Jan 29, 2015
Row Your Boat

As more schools add women’s rowing to their athletic offerings, strength coaches must learn how to address the power and endurance needs of this unique sport.

By Ed Nordenschild

Ed Nordenschild, MEd, CSCS, is Head Strength Coach for Olympic Sports at the University of Virginia. Previously, he was the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Fresno State University and an Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at the University of Texas. He can be reached at: [email protected].

With an increasing number of women’s rowing teams being added to collegiate programs across the country, more and more strength and conditioning coaches are faced with training athletes for a sport they know little about. In most ways, training rowers is the same as training athletes in any other sport, but there are some important differences that strength coaches need to keep in mind.

Few sports require the combination of strength and endurance that is needed for rowing. Although both strength and endurance will certainly benefit athletes in most sports, usually we can lean toward developing one more than the other. Rowers, however, need an ample supply of both to be able to go all out for more than six minutes at a time.

In addition, female rowers tend to have less experience with strength training than other athletes. This is partially because, unlike in other sports, rowing teams may include novice boats with rowers who have never before competed in the sport. Some novice rowers may have never participated in any organized sports, let alone have any strength-training experience.

As a result, we spend more time than usual teaching technique for even the most basic lifts. On the other hand, athletes who have had no exposure to strength training usually show the greatest gains.

Obviously, aerobic conditioning plays a large role in a rower’s performance. Here at Virginia, the rowing staff is responsible for the aerobic conditioning of the team through the use of rowing, ergometer (rowing machine) work, running, cycling, stair climbs, and so on. This frees the strength coaches to focus on developing strength, power, and power endurance, which we do through a periodized program and constant communication with both the rowing and athletic training staffs.

Physical Demands

Simply put, rowing is a very physically demanding sport. During the main spring season, rowers will typically cover 2,000 meters in six to seven minutes. This requires about 200 or so full pulls on the oars. Races during the fall season can last 13 minutes or more as crews cover 6,000 meters. And once a race starts, there are no breaks for foul shots, face offs, or time outs when athletes can catch their breath.

Even the strongest and most skilled rower will be of little use if she can’t maintain that strength and technique through an entire race. But since power plus technique equals speed, endurance is only useful when accompanied by strength.

Fortunately, the biomechanical motions of rowing are similar to a power clean or a dead lift. Along with back squats, these exercises and their derivatives target the prime movers for rowing (quadriceps, hamstrings, hips, and upper and lower back) and form the bedrock of our strength-training program.

But there are two other areas that we pay special attention to in our workouts. First, we do a large amount of core training throughout the year. Second, we include at least one pushing exercise, such as a bench press, in every workout to strengthen the antagonist muscles and offset the over-development that can result from rowing’s pulling motions. With all the time these athletes spend rowing in the boat and on ergometers, if we don’t train the opposite side of their bodies, their chance of injury increases greatly.

We rely on complex sets to produce the greatest benefits in the limited time we have with the rowers. Each main exercise has a corresponding auxiliary exercise that is worked into the main exercise sets. For example, we will pair clean pulls with a core exercise. We begin with a set of five clean pulls at 50 percent (of power clean max) and three reps at 75 percent as a warmup. Then we start our work sets with three clean pull reps at 95 to 105 percent followed by 20 reps of a core exercises. We then do two sets of three clean pull reps at 110 to 120 percent, each of which is followed by 20 reps of a core exercise.

We use the same complex-set system with all main exercises, which are cycled through a typical periodization of three weeks of increasing work followed by a “down week.” In addition, every workout begins with a standard warmup consisting of 300 touches on the jump rope followed by 20 reps each of low twists, lizards, back arches, push-ups, and overhead squats.

A Strong Fall

To make sure we adequately develop strength, power, and power endurance in our rowers, we split the school year into three cycles, each with its own distinct goal. Mesocycle One comprises the fall semester and focuses on strength development.

Quite a bit of time is spent in the early part of Mesocycle One to ensure that all newcomers have a good understanding of the proper form required for each of the major lifts and exercises we use. One of the primary reasons to implement a strength-training program is to prevent injuries, so it makes little sense to rush anyone into a situation where they risk injury due to poor lifting mechanics or lack of strength.

After approximately a month of basic strength training, the newcomers are gradually incorporated into the full workout with the veteran rowers. For experienced rowers, the fall workouts are all about building strength with power and Olympic lifts. (See “Mesocycle One”.) All rowers lift two times a week in groups of about 25. Fall workouts are 45 to 60 minutes long.

Even though there is a fall competition schedule with races on selected weekends, we simply train through these competitions. For weekends without races, we use an extended Saturday circuit workout. (See “Saturday Circuit”.)

At the end of this fall training cycle the rowers are tested for their one repetitive max in the bench press, back squat, and power clean. These are usually high-energy days and most of the rowers look forward to quantifying their hard work in the weightroom with a new max. These new maxs determine the weight loads for the next two training mesocycles.

Rowers are sent home with a workout to do over the semester break and a reminder that they will have only about six weeks upon returning to campus before the competitive season begins. We emphasize that it is much easier to maintain their hard-earned strength and aerobic gains than it is to re-acquire them after a month off.

To make it easier for the rowers to complete these workouts, we limit them to exercises with a bar, plates, bench, dumbbells, and squat rack. That way, all the exercises can be completed with the equipment found in an average high school weightroom or private gym.

Winter Power

Mesocycle Two takes place during the first six weeks of the spring semester and is run on a schedule similar to Mesocycle One with two lifting sessions per week. The biggest change is that the emphasis shifts to increasing power while maintaining previous strength gains.

We reflect that change by incorporating more Olympic-style lifts as well as jumps that are directed at increasing lower-body power. But just as importantly, we focus on increasing the speed of the exercises. Even when we do a slower lift, we complex it with a faster exercise. For example, when we do a dead lift in Mesocycle Two, we will immediately follow each set with squat jumps. This way, the explosive tempo needed to produce power is maintained. (See “Mesocycle Two”.)

During Mesocycle Two we also try to incorporate more sport-specific exercises, such as dead lifts off a box, cleans, high pulls, and one-arm rowing movements. We still use the Saturday circuits, but increase the work-to-rest ratios and include more power-producing exercises.

Spring Endurance

When Mesocycle Three begins with the start of the competitive spring season, workouts are scheduled for two days a week as travel and competition schedules allow, but are shortened to 30 to 35 minutes. The first workout of the week is geared toward maintaining strength and power levels. The second workout, which is closer to the day of competition, is lighter and faster both in the exercises we use and the way they are performed.

Since power endurance is a main goal during this cycle, we’ll use lighter weights and more reps, especially in the second workout. Using lower weight also decreases the chance for injury in already fatigued rowers. In addition, we adjust our complex sets by using two auxiliary exercises for each main lift. (See “Mesocycle Three”.)

Once the season ends, the rowers have a few weeks off and then are given a workout to take home for the summer. These summer workouts are lighter and more varied, with an emphasis on areas that we do not work directly during the rest of the year, such as biceps, triceps, and lateral movement.

Scheduling & Communication

Although the purpose and format of each mesocycle is determined in advance, the actual workouts are written on a weekly basis. In some cases, I may even make changes on the day of the workout, especially if the rowers are getting tired or sore.

The main exercises are typically changed every three or four weeks, but the intensity and set/rep scheme is adjusted each week to maintain the periodization scheme as well as prevent staleness and keep the athletes interested in the workout. We change the core and auxiliary exercises weekly to provide extra variety.

Writing the workouts weekly gives me the opportunity to adjust them as needed based on the condition of the rowers and feedback I receive from them and their coaches. Fortunately, one of the hallmarks of the Virginia rowing program is close communication among the athletic training, rowing, and strength staffs.

Since the conditioning workouts are designed and implemented by the rowing staff, we confer often to prevent over-training and overuse injuries. These types of injuries are common in rowing and usually result from overuse of the rowing musculature, poor rowing or lifting mechanics, or an acute strain or sprain.

Rowing is somewhat different from other sports in that its practices and competitions are held about five miles from campus. Although I can’t go to practices on a regular basis, I do stop by on occasion to observe what the rowers are being asked to do. I also attend as many home events as possible and even ride in the launch boat for an up-close view.

For the most part, I must rely on the rowing staff, which usually has a presence at every strength workout, to let me know how the rowers are doing. If the rowing coach feels that the rowers are unusually fatigued due to previous rowing or conditioning workouts, he communicates that to me, which allows me to make the necessary adjustments to the strength workout.

I also talk daily with our athletic trainer. Any injured rowers are responsible for seeing the athletic trainer before the workout so that he can advise me of needed changes to their workout.

When combined with a solid periodized plan, this constant communication allows us to provide the athletes the opportunity to improve daily. After all, the effectiveness of our strength-training program is shown not in the weightroom, but on the water.

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