row2k Features
Strength Training for Masters Rowers
June 18, 2007
Janit Stahl

Photos by Joan Lentini

The on-water season is well underway. Your base building throughout the winter on ergometers has paid off--you feel ready to row. After meters upon meters of erg workouts and cross training, your body is certainly primed for its favorite activity. But before you line up for a 1000-meter race, how about enhancing your training with power-building exercises? Now is the time to maximize your base by taking it up one level-and delivering some muscle to those foot stretchers. Here are some ideas.

Happy Hypertrophy
In the first part of this series, row2k introduced a healthy eating plan aimed at maintaining or even enhancing muscle ability and growth. See it here and take heed. Nutrition is instrumental in the ability to grow muscle while in the Masters ranks. Rather than review the entire contents here, refer to the article as you plan your strength building into the summer racing season.

Muscle growth (hypertrophy) is a happy consequence of strength training-and with that growth, increased metabolism in the muscle, increased bone density, and a decrease in the likelihood of chronic disease symptoms. Just to be sure, however, check with that family physician before you pump iron, and don't blame row2k when you do something stupid.

For this installment of row1k, row2k would like to thank Bryan Briddell, PhD, of Saratoga Peak Performance Training in Malta, New York. You'll see lots of his sage advice to follow.

Motion is Lotion
Time to slide on into a routine, but remember that warming up is an essential part of the process. This does not mean walking from your car to the gym door and doing a few toe-touches. "Movement Preparation" or 'Dynamic Warm-up" is a more appropriate description of what you need to prepare for a muscle-building session, and before that, joint mobility. Phew, that's a lot of steps, but know this: if you keep it moving, you can complete a well-designed program in about 50 minutes.

"Two to three minutes of progressive joint mobility exercises," says Bryan Briddell, PhD, will loosen up hinges. This will prepare you for muscle preparation later. Work head to feet, starting with doing "yes's" (moving head forward and backward) and "no's" (moving head side to side); follow with arm circles, hip circles, knee circles and ankle circles. Do all movements in both directions. "This kind of joint mobility progression is popular among martial artists." Says Briddell. From there, muscle readiness.

"Dynamic warm-up should follow a low-to-high intensity format," says Briddell. You should begin with walking/marching to lunging and skipping to running for 10-20 yard distances in both directions, suggests Briddell. Here's a list of Briddell's favorite warm-ups that he uses for athletes of all ages and levels before they move into strength building. If you need clarity on these descriptions, it is OK to contact, or Bryan at

  • High-Knee to Chest March
  • Single-Leg Reach-hip hinge
  • Lateral Lunge Walk
  • Lunge with Twist-step into lunge (stretching hip flexor) twist at trunk to either side
  • Hip Turnouts (backwards skipping while turning out knees)
  • Inchworms (hands on floor, knees bent, extend legs as you walk your hands out, you'll be in push-up position-you can do one for fun! Then use "ankling" motion to bring your feet to your hands with knees straight, each time try to go a tad farther, repeat cycle)
  • Shuffle w/Arm Swing (arms cross in front of body, shuffle to the side)
  • Skip
  • Carioca
  • Heel Kicks-to bum
  • Back Pedal
  • Lateral Straight-Leg Swing Walks-sideways walking, abducting as far as possible
  • Sumo Squat-in Sumo position, put hands down w/arms inside knees. Extend legs
  • Toe Touches to Standing Back Extensions-also called candy cane in Pilates, touch toes then extend back (arch)
  • Helicopters-old-fashioned move, but a good one! Arms extended a la' Jack LaLane, touch opposite foot.
  • Dislocates-hmm, sounds dangerous. But this is just bending arm at elbow by the ears as if you are trying to scratch the back of your shoulder.

    "The entire warm-up sequence should take 8-12 minutes and should involve movements and stretches targeting every muscle group," says Briddell. The sequence above prepares hamstrings, gluteals, calves, abductors, adductors (muscles that move your legs away and towards your body) and back extensors for work. Bryan suggests that rowers "get creative and devise their own warm-up exercises, and change them during the week to keep training fresh."

    Sinew Boost
    Bryan spent a couple afternoons with row2k and a few volunteers from the community of Saratoga Springs, New York to describe and help "models" perform a few of his favorite exercises to increase strength. You will notice a few things about his program:

    1) You do not need a lot of special equipment
    2) You do not need a big stack of weights and/or complex weight machines
    3) Athlete "models" (and we use this term loosely) are masters, except one.
    4) He stresses overall strength and balance from the core, and aims to correct muscle imbalances by doing unilateral movements (more on this)
    5) All exercises should be performed to tolerance, with emphasis on quality rather than quantity. To begin, use low repetitions (6-8) and get them right, do more sets to build strength. Perform on each side if a unilateral movement.

    SL-SLD an acronym for Single-Leg Straight-Leg Deadlift. Similar to the two-legged beast by the same name, this exercise activates the hamstring, but doesn't stress your lower back. To start, position your self on your right leg (left leg is slightly off floor, standing knee is bent to 20 degrees) and hold a dumbbell in your right hand. Begin the movement by hinging at the hip, not simply by bending at the waist. Hinge until your body is a parallel to the floor with the left leg completely extended. You can experiment with holding the dumbbell in the same hand (ipsilateral) or opposite hand (contralateral). This exercise is the first of many in this workout that also provide a great deal of balance training. (See photo 1)

    Zercher Squat or Lunges
    Whoever Zercher is, he or she had a great idea. Load the weight on the front of your body, and change the result of the squat or lunge. When the weight is loaded on the front of your body (in this case a sandbag on the biceps held high), the exercise also builds core strength (to hold body erect, hips and shoulders square) in the mix with the quads, hamstrings and gluteals. To do this correctly, you have to support your body from the abdominals, and then take your step forward. (For the lunge, which is demonstrated here, see photos two and three).

    Front Barbell Squat
    For the same reason the Zercher is favored by Briddell, the front squat brings additional benefits to the traditional barbell squat performed with the weight on the back of your shoulders. Position weight on the front of shoulder and lower into squat position, elbows should stay high during body's descent into squat. Front squats demand that you maintain a more upright posture, so you strengthen your core without as much stress to your back. (Check out photo 4)

    Pistol Squats... shoot up them thighs
    This is a single-leg bodyweight squat that is very demanding when you first learn it-take your time to perform this correctly (as seen in photo 5). Briddell feels this unilateral squat on a plyobox or bench is one of the best for building both legs equally. "Blending single-leg strength exercises into your routine will help minimize and eliminate muscle imbalances which in turn will reduce overuse injuries."

    To begin the movement, place all your weight on the left heel on the edge of a box or bench (we used an 18" box, left leg is off the box and slightly in front of body); hinge your hip backward while tracking your right knee towards to outside half of your foot. Do not allow the knee to collapse in toward your big toe. Lower to a parallel position and drive off your heel to return to starting position. "Once you become proficient with movement, try adding a dumbbell held in front of the body" (see photo 6).

    *While doing this exercise, it is important to keep your hip from collapsing out or knee falling in as you lower in to the squat.

    One-Arm snatch
    The snatch, an Olympic weightlifting move, demands explosive power and triple extension of the ankles, knees and hips, as well as challenging your core and improving shoulder mobility. You can see this in the pictures (figures seven, eight, and nine); we are using a single-arm move here. The lifter is simultaneously performing a one-arm shrug followed by a "high-pull" before quickly falling under the dumbbell to absorb the energy of the dumbbell with arm fully extended and upper body very upright and balanced. The dumbbell travels in a vertical plane rather than being lifted away from the body.

    One-Arm Dumbbell or Barbell Press
    "Try this exercise and you'll see why we like it so much," says Briddell. From an athletic stance perform a single-arm press while maintaining level shoulders and hips. You must keep your core extremely tight throughout the lift in order to prevent body movement (you do not want to see twisting of body/tilting of shoulders). This lift strengthens your core as much as shoulders. Try this (and other new exercises) first with a low weight to get the movement correct-it will be significantly less than your customary weight with seated shoulder presses. See photo 10 and photo 11 for start and finish position.

    Planks (Pillar Bridge/Human Arrow)
    An exercise with many names and many benefits, this is. Use it in all its forms to strengthen your core without shortening the muscles. It teaches core stabilization and is easy to learn, all you do is to hold in a push-up position with forearms on the floor until your form collapses. Your lower back must remain in neutral (no lower back sway/arch) through the exercise. There are numerous plank progressions that improve balance as you lift arms or legs away form the body in the plank, you can see a few of them here: photo 12), using arm or leg extensions to challenge balance and core strength. "This is a great exercise because it builds core strength without shortening the muscle," says Briddell.

    Resistance-Band Rows on Physioball
    This exercise can be performed while seated on a ball with feet on a bench with cord attached to weight machine, wall hook, or human training buddy (pictured here, photo 13). You can pull in lower to get back muscles (lats, rhomboids); raise your elbows to get more rear deltoids of the shoulder. If you are on a ball, you can mimic the rowing movement: recover rower-style, then drive your legs away from bench and "finish" with a shoulder or back squeeze that will focus on either the rhomboids or the deltoids, depending on arm level. This is a good exercise to improve on the last part of the stroke into the finish. Add to the toolbox!

    Single-leg Squat
    Performed here by Saratoga Winter Club/US Speedskating Category 1 skater Andrew Hodor (we just couldn't get a master rower to do this as perfectly!), this motion strengthens from the hips and improves balance. In figure 14 we see young Andrew extending his leg laterally, and the key: keeping his eyes, hips, knees in line on his standing leg-you do not see the hip shift out or knees collapse in like often seen when strength is lacking. As you perform this exercise, you will improve the ability to keep hips-knees-feet in line, which will likewise improve strength in both legs so you can drive off the foot stretchers EVENLY. Speedskaters do this with their back over (trunk flexion) as seen here, this allows for more freedom of movement with the extended leg. (In speedskating, the push-off leg)

    Shoulder-Press with Lat Pull
    This looks and sounds more difficult that it is, and has great benefits. Seated at a row machine, hold a dumbbell in one hand, and another holding the handle of machine. Pull back in a rowing motion with one arm and press straight up with dumbbell hand concurrently. Keep you back supported and shoulders square, abs tight. See photo 15 for this fun and muscle-stimulating exercise. Make sure to switch hands/equipment for second set!

    Overhead Snatch Squat/Stretch
    This is a great evaluation tool, as well as stretch to improve shoulder joint mobility. With a pole in both hands, extend arms overhead and stretch back with straight arms. Slowly move into a squat. This movement often brings your arms forward again, but keep stretching easily at the point of where you feel the pull to improve mobility. Our model for this one happens to also be a climber; she gets high scores for flexibility in the shoulder! See photo 16.

    Power to the People
    These exercises will prepare you for more power delivery through a race, with a stronger core and balanced leg strength. Although rowing is performed in the sagital plane, it can't hurt to train otherwise for injury prevention, flexibility and increased functional ability.

    Bryan Briddell holds a PhD from Florida State University in the Department of Movement Science. He has worked with numerous varsity high school and masters rowers from Saratoga Rowing Association and Skidmore Community Rowing. He is the Director of Saratoga Peak Performance and Athletic Training Center in Malta, New York, an athletic enhancement and sport-specific training facility with athletes from all sports. His clients include professional, NCAA Division 1 scholarship as well as high school, adult elite and recreational athletes. Bryan is certified with US Weightlifting (USAW) and the International Youth Conditioning Association (IYCA). Bryan's philosophy is that all things being equal in terms of technique, motivation and training frequency-the stronger athlete will always prevail-regardless of the sport. You can correspond with him by visiting

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