Fellow rowing strength coach Joe DeLeo and I co-presented at the Joy of Sculling Conference in December 2019. Our topic was “Strength Training for Rowing 101,” and our goal was to answer major questions of why strength training is important for rowing technique and performance, what to know to get started, and how to progress from there. Joe’s section of the presentation focused on fundamental strength training principles and their specific application to rowing training. My part of the presentation was “the why.” Strength training can improve rowing performance by increasing the amount of force the rower can exert on the handle. We can also use strength training for rowing technique, training and developing muscles to help rowers express force through technically sound biomechanical pathways.
Technically sound biomechanical pathways? Basically, we want stroke force to go through muscles, not through skeletal structures, and we want that force to be distributed across many strong muscles. Rowers who are disproportionately strong in one area of their body will rely excessively on the strong area, and minimize contribution from the weaker area. “Bad technique” is bad because it sacrifices boat speed, creates technical mismatches between rowers, and increases risk of injury by exposing vulnerable bones and muscles to excess stress and strain.
I demonstrate a few common rowing errors in the image below. I’m sure you can spot many problems with my “technique.” I’m slumping at the release, putting all my weight on the back of the seat, rounding at the lower back, and rolling my shoulders forward. In the middle picture, I’m still rounded at the lower back with shoulder excessively rolled forward. We’d refer to these positions as excessive lumbar flexion and excessive shoulder protraction. These errors magnify at the catch, in the picture on the right, as the seat tucks toward my heels, and I shrug my shoulders up and roll them forward further.
The standard approach would be to treat these errors as technical problems, and use drills, cues, and more erging and rowing to correct them. It’s easy to assume that any problems in the rowing stroke are technical problems, and that a different drill, or just more practice, will fix the error. If we go further into thinking about why the problem is happening, and the mechanics behind the error, the root of the problem might not actually be technical in nature.
Strength Training for Rowing Technique
Lower body weakness manifests in a few major stroke errors. Shooting the slide is one of them. A rower with weak quadriceps will not be able to extend the knee forcefully against the resistance of the water. The rower might row the blade in, reducing early drive force and knee extensor demands. They also might get the blade planted, but extend the knee weakly, resulting in the classic slide-shoot as the seat moves without connection to the oar. If our weak-legged rower wants to get the blade in, and doesn’t want to shoot the slide and fall behind in the drive, they might open the back early or bend the elbows early. This achieves the biomechanical term of “summing forces.” The quadriceps aren’t strong enough to produce early drive force, but the quadriceps AND back AND biceps together are if we add them all together. However, this leaves the athlete with nowhere to go in the middle of the drive, because they’ve already given it their all in the early drive phase.
I teach the hip hinge movement in all of my basic strength training for rowing workshops, and usually find that it is entirely new information for the audience. The hip hinge is the fundamental athletic movement of flexing and extending the hips with a stable, neutral lumbar spine. It is the top half of the deadlift movement, as the bar moves from the knees to locked out at the hips. It is also the foundation of the rowing stroke. Rowers who don’t know how to hip hinge tend to achieve reach on the recovery and power on the drive through the spine and shoulders, rather than through the hips with an upright torso. You can see this in the middle picture of my error-riddled demonstration above. This is bad for performance, and also for risk of injury to the spine and rib cage. Rowers must master the hip hinge movement, and train this movement to develop the posterior chain muscles of the hamstrings, glutes, and back.
The third and final major physical emphasis is the scapular muscles, or muscles of the shoulder area. On the recovery, these muscles are responsible for keeping the shoulders down as the rower pushes the hands away, sitting upright through the middle phase, and approaching the catch. At the catch, all of the force that rowers develop in the lower body has to go through the shoulders and arms to get to the handle and blade. If the rower places the blade in the water and pushes with the legs, but cannot sustain this force through the shoulders, their upper back will round, they may shoot the slide, and they will miss early drive force. This might look like technical problems of inconsistent handle heights, dragging blades on the water or carrying them too high, skying at the catch, or shooting the slide, when this problem is actually a strength problem. The rower is not strong enough to consistently manage the oar and posture on the recovery, and transfer lower body force to the handle and blade on the drive.
The Role of Drills in Technical Development
We should do our best to help rowers have a good “mental model” of stroke technique before jumping into physical fixes. There have been times in my own coaching when I’ve been working on this or that with an athlete, only to have them suddenly say, “oh! THAT’S what I’m supposed to be doing?” Clarity is the easiest and fastest step in our troubleshooting process. If the athlete understands what they are trying to do, but cannot achieve it, or can only achieve it when doing low-load or slow-moving drills, then this suggests that problems may be more physical in nature.
Drills are helpful for the cognitive stage of learning. Let’s take this complex movement of the rowing stroke and break it down into a few phases, so we can all get on the same page mentally about what specific movements we need to do at which point in the stroke. We can also look at equipment modifications as a form of “drill.” If hatchets introduce too much loading for the athlete to manage, can we use spoons and see if that lower load environment helps the athlete develop the goal technique? Does the error happen on lower load dynamic ergs as well as higher load static ergs?
However, if the lower body muscles simply aren’t strong enough to produce early drive force, we will have a hard time using drills alone to correct slide-shooting, or opening the back early, or early arm break. Without a solid hip hinge motor pattern and supporting musculature, drills alone will not correct sequencing and blade height on the recovery. We won’t have consistent catch placement without strong scapular muscles to hold the athlete’s upright posture. If the athlete doesn’t have the strength and the fitness, they will struggle to demonstrate the technique at full speed and full pressure.
Putting Ideas Into Practice
So, what should rowers and rowing coaches do? Develop a system for year-round, age-and-stage-appropriate strength training, in a way that works for your training environment, equipment availability, and greater context. Strengthen the muscles responsible for producing stroke motion and the muscles neglected by the rowing stroke. Building the quadriceps, hamstrings, glute, back, abdominal, shoulder, and arm muscles will help improve stroke power and ability to achieve good rowing technique. Building the “everything else,” including chest, triceps, and lateral and rotational movements, will help reduce risk of imbalances and postural problems that may lead to injury.
You can incorporate some basic movements and strength training into a full-body rowing warmup. Your might use low-load, bodyweight and resistance band circuit training. Design them thoughtfully, and do them well. It might be an expanded off-season plan, followed by a minimalist approach to in-season maintenance. If you have the athletes, facility, and staff for it, maybe it’s a full-blown periodized weightroom-based system. Something is better than nothing. Whatever your situation, there’s always a positive element that we can contribute to build stronger, faster, healthier rowers who can achieve better technique, better performance, and enjoy longer rowing careers.
Watch the rest of our presentation below for the details.
Updated with more video links August 2022.