Page 2 of 7

2016 Year in Review

2016 was a busy year.

I started this site in 2015 and I really appreciate everyone who read, shared, and commented in 2016 to keep driving me to write more content here.

One of my favorite things to come out of this year was working with fellow rowing strength coaches Blake Gourley and Joe Deleo to start the Strength Coach Roundtable on Rowperfect UK’s Rowing Chat channel. We’ve done four episodes and will do our fifth in February on the topic of Performance Psychology for Rowers. Mental skills training is a passion of mine so I’m really excited for this episode.

Top Articles from 2016

I’m glad, and a bit surprised, at the popularity of the specialization article. It ventures out a bit from my usual strength training content but seemed to strike a chord with my readers. It was shared on Facebook massively and I hope changed some minds on specialization and informed on long-term athletic development.

I also got to work with some other coaches in 2016, writing guest articles for Rufo Optimal Workouts (“Stay Positive to Beat the Injury Blues“) and TeamSnap as well as becoming a guest on the Winning Youth Coaching podcast and being featured in a US-Rowing article on masters training.

Continue reading → 2016 Year in Review

The 10 Best Strength Training Exercises for Rowing

We’re keeping it simple this winter and focusing on what I’ve culled down to the most effective 10 strength training exercises for rowing. These exercises are a mix of rowing performance exercises, included to increase strength in muscles used heavily in the stroke to drop time off splits, as well as exercises for injury prevention and overall muscular balance and health. Check out the playlist with video demonstrations and coaching cues here and then read on for explanations.

#1: Front Squat

This may be the single best lift for rowing performance. Stand with your feet just outside shoulder width, hold the bar in the clean grip or the cross grip, keep your elbows high to prevent the bar from slipping down your arms, sit straight down until your thighs are parallel to the ground, then explosively lift straight back up to the start position.carl offseason

Rowing Benefits: Holding the bar on your shoulders instead of your back, like in a back squat, emphasizes a more upright torso that requires more core strength, more upper back strength, and more quadriceps strength, all muscles that you need to hit those low splits. The bottom position of a front squat is also a similar position to the rowing catch, making the strength built in the front squat more likely to carryover to rowing than the back squat.

Injury Prevention: Tall athletes, common in rowing, tend to find it easier to hit parallel depth with the front squat than the back squat. The more upright torso of the front squat also puts less shear force on the lower back than the back squat, reducing some injury risk from a commonly injured area.

#2: Romanian Deadlift (RDL)

This simple version of the deadlift emphasizes all of the good parts of the deadlift without the difficulty of the start position. The RDL starts at the top of the deadlift. From this top position, keep your torso braced and a slight bend in your knees as you hip hinge, pushing your hips backwards until your hamstrings reach their flexibility limit, then reverse direction, snapping your hips forward to the bar in one explosive motion.carl-rdl

Rowing Benefits: The RDL is a great lift both for strength as well as flexibility. Each rep is a deep stretch of the hamstrings as the entire back works to stabilize the weight and control the descent. The RDL’s hip hinge is similar to the motion of moving out of the bow during the recovery. In my experience, athletes who struggle with the RDL also struggle with maintaining an upright posture as they move out of bow. This gives them more chance to practice this movement while building up a rock solid posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes, and back).

Injury Prevention: The deadlift is a short man’s lift due to its fixed height from the ground and taller lifters tend to struggle to get into a safe and effective starting position. This can result in some nasty deadlift form where rowers are most vulnerable to injury, the lower back. The RDL eliminates this risk. Lower back pain can often result from imbalanced anterior hip (quadriceps muscles) and posterior hip (glute muscles), so building up that backside is a key to staying healthy.

#3: Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat (RFESS)

Using strength training exercises to work one limb at a time is a highly effective way to offset muscular imbalances. In the RFESS, we’re working on getting both legs to contribute to the stroke as well as getting a great stretch on the back leg, so it’s both an excellent exercise for performance as well as injury prevention. The front leg does all the work in this lift with the back leg just resting. If you notice that one leg is significantly harder to do than the other, make sure to perform your reps with your weaker leg FIRST and then only match that number of reps and weight with your strong leg. Your weaker leg will catch up to your stronger leg soon and then you can push both equally.

Rowing Benefits: Tired of having one leg muscly and strong and the other leg looking more like a toothpick? The RFESS will make sure you’re building up both legs equally and is a highly effective quadriceps-blaster.

Injury Prevention: In addition to improving performance through better hip mobility at the catch, flexible hip flexors can help reduce low back pain and injury risk. The body likes balance, so balanced quadriceps and hip muscles also help reduce long-term injury risk. This exercise also doesn’t require a lot of load, so it’ll blast the quadriceps while sparing the back.

#4: Overhead Press

A barbell or dumbbells can be used for this exercise. The overhead press is one of the harder presses to master but offers some major benefits over bench pressing, and not just for going up-and-over-heads.

Rowing Benefits: The upper back is the foundation of your catch and connection to the water. Weak arms, weak shoulders, and a weak upper back makes it harder to apply all that power from the legs to the oar.

Injury Prevention: More scapular (shoulder) muscles are used that tend to be neglected in rowing. Athletes with poor overhead pressing will often exhibit rowing hunchback, and working those mid-back muscles in the overhead press can help restore a more upright posture.

#5: Batwing Row

We’re out of the main work exercises now and onto the assistance work. The batwing row is NOT a bench pull and offers some major benefits over the bench pull. Dumbbells require greater stabilization and allow for a longer range-of-motion (ROM) than a barbell. This means we can use less load for more muscular activity, which decreases injury risk. The greater ROM also encourages athletes to really target the goal muscles in this exercise, rather than just slamming the weight from end-to-end.

Rowing Benefits: The batwing row provides a great squeeze at the finish and using dumbbells builds up better arm and grip strength for a more effective stroke.

Injury Prevention: The batwing row hits the main mid-back postural muscles that rowers are always missing. Developing the middle trapezius, rhomboids, and posterior deltoids will contribute greatly to better posture and less risk of shoulder impingement or injury.

#6: YWT Raise

This is another humbling exercise for the mid-back. I usually teach this with just bodyweight at first and then maybe adding 2.5-10lbs per hand as the athlete progresses. Don’t worry about the weight, just focus on using the right muscles at each phase.

Rowing Benefits: Like the OHP and batwing row, the YWT raise contributes to building a strong upper back to build that rock solid connection from torso power to the oar.

Injury Prevention: The YWT raise targets muscles never used in rowing and uses very low load to do so. Like the batwing row, these muscles will improve posture both in and out of the boat and reduce risk of shoulder impingement and injury.

#7: Inverted Bodyweight Row

Any time we can work torso stability into another exercise and force athletes to transmit force from their feet to their hands through their torso, I’m all in. The inverted BW row, or Australian Pushup as my guys like to call them, offers several great advantages. You can get a great back workout in without loading, important for rowers with often overloaded backs. If the athletes let their torso muscles disengage, they’ll sag and won’t be able to complete the lift. Also, it can be done almost anywhere using a barbell, Smith machine, gymnastics rings, or even a tree branch.

Rowing Benefit: This lift builds up the muscles of the lats and arms and that plus the torso stability combines for a strong finish to your stroke.

Injury Prevention: As you can tell from this list, I’m big on reducing load whenever possible. This lift lets us really work the athlete’s arms and back without adding a bunch of weight for more systemic stress.

#8: Pull-Up

You could probably write this one by now. A low-load exercise that targets the back, shoulder, and arm muscles while forcing the lifter to maintain a tight torso. My one complaint with the pull-up is that it can be hard to do correctly, but easy to do incorrectly. This leads to athletes thinking they can do a bunch of reps and then having to re-learn a more difficult form. The real key here is torso tightness and pulling straight up to the bar. The pull-up should look almost like a reverse overhead press, not a crazy swinging loose torso row. If you find it too challenging at first, you can use a band for assistance or focus on doing negatives–jump yourself up to the top position, hold it as long as you can, and then slowly descend maintaining correct positioning.

Rowing Benefits: Builds strong lats and arms for great posture and a powerful finish.

Injury Prevention: Done correctly, the pull-up is a great lift to build up the mid-back muscles as well as the powerful lats for better shoulder balance.

#9: Pushup

My rule-of-thumb is that an athlete should be able to do 30 pushups with great form before needing to add weight with a bench press variation. Even when the athlete can do 30 pushups, you could also just make the pushups harder by using gymnastics rings or adding load with chains or a sandbag. The pushup is a great exercise that more people should really reap the benefit from before turning to added-load lifts like the bench press.

Rowing Benefits: For rowing, the pushup is mostly about not “going T-Rex mode” aka huge legs and tiny arms looking silly at the start line. Build some muscle and fill out that uni!

Injury Prevention: The pushup is a great simple lift to build muscular balance between the pulling muscles and the pushing muscles. In a pulling sport like rowing, this is very important for keeping the shoulders healthy.

#10: Core

No rowing list would be complete without core exercises, but I couldn’t pick just one for the list. The core exercises I like are anti-rotation, like the Pallof press, or anti-flexion like the plank and plank variations. There are a lot of cool creative plank variations you can do to change up a simple exercise. Check out the last video in the playlist for the torsion plank as an example. I think in general rowers need less motion in their core exercises, not more, so emphasizing these stability exercises from different angles will be more effective than doing a lot of crunches or sit-ups that aren’t similar to the rowing movement at all.

Remember, the #1 reason to strength train for rowing is injury prevention. Rowing performance is the next goal, and it’s totally possible to train for both at once. Our general pattern is 3-5 work sets of 2-10 reps on main work exercises (#1-4 in this article) followed by 2-3 work sets of 10-20 reps on assistance work exercises (#5-10). This allows you to customize your main work goal to match the goal of the rowing season and then clean up with assistance work for muscular balance and injury prevention. It doesn’t have to be complex to be effective!

Did you like this? You can now download my free mini e-book, “The 10 Best Strength Training Exercises for Rowing,” so you can take it with you on the go. No email required, no strings attached, just a handy resource from a coach who just wants everyone to row stronger, faster, longer, and healthier.
Download (PDF)

Bundle: Winter Rowing Training

As the fall head racing season wraps up in the US, many teams and rowers are looking to avoid the ice and frostbite by ditching the oars and moving into the weightroom and onto the ergs. Here’s a bundle of articles that will be useful to you as you plan your winter training.

If you’re a spring 2k rower following the block periodization system, the winter training block will be about half specific preparation and half pre-competitive, depending on when exactly your fall season ends and your spring season begins. The typical rowing team will conclude fall in mid-November and resume water training in mid-February. In between the seasons is a great time to restore bilateral (left/right) balance and make great gains to set up the spring competitive training block. Cerg1heck out “The Basics of Strength Training for Rowing” for an overview of annual periodization and how all of these blocks fit together with the goal of peak spring 2k performance, then read the other articles for how to accomplish it!


Learn the Lifts

Improve Your Mobility

The Strength Coach Roundtable

Keep in touch over winter training

Subscribe to my email list so you can stay tuned for the next Strength Coach Roundtable episode and hear about some of the techniques I’ll be experimenting with over winter season. Email subscribers get exclusive content about training, coaching, and my studies that doesn’t necessarily make an official blog post.

FAQ: Overhead Press for Rowing

The overhead press is a lift that has great potential for rowers, but also carries more risk than other lifts. The unfortunate result of this is that most tend to discard it from programs when a few simple technical tweaks, adjustments, or mobility drills may be all you need to get on the right track. Executed correctly, the OHP strengthens the entire upper body and builds a bulletproof upper back for better connection and power transfer through the entire stroke. Many rowers with weak shoulder girdles can’t sustain the amount of force that their legs can produce. Their legs go down hard, but their upper-back rounds and all that pressure never makes it down the oar handle. The OHP is also a great developer of many muscles that rowing fails to, making it a great “bang-for-your-buck” exercise for the scapular muscles, triceps, and deltoids.

Thoracic spine, or mid-back, ohpmobility is crucial to being able to perform the overhead press. While thoracic mobility is something that many rowers DO struggle with, it is important to make sure that the athlete receives plenty of instruction before making a diagnosis. Often, what looks like a mobility restriction is actually just an athlete who doesn’t understand the correct technique.

Review the basic technical cues in my “How to Train Your Rower” series on the overhead press. The most common errors I see are starting from a poor rack position, not pressing the bar back toward the forehead, and arching at the low-back. Check out the video below for a detailed explanation and demonstration.

The first error is most often caused by a lack of instruction. Everyone should have the mobility to get into a good rack position. However, like the hip hinge, it is not an intuitive movement and some athletes can require extra instruction to get there. If an athlete can get into a good rack position, but flares their elbows or presses the bar out in front of them the second they start to apply force, that athlete likely has weak mid-back and shoulder muscles so their triceps and anterior deltoids take over the lift. Strict rowing variations like the batwing row, facepulls, band pullaparts, and YWT raises, as well as something like a bottoms-up kettlebell hold/walk to work shoulder stability at that range of motion should help build up the shoulder girdle strength to be able to press.

The second error is similar to the first. If an athlete starts in a poor rack position, they will have a hard time correcting that once they start applying force and will end up pressing the bar out in front of them rather than back toward their forehead and then directly over their head. The ideal bar path is as close to a straight line as possible, so the bar should start under the chin and move toward the forehead as the bar clears the face. Most often, I find that athletes who start in a good rack position are already in a good position when the bar is at the forehead.

Finally, a strong lockout for the overhead press is with elbows straight, head neutral, and bar directly in line with the feet. Many rowers, either for lack of mobility or technical knowledge, either press the bar out in front of them at lockout or arch their low-back to keep the bar in line above them. Cue the athlete to brace their torso (flexed glutes and abdominals) and then lock the bar out directly overhead. Inability to do this may be the result of poor mobility.

What do I do if I have a mobility restriction?

I thought you’d never ask! We spent all this time so far talking about thoracic spine restrictions, so let’s take a moment to address why it happens, how to fix it, and what to do in the meantime.

The Why

Most often this is down to what muscles rowing does and doesn’t develop. Rowing uses a lot of lats and a lot of upper traps as the power muscles, but not a lot of the finer postural muscles that contribute to thoracic extension. Combine this heavy usage with the amount of sitting that almost all of us students, employees, and commuters do, and you get very strong and very tight lats and traps that restrict shoulder and thoracic extension.

The Fix

“Mobility for Rowers: Thoracic Spine” contains your answers in detail, plus video. In short, stretch and foam roll the lats and traps, strengthen the rhomboids, lower and middle trapezius muscles, and external rotators of the shoulders. Loosen the restricted muscles, strengthen the weak muscles, attain better balance between the two.

In the meantime

Continuing to try to OHP while working on mobility restrictions is likely to just ingrain bad movement patterns and make it harder to truly fix the problem. Try to find a variation of press exercise that you CAN do without running into the same restriction. Often, using dumbbells, doing one arm at a time, or using a seated variation of press (seated overhead or incline press, for example) can be performed without as great demands on mobility.

Why should I OHP instead of just bench or incline press?

If you have the mobility, the standing overhead press offers greater benefits to rowers than prone or seated presses for the additional demands on torso stability, core strength, and mobility. Mobility is very much a “use-it-or-lose-it” quality. Once you have the mobility required to OHP, simply performing the OHP is also performing thoracic spine mobility maintenance which will also help you when rowing. The OHP also prioritizes development of the deltoids and mid-back muscles much more than the bench press, which focuses more on triceps and chest. I will often program the OHP as a main work exercise and a bench press variation (incline or dumbbell) as assistance work.

Strict OHP vs. Push Press

In the strict OHP, the knees do not move once the athlete begins the lift. In the push press, the athlete dips from the lower body and then explosively drives the weight overhead with the use of both upper and lower body strength and power. Both of these lifts are excellent for different reasons. The push press can be loaded heavier, forces the athlete to transmit force from their lower body to their upper body in a sport-similar pattern, and equally works the muscles of the mid-back and shoulders, all of which make it seem like the superior exercise. However, sometimes it is simply too much. It is often best to give rowers’ sore and tired legs a workout off and have them strict press, using lighter loads with less systemic stress. I also find that the simpler strict press is easier for athletes to master.

Is barbell OHP the only option or can I use dumbbells or kettlebells?

The main advantage that a barbell offers over other forms of loading is its ability to achieve maximal loading. In an exercise like the squat, the barbell allows us to load significantly more weight on the athlete than they could hold with dumbbells or kettlebells. For the deadlift, most gyms do not have dumbbells heavy enough to come close to what can be loaded on a barbell. However, the overhead press is naturally a much lighter exercise than either of these two, and therefore, maximal load is easier to attain. Dumbbells and kettlebells offer the advantage of unilateral training (one arm at a time) as well as greater priority on the stabilizer muscles of the mid-back and shoulders. If you prefer these variations over the barbell and have heavy enough dumbbells or kettlebells to load the lift sufficiently, go ahead!

Don’t be intimidated by the OHP. It’s a great exercise that just requires a little extra attention and care to get going on the right path. Once you master the fundamentals, it will reward your efforts many times over both in the boat and on the land with better catches, stronger connection to the oar, and healthier shoulders.

Part 1: Squat FAQs

Part 2: Deadlift FAQs

You can also download the complete “How to Train Your Rower” guide for free! This PDF manual contains the 3-part FAQ series as well as my 3-part instructional series for each lift.

Download (PDF)

A Coach’s Guide to Inclusivity

In part one last week, we covered person-first language, took a detailed look at what it means to truly be inclusive, and evaluated the differences (or lack thereof) in characteristics of athletes with and without disabilities. In part two, we’ll use the critical theory to look at how sport reflects society for people with disabilities, the concept of social settings to check the message your program is sending to people with disabilities, and wrap things up with an action plan for coaches.

Sport as a Model of Society

Especially in an Olympic year, we constantly hear about the values of sport in society. Sports build character, sports teach life lessons, sports teach the value of hard work, team work, self-confidence, and so on. There is no doubt that sport can be a powerful way to do all of these things, but only when done with the goal of doing so. Just like playing a team-building game on the first day of practice doesn’t automatically build a rock-solid team with no further effort, the messages you want to send and the lessons you want to teach with sport need to be consistently evaluated and reinforced to be effective.

One way that we can evaluate sports in society is with the Critical Theory. This is one of five main sociological theories that has guided sociological research for the last fifty years, and focuses on the power dynamics present in a given environment [3]. Someone using critical theory will see sport is an area where culture and social relations can be produced and changed. History has proven that this is the case in sport, from race relations to gender IMG_6575(1)stereotypes, and hopefully now to disability. Main questions to ask of your program from a critical theory perspective include:

  • How do people without disabilities interact with, influence, and make decisions for those with disabilities?
  • How is power shared between individuals with and without disabilities? What is the balance of competitive opportunities, resources, equipment, coaching, and more?

Continue reading → A Coach’s Guide to Inclusivity

Inclusivity in Sport, Part 1

I’m a straight, white, healthy, 24-year old athletic male with no disabilities. No one in my close family has disabilities, and it’s not something that I consider myself to know much about. I coach high school lacrosse and college rowing, two sports traditionally known for being more privileged, and aside from a few athletes with attention deficit disorder, I haven’t had any experience of coaching athletes with disabilities. My exposure to the field of disability comes from my girlfriend, an MA graduate in rehabilitation counseling who works in residential services for people with disabilities, and a few opportunities to volunteer with an adaptive rowing program in the Seattle area. I decided to do a final project for a graduate school course on this subject and set about learning more about sport for people with disabilities as well as accommodations and inclusivity in sport. As I started researching, talking to other coaches, and thinking about my own experiences, I realized I had a lot to learn. My goal with this article is to share my learning process, including my own preconceived notions, background research and sociological theory, and tangible takeaways for my own coaching and hopefully yours too.

Part one of this article will discuss person-first language, how we can define and produce inclusiveness, and whether there actually is a difference between athletes with and without disabilities. Part two will discuss how sports reflect society for people with disabilities, how environment affects perceptions and actions, and will conclude with an action plan for coaches.

Continue reading → Inclusivity in Sport, Part 1

Hip Health for Athletes

There are a number of chronic and acute pains and injuries in sports that result from a problem in the hips.

The hip girdle is quite complex, with its four directions of motion and dozens of muscles inserting, attaching, and acting on the various structures. However, don’t get bogged down in complex analyses of each individual muscle and joint. There are a few common practices that most athletes would benefit from in their training to enjoy happy and healthy hips for a long career and great performances.

Continue reading → Hip Health for Athletes

Mastering the Hip Hinge

The hip hinge is a key basic athletic movement that must be mastered to perform many strength training exercises in the weight-room. Squat, deadlift, push press, and Olympic lift variations are all highly reliant on this fundamental ability, plus, a rock-solid hip hinge has numerous benefits to whatever sport you play. The hip hinge is the basis of the fundamental athletic position. Building strength and endurance of the back, glute, hamstring, quad, and calf muscles involved in hip hinging will make you powerful in many elements of your game.

What is the hip hinge?

The hip hinge is the movement of pushing the hips back, maintaining a neutral spine and no more than a slight bend of the knees, balancing bodyweight between forefoot and heel. This is the power position and is a part of almost every sport–NFL combine athletes hit this position when testing their vertical jump, baseball players prepare for a ground ball in this position, sports like football, basketball, lacrosse, and soccer play defense from this position, volleyball players bump from a hip hinge, tennis players serve return from the hinge, Olympic lifters hang clean from this position, and finally, this is the deadlift position. The hip hinge is the point of optimal strength of the main muscles of the lower body: calves, quads, hamstrings, glutes, and lower back.

Continue reading → Mastering the Hip Hinge

5 Tips for New Coaches

I have enjoyed connecting the dots on my young coaching career. A few of these dots are:

  • Dad buys me a used bench and concrete weights at age 12-13. We have to keep a training log for karate promotions, so I begin journaling my training as my middle school best friend and I do endless variations of bench press and arms exercises. I get bit by “the iron bug” and build the early habit of the training log.
  • Despite no real experience, knowledge, or accomplishments, I become “the guy” in high school writing training programs for himself and anyone who wants one. I latch on to my high school strength and conditioning class teacher and coach. He supervises my senior project after I change interests from sociology/criminal justice to “undecided,” and I do my presentation on strength training for rowing.
  • I play club lacrosse in college and become the de facto team strength and conditioning coach, organizing weight-room and agility and conditioning sessions.
  • I work with a few rowers at my student job and run into them in the weight-room during a lacrosse session. They jump in and I start working with a few of them individually. I decide to major in kinesiology because I enjoy sports and training.
  • Because I’m in the weight-room so much, actual coaches and athletes start assuming I know what I’m doing. The undergrad kinesiology program is backed up, so thanks to one of these connections, I fulfill my year-long internship requirement with the varsity track and field team before I actually begin coursework.
  • I’m giving advice and coaching to 5-6 rowers at this point, and a few of them become team captains/cabinet members. They talk to their coach about strength training and I officially become the team strength coach.
  • I overhear my former lacrosse teammate and then-roommate talking on the phone with the head coach of a new lacrosse program he’s coaching, lamenting their struggles to find a JV assistant coach. I sign my coaching contract the next week.
  • I have a job at a local gym after I graduate. I work it for a while and things don’t work out, so I take a desk job. I have a lot of time, so I start a website so that my high school lacrosse players and college rowers can find technique videos and training resources.

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something—your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.”

I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I’ve said things to athletes that I’ve regretted, missed plenty of opportunities, skipped on readings that I should’ve read in school, called plays that didn’t work out, and done some dumb things in the weight-room. I’ve learned a lot from these, and I know I’ll make more and learn from those too.

I’ve also done a few things right that I think would help a new coach.

Continue reading → 5 Tips for New Coaches

Summer Training: Fix Your Imbalances

If you’ve followed my blog and the block periodization method, you know that for most spring 2k rowers, the summer season general preparation block is one of your most productive training times to set up the rest of your year. The main goals of the general preparation block are:

  1. Rest, recover, and heal

  2. Build a foundation of strength and aerobic capacity

  3. Correct imbalances that result from rowing

  4. Enjoy summer and maintain your enthusiasm for the sport

Continue reading → Summer Training: Fix Your Imbalances