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Thread: Strength training for rowers

  1. #1
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    Default Strength training for rowers

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    I've found a few threads about rowing and SS through the search function, but none of them seem to address this particular issue.

    I have been involved in rowing as an athlete and a coach for a number of years. For a very long time there has been some vague recognition amongst amateur athletes and coaches that strength training is important, but somehow not as important as spending an hour each day doing low-intensity work on the rowing machine. Most serious rowing programmes involve some kind of strength training, but no one thinks very hard about why it's included, and exercise selection is generally misguided to say the least. As in many sports there is an obsession with 'functional training' and with 'the core.' It was common at my university boat club to refer to anything which doesn't closely resemble the rowing stroke as 'beach weights' - a useless pursuit of vanity which doesn't make the boat go faster, and may in fact make it go slower if you start adding muscle mass in the wrong places. Likewise, variations of planks, Russian twists, bench rows, sit-ups, and bosu ball exercises were common, as a strong core was considered vital for the ability to balance the boat.

    Having now returned to my former university club as a sort of volunteer coach, I'm now in the position where I may be able to influence the strength training regimen followed by around 30-40 people. I would like to have them all start a novice linear progression at the beginning of the coming academic year, but I am anticipating some resistance particularly from the senior members of the club who have a more entrenched 'functional/beach weights' mindset. It doesn't help that the current programme was devised by a local professional strength & conditioning who was paid to do so, meaning there is an undeserved but unquestioned aura of authority around the programme which may be hard to disrupt. Apart from this more general problem, I have a specific issue which I've come here to ask for help with:

    SS includes the press and the bench press as key components of the programme. Unlike squats, deadlifts, pull-ups, and power cleans, neither the press nor the bench press resemble the rowing stroke and neither look very much to a layman like they would make the boat go faster. Given the hostility I am anticipating to changing the strength programme, I am concerned that advocating the training of the press and bench press may result in a total rejection of the method in favour of the current and very suboptimal regimen. I do not have the authority to impose a new programme on the club against its will, so I am going to have to persuade them that SS or something like it is the right thing to do. I see two options in front of me, each of which presents questions I can't answer:

    1. Introduce SS exactly as it is laid out in the books, including the press and bench press. I will need to be able to persuade the club that the press and bench press are in fact useful for rowing and that they should do the programme as written. In this case I'd need to know: are they actually useful (or useful enough)? And if so, what can I say to attest to their usefulness?
    2. Modify SS to make it more 'palatable' for rowers by removing at least the bench press or both the bench press and the press (I feel I may be able make an argument from 'core strength' in favour of retaining the press due to the kinetic chain involved), and substituting pulling exercises (pull-ups? barbell rows? snatches?). In this case I'd need to know: what would be the best way to modify the programme?

    Any help would be greatly appreciated.

  2. #2
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    Don't "modify" the program. It makes the kids strong without any modifications. Stronger should be palatable.

  3. #3
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    That was the answer I was expecting, but I'm still left with the problem I mentioned which follows. This is an opportunity to move my club away from an ineffective programme to an effective one, but I need to be able to persuade the club members to adopt the programme as written. The problem is that 'stronger' doesn't factor into their thinking - only boat speed does. It's not hard to persuade rowers that squatting, deadlifting, cleaning, etc., improve boat speed, because those movements at least slightly resemble the rowing stroke, and to the extent that they don't resemble the rowing stroke they are nonetheless recruiting the same major muscles as prime movers, so it makes obvious sense to train those movements. But what can I say to persuade anyone that the bench press improves boat speed? I'm not even convinced it does myself. That doesn't matter to me personally, because I care about strength as well as boat speed, but now I have to make other people care - people who only think about boat speed. The argument 'if we get John to bench press he will get stronger,' will be met with the response 'I don't care how strong John's bench press is. I care about how quickly he can row 2,000m and his power-to-weight ratio. Big heavy pecs and triceps from benching are useless in the rowing stroke and make him heavier for no additional speed.' No one is going to dispute that taking John's squat from 200lb to 300lb will make him a faster rower, and that we're going to squat low-bar to involve the back as well as the legs, but it's far from clear how a bigger press and bench press make him a better rower, and this is the problem.

    I don't have an answer to this, and if I can't justify the press and bench press from a boat speed perspective then my club is not going to adopt SS.

  4. #4
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    Damn itís so frustrating that 90% of the people on this board are looking to change or modify the program. Listen, you arenít smarter than the guy who wrote the book! You or your athletes donít have more special needs than any of the 10s of thousands of people mark has trained had, and the program wasnít modified for them. So unless you have physical anomalies that prevent you from adhering to the program, just follow the damn thing to the letter and quit searching for reasons to change the damn thing!

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    Show them a video of a deadlift. Hold your phone sideways. If they canít see that a deadlift is almost identical to the lower body portion of what you do in the boat then they cannot be helped. I trained several women from the University if Texas rowing team several years ago. If you canít get them on board with the whole program, at least teach them all to Deadlift. Squatting probably even better but the Dead ďlooksĒ like rowing and that sometimes makes it an easier sell

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    The shoulder girdle doesn't operate in isolation. Pressing, especially, contributes to strength in the traps and lats that is useful in the rowing movement, even if they're not the primary movers. (Think about the end of the stroke and the recovery) And bench pressing allows more weight to be loaded which drives adaptation in the whole system.

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    Quote Originally Posted by MWM View Post
    The problem is that 'stronger' doesn't factor into their thinking - only boat speed does. It's not hard to persuade rowers that squatting, deadlifting, cleaning, etc., improve boat speed, because those movements at least slightly resemble the rowing stroke, and to the extent that they don't resemble the rowing stroke they are nonetheless recruiting the same major muscles as prime movers, so it makes obvious sense to train those movements. But what can I say to persuade anyone that the bench press improves boat speed?
    Can you manage to explain to them that boat speed = force production, and that force production = strength, and that anything that makes you stronger = more boat speed? High school physical science.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Matt James View Post
    The shoulder girdle doesn't operate in isolation. Pressing, especially, contributes to strength in the traps and lats that is useful in the rowing movement, even if they're not the primary movers. (Think about the end of the stroke and the recovery) And bench pressing allows more weight to be loaded which drives adaptation in the whole system.
    Thanks Matt, that's helpful

    Quote Originally Posted by Mark Rippetoe View Post
    Can you manage to explain to them that boat speed = force production, and that force production = strength, and that anything that makes you stronger = more boat speed? High school physical science.
    In principle they're not going to challenge that logic. The problem is that bench pressing looks like force production 'in the wrong direction.' Their mindset is 'why should we waste time getting stronger at pushing when the rowing stroke is a pulling movement?'

    I suppose part of the problem is that, unlike golf, where none of the barbell lifts resemble the golf swing so the task is to persuade someone generally that being stronger makes you a better golfer (and that all these lifts in combination are the best way to make you stronger), for rowing some of the lifts do resemble the rowing stroke, and others don't. So the problem becomes how to stop someone from looking at the lifts and saying 'these lifts will make our rowing stroke stronger, so we'll train those, but those lifts won't, so we'll ignore them.'

  9. #9
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    Can you manage to explain to them that the increased ability to produce force is not directional? Like this: Functional Training is a Waste of Everybody's Time | Mark Rippetoe

  10. #10
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    Quote Originally Posted by Mark Rippetoe View Post
    Can you manage to explain to them that the increased ability to produce force is not directional? Like this: Functional Training is a Waste of Everybody's Time | Mark Rippetoe
    So what this comes down to is communicating the point that 'strong is not specific to a movement pattern.' This makes sense but my intuition is that there is a limiting case, and our disagreement with the club rowers might be framed as a disagreement over when that case comes about. For example, strong might not be specific to a movement pattern, but a cyclist doesn't need strong pecs, shoulders, lats and traps to be a strong cyclist - he just needs strong legs. So there are particular parts of his body which a cyclist might care about being strong and others which he doesn't. The strength a cyclist cares about is to some extent body-part-specific even if it isn't movement-pattern-specific, because his upper body isn't being used to propel the bicycle. In fact if he adds muscle mass to his upper body then he might even get slower rather than faster, because now he weighs more (assuming his legs were as strong as they were when he weighed less). Does this make sense?

    In the rower's case I think the same argument is applied to a less extreme case: the upper body is used in the rowing stroke, but only in a certain way. Since during the stroke it only pulls and doesn't push, the rower doesn't care about making those muscles stronger which contribute to a push, so there's no point in doing the bench press. He should just train the pulling movements so he gets stronger at pulling the oar towards him. Unlike the cyclist, he cares about the strength of the upper body, but only part of the upper body.

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