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Specialized Strength Training for Rowers / 針對划手的特別力量訓練

Rowing presents a training dilemma. It is a "Power - Endurance sport".

In general, successful rowers are tall, well-muscled athletes. They just don't look like the typical ectomorphic marathoner. So, perhaps those of us who are not so hefty look at this and ask, "If I focused on lifting weights much more and gained a lot of muscle mass and strength, would I become a faster rower?"

Does absolute muscular strength matter for the rower?

A rower must have optimal strength in every rowing muscle, so that there is no specific weakness that diminishes technique. So, will the rower with the best squat or seated row strength in the weight room (maximal strength) automatically be the best in the boat (or even on the ergometer)?

Bigger and stronger is not necessarily better (faster over 1000 meters +).

However, the question of weight training for the rower is more complicated than that. Most rowing programs around the world incorporate a structured strength program of some type into the overall training program. However, the relative volume of these programs varies considerably, and some of the most successful rowing programs do almost no weight-room based strength training. Even within one country's national team, these differences are evident. The very successful Men's sweep team in the US employs a very basic 3 day per week 30 minute program. The equally successful Women's team trains on weights for two-hour sessions twice per week. The far less successful US men's sculling team has often invested even more time in weight training, up to 40% of training volume. The backgrounds of the different US national team coaches help to explain the difference. My experience has been that Soviet/Eastern European trained coaches invest a great deal of training volume in weight training. The traditional Eastern European approach seems to be: "when the athlete can perform 200 squats in the weight room with a heavy load, then they will be ready to tackle the 200+ hard strokes of a race." In my opinion, this has proven to be an ineffective training philosophy that is based on a poor understanding of the physiological limitations of performance. Athletes who perform well in this environment do so in spite of the excessive weight training, not because of it. For many athletes injury and breakdown (along with too little water time) are the result. Perhaps one reason for this approach is that the background of many Eastern European trainers is Olympic weightlifting. We often see the highly ballistic Olympic lifts advocated by these coaches, despite the fact that the force-time sequencing of the rowing stroke is much different in character than an Olympic lift. If a rower rowed like he performs a power clean, the boat would moving haltingly and slowly at best, despite tremendous exertion and accelerated fatigue by the rowers.

As best as I can tell, the training and the rowing stroke must conform with known physiology coupled with good biomechanics. A current perspective on the weight training issue is, that the very best strength training for rowing happens in the boat or on the erg while rowing!

Looking around and seeing the popularity of weight training in the fitness industry and its devoted application by almost all professional sports teams, it is easy to assume that lots of weight training will help your rowing. When we consider weight training as a component of our overall program, we have to understand what the goals of the weight training really are.

Here are some educated questions to ask.

Will weight training improve my VO2 max, lactate threshold, or rowing economy?

Will weight room increases in strength automatically transfer to improved force production at the oar?

Can weight training detract from rowing performance?

Here is my slant on this issue. It is based on research, observation and personal experience. Surely there will be someone, who disagree with this views, and comments are welcome. The performance limitations in rowing do not reside at the level of total muscle mass and maximal strength.  Laboratory research has demonstrated it. Indirectly we see it is true by the lack of correlation among national team candidates between anaerobic capacity (500m) and 2k or 6k erg score. Strength is highly movement specific. Being stronger can make you faster, but much of the weight training, that is done in weight rooms across the rowing world, does not transfer to the boat. In effect, these programs do not improve the functional strength of the rower in the boat.

In general, it seems that the process of rowing itself is the best specific strength training for the rower. It is possible to create muscular overload that exceeds the normal rowing stroke during rowing. The suggestions made below are both, from my own experience and from some good coaches. I offer them for your own inspection. What you will see with every exercise recommended, is that they are highly specific to rowing, both in terms of muscles used and in terms of the pattern of force production. They also often directly incorporate elements of good rowing technique. Besides direct performance enhancement, there are other reasons to employ a basic strength-training program that make sense. One reason is to maintain muscular balance and reduce the risk of overuse injuries. Another is aimed at the over 55 crowd, in whom muscle mass tends to diminish independent of endurance exercise training. Strength training can greatly reduce this muscle atrophy that accompanies aging. It is important to recognize that the volume of training necessary to accomplish these goals is not very great. Remember, we should not let our weight training prevent us from that which is most critical to maintaining/improving rowing performance, namely rowing!

General Strength Preparation for the New Rower - Weight Room Exercises

If a new rower, has come into the sport after a good endurance background in cycling or running, he may be initially frustrated by 1) technical problems, and 2) specific muscular weaknesses, that prevent you from really being able to "empty the tanks" while rowing. These two problems are in many ways interrelated. Bad technique leads to premature fatigue of certain muscle parts. For example, if the leg drive is ineffective due to late blade entry and "missing water", the arms will prematurely fatigue as you attempt to accelerate the boat late in the drive. Conversely, with insufficient strength in the lower back (spinal extensors), maintaining a strong connection through the catch and mid-drive will be impossible.

Here are four good exercises for the beginning rower that addresses specific elements of the rowing stroke.

Close stance, high bar squats - This is a normal back squat, with attention to two specific technique issues. First, place the feet at less than shoulder width, preferably the same width as in the boat. Second, place the bar at the base of the neck (muscleheads call this the "high bar" position), not in a "low bar" power-lifting position. This high placement helps to ensure that you maintain an upright body position when you come out of the bottom of the squat. The depth of the squat should be emphasized. I found that full, narrow stance squats were a good exercise, because they allowed me to focus on an important component of the stroke in the weight room, unencumbered by other technical elements. That is the importance of a strong early engagement of the hips and quads at the deepest point of the catch, while maintaining a firm back. Use a weight you can manage for 10 repetitions. The load need not be so great that you are "stalling" on the way up. We want to gain strength and motor coordination that has some resemblance to activities and force characteristics during the rowing stroke. In other words, squatting a moderate weight with good movement speed is more specific to rowing, then doing very heavy squats that have you moving at a snail's pace.

One legged Squats - This exercise is both, very practical and very effective at curing several ills. Strength with balance is the mantra of the rower, and these exercises are a reasonable weight room simulation. Find a high bench and stand on it so that one leg dangles over the outside edge. The bench needs to be high enough, that your foot doesn't touch when your other leg is in a parallel or lower squat position. At first you probably should have something to secure your balance in front of you, like a wall. Now, lower yourself slowly into the squat position and stand up. At first, you may find that you can't go down under control to a thighs parallel position, but stay with it. Eventually, shoot for 3 sets of 10 to 15 repetitions each leg, with no touching the wall, and your thighs below parallel before coming up. This exercise is good for several reasons.  1) It can help to cure strength imbalances that are either neural or muscular in origin. It is not uncommon to have one leg that is doing more than its share of the work in the boat and not even realize it.  2) It's another way to work on whole body balance and fine coordination with big muscle groups. 3) In this exercise strength without balance and control is useless, just as in the boat.

Straight legged dead lifts - This is a good basic preparatory lift for strengthening the back extensor muscles. Use a barbell. With the knees just slightly bended for safety and a very straight spine, grip the bar at shoulder width and pull up to your waist. Lower the weight along your legs. If doing this lift correctly, the behind will stick out in back, counterbalancing the upper body leaning out in front of your center of gravity. Focus on keeping the spine straight as you raise and lower the weight with the hips. Keep the bar very close to the legs, while executing the lifts, and do the movement slowly. Three sets of 10 repetitions will do.

Seated row - The reason this exercise is important, is not to build up enough shoulder strength to allow the rower to arm-wrestle your way down the course. Rather, by allowing the back musculature to stretch at the "catch" (start of the lift), the rower learns, how to let the arms relax, while the stronger upper back muscles take the load. This is an important element of good rowing technique. In addition the athlete will build up the supporting shoulder girdle musculature, that is not well developed by cycling, running etc. The key focus of this exercise should be to begin the pull with the back, not the arms. If done correctly you will feel stretch in the "lats" and less burning in the biceps and forearms.

These basic exercises, in conjunction with a few others for non-rowing muscles and the abdominals represent a safe weight program independent of rowing performance goals. However, for the competitive rower, other methods of specific strength training seemed to have greater potential benefit.

Strength Training on the Ergometer
Now we come to something more rowing specific.
Here are some exercises you can do on your C-II rowing ergometer, that overload the rowing musculature in the correct movement pattern.

The defining measure of strength for the rower is force applied to the oar. I think the experienced rower will benefit more from the following exercises than from traditional weight room work because of the greater task specificity.

Heavy Tens - Set the Model C ergometer resistance on a high value, 10 for men, perhaps 8 for most women. If using a model B, use small cog open vent. After a good warm-up, and some stretching, do the following workout on a day, that you have scheduled strength training. 10 maximal effort strokes have to be rowed, while carefully maintaining the stroke rate at about 14. It will be tempting to let the rate slide up, but keep it very low by really creeping up the slide. Every stroke is a highly specific strength training repetition involving all of the rowing muscles in the proper sequence. Really focus on maximal controlled pressure. The pace or watts-screen is used as feedback regarding the quality of each stroke. After each set of 10 (or a time of 1 minute if preferred), rest for 60-90 seconds and repeat, for a total of 6 to 10 sets.

Segmented Rowing - As a variation on your row-specific strength training days, try this: Again use the highest resistance setting. Now do the following sequence. First rowing with "LEGS ONLY", at a low rate of about 18, while maintaining the back in the catch angle (shoulders in front of hips throughout) and the arms fully out stretched. The whole focus is on engaging the legs at the catch, while maintaining the connection to the oar with the back musculature. After 1 minute of maximal controlled effort, rest for one minute. Next, row for one minute at maximal controlled pressure (18 spm) using only the normal body swing and arm draw, or "ARMS and BACK". Do not over reach with the upper body. Rest one minute, then put the two together with one minute of maximal pressure, controlled rate rowing at full slide (again 18 spm). Repeat this 3 exercise sequence 3-4 times for a good, rowing specific strength session.

Peak Strength / Power Testing - on the ergometer (C-II) The ergometer can also give you good quantifiable feedback regarding your maximal functional (rowing) strength. Once a month or so, try this after a good warm-up.

Peak Rowing Strength - With the monitor on Watts and the flywheel still, ONE maximal effort stroke and record the watts value you achieve. Let the erg completely come to a stop and repeat this about 5 times to find your max value.

Peak Rowing Power - Power is different from strength because it involves a velocity component. To find the peak rowing power, start with the same setup as above, but do a 5 stroke full effort racing sequence. The peak watt-value, that comes on the screen, is your PEAK ROWING POWER and will probably happen on the 2nd or 3rd stroke. It will be somewhat higher than the watt value achieved for the one stroke test.

Anaerobic Capacity - Start the same as above except set the monitor timer on 30 seconds.  An all-out-race effort, with recording of the Average Watts at the bottom of the screen. An alternative method is doing a 200 meter trial and record the time. This will require between 30 and 40 seconds.

Strength Training on the Water

The final level of specificity is on-water training, in which we create an overload on the muscular force generated during each stroke. These exercises both overload the muscle and help you to focus on proper sequencing for maximal stroke effectiveness. Here we are using specific methods of overloading the force demands of the rowing stroke both to induce muscle adaptations and to improve technique, or the application of force to the oar.

Bungee Cord Rowing - This works best in the single. Wrap a bungee cord (about 1 cm thick or so) around the bow of the boat about halfway between bow-ball and splash-board. Now you have a boat that sets up like a racing single, but runs out like a recreational single due to the mangled hydrodynamics. As a consequence the catch will feel very heavy and the rower will be forced to work harder to accelerate the boat. This setup will allow him to be really overloaded at the catch and focus on a strong and early engagement of the legs. Bungee cord rowing is most effective if you row for 15-30 minutes with the cord on and then remove it for the remainder of the row. This is important for transitioning the "feeling" of a strong connection to the water and early and powerful leg engagement to the normal rowing condition.

Bucket Rowing - A small bucket or can (~1/2 l) is towed with a cord (~10-15m) at the stern-part of the boat. Now the can or bucket has to be thrown into the water, to increase the water-resistance, which creates the desired overload. The rower has to complete 5 6 sets with 50 60 all-out strokes, with emphasis on maximum acceleration the whole drive from the catch to the finish.

Variations - You can also create this force overload/unload sequence in big boats by rowing by pairs in a four or eight, or even by singles in a quad. Let one rower begin with 15 strokes (or workouts like above) at full pressure with the rest sitting easy. Each 15 strokes rotate to a new man. Then after repeating this sequence several times, begin with one rower and add in a man every 10 to progressively unload the catch while increasing pull-through velocity. Out of my experience I can tell you, that hard rowing by singles in a quad is highly specific and highly exhausting strength training! / e.g. KA-Water (rowing half team) and KA-Water, squared

Racing Starts - Of course, the part of a rowing race where muscular strength plays the biggest role. Peak force produced each stroke during the first few strokes of a rowing race is about 40% higher than that measured in the body of the race. If rowing were all about the first 250 meters, then we would recruit different athletes and also train very differently. Here we are feeding much higher power into the oar to bring the boat up to racing speed, or slightly above. So, a workout consisting of start sequences is actually a good method of achieving a very specific muscular overload. One modification that can be made is to add additional overload during the start by using a bungee cord around small boats, or towing something behind the big boats. Do two or three starts in this manner, then remove the resistance and repeat the sequence in order to transfer the "feeling" of loading the oar quickly to the faster condition.

Summary - My opinion is that the young, or new rower can benefit from a general weight-room based strength-training program of the type outline above. However, the already well trained rower probably has little to gain from further increases in "weight-room strength". Movement specificity is critical. The strength training I have outlined really has its greatest application in either very short events, such as the 500 meter dash, or to the brief acceleration phase at the start of a traditional 2k race. It is also very useful when it allows technical elements to be emphasized in isolation. But, remember, there is no correlation between short sprint performance (strength) and 2k performance on the ergometer in a group of similar sized elite guys or women. So weight train, but remember that the best training for rowing is still rowing!                                         

                                                                                                                                                           Internet - Joern Grosskopf  January, 2000