stress on the anterior side of the spine, compressing discs and possibly causing damage to the thoracic vertebrae, especially when under load.

Watch the Video

The Fix

Start by foam rolling broadly over the mid back. Do not roll on the lumbar spine or the neck. Roll both up and down the middle of the back as well as on the sides of the back, by the latissimus dorsi. After a few broad strokes up and down the back, begin at the bottom of the mid back and hinge up and down over the foam roller, moving up one vertebra at a time. Remember to not do this on the lower back or upper back. Further self-manual release work can be done with a lacrosse or tennis ball if you find one particular spot of tightness, commonly referred to as a trigger point. Two tennis or lacrosse balls taped together (known as “The Peanut”) is of great use for self-manual therapy on the thoracic muscles, as is a Theracane in my personal experience. With any specific trigger point work, take special care to avoid rolling directly over vertebrae or bones, as this will cause pain. Once you have worked through the thoracic spine, move on to the stretching shown in the video [timestamp 1:43].

Strength Training

The strict overhead press, face pull, Y-W-T raise or prone Y-W-T raisepull-up, and front squat will improve the strength and postural endurance of the scapular and postural muscles of the mid back and shoulder region. The Sotts Press is also a useful activation and strengthening exercise, as seen in the mobility video. When doing these exercise, it’s essential to pay strict attention to technique and keeping shoulder blades depressed and externally rotated, also referred to as “packed” or “back-and-down.” It is common for athletes to get fatigued during a set and find themselves shifting the emphasis from the target muscles onto the lats and upper traps. Focus, re-cue, and correct.

In order to enact significant, lasting change, a dedicated comprehensive program that involves all modalities is critical. I recommend focusing on one problem area at a time, at least one 10-15 minute session per day. Spending 20 minutes a day working on mobility for 2-3 weeks while watching a TV show, for instance, is a great way to progress toward full function. Foam roll, perform self-manual release on specific trigger points, and stretch, then make sure to perform additional strengthening exercises while implementing proper form into your rowing and erging training. Also, be cognizant of posture throughout the day. Many times, those with thoracic restrictions will spend much of the day hunched over. Once full function is achieved, daily maintenance is simply performing daily activities from that now-strong position that your body can now adopt as normal positions.

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