If we look at traditional strength training programs for rowers, we will see squats, deadlifts, stiff legged deadlift, leg press, probably some bench press and some bench pull or cable rowing. Although these exercises will build strength, which may contribute to power production, what this type of program fails to address is the fact that the rowing shell is not a stable platform. While elite rowers make the balance look effortless, it is anything but. So while applying force from the legs through the torso and finishing at the hands, the rower must constantly be using stabilizers to dynamically establish a solid foundation.
Read on if you are looking for ways to:
- Reduce rib stress fractures in rowers through scapular stabilization
- Build core control specific to the control required in a shell
- Incorporate unstable exercises to enhance power application
The Core of the Shoulder: Scapular Control
Rib stress fractures are reported in six to 12 percent of rowers and limit their ability to train and compete. I have had some success with members of the Canadian National Team women’s eight by incorporating the following three step plan aimed at teaching the athlete to control the transfer of force from the leg drive to the oar via the trunk, shoulder girdle and upper extremities.
Picture the synergy or fascial continuity described by Thomas Myers as the spiral line, which includes the rhomboids, serratus anterior and oblique abdominals among others. I ascribe to the belief that muscles have a protective effect on rip stress fractures, allowing some of the forces to be attenuated by the muscle, rather than producing an impulse at the bony attachment. I take the hypothesis that fatigue in the serratus anterior may contribute to rib stress fractures one step further, pointing not only to fatigue but to a lack of motor control in the scapular stabilizers as a contributor.
1. Teach muscle activation of scapular stabilizers.
Have you ever tried to wiggle your ears? Have you ever tried to squeeze your shoulder blades together? For some athletes, the two are equally challenging, so this is where I always start. As we know from the construction world, a structure is only as strong as its foundation, so I want to make sure every athlete can handle the most basic movement.
To teach this exercise, I ask athletes to sit in front of a mirror and try to slowly squeeze their shoulder blades down and in slightly without moving their elbows back. The image I give them is to suggest that they are trying to generate just enough force that they could hold a fat magic markers between their shoulder blades. Watch that your athlete is generating the movement from the between the shoulder blades (middle and lower fibres of the trapezius and rhomboids).
Some athletes will initiate the movement from the latissimus dorsi. You can determine what is going on by simply placing your finger tips on the athlete’s lats and your thumbs between the shoulder blades. Which do you feel tighten first? Are they leading from the lats or the midscapular muscles? Another common error, especially in athletes, is squeezing too hard because they want to “feel” like it is working. This is one exercise where less is more, and if you have an athlete hold the contraction for three to five seconds and repeat for 10 to 15 repetitions, she should feel it between the shoulder blades, not in the upper traps.
Once rowers can master this exercise in the sitting position, I will add some overload by having them complete the same mid-trapezius/rhomboid activation in a prone position.
2. Maintain scapular control while going through a rowing motion with the arms.
Now that the rower has built awareness and control of the scapular stabilizers, we want to teach them control through range of motion. The scapula is a dynamic structure. My goal is not keeping the scapula stationary and rigid but to control it as it glides through range of motion and absorb impulses through the muscles rather than absorbing impulses through the attachments along the ribs.
I begin by taking the athlete into the finish position and start by having her keep the shoulder blades down and in slightly as she performs an arms’ only rowing motion. Once she has worked on maintaining tension in the stabilizers as the arms move forward, which is quite challenging, then she progresses to allowing the scapulae to protract with control as she reaches away with the hands.
Cable Row with Scapular Control
3. Teach the athlete to maintain scapular control while absorbing impulses in the lengthened position.
As the rower places her squared blade in the water and begins the leg drive, there will be an impulse through the shoulders. If the rower cannot use the scapular stabilizers to control and absorb some of that force, then the force travels the length of the muscle, coming to an abrupt stop at the insertion along the ribs. Picture a dog running to the end of its leash! Not pretty, and it is my assertion that failure to control the impulse within the muscle contributes to the rib stress fractures.
To train this in the gym, I have rowers perform a single arm dumbbell row and catch. With this exercise, the athlete performs a dumbbell bent over row, but at the top of the motion, she actually lets go of the dumbbell, catching it as it falls back to the floor. I cue the athlete to catch the dumbbell as though it were made of fine china, absorbing all of the force using the muscles without a jerk in the catch process.
Core Control: Keeping the Wet Side Down
Single Arm DB Row and Catch
That Newton really knew what he was talking about. Take his Third Law of Motion, for example: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” This is clearly evident in a rowing shell. Consider an eight oared shell. All athletes need to pull their oars through the water and recover their oars over the water at exactly the same height. Their bodies must drive and recover along the centre of the shell. If one athlete leans slightly to one side or has her hands slightly higher or lower, then the balance or set of the boat will be off. Either the boat will lean or another crew member will compensate with an equal and opposite pattern. Neither is desirable, with the end result of decreased power output and increased drag on the shell.
We still use some traditional core control exercises, which have been shown to improve muscular endurance in some movements. These static hold programs, however, do not necessarily translate into improved performance on the water. My goal in core training for rowers is not only to make the torso and hips strong but to teach the rower excellent control over balance. Keeping in mind that the rower is in a seated position, I begin with free body balancing on the stability ball. For this exercise, the rower sits on a stability ball with her feet off the floor. The rower will practice from a finish position, mid swing position and catch position. Then she may try to dynamically move from the finish to the catch with control.
Free Body Balance on Stability Ball – Finish and Catch
A stabilization exercise that strengthens the hip flexors and abdominals is the stability ball pike. For this one, we turn the rower upside down and have her pike at the hips similar to the initiation of the recover as the athletes swing out of the bow. What I look for is a nice square pike with control in the transverse plane.
Stability Ball Pike
Applying Force from an Unstable Base
There is some debate about the use of unstable base training in strength and power athletes. If building max strength is your goal, should you squat on an unstable base? No, not as a primary strength development exercise, but if I want to build some stability in my squatting muscles, then there is value in performing similar movements with an appropriate load. It all depends on your demands and your goals. I have had many athletes who could bench press in excess of 300 pounds for repetitions and yet could not do a single push up with their hands on a stability ball. This is a perfect illustration of how your body will not let your prime movers produce a force that cannot be stabilized at the joints.
Now compound all of that with the fact that a rower competes in an unstable environment, and you can see how it is essential to include some instability training even when working the prime movers. One of my favorites for this purpose is the single leg squat on the BOSU (flat side up). The flat side of the BOSU provides enough instability to make the exercise a challenge but not so much that the athlete risks a fall and injury. I prefer the single leg loading because it will magnify any side-to-side differences in strength or control, which need to be addressed and corrected. If a rower is pushing harder with one leg than the other, she can throw off the set and the steering of the boat.
You will notice in the photos below that the torso is almost parallel to the floor at the bottom of the squat. This is not perfect squatting technique, but remember we are training a rower, not a power lifter, so the position of the squat is sport similar to the athlete's position at the beginning of leg drive. I even try to incorporate the coaches’ preferred technique, with some coaches favoring a tall, erect position and other coaches going for a slightly more relaxed and rounded position at the catch.
Single Leg Rower’s Squat on BOSU
Try incorporating some of these techniques to supplement those big compound lifts that will help to build great overall rowing strength!
- Hill, H. Dynamics of coordination within elite rowing crews: evidence from force pattern analysis. Journal of Sports Sciences; 2002; 20:101-17
- Myers, TW. Anatomy Trains. Churchill Livingstone 2005; 139-158
- Tse, MA, McManus, AM, Masters, RSW. Development and validation of a core endurance intervention program: implications for performance in college-age rowers. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 2005; 19(3):547-552
- Warden, SJ, Gutschlag, FR, Wajsfelner, H et al. Etiology of rib stress fractures in rowers. Sports Medicine 2002; 32(13):819-36