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Indoor Rowing (Part 3): Strength Training to Enhance Performance


Delivering a rowing program to enhance general rowing performance is extremely difficult. With rowers often specializing in different distances and training at different points in any given periodization program, it is challenging to meet their individual needs. Thus, this article will focus on basic exercises that when incorporated into an existing program, or performed as a stand-alone workout, will aid in overall indoor rowing performance and durability. Please note, this article is not for competitive rowers, it is for individuals who engage in rowing as a part of their conditioning routine and are looking to improve their performance and durability for indoor rowing.

Man on rower

Learning Objectives:

  1. Reader will be exposed to the “joint by joint” approach to mobility and stability (Cook, 2010)
  2. Reader will be introduced to three mobility exercises designed specifically for indoor rowing
  3. Reader will be introduced to five strength training exercises designed specifically for indoor rowing

Introduction

One thing we know about rowing is that it is a power driven sport; the more force delivered on each pull, the better the times. However, to possess power, one must first have a strength base. It is best said in the 2011 Volker Nolte book Rowing Fast, “Rowers who win medals at the Olympics or world championships are usually the strongest athletes in the sport” (Nolte, 2011.) Gray Cook would add that without proper mobility, strength usually doesn’t manifest itself in function. (Cook, 2003.) To further complicate things, rowing is a highly technical sequence of movements such that regardless of mobility, strength and power, without proper form it is very hard to improve on rowing performance while simultaneously avoiding injury.

The following article provides a workout that focuses on proper mobility drills, strength training exercises and rehearsal of critical movements needed to enhance indoor rowing performance.  

Mobility Drills

Mobility is the ability to move through range of motion without restriction. However, some joints in the body are more restricted then others (providing more of a stability function.) Gray Cook often speaks of a “joint by joint” approach to movement in which he defines joints in the body as either having primarily a stability or mobility function. For instance:

Obviously the lumbar spine has a mobility component but compared to the hip is more involved in stability (think of a Deadlift, Squat or Lunge.) This is important for indoor rowing because if the hips lack mobility and the lumbar spine isn’t stable, the low back becomes susceptible to chronic or traumatic injury. Thus, in the mobility portion of the workout we are going to focus on mobilizing joints critical to rowing performance and durability: the ankle, hip and thoracic spine.

The first mobility exercise is ankle dorsiflexion. Dorsiflexion is critical for the Catch phase of the rowing stroke in which the shins need to come to a vertical position. The traditional Yoga pose, Downward Dog, with alternating leg lift not only stretches out the gastroc and soleus but mobilizes the talocrural joint enhancing dorsiflexion. Assume the downward dog position and lift one leg to a parallel alignment with the torso, hold for three seconds. Alternate legs and repeat for 20 repetitions.  



Dorsiflexion Stretch start and finish

The next joint we need to address is the hip joint. During both the Drive and Recovery phases the hips must hinge around a sagittal plane axis. If the hamstrings are tight or rowers simply don’t have the neurological coordination to perform this move, excessive stress will be placed on the lumbar spine leading to potential injury. A straight leg hamstring stretch with hands gliding down thighs and shins is a great way to stretch the hamstrings while “grooving” proper hip hinge mechanics. With a straight back, simply glide the hands towards the feet with a one second pause at the bottom (repeat 20 times.) Notice how the hands move closer and closer to the feet with each subsequent repetition. It is often helpful to film clients and then review the movement pattern to ensure the spine stays in a neutral position.



Hamstring Stretch start and finish

The final mobilization involves the thoracic spine. There are several great ways to mobilize this area including foam rollers, suspension trainers, etc.; however, I like an active mobilization using a small ball. Place a ball in the low back to and sit with it wedged against a wall (this stabilizes the lumbar spine) With fingers laced behind head and anterior core actively engaged, contract the erectors such that the thoracic spine goes into extension while the lumbar spine stays in neutral. This drill not only mobilizes the thoracic spine but opens up the chest: both of which are needed in the Finish position of the stroke.



Thoracic Spine Stretch

Strength Training Drills

Previous research on untrained and recreationally trained individuals has demonstrated that concurrent strength and endurance training can augment low intensity exercise endurance, high intensity exercise endurance, aerobic power, maximal strength, muscle morphology, and body composition (Bazyler 2015.) Validating that strength-training exercises should be incorporated into any comprehensive strength and conditioning program for rowing. It is beyond the scope of this article to offer a periodized, strength-training program for indoor rowing. Instead, a series of exercises, which can be performed as a stand-alone workout or used individually to fill in gaps of an existing routine, will be presented.

The first exercise in this series is a Dead Lift. The Dead Lift has long been known as a “gold standard” exercise for core strength, but in the case of indoor rowing, maps perfectly to the Drive phase of the rowing stroke. The start or “set-up” for the Dead Lift is critical. Legs should be in an athletic stance slightly wider than shoulder width, spine in a neutral position and a firm grip squeezing the bar to activate the lats. A common mistake novice lifters make is to bend the arms on the way up or way down; never bend the arms during a Dead Lift. The lift is initiated from the posterior chain (the glutes and hamstrings,) with a concurrent valsalva maneuver from the core which helps lock the spine in neutral. At the top of the motion make sure the hips come into extension with a squeezing of the glutes to finish the lift. The recommended sets/reps for the strength training exercises in this article are for healthy individuals with a moderate-to-strong strength base (4 sets: 12, 10, 8, 6.)



Dead Lift start and finish

The next exercise is the Front Squat. In a 2012 Strength and Conditioning Journal article called Exploring the Front Squat, Bird and Casey highlighted that compared to the Back Squat, the Front Squat had similar muscle activation with less patellofemoral loads making it a safer alternative to the more traditional back squat. The emphasis on the core, glutes and quadriceps makes the Front Squat ideal for enhancing stability and power for indoor rowing. Although there are many forms of Front Squats, one of the easiest to learn is a Goblet Squat (see image.) Place feet in an athletic stance, hold the kettlebell with hands in a neutral position on both sides of the handle, place the Kettlebell just off sternum and engage the core. Drop hips down and back while maintaining a neutral spine posture and knee’s over feet. Squeeze glutes and drive hips back into extension (4 sets: 12, 10, 8, 6.)



Front Squat start and finish

One of the most critical elements in rowing performance is the ability to properly hip hinge under load. A great exercise to not only develop strength in the lumbar erectors, lats, glutes and hamstrings, but to groove the proper pivot mechanics that need to occur around the hips during rowing is the Low Pull with Hip Hinge. During this exercise, adopt the same torso position that occurs in rowing with neutral spine, hands pulled into the upper abdomen and shoulders retracted and depressed. Move the hands towards the pulley while simultaneously hinging forward from the 1 o’clock position to the 11 o’clock position of the torso. Engage the core, fire the glutes and hamstrings and begin to reverse the motion (similar to the start of the Drive phase for indoor rowing.) Again, the critical aspect of this drill is the hip hinge; video analysis is often helpful here to ensure a neutral spine position throughout the exercise.



Low Row with Hip Hinge start and finish

One aspect often overlooked in indoor rowing is the Recovery phase. During Recovery the hip flexors contract while the core engages to maintain a neutral spine position. An exercise to help strengthen this movement is the Stability Ball Crunch. Find a plank position on the hands with feet and lower shins on the ball. Drive the knee’s up towards the chest while pushing the floor away. Avoid flexion of the spine at end range, a little flexion is acceptable but don’t “turtle” the spine. (4 sets: 12, 10, 8, 6.)



Stability Bar Crunch start and finish

The final exercise in this series is the Reverse Curl. Curls are commonly viewed as an “all show, no go” exercise. However, the Reverse Curl actually has multiple benefits (especially when it comes to indoor rowing.) During the Drive phase the forearms must be strong to transfer energy from the legs into the handle. Additionally, moving towards the Finish position the rower must have strong elbow flexors to continue generating power through the end of the stroke. The Reverse Curl works on grip strength and elbow flexion strength: both of which are needed for increased power on the erg. Using either a cable pulley machine or free weight bar, hold the bar with palms down (pronated hand grip,) curl the bar towards the chest while maintaining a neutral spine and neutral grip. Return the bar such that the elbows go into full extension. (4 sets: 12, 10, 8, 6.)



Reverse Curl start and finish

Conclusion

Regardless of the type of client, mobility, strength training and coordination drills have proven benefits in daily life and sports. In the case of indoor rowing, mobility is particularly important in developing proper range of motion for the ankle, hip and thoracic spine; while strength training helps protect the back from injury, enhances power output and grooves proper mechanics involved in the rowing stroke. I hope these three articles and videos have adequately highlighted the benefits of indoor rowing, presented some tips on how to increase performance and stimulated the reader to incorporate indoor rowing into their overall training program.

Watch the below video for a complete overview of strength training to enhance indoor rowing perfomance:

References

Bazyler, Caleb D., Abbot, Heather A., Bellon, Christopher R., Taber, Christopher B., & Stone, Michael H (2015) Strength Training for Endurance Athletes: Theory to Practice. Strength and Conditioning Journal. Volume 37, issue 2, pg. (1-12)

Bird, Stephen P., Casey, Sean (2012) Exploring the Front Squat. Strength and Conditioning Journal. Volume 34, issue 2, pg. (27-33)

Cook, Gray (2010) Functional Movement Systems: Screening-Assessment-Corrective Strategies. On Target Publications, Aptos, CA.

Nolte, Volker (2011) Rowing Faster (2nd Edition): Serious Training for Serious. Human Kinetics Champaign, IL.