row2k Features
Coach Kaehler
Don’t Forget your Springs when you’re Training your Engine and Pump
Acceleration and Deceleration in Rowing
March 9, 2011
Bob Kaehler

Olaf Tufte loads up the springs at Henley 2009

Rowing, like all sports, involves acceleration and deceleration of the body. To make this happen, our muscles assume the role of springs – they apply and absorb force to a given object. If we think of our body as a car, then our muscular system would be our engine and shock absorbers, our cardiovascular system would provide our fuel, and our bones, ligaments and tendons would serve as our frame. Endurance training tends to focus primarily on improving our engines and fuel – rightly so. However, the flip-side of this kind of conditioning is that we often neglect our shock absorbers. And weakness in the shock absorbers can then result in injuries to the frame.

Regardless of the activity, the majority of sports-related injuries occur at the peak points of acceleration or deceleration of the body. The forces required to control these sudden changes in body momentum can create an overwhelming stress to the frame. If your springs (muscle strength) are too weak to absorb to these forces, then your frame gets damaged. Based on the magnitude and repetition of the stresses involved, frame injuries could include joint pain (spine or extremities), stress or complete fractures, ruptured tendons or ligaments, and tendonitis. While the magnitude of acceleration and deceleration in a rowing stroke might not compare to that of cutting sports like football or basketball, typical rowing workouts do involve a high number repetitions performed at lower magnitudes of force. And, though more complete fractures or torn ligaments occur with higher magnitude sports, we do observe more overuse joint pain and spine-related injuries as well as stress fractures (ribs) and tendinosis issues in lower magnitude, higher repetitions sports like rowing. Therefore improving spring strength is essential to reducing risk-of-injury in both types of repetition sports.

Athletes in all sports can improve their base level of strength by performing that particular activity. Sometimes however, this is not enough to prevent injury to the frame. Additional training – sport-specific or resistance work -- may be required to improve spring strength to an appropriate level. Springs, like the engine and fuel, must receive enough weekly stimuli to ensure appropriate strength to tolerate training volume and intensities. The need for additional strength becomes more critical as training intensity and volume increase. When we start to see training injuries such as low back pain, rib stress reactions / fractures, or other joint pain, there is a strong chance that part of this is due to insufficient strength in the shocks.

In rowing, the majority of training volume is done at lower ratings (22spm or lower), so the amount of stress in the shock is lower, while the volume is larger. And while the absolute strength required to control momentum at lower rating is less than at higher ratings, the volume is much greater, so the need for good strength-endurance is also important. The largest changes in body momentum occur at the catch (acceleration) and the finish (deceleration), and the magnitude increases as the rating goes up. By adding some extra sessions of power training at higher rates (24-28spm), we can improve the strength of the muscles used to help control body momentum. One session of higher rate training (typical weekly AT session) may not be enough to provide the necessary improvement in spring strength.

In racing season, there tends to be a larger volume of higher rating work on a weekly basis. In the off-season, however, there is a significant reduction in this type of work. Anaerobic threshold work is usually done at the 24-30SPM range. If you are only doing this type of work once a week, add a few extra sessions of higher rating work to keep your spring strength properly stressed. One suggestion would be to add in one or two sessions of burst work (8-10 strokes) at the 24-30 range. This can be done within a steady state workout, with long rest intervals between bursts. The rest intervals should be long enough that the steady state HR is not altered during a steady state session. If you strength train on land, try including a power session either on the erg or water, that coincides with your strength workout. Work to rest ratios will depend upon your goals for that session and time of year.

Body control is essential to achieving success in any sport. Having a balanced training program that also addresses your strength requirements will help you enjoy steady athletic improvement and reduce your risk of training-related injuries.

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03/15/2011  7:21:18 PM
Coach Kaehler I am a rower and now coach that has been suffering from aches in my neck, lower back, shoulders and hips. I am wondering if you could suggest any PT type stretches or workout to strengthen these areas as I feel that are a result of improper training of the spring systems mentioned in your article?

Coach Kaehler
03/16/2011  8:17:47 PM
Hi IUROWER, Thank you for your question. Recommending specific stretches without doing a full flexibility and strength evaluation is not good practice, and is something I did not do when I practiced PT for 18 years. I continue this practice because without exact knowledge of what your strength and flexibility issues are I could suggest things that could make you worse. While I do not practice PT anymore I do Body Balance Evaluation on rowers all the time to address similar complaints. Please feel free to email me at, I would be glad to discuss further.

03/14/2011  8:24:46 AM
On the erg, when the compliance of the boat, oars, and the displacement of the water are not in play, the body is asked to absorb an even higher force levels. While the horizontal forces are dominant in magnitude, the vertical shocks can be most incidious on the back where the lower discs undergo a much greater compression as the rower transitions from drive to recovery. Do you offer a differant approach when training on the erg or is it just more of the same?

Coach Kaehler
03/16/2011  7:59:22 PM
Hi Skulling1 Excellent comments/questions! I am going to write a future article that will address some of your observations as they relate to the spine (frame). It will discuss shearing forces (horizontal) and compressive forces as they relate to the spine. The forces placed on the spine more than likely the same in the boat and on the erg, when rowing at the same rate (will elaborate in future article). The difference on the water is that the breaks (springs) are recruited for a much shorter period of time (deceleration) vs. the standard erg, brakes are on longer. This reduction in braking time puts less cumulative force on the low back (fulcrum, or brake pad) during a training session. One common complaint that I have heard is that people can row on the water without back pain, but experience it on the erg. While my suggestion for strengthening the springs was related to rowing, and it applies to all rowing, strength training can also be a valuable tool.

03/13/2011  8:30:13 AM
Great advice. By spring strength I am assuming you mean strengthening the anaerobic pathways that produce the most intense contractions. Also strengthening the attachments that connect the springs(?) to the frame. You should address this in future features. Keep up the good work.

Coach Kaehler
03/15/2011  12:12:44 PM
Coach Mark, Coach Mark, Thank you for your comment. In the article I am actually talking about strengthening the muscles and tendons that absorb the momentum of the body at the catch and finish of the stroke. The muscles here serve two functions, driving the boat forward, and controlling the body at the ends of the stroke. Of course the muscles are also the engine that drives the boat (aerobic and anaerobic) here and the cardio system represents the fuel. I will certainly bring up a discussion on injuries to the frame, specifically the tendons, in a future article. Thanks for the suggestion.

03/11/2011  2:38:58 PM
When I look at Tufte's technique my retina gets burned. This guy could be sculling so much faster if he used his body's leverage correctly... Yes, he has won the Olympics twice, the man is tough for sure, but compared to the gold medal standard times, the single scull has not fared well in comparison to other crews. All the best, Xeno

03/20/2011  4:37:53 PM
Olaf is a classy guy. He would have never posted junk like that. Tufte is surely tough. He will go for the fourth Olympic medal for His country. The others... just have sensitive retina

03/10/2011  10:42:48 AM
I'm no coach, but from the bend in the oar, it looks to this untrained eye as if he is UNloading the springs; i.e. on the drive.......or maybe I misunderstood and need to reread the article.

Coach Kaehler
03/10/2011  3:57:06 PM
Hi Rowmaster, Thank you for the comment. All rowers will bend the oar at varying degrees during the drive of the stroke, and the springs do move the system. One problem that can occur when we have excellent power in our boat moving springs, quads, glutes, lats, et., is that we need then make sure we have good braking springs. So when we change direction of the body at the finish these braking springs can properly absorb this change of direction. This also occurs at the catch as well. Some of the springs that act as brakes at the finish are not the same ones used to drive, as shown in the picture. So our braking springs, right at the finish, must be strong enough to stop the forward momentum of the body as it quickly changes direction to the recovery. Making sure we pay attention to the braking springs is important. As a side note here are some of injuries Olaf Tufte has suffered to his frame of frame. - Disc problem L4- L5 - Ribs - Jumpers knee (2 operations)

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