A Better Deload Week for Rowing

My rowing programs always have a deload week every 4-12 weeks. Being natural pain-addicts and work-a-holics, most rowers resist this.

Hey, I get it. I love lifting. Sometimes I have trouble falling asleep the night before a workout I’m really excited about. My dad bought me a used bench and concrete weight set when I was 12 and I’ve been lifting in some way ever since. I still deload every 6-10 weeks.

I don’t always feel like I need the rest at the time, but I always feel better starting the next block of the program after the deload. Previously, when I’ve tried the “rest when you’re dead” method, I’ve always found myself burned out or injured after about 12-14 weeks.

This doesn’t make for sexy hashtags, but if it’s a simple matter of taking a half-step back during the deload week in order to take three steps forward during the following training block and train with better energy, less risk of injury, and renewed focus, then those 5-8 reduced load training weeks are well worth it over a 52-week annual training plan.

Most programs just block out a week out of the gym for the deload week. Rest and time away from training is fine and a necessary part of any program. If you enjoy lifting or time out of the gym causes you more stress than it’s worth, we can design the deload week to still achieve the same goal of rest and recovery while still getting after it in the gym.

Why Deload?

Continue reading → A Better Deload Week for Rowing

Bundle: Summer Strength Training for Rowing

Beyond the sun, warm weather, and vacation time, summer is also a wonderful time to make gains to lay the foundation for the rest of your training year. If you’re a spring 2k rower following the block periodization system, summer marks the turning of the page into the next training year. Whatever you accomplished, however many medals you won, and no matter what PR’s you hit in the previous spring, training for more and faster starts now. Summer strength training will follow the general preparation phase model of block periodization.

“General” is the name of the game for this block of 10-16 weeks. Forget about your 2k or 6k erg time and set some goals outside of short-distance rowing. No one cares how fast you are or how strong you are in July, so don’t waste time and effort trying to hit 2k PRs or new 1-rep maxes now. There’s plenty of time for that later, and working on some different goals now will help you now and in the future. The whole goal of summer strength training is building a broad base and foundation for the rest of the year. High variety of exercises, high variety of rep ranges, and high variety of cross-training.

Why is strength training important for rowing? The answer is simple. Increasing your strength decreases the amount of effort required per stroke, which increases your endurance. Read more about this in the first article below.

Overview

Learn the Lifts

Summer is a great time to start strength training if it isn’t a part of your training already. The single biggest factor in your program’s success is how well you perform the lifts. Make sure to get instruction from a qualified coach or trainer if you’re beginning to lift.

Improve Your Mobility

Build Your Knowledge

  • Blake Gourley, Joe Deleo, and I host The Strength Coach Roundtable podcast. Every 1-2 months we do a deep-dive into a topic in strength training for rowing with the occasional guest. We’re always taking questions, too.

How to Warm Up for Rowing

The warmup is a critical time to set you up for the best and most productive rowing or weights training session possible with the least risk of injury. Most rowers are great about doing warmups for rowing training, because it’s naturally built into the practice. A short erg or jog, running oars down, some dynamic stretching, walking the boat down, and then skill-and-drill by pairs, fours, or sixes, provides 20-30 minutes of excellent warmup time. warmup rowingThe first important thing a good warmup accomplishes is gradually increasing heart rate and circulation. This is important to lubricate joints, increase blood flow to muscles, and prepare the lungs and heart for pumping a lot of oxygen and blood during training. The second thing a good warmup accomplishes is priming the muscles for efficient, precise movement. Both of these things play a vital role in reducing risk of injury as well as improving performance in training and competing.

Warming Up for Strength Training

The best rowers will treat all parts of their training just like they treat rowing training. You or your coach spends hours planning your rowing training, you read rowing blogs, do rowing mobility exercises, you think about technical elements of the stroke, physical elements of on-water training, maybe you even do mental skills for your rowing training, and of course, you spend hours actually executing the training. The very best athletes apply this same level of focus, dedication, and consistency to their strength training, nutrition, and recovery.

This should take you no more than 20 minutes from the time you walk into the gym to starting your first working set. If you don’t have 20 minutes to safely and effectively warm up, you don’t have time to train. It’s as simple as that.

#1. 5 minutes of low-stress aerobic activity

To erg or not to erg…

In general, I’m fine with rowers using the erg as their warmup, but I can see the counter argument as well.

Many rowers have bad habits or movements on the erg that we’re trying to use strength training to fix. If a rower opens their body early on the stroke, having them erg a bunch before deadlifting increases the chance of them carrying that error over to the deadlift. Many rowers also don’t know “easy warmup speed.” Put two rowers side-by-side and more often than not, the 5-minute warmup will turn into a battle paddle.

Continue reading → How to Warm Up for Rowing

Why I Hate the Bench Pull

I’ve mentioned several times on the Strength Coach Roundtable as well as in a few different articles my disdain–no, my hatred–of the bench pull (also referred to as the “seal row”) exercise, but I’ve never fully written out the case against it. The bench pull is the single most overrated and dangerous lift in rowing. It has low specificity to rowing, is a known cause and risk of rib stress fractures, and there are too many other exercises superior to the bench pull to make it worth doing.

#1. The bench pull has low specificity to the rowing stroke

The picture below shows me in the bench pull position (left) and then at the finish of the stroke (right). The only similarity between the two is that my arms are bent. In the bench pull, your entire body is supported, your torso is relaxed, you aren’t transmitting force from your feet to the implement, and you’re pulling from a dead-stop position. At the finish of a rowing stroke, your body is supported only by the seat and foot stretchers, your torso muscles are working hard to keep you upright, you are transmitting force from your feet to the implement, and you’re pulling with momentum. Even though the bench pull develops some of the same muscles used in the rowing stroke, it does so in a way far too non-specific to carry over to the rowing stroke.

bench pull rowing compare

There are coaches who omit the arms-only part of the pick drill because it doesn’t sufficiently apply to the stroke and teaches athletes to break their arms when catching the water. We spend too much time at practice trying to get rowers to stop doing exactly that to want to have them practice catching with their arms, plus to get stronger at doing it.

At best, the bench pull has low specificity, at worst, it is ingraining bad habits that will just have to be undone with more coaching.

Continue reading → Why I Hate the Bench Pull

Rowing with Low Back Pain? Give these a shot.

Generic, low-grade, muscular pain in the low back is common in rowing. While low back pain can be indicative of an injury and should always be checked out by a qualified medical professional, especially if it is sharp, very painful, or very persistent, there is a lot of low-grade muscular pain that can be avoided if the athlete is willing to put in some extra work. Self-care is a necessary part of an athlete’s life. Just like you pay attention to your nutrition, sleep, and hydration, take 10-15 minutes a day to stretch and foam roll for dedicated muscular care to help minimize and prevent these little aches and low-grade pains.

9 times out of 10, when one of my rowers says, “coach, my back hurts,” a few sessions of this stretching sequence plus some general foam rolling of the lower body has them right before their next workout. Even with these stretches, it is crucial to address WHY you are experiencing low back pain, whether it’s a muscular weakness or a technical deficiency, but these stretches should get you up and moving in the meantime. This is also a great 10-minute mobility series during heavy training times and as general prevention of low back pain in rowing.

Hold each stretch for 30-60 seconds. Breathe deeply and try to sink deeper into the stretch with each exhalation.

  1. Pigeon Stretch & Elevated Pigeon
  2. Half-kneeling lunge stretch, 3-way hip opener, lunge with band distraction
  3. Banded figure-4 (link here to orange band)
  4. QL stretch

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)

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.

hip
[Source: boneandspine.com]
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

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

How to Train Core for Rowing

Rowers love the core. No rower disputes the merit of having strong trunk muscles of the rectus abdominis, obliques, and muscles of the lumbar spine. The purpose of this article is not to convince you to train your core, because chances are, you already are!

First, let’s talk about spinal flexion training, with exercises such as crunches and sit-ups. Much has been written about this topic from a spine health perspective and whether or not loaded spinal flexion puts excess pressure on the intervertebral discs. From a rowing performance perspective, I don’t feel that it’s a movement all that useful, as spinal flexion is not a desired part of the stroke. There are plenty of other ways to train the trunk muscles that don’t risk excess spinal loading or train movements with limited carryover to rowing.

Continue reading → How to Train Core for Rowing