One of the most frequently asked topics I've been asked to write about is a proper warm-up and cool down for the masters rower. I've had many athletes in the rowing community reach out to me to ask: How can I prevent injury? How can I maintain a healthy body as I get older?
The Starting Point
One of the first things that all rowers must do is make a warm-up and cool down a permanent part of their practice, meaning you must do this every training session. The length can vary but consistency is key! Far too often I see athletes shuffle down to the boathouse in the early morning still stiff from sleeping 8 hours the night before and get in a boat and row and then hop right back out, put the oars and boat on the rack, shower and they are off to work or school! They then proceed to spend the majority of their day in a chair in an office or classroom - living in a posture of flexion for the majority of the day.
One of the keys to a proper warm-up is making sure to address the body in three areas: biomechanically, physiologically, and neurologically. I address all three in the blog article The Transition from the Rowing Machine to the Boat: Part II using crawling as a neurological primer.
I want to provide the rowing community with another option that has a bit more specificity to our sport. The following warm-up was imparted to me by Dr. Stuart McGill, a leading spine biomechanics expert.
Here is a link to a video demonstration of the 3 phase warm-up.
The 3-Phase Warm-Up
Note: The following should be executed after you have gone through the warm-up in the video above.
"Once rowers are on the water they can prime the body and nervous system to do the work at hand. Take some explosive strokes at the beginning of the row that really emphasize the pulse and rhythm of the hip drive - the 'whump'." says Dr. McGill.
Here is a key piece of advice from several well-known and successful masters rowers including 14x HOCR champion Dan Gorriaran of Narragansett Boat Club, and Royal Canadian Henley and US Rowing Masters Champions sisters Kathryn Barr McGill and Diane Barr of Chinook Rowing Club. All of them reiterated the same key point to me:
"It takes significantly longer for my body to warm up compared to when I was younger."
Dan Gorriaran says, "I do at least 15 minutes of warm up, very easy, with drills before and after rowing."
In addition to a longer warm-up, Kathryn Barr McGill and Diane Barr have added in some explosive strokes at the beginning of their rows. This has allowed them to really prime the nervous system and be precise and accurate with their movements in the rowing stroke.
Plan accordingly and give yourself plenty of time to warm up in the morning: I recommend 12-15 minutes at a minimum so you are addressing joint mobility, raising body temperature, and priming the nervous system.
Here is another key piece of advice: If you are pressed for time, I strongly recommend cutting short the main part of your training session - do not skip the warm-up and cool-down phases because you are concerned with "getting the work in." Do a shorter session and focus on quality over quantity.
This is especially important for another reason: After sleeping for several hours the intervertebral discs are more hydrated. The annulus (the tough circular exterior of the intervertebral disc) is subjected to much higher stresses during bending under these conditions. The annulus' main function is to seal the nucleus pulposus and evenly distribute any pressure and force imposed on the intervertebral disc. It is strongly recommended to avoid spine-bending movements upon waking; this is another key reason to have a lengthy warm-up.
After the row it is paramount to counteract all of the flexion movements you are doing during the rowing stroke through the hips and thoracic spine. Here are several exercises I recommend doing post row to help counteract the effects of the rowing stroke.
These exercises and recommendations can counteract some of the effects of the rowing stroke, but how do you maintain this newfound mobility?
To do that you need to respect and understand how the human body functions. This is not rowing specific, this is human specific!
The purpose of the torso is to create stiffness. To be clear, stiffness is not a bad thing! I am not talking about walking around like Frankenstein's monster. When I say 'stiffness' I am referring to the tensing and contraction of muscles. Creating stiffness in the torso allows us to generate power and velocity at the hips and shoulders, but as Dr. McGill is quick to point out stiffness must be 'tuned' to the activity at hand - we are looking for the optimal amount, not too much not too little.
The back and torso are prime energy storers in the rowing stroke. By utilizing power breathing and explosive strokes at the very beginning of the row like Kathryn Barr-McGill and Diane Barr implement, this allows the body to prime and store elastic energy. This elastic energy is then released during the drive phase creating the 'whump!'
Now, when your body cannot create stiffness, it will manufacture it by locking down joints such as the hips and thoracic spine; it's a survival mechanism. So you will only be able to maintain an increased range of motion by developing the core: the glutes, abdominals, obliques and other musculature surrounding the torso.
A convenient way to do this for rowers is through bodyweight training and adding in isometric holds such as hardstyle planks, side planks, and bird dogs as staple exercises in your training. By doing these exercises you are learning to create an abdominal brace. Ideally, this is what rowers want to have happen reflexively at the catch because bracing will provide stiffness to the musculature around the spine and allow you to generate maximum power and velocity from the hips and shoulders.
See the links below for a video demonstration of these exercises.
- Hardstyle Plank (Do 10 seconds of isometric contraction, then relax)
- Side Plank (Do 10 seconds of isometric contraction, then relax)
- Bird Dog (Hold the extended position for 6 seconds)
The final piece of advice I will provide is to learn to hip hinge. Far too often I've seen rowers taking shells off the boathouse floor and put their boats into and out of the water by flexing through their spine. Be aware of how you move. Bend through the hips not the lumbar spine!
How to Hip Hinge
A special thanks to Dr. Stuart McGill for his help in writing this article. His methods, research, and training principles are what I use to help my rowers become stronger and more resilient. I highly encourage all rowers to educate themselves and learn more about the biomechanics of low back pain by investing in his latest book, Back Mechanic. You can find it at www.backfitpro.com !
About the Author
Joe DeLeo is a former collegiate rower turned strength coach. His practice focuses on working with endurance athletes to get stronger so they can perform their best. He also has tremendous experience rehabbing rowing-related injuries and stresses. He focuses on three modalities to train his athletes and clients: bodyweight, kettlebells, and indian clubs. He is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association. He holds certifications as a Functional Movement Specialist, Rocktape FMT II, and is a Level I Girya with StrongFirst. He lives in Providence, RI; you can read his blog posts at www.leotraining.io
1. McGill, Dr. Stuart. Core Training: Evidence Translating to Better Performance and Injury Prevention.Strength & Conditioning Journal. June 2010 – Volume 32 – Issue 3 – pp 33-46.
2. McGill, Dr. Stuart. Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance, 5th Edition. 2014. Print.
3. DeLeo, Joe, McGill, Dr. Stuart. Spine Hygiene for Rowers. Podcast Interview. 4/18/2016
4. Annulus Fibrosus. Spine-health.com. Website. 1/31/2016.
5. DeLeo, Joe. How to Hip Hinge: A fundamental movement pattern. Website. 11/15/2015