The deadlift is one of the best exercises out there for rowing performance. Correctly executed, the deadlift teaches the rower to apply force through the legs while maintaining a braced torso to transfer power through the arms to lift the barbell. The deadlift also requires great torso strength from the abdominals and back, making it an excellent exercise for the entire trunk stabilizing muscles. Finally, the deadlift forces the rower to go through a full hip extension cycle, something that doesn’t happen in the normal rowing stroke, and using the hip muscles through a full range of motion is great for injury prevention. Swap out the barbell for an oar and you’ve got an athlete who knows how to put power down with the legs while keeping a tight braced torso and putting all of their strength to work.
Using the whole-part system of breaking the lift down into separate parts, here is the deadlift. The deadlift is the only lift that I will use more than an empty barbell to instruct. Blocks or boxes may be used to elevate the starting position to the standard height if bumper plates are not available. Bumper plates are the best option as they can be loaded lighter while still maintaining a standard height. I also find that many rowers, particularly those over 6’6 (198cm), have trouble getting into a correct start position. Rather than work endlessly on mobility exercises, I’ll often have these athletes always pull off 4-6” blocks. Remember, we’re training rowers, not powerlifters, and the goal of the deadlift is just to improve posterior chain strength and coordination to carry over to rowing performance.
First, familiarize yourself with the deadlift cues, then watch the instructional video below.
#1: Start position
I have every athlete start standing straight up before touching the bar. Standing straight up, I can check their stance width to ensure that athletes are in their “jump stance.” I then have them hip hinge backwards, arms straight down in front of them, then grab the bar and squat down to it when they can hip hinge no further. This is their start position, and they hold it while I make necessary adjustments. Many rowers often have trouble with the hip hinge, which manifests as excessive forward knee translation or a rounded spine. In the video, I demonstrate two teaching techniques for the hip hinge. The first is the simple “butt to the wall” drill and the second involves using a PVC pipe and 3 points of contact on the body while the athlete practices the hinge.
#2: To the knees—“Halfway up, UP”
Pausing at the knee ensures that athletes are breaking the ground correctly, rising evenly with the hips and torso, and maintaining a braced spine. Many rowers used to rowing with a rounded upper-back will deadlift with the same style, but I prefer that rowers maintain a totally neutral spine when deadlifting. Athletes should also have their weight balanced more toward the hindfoot when deadlifting, not on the balls of the feet. I have them hold this position at the knees for 2-3 seconds so they can find that sweet spot of balance on the feet and torso tightness.
#3: Finish—“Lock it out”
Check that athletes are simply standing straight up, not hyper-extending to finish the lift. From the knees, I will cue athletes to think “hips to bar” to finish the lift. This not only helps activate the glutes and alleviate some pressure on the spine, but it helps them recognize when the lift is complete. The end position of a deadlift is standing straight up, with knees locked out, not leaning backwards or rolling the shoulders back.
I instruct the athletes to control the weight down. This is not to be confused with a slow eccentric, where the purpose is fatigue, but simply control to help them stay in a proper starting position for the next rep without having to reset for each rep. Not only is dropping the weight from the top of the lift loud, obnoxious, and potentially damaging to the equipment, it makes the athlete re-set up before each repetition. Maintaining control of the lift, rather than flopping to the floor, helps the athlete maintain torso tightness and proper technique.