The general preparation block is one of the most productive training times to set up the rest of the year of training and performance. This is generally the off-season phase of training furthest away from the main competitive season. For 2km-focused rowers racing in the spring season, the general preparation block would be the summer season. This is a crucial time of training to build the aerobic base and muscular foundation that the rower will draw on for the rest of the year. Fixing rowing imbalances is also a major goal of this block. The main goals of the general preparation block are:
- Rest, recover, and heal
- Build a foundation of strength and aerobic fitness
- Fix rowing imbalances
- Enjoy the off-season and maintain your enthusiasm for future hard training
#1 is largely accomplished by taking some time off after the competitive season. You pushed hard, may have developed some aches and pains, and need some time off to heal and rejuvenate for the next block of training. I recommend taking 2-3 weeks of rejuvenating unstructured physical activity between competitive season and off-season, to avoid carrying aches, pains, and fatigue over from one season to the next. Turning the page too quickly from in-season to off-season risks overtraining and development of long-term injuries that can drag your training down for the rest of the next year.
I have addressed #2 already, including my “Free Summer Strength Programs” post and “The Basics of Strength Training for Rowing.” The general prep block 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 a great foundation, not by peaking your performance when you’re the furthest away from competition.
#3 fixing rowing imbalances is the subject of this article. We will discuss some common rowing imbalances, how imbalances increase risk of injury and reduce performance, and how we can use this strength training time to build a balanced muscular foundation.
#4 is a cautionary note from a rower who was once “that guy” who skipped out on fun off-season summer activities because he was afraid to miss any training. Athletes of all ages and levels should be sure to include some enjoyable recreational activities, even if that means adjusting a training session or schedule. While this may not be the popular hashtaggable “HARDCORE” way of doing things, this reduces risk of burning out over summer or struggling in later months of training due to inadequate balance in the rest of the training year. Training can be flexible and still highly effective during the general preparation block, allowing for mentally and physically enjoyable activities.
Why Do Rowers Develop Imbalances?
Rowers who only row are likely to develop movement and muscular imbalances. Scullers will not experience the same rotational imbalances as sweep rowers, but all rowers will develop stronger “pulling” muscles than “pushing” muscles without some sort of balanced strength training, as well as more minor imbalances that can increase risk of injury and reduce performance. 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 often:
- One leg stronger or more mobile than the other
- Postural rotation of hips, torso, or shoulders
- One arm stronger than the other
- One shoulder rotated more than the other
Fixing rowing imbalances during the general prep block focuses on developing the muscles that rowing neglects: 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 mitigate or reduce risk of developing imbalances, not as rehabilitation exercises for moderate-severe imbalances. My role as a strength coach is to understand the sport and select exercises and programming to improve performance and reduce general injury risks. Specific injuries or concerns should be referred to the appropriate medical professional, eg. nutritionist, physical therapist, athletic trainer, etc.
Fixing Rowing Imbalances: Quad dominance / Glute 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. Researcher indicate that a strengthening approach may be more effective for reducing low back pain in rowers than a flexibility approach.
Fixing Rowing Imbalances: 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
- Single-leg squats (lunge, rear-foot-elevated split squat)
- Posterior chain strengthening (see previous section)
Fixing Rowing Imbalances: Thoracic Spine and 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.
- Face Pull
- YWT Raise
- Band Pullapart
- Row variations: batwing row, 1-arm row, x-band row
Fixing Rowing Imbalances: Side-to-Side and Rotational
As noted, sweep rowers need to be careful to develop the muscles of both sides of their body. Sweep rowers will commonly develop one side’s legs, arms, and back and abdominal muscles more than the other without adequate preventative and corrective strength training. Sweep rowers may also be able to rotate a great amount to their stroke side, but have very limited range-of-motion to their off-stroke side. Strength training here plays a role in developing rotation and anti-rotation strength in both sides of the body.
The Fix: If you experience a significant imbalance or range-of-motion restriction, seek the advice of a physical therapist or other medical professional. For rowers with none or minor imbalances, continue your bilateral lifting such as squats, deadlifts, overhead and bench press variations with an attention to even pressure through both hands or feet, 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. I make frequent use of alternating dumbbell presses, bench presses, row and pulldown variations, training the off-hand stabilizer muscles while training the on-hand concentric and eccentric prime movers.
- Rear-Foot-Elevated Split Squat
- Reverse Lunge
- Step-Up and Lateral Step-Up
- 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
- Shoulder External Rotation (dumbbell, cable, or band)
- Pallof Press and Lying Pallof Press
We also work to get into the frontal and transverse movement planes. Most rowing, erging, and strength training happens in the sagittal plane with flexion and extension movements and exercises. This is good for when we want to maximize performance, but an exclusive focus risks losing range-of-motion and muscular development in the other areas. For frontal plane, some of my go-to movements are: lateral step-ups, glute band walks, glute bridge marching, and side planks. For transverse plane, let’s think anti-rotation as well as rotational exercises. For sweep rowers, anti-rotation and rotation to the non-stroke side is particularly important, since the rower is doing lots of rotational training just to one side when rowing. This is often core training, including the stir-the-pot exercise using a physioball or TRX/rings, and the band or cable Pallof press.
Final Off-Season Note: Over-Reliance on the Erg
Prioritizing cross-training over ergometer training in the off-season is a great way to continue building general aerobic system performance while giving the mind and skeletal structures a break from heavy erg use. We can improve cardiovascular function with running, swimming, hiking, cycling, sculling, and other forms of aerobic training, while doing just some training on the erg for specific physical development.
This can also be very helpful for fixing rowing imbalances, simply getting away from any bad habits developed on the erg while focusing on corrective strength training and building fitness via other means. In general, I like an off-season program of 2-3 strength training sessions per week, 2-3 longer aerobic cross-training sessions, and 1-3 erg sessions with at least one of those higher intensity. As we approach the return of rowing training, we will gradually decrease cross-training and increase erg or rowing training to convert those general adaptations to specific adaptations and prepare for a competitive focus.
While some asymmetries are natural in the human body, rowers who do not strength train are likely to 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 off-season!
Last updated June 2020