The New Zealand pair of Hamish Bond and Eric Murray, known as “The Kiwi Pair,” was the most successful men’s pair in the history of rowing. In addition to world records, gold medals, and total dominance during their unbeaten streak of 2009-2016, the duo are known for shaking things up and not being afraid to train differently, and for openly questioning some of the dogma in rowing training. It became known at some point that the duo were not doing traditional strength training with barbells and free weights. “The Kiwi Pair Doesn’t Lift” then became a meme around the Internet to justify a lack of strength training in rowing programs of any age and level.
Now, I’m all for critical evaluation of the role of every training modality, but it has to be critical and evaluative, and I was not about to have the entire field of strength training for rowing “debunked” by a thoughtless expression based on very little actual information. However, the question of the Kiwi Pair strength training was never truly resolved…until now!
So, does the Kiwi Pair strength train?
Fortunately, I got the chance to ask Eric Murray himself to set the record straight when he appeared as a guest on the “Rowing Chat” podcast. Host Rebecca Caroe was kind to read my question verbatim, and I’ve reproduced the discussion at 48:35 below with some additional notes to follow.
Rebecca Caroe: “Our next question comes from Will Ruth, who says, “The Kiwi Pair Doesn’t Lift” is often bandied about on the Internet as rationalization for lack of strength training in other rowing programs, elite and otherwise. I’ve only been able to find passing mentions in interviews and articles, so I would be interested to hear his own account. Did you ever do strength training (bodyweight, bands, weights, etc.) in your life or career? Where does strength training fit (or not fit) into your philosophy of rowing training?
Eric Murray: “From 2010 we stopped lifting weights. Prior to that we had done a lot. You’ve got to grow and develop and grow your strength. We started doing speed-endurance like band work, so you’d be doing sort of plyometric stuff which was fast, or holding you to the ground to make it really springy. We basically got to the point with Dick [Tonks], our coach at the time, who said, ‘Look, we’re going to get faster by being fitter than we are by being stronger. You’re spending 2.5-3 hours in the gym a week, and it’s not really doing anything to what you’re doing on the water.’
“I think, in our time when we started losing our explosiveness out of the start, that started from losing power, so yeah, we did lose a little bit of muscle mass, but we were able to gain another 3 hours of training. And that’s where these high-200 numbers [kilometers per week] could come in. Because while everyone else was doing a weights session, we could do a rowing session. A lot of times we did that with bungee work on the water, strapping a hose pipe around the boat and doing that.
“It works for us, but it might not work for everybody else. I don’t think it would work for big boats. I definitely think it could work for singles, pairs, and doubles. Once you start getting into those boats where you need to have power, you need to be able to match people stroke-for-stroke out of the start, unless you want to be like, ‘Okay, they can do a 1:23 first 500, we’ll go 1:25, and then we’ll be able to make it up.’ But then, you’re already a length down, and that’s mentally like, ‘Whoa, how are we going to make that up?’ So if you account for them, it’s fine.
“I definitely think in the early days you need to get to a level of strength. You get to mid-to-late 20s in your career, and you spend a year trying to get your strength back to where you were prior to you finishing the previous year, and it’s like, well, is that worth it? And maybe it’s an experimentation that people need to take. I definitely think in the early years you need it, but as you get later in life, and you’ve got that endurance in your legs and everything else, maybe it’s worth looking at.
“It’s also injury prevention, because a lot of times you get injured by being in the gym, going, ‘Yeah, I can squat more than you,’ and then there goes my back. Or, ‘I’m going to deadlift 200 kilos off the floor just to try and make my max,’ and now my back’s sore. Those are the issues that come up as you get along. So yeah, we didn’t in the last 4 years, working up.
“We still did core work, Hamish [Bond] did a little bit of stuff on bungees and a few things, but has injuries that he had. As far as I went, everything was on the water or on the rowing machine or on a bike.”
A Few Notes:
Murray states multiple times that younger athletes need strength training to “build up.” He didn’t say exactly when he started strength training, but he rowed and played rugby in high school before graduating in 1999. If he started as a teenager, he may have had 11-15 years of strength training before reducing to “just” plyometric, bodyweight, resistance band, and core exercises in 2010.
He specifically says that he doesn’t think not strength training would work for big boats, only for singles, doubles, and pairs. He acknowledges that they lost some power as a result of not strength training, and suggests that this loss would have a greater negative impact on performance in quads and eights. In the Kiwi Pair’s case, they could make up for a slightly less powerful start with sustained endurance in the rest of the race.
The decision to stop strength training was based on the point of diminishing returns. At the highest level of the sport, continuing to invest 2.5-3 hours per week in strength training was not worth more than being able to use that time to row. And they rowed a lot: Murray mentions “high-200s numbers,” referring to the number of kilometers rowed per week.
Murray talks about maxing deadlift at 200kg (440lbs). It’s not clear if this is a hypothetical or actually what he was able to deadlift, but that’s a very reasonable number for an elite rower to be able to lift for a max. It’s also a reasonable number at which a rower might say, “hey, I’m strong enough for rowing, adding more to my max is going to require a significant amount of work and may not help me as much on the water,” and begin prioritizing other forms of training that will yield greater returns.
The Bottom Line:
I couldn’t have asked for a better answer.
Murray emphasizes the importance of using early years (teenage into early 20s) to build strength, muscle mass, and power, and perform in team boats. Once you’ve done this “into your mid-late 20s,” he says it’s “worth looking at” the point of diminishing returns in your training. Is continuing to invest in strength training still improving performance for you, or could you use that time better for other training? If you’ve built up over your earlier years, are rowing small boats, want to row for very high training volumes, and can still do some plyometric, bodyweight, band, and core work, then “maybe it’s an experimentation.”
Use strength training as part of your rowing training to build your base of strength and muscle and improve performance especially in bigger boats. When you’ve done this for YEARS, consider your strength training in the context of the rest of your training program and maybe, if you’re on a high-performance track in small boats, consider cutting it down to “just” bodyweight, plyometrics, resistance band, and core work. If “years,” “high-performance,” and “small boats” doesn’t describe you and your training…it’s probably best to get back to strength training.