The training of the rower is one of the most interesting yet bizarre processes I have witnessed in my 30 years of training for sport. My first exposure to rowers was in the mid eighties, working with a number of elite and club level males and females. Subsequently, I was lucky enough to work with a women's team at Boston University that won a pair of national championships in the early 90's.
The first thing I realized about rowers was that they trained hard, very hard. The better they were, the harder they trained.
The second thing that I realized about rowers was that effort sometimes mattered more than technique, particularly in the weightroom. Technique in the weightroom was often an afterthought. In my first workout with the women's team I stopped them after one set of hang cleans and had a "meeting of the minds". At the time I had not heard the term technical failure but, as I look back on it, what I told them was the difference between training to failure and training to technical failure. We were going to train until we could not do another perfect rep. This was a foreign concept to them. They were used to being pushed to exhaustion and beyond as rowing is a sport of fatigue tolerance. In the eighties the women I trained were previously taught strength training by a rowing coach.
Many coaches simply advocated multi-joint lifts that bore a resemblance to rowing without truly considering the applicability or difficulty of the lifts. Although the thought process was somewhat correct it was very much like a strength coach attempting to teach rowing. The rowing coaches and strength coaches are both familiar enough with each others sports to be either helpful or dangerous.
The Uniqueness of the Rower
Rowers are an interesting group. They tend to be well-educated over-achievers by nature. Most come from excellent secondary education and as a result take direction well. In addition even though rowers are technically team sport athletes the "seat race" system makes them function much like individuals athletes.
Boat spots (seats) are won or lost based on individual performances so the boat is made up of the eight best individuals. If you have only coached team sport athletes, you may have missed out on training some highly motivated individuals. Team sport athletes have a broad range of training styles. From the type A over-trainer to the talented underachiever. In individual sports the majority are overachievers. Rowers are the exception of the team sport world.
What Makes a Good Rower Might Make a Bad Lifter
One of the major problems with training rowers, is that what makes you a good rower can potentially make you a bad lifter. The long levers that are so advantageous for rowing are a clear disadvantage in the weightroom. Exercises like squats and cleans are infinitely more difficult to teach and learn for athletes with longer levers. The long lever system combined with the repeat flexion/ rotation of sweep rowing makes the rower a perfect candidate for back pain. Combine an athlete with long levers with a coach hell bent on training to exhaustion and you will get a group of injured athletes.
Another problem with rowing, similar to swimming and track, is that coaches often take the easy route when it comes to "fitness". It's hard to make someone fast but, easy to "get them in shape". When seeking to improve performance coaches will simply seek to expand the aerobic base. I have often argued with rowing coaches that the limiting factor in rowing was strength, not endurance. Rowing coaches do not want to hear this. Most rowers have adequate aerobic capacity but, are extremely limited in the strength and power area.
The third problem in training rowers relates to training for muscular endurance. There are two problems in this area. Problem one is that coaches will often attempt to use highly technical lifts like the clean for endurance. Cleans or in fact any variation of Olympic lifting is not an exercise that should be used for endurance. Olympic lifts are designed to train for power. Using Olympic lifts for muscular endurance is like trying to hammer a nail with a screwdriver. It's the wrong tool for the job.
The second issue is whether to train for endurance at all in the weightroom. Attempting to train a tall athlete for muscular endurance even though he or she she cannot do proper bodyweight squats is a prescription for disaster. Many rowers, both male and female, will have issues at both the back and at the knees as a result of poorly implemented muscular endurance training. My experience with rowing is that it is often a game of survival of the fittest. Those who survive the training actually get to row. In the process, many bodies end up by the wayside.
** Another interesting note. The world class males I worked with in the eighties were more of what I would classify as football type bodies than basketball type bodies. I think the mistake we make with rowers is to train them all the same way. The tall ectomorph needs to train for size and strength as this is what ectomorphs lack. However, the ectomorph must be carefully taught and coached to prevent injury in the weightroom.
The football types also need to work in the weightroom but may in fact need more aerobic work. I sometimes think the great ones in rowing become great by accident because they stumble into rowing. The tall lanky type often gets trained wrong ( for aerobic capacity and muscle endurance), never really develops or gets injured.**
The Key To Training Rowers
The key to training rowers in the weightroom is to be technically oriented. Coaches can appeal to the intelligence of the rower when explaining this concept. No good rower would simply get in the boat and say "forget technique lets just pull the oars". The same thought process should apply in the weightroom. Rowers need to be able to perform deep perfect bodyweight squats before adding any type of external resistance. Resistance needs to be added with great care and technique should never be compromised.
Additionally rowers have a unique disconnect. The catch position in rowing is actually deeper than a full squat. It is obvious that to properly develop strength the rower needs to squat low to develop the ability to drive out of the bottom position with the legs. However a "more is better" coaching style and the lack of trained strength coaches in rowing has often caused the athletes that need to squat lowest to squat highest. Many rowers I encountered were actually incapable of a full squat with a flat lumbar spine. Because of this issue I recommend that rowers never back squat. Rowers should use the front squat or the Trap Bar Deadlift to maintain an erect trunk and to take stress off the low back.
In addition rowers need to do perfect hang cleans not cleans from the floor. When told this, rowers will play the specificity card and try to tell you how "specific" the clean, when done from the floor, is to rowing. I would disagree. The clean from the floor and rowing have less in common than you might think if you truly understand both sports. In Olympic lifting, it is good to extend the knees first and "shoot the tail " to get the chest over the bar. In rowing, it is the exact opposite.
A well-performed hang clean is actually more specific to rowing and far safer. This also goes back to the previous point about leverage. Taller athletes will have greater difficulty positioning themselves to lift the bar rapidly from the floor and will place undue stress on the lumbar spine.
Functional Training for Rowers
Rowers are unique in the strength training world for one huge reason. Double leg activity is actually specific for them. How often have we all said 'single leg training is more functional". The truth is single leg training is more functional for everyone but a rower. I still like single leg training for rowers to correct imbalances and improve pelvic stability but, from a functional standpoint, rowers are truly unique. They are the only predominantly "double leg" athletes in the world. This means squats and deadlifts are truly specific for them.
On a side note, I have begun to think that Trap Bar deadlifts or Hex Bar deadlifts
are excellent for everyone, but especially great for rowers. The recent theory is that deadlifts are better as they incorporate more muscles than squats. Simplistic, yet undeniable. The Trap or Hex bar is better as it eliminates many of the leverage disadvantages of conventional deadlifts. Also simplistic and undeniable. Last but certainly not least is that deadlifts produce more of a flexion force and less of a compressive force. The spinal erectors are stimulated by the weight of the bar in the hands yet the spine is not "top loaded" as in the squat.
The truth is that the best functional training device for rowing is probably the rowing ergometer. I think rowers can get the best specific muscular endurance workouts from the erg and should utilize the weight room to focus on strength. Just remember, fundamentally endurance is a function of strength. An athlete that has a higher 1 RM has greater potential to do multiple squats or jumps at bodyweight. Although the relationship is not perfect, it exists.
The problems arise when we go back to the old crew model of effort based lifting. Exercises like bench pulls and jumpies (repeat squat jumps in rowing jargon) must be used with great care and with great attention to technique if they are used at all. If you want steady improvement with rowers, start with a great base of technique and never deviate. Effort over technique always leads to injury and injured athletes can't row.