The Nordic Hamstring Curl Exercise for Rowers

The Nordic hamstring curl is a popular exercise in the strength training for other sports, but has not reached widespread use in rowing. In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know to begin using the Nordic hamstring curl in your strength training for rowing.

Key Points: The Nordic hamstring curl (NHC) is an exercise with good application for rowers, training the glutes and back muscles for hip stability and taking the hamstrings through a underdeveloped movement of eccentric knee flexion. The NHC requires minimal equipment, so rowers and coaches can incorporate it into training just about anywhere. It is a challenging exercise that all rowers may not be ready for right away, so use variations in range-of-motion, tempo, and set-and-rep scheme to gradually progress up to full training.

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nordic hamstring curl for rowers, an exercise for posterior chain strengthening requiring minimal external load or equipment
Illustration from Bahr and Mæhlum (2002), “Scandinavian Textbook of Sports Medicine”

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muscle soreness rowing article title graphic. picture of deadlifting with muscle soreness and rowing title.

Muscle Soreness and Rowing

Muscle soreness is an issue of both reverence and avoidance in rowers. Pain-chasing rowers love muscle soreness and don’t feel like they got a good workout without it. Others hate it and do everything they can to avoid it out of a desire to maximize immediate performance or not make rowing any harder or more painful than it already is. Rowing coaches often both want strength coaches to “test” rowers and “train their grit” with challenging and painful workouts, but can also get mad when athletes are sore for rowing or don’t perform well immediately after intense strength training. Whether you love it or hate it, this article is about muscle soreness and rowing: what it means, what it is NOT, how it affects rowers, and how we can reduce and avoid it.

Key Points: Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is the kind of low-grade muscular stiffness or tightness that people feel in the 24-72 hours following exercise. DOMS tends to happen more with strength training than with rowing, due to the greater movement diversity of strength training, higher force muscular work in strength training, and eccentric muscle actions. DOMS doesn’t mean much beyond your muscles saying, “Hi, that was new.” Whether you are sore or not sore is no real indication as to whether your training is working or not working. Rowing research indicates that muscle soreness itself has little negative effect on rowing performance at or slower than 2km pace. The best way to reduce DOMS is to avoid getting so much DOMS in the first place by gradually introducing yourself or athletes to new, unfamiliar training stimuli.

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muscle soreness rowing article title graphic. picture of deadlifting with muscle soreness and rowing title.

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rowing physical therapists are a valuable resource for rowers experiencing injury

Rowing Physical Therapists for Rowing Injuries

No one wants injuries. There are many things that rowers and coaches can do better to reduce risks, but we can never fully prevent injuries, so it’s important to have a plan in place for when one occurs. This article covers my general approach to rowing injuries, how rowers and coaches can work with rowing physical therapists for best results, and my go-to list of all-star rowing physical therapists for resources and appointments (virtual and in-person).

DISCLAIMER: While we are discussing injuries and the medical field very generally in this article, nothing ahead constitutes individual medical advice or specific information on injuries or other health problems. The whole point of this article is the value of consulting appropriate medical professionals when confronted with medical or health-related problems. I will discuss my approach to rowing injuries at a general level, and encourage you to apply the information as you personally choose to based on your knowledge, comfort level, and available medical resources, doing so in a way that does not render me personally responsible for your actions.

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rowing physical therapists are a valuable resource for rowers experiencing injury

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strength training for sculling

Strength Training for Sculling

Strength training for sculling necessitates an understanding of what makes sculling different from sweep rowing and erging, knowledge of the different types of scullers, and management of the different physiological demands between different boat classes and racing priorities. In this article, I will cover some relevant research for scullers, identify a few adjustments that I make specifically for scullers versus other rowers, and discuss how plans change for scullers of different types and priorities.

I also presented on this topic via the Craftsbury Sculling Center Free Weekly Webinar series on August 12th, 2020. This webinar is available for free linked at the end of this article.

Key Points: Strength training for sculling is mostly the same in the lower body as those who erg or sweep row. However, the action around the rib cage and shoulders is very different between the three modalities, and top athletes in each discipline will have specific strengths and techniques to achieve maximum performance. Exercise variations of the squat, hinge, and pulling categories train the relevant muscles for stroke power and performance. We can also use strength training to teach and reinforce specific muscular skills for sculling performance. Finally, we use other exercises to develop muscles and movements neglected by rowing alone, including upper body pushing, lateral, rotational, and shoulder external rotation exercises.

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strength training for rowing technique

Strength Training for Rowing Technique

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.

strength training for rowing technique

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The Minimum Rowing Strength Training Plan

Some rowers find themselves without the time, equipment, ability, or desire to make dedicated strength training a regular part of their rowing training program, due to external circumstances or personal choices by the coach or rower. Sometimes this can be a temporary situation, as in during a time of very heavy rowing training, travel, or increased time demands outside of rowing. The minimum rowing strength training plan often focuses on the performance work and discards the supporting work and training to reduce injury risk. In this article, I hope to convince you that it should be the other way around. Your performance work can be better replicated by rowing and erging than the assistance work for the non-rowing muscles and movements, and it is here that you will find the greater benefit to overall performance and reducing risk of injury.

The common minimum rowing strength training program tends to involve a lot of muscular endurance work in the off-season or pre-season, usually focusing only on the muscles that produce stroke motion, and then only rowing during the racing season. The result of this is rowers strengthening the muscles that are already strong from rowing, which misses development of muscles neglected by rowing training and increases risk of overuse injuries and muscular imbalances. The lack of an in-season approach means that these rowers are strongest at the start of the season when it matters least, and weakest at the end of racing season when it matters most. Instead, coaches and rowers seeking the bare minimum rowing strength training should strength train for the goal of reducing risk of common rowing injuries by building movements and muscles that rowing alone neglects. I call this “rowing mitigation work,” and it’s the most important part of rowing strength training, and the easiest to implement in a rowing training program.

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upper body training for rowing

Upper Body Training for Rowing: The Complete Guide

Upper body training for rowing often gets minimized because of the notion that the lower body produces the majority of force in the rowing stroke. While this is true, all of that lower body power has to go through the upper body, shoulders, arms, and hands, in order to get to the handle! Rowers also need to train the upper body to reduce risk of injury. Low back pain and rib stress injuries are two of the most common rowing injuries costing the most amount of missed training time, and rowing research notes poor upper body strength as a risk factor for both injuries. In this Complete Guide article, we’ll cover upper body training for rowing performance and reduced risk of injury, including relevant rowing research, specific strength training methods for in-season and off-season training, and upper body exercises I do and don’t use.

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upper body training for rowing

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hamstring flexibility for rowers

Is Hamstring Flexibility for Rowers Overrated?

Hamstring flexibility for rowers seems to always rank high in concerns for both coaches and rowers. “My hamstrings are tight” is offered as an explanation for everything from low back pain, poor stroke technique, restricted reach on the recovery, and more. However, perhaps we’ve been chasing the wrong culprit with our seemingly endless hamstring stretches. When writing my low back pain and rib stress injury research review article, I kept coming across references to “Koutedakis, 1997,” in regard to the muscular imbalance of quadriceps and hamstrings in rowers and resulting low back pain.

“Knee Flexion to Extension Peak Torque Ratios and Low-Back Injuries in Highly Active Individuals” was an intriguing study as described in other research, despite the bland name, as the authors reportedly did a 6-8-month study of female rowers with a history of low back pain, assigned a hamstring strengthening intervention, and found a decrease in days missed from practice for low back pain. I got the article through interlibrary loan, dug in, and it turned out to be even more interesting than I hoped.

hamstring flexibility for rowers

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deadlifting for rowing

Deadlifting for Rowing: The Complete Guide

A simple eye-test should tell you that the deadlift is a great lift for rowing performance. With a big push with the legs, a tight torso to transfer the force, and an external load held in the hands, deadlifting for rowing should feel similar to the early drive of a rowing stroke. Including deadlift variations in rowing training provides a great opportunity to teach and reinforce similar skills as in the rowing stroke. Deadlifting for rowing also builds up the muscles of the lower body and posterior chain, important for performance and back health. Remember that the goal of deadlifting for rowing is to become a better rower. If all you care about is lifting the most weight or the most reps, go compete in strength sports. What we care about here is finding the best deadlift for the goal of rowing stronger, faster, healthier, and longer.

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low back pain rib stress injuries rowers

The Research on Low Back Pain and Rib Stress Injuries in Rowing

Low back pain and rib stress injuries are two of the most common and costliest rowing injuries. Low back pain (LBP) affects 32-53% of rowers and is the leading cause of missed training sessions. Rib stress injuries (RSI) affect fewer rowers, more like 10%, but as a bone injury, the recovery time is much longer. A typical recovery window is 3-8 weeks of rest, rehab, and gradually returning to rowing. It is critical to understand and reduce risk factors for these injuries, because previous injury is one of the biggest risk factors for future injury. Once you get one, it’s more likely to get another, so we have to start with reducing risk, then preventing the first injury, then reducing injury rates overall.

Warning: This article is long, at nearly 6,000 words, and heavily sourced with the most up-to-date research on low back pain and rib stress injuries in rowers. I originally wrote this as a final paper in my graduate school biomechanics class, and adapted it to blog format with the goal of creating a comprehensive, accessible resource for rowers, rowing coaches, and strength coaches of rowers.

My goal with this article is to provide specific education for the rowing coach, strength coach, and rower detailing the mechanism of injury, risk factors, and rowing and strength training strategies to reduce LBP and RSI in rowers. You can use the links below to jump straight to a section as well.

  1. Limitations of Research
  2. Injury Mechanism: LBP
  3. Injury Mechanism: RSI
  4. Risk Factors: LBP & RSI
  5. How Coaches Can Reduce Rowing Injuries
  6. How Strength Coaches Can Reduce Rowing Injuries
  7. How Rowers Can Reduce Rowing Injuries
  8. Wrapping Up

low back pain rib stress injuries rowers

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