Functional Training to Improve Mobility in Rowing

I've recently been working with Mark Wilkinson, head coach at Windsor Boys' School Boat Club, to develop functionality and movement in rowers, with the specific aim of improving performance in rowing whilst preventing injury.  We are trying to develop individualised training programmes to strengthen particular areas of vulnerability in athletes, as well as creating more exciting and challenging training programmes. Rowing is, contrary to appearance, a pushing sport.  Force is applied by the legs and glutes and then transmitted along the backs and arms to the oars.  To do this effectively, the back must be straight throughout the stroke, particularly when the force is initially applied by the legs.  To get further forward and increase the length of the stroke at the Catch, the body must tip forward and pivot over the hips during the Recovery Phase, with the back kept straight.

A common problem is that rowers don't pivot over their hips, but bend forward in their backs and collapse over the knees.  This reduces their range and power, because the force is not transmitted to the arms as efficiently.  That force instead pushes out through the back where the bend is, causing prolapsed discs and other injuries.  So, finding a way to overcome this challenge not only increases rowing performance, but reduces injury.  We have approached it using techniques learned from our own experiences with osteopaths, physiotherapists, rehabilitation and training as top level athletes.

The bending of the back usually comes from weakness in one or more areas: primarily the hamstrings and the thoracic region of the spine; also the glutes, calves and chest.  These areas have become inflexible due to poor posture, lack of dynamic use, or the body limiting mobility to protect an old injury.  As a result of immobility in these areas, the body enables the movement through hyper-mobility in other areas, particularly the spine.

To get these areas mobile we used dynamic ballistic exercise, as well as stretches from yoga and Egoscue.  We put the body into positions where it cannot "cheat" and compensate for immobility in one area by hyper-mobilising other areas.  Instead the body has to mobilise these areas to achieve the movement.  Another effect of this training is creating awareness of the movement for the athlete.  By feeling an exaggerated version of the movement he is aiming for, the athlete can achieve it in compound movements.

Based on only a few sessions the results have already been impressive, with greater mobility in the target areas, improved proprioception and greater self-awareness in the athletes of the movements they are trying to achieve.  In my next post I will discuss specific exercises for mobilising particular "locks" and for developing feedback of particular movements to increase self-awareness.