Building athleticism in the elite rower -- starts in the warmup

Jun 22, 2022

On the surface, the title of this article may seem a bit confusing. However, if you've ever been around rowers or elite athletes of any kind, there is always something a coach can improve. Rowers are unique, picture an athlete the size of a small forward in basketball, built like a volleyball outside hitter, huge legs, long arms and torso, large backs, and... nothing else. It's like a real-life version of a centaur, but in reverse. Digressing a bit here, the bottom line is that while no shoe is one size fits all, it's safe to say that rowers, even the elite ones, are not the most coordinated of crews (pun intended).

Over the past year I had the opportunity as the Director of International Performance for PLAE to live and work in China with the Chinese Olympic Committee. While there, most of my time was spent with the Olympic Rowing team. It was an absurdly surreal experience just saying I was going to China to work, let alone getting to coach their Olympic and Olympic hopeful athletes. Upon arrival, what stuck out the most was the sheer size and skill of some of those athletes.

For example, the rowers are HUGE in stature with enormous engines. I knew I had to figure out where I and our team could fill in the gaps.

Digressing a bit, it is my belief that any good strength coach is essentially charged with first doing no harm, we all know that (whether we execute is another story) and in my opinion our second mandate is to figure out what the athlete doesn't do well or isn't getting from their sport or sport coaches and give it to them (or teach it to them).

In light of forging new athleticism, we started where the sessionstarts, in the warmup.

At PLAE we've adapted Mike Robertson's R7 system to fit our performance program. 

The first R is Release. That essentially means some form of self-myofascial massage, whatever you choose to do. Because of the age and nature of the athletes today, motivation, pace and energy are vital to setting the tone for a great workout. That said, SMR is something that we encourage athletes to do “pre-warm up.” It doesn't mean we don't find value in it, quite the opposite, merely we want to teach athletes to take ownership of their bodies and prior to the start of loud music and hard coaching is a much better environment to get across the intricacies of tissue work.

When the warmup has started in earnest we get them moving around on the floor for some ground based mobility. Within the system this is termed the “Reset.”  

This could include rocking and rolling a la Tim Anderson and the crew at Original Strength which is essentially where the bulk of the movements we employ within this section come from. We also included some primal movement, animal flow and ground force method and as you can imagine it was as foreign to them as we were. Our floor (or Reset) approach I would describe as multiple in nature, not to say it didn't fall within a philosophical approach, however as a leader I recognize the need for fluidity within philosophy.  

Some particular days we may execute 4-way hip raises, dead bugs, t-spine mobility, striding and rotating, various hip bridges, shoulder taps... Essentially the idea was to access proximal to distal, core to cuff. Depending on the day and the goal of the session, reset is also a place where we fit in traditional transit mobility movements (think knee hugs, walking RDL, Frankenstein's, spiderman crawl, etc.).

Back tracking a bit, I actually prefer athletes to do a bit of moving around prior to getting on the floor or moving through full and extended ranges of motion. I know it's not a naturally flowing progression from starting on the ground and eventually arising to the feet, however I do feel there is value in getting the blood flowing on your feet and waking people up prior to getting back on the floor. So, at times within our system you may see a quick “blood flow” section prior to mobility work. Blood flow is nothing more than some simple jogging, easy side shuffling, easy skipping forward and backward (think playground, not A's) and low -level carioca. From there we get back into system.

Third ‘R' is Readiness.

Readiness can be a number of different things. As you will see below in the evolution of our warmups the readiness portion can be where you would perform transit dynamic flexibility such as inchworms, world's greatest stretch or hurdle mobility or it can be your traditional track style warmup movements such a A-skips, High Knee Carioca, High Knee's or it can be a combination of these (think slow one direction, and fast coming back). Depending on the day and if we feel we've taken care of the mobility requirements within the reset section, then readiness is also a place where we might put ladder drills, line drills, or some other neurally stimulating footwork drills such as wide outs.


The last ‘R' in the warmup is termed Reactive.

If it's a pre-lift warmup, which most of the time it was, this is where some simple plyometric progressions such as hurdle jumps, hops, or basic bounding would be found. This is also the section where we would choose to sprint or throw med balls or a combination of both. Essentially this particular aspect of the warmup was geared toward addressing some elements of speed and power. Of course, being that rowing is sagittal in nature, we were inclined to pick movements/variations of the above stemming from the frontal and transverse plane.


While this has morphed into an article about dynamic warmup, it's material to the rower if you consider what a rower does all the time. It's essentially a combination of all the ailments of modern day life that we spend our time as coaches combating...sitting and hunching. Why the warmup is so important especially in a foreign population is because unlike their counterparts in the US or Europe who may have started rowing in high school (seriously) and more than likely played other sports, Chinese athletes are identified young, and by the age of 21 have probably been rowing as a full-time job since the age of 14. If you think the kids of today are lacking basic movement literacy, imagine if all you did was the same seated sagittal plane movement from the time you were 14 until you “retired” sometime around 28.

We sat back as team and decided that while our three-dimensional warmup system may not directly make them better rowers, it may make them better athletes which may in turn allow them to be more robust. “The best kind of ability is availability!”


Perhaps the most effective way we've deployed this system with regards to warmup was in a circuit/station format (shown below). Although I'm not in love with doing things “out of order” I do love the energy, enthusiasm and hustle that a station warmup provides. Traditionally I am a fan of ground to standing, slow to fast, low to high, stationary to transit...old school track style warmups. However, I do find that in place warmups and circuit or station based warmups provide just as much utility in team environments. Obviously, based on logistics, this is not perfect, however, if your group is large and energy is a currency they're lacking, then a circuit style warmup can work wonders.

The example below has foam rolling as a station, however, if you had taken care of foam rolling pre-warmup, then you could go with a 3-station format, numbers permitting. Or, if four stations were perfect for your group, then you could add a ground based activation station, followed by some transit mobility, then flow to the readiness and reactive stations respectively. Of course, as I mentioned it's not perfect because some groups will have to start “out of order.” With that in mind, it is even more incumbent on the coach to choose appropriate movements for the group. Below I will include some screenshots of the evolution of some warmups we used with the Chinese National Team. You will see how they vary somewhat, but basically they are designed to fit the needs at that time.