When 100% of coaches agree on something, it’s probably best to listen. In a recent research survey, 32 out of 32 GBR coaches agreed that strength training enhances rowing performance. The next step after developing a strength training program for your team is instructing them in the execution of the lifts. Nearly all injuries that happen from weight training at any age are due to poor instruction or poor supervision, not inherent flaws of the exercises themselves. It is essential that athletes understand the basic form on barbell lifts and that they are supervised by a qualified coach whenever they are lifting. Just like in rowing, the better the coaching, the better the results.
Now, most rowing programs are fortunate to have one strength coach, let alone a sufficiently sized coaching staff to adequately instruct 20+ athletes all at once. This is the system I use to teach a large group of rowers the basic exercises in a manner that is both time and space efficient while making sure that athletes receive quality instruction.
Rowers are used to thinking of things in 3-4 parts, for example, “arms, body, legs, catch.” I broke each of the lifts down into 3-4 parts and made that the basis of my instruction.
I first get all of them in the weight room and instruct the athletes to organize themselves by 4-5 athletes of similar heights per platform. This it the basis for how to form groups per my article, Efficient Circuit Training for Team Sports, and the easiest way to minimize adjustments once they start lifting. I also find assigning groups to be much more successful than asking them to come up with groups on their own, as it avoids developing cliques and helps new athletes quickly assimilate into the group.
Once they are organized, I instruct the warm-up and hip mobility sequence, then we move on to the lifts. I demonstrate each lift or have a veteran rower demonstrate the lift, explaining the cues I’ll use and what I’m looking for at each point in the sequence. Each platform has one athlete lifting, all following the same lift sequence, with an empty barbell. This is just instruction, not an actual workout, so we’re not worried about really loading up the movement.
For the squat, familiarize yourself with the basic cues for Back Squat and Front Squat from my exercise guide, then watch the instructional video below as I demonstrate and explain the lifts following the whole-part system:
#1: Rack position—“Walk it out”
On the back squat, the first position is simple. Look for straight wrists, braced abs, and good posture. On the front squat, teach the proper rack position with either the clean grip or the cross grip. For the clean-grip, cue the athletes “elbows up and in” to create a stable shelf for the bar and reach full thoracic extension, then look for abdominal bracing and good posture. Check stance width here too. Front squat stance should be just inside shoulder width, while back squat stance should be outside shoulder width.
#2: Descent—“Down, ready DOWN”
Look for controlled descent, not dropping into the hole, with proper form. On squats, many athletes initiate the descent with the knees and need to be cued to break from the hips first. Check depth. Athletes should be close to, if not slightly below, parallel depth. One common problem with rowers seems to be collapsed arches. Since rowing doesn’t develop the muscles of the foot the same way a field sport does, many rowers have either poor motor control for their feet or poor musculature to support them. Many rowers also use minimal shoes, which can exacerbate this. I recommend an arch support for these athletes. Good foot stability leads to better knee and hip stability, which means safer, more effective squats.
#3: Halfway up—“Halfway up, UP”
Watch for athletes to rise evenly from the chest, torso, and hips. The hips should not “pop up” out of the hole, nor should the rower over-extend the upper back, throwing the chest backwards. The hips and chest should rise evenly and simultaneously to roughly 45 degrees at the halfway up point. One issue that will often arise at this point is caving, or valgus, knees. Many rowers have weak glute muscles, which can cause the knees to cave when squatting. Glute activation work can help, but athletes who are unable to correct knee cave need to use a different squat variant until they can squat correctly. Many will be able to correct this when cued and when the weight is light enough, so make sure to give them time to work on it before ruling the back squat out. In my years of working with Western so far, I’ve only had two rowers who I deemed unable to squat.
Remember, rule out instruction first. Make sure the athlete knows to push the knees out, keeping them in line with the toes, on both the descent and ascent.
Next, If the athlete can keep the knees out at light weight, but caves under heavy weight, they need to do more reps and more work to master the lighter weights and increase the weight gradually while also performing other exercises to strengthen the legs and hips in general.
Finally, if the athlete is unable to keep the knees in line at any weight, they may have a mobility restriction, structural problem, or significant muscular weakness and should be referred to a physical therapist.
Make sure that all athletes lock the weight out under control. I rarely see problems from halfway up to the finish, but sometimes an athlete will hyper-extend or finish in a poor postural position. If an athlete is hyperextending, cue them to squeeze the glutes to complete the lift. This will get them using more of their hip musculature and create a better brace.
That’s one rep. I’ll usually have the group do 5 broken-down reps while I make any adjustments to their technique, then they do 1-2 full reps on their own. We then cycle through athletes and repeat the process until everyone has gone through the lift.