Strength at the finish – the case for dynamic power in women’s rowing

Over the years I have worked with rowers at every level (junior to Olympian), age group (there are so many), and sex (currently two), and over the course of those years I have come to a few conclusions.

I am not the first to arrive at these conclusions; it’s all been said before in a number of different ways over the last 100+ years. But the really cool thing about coaching is figuring out how to say something in a way that the athlete will “get it”. These are the light bulb moments that validate my existence on this planet for the time being.

So let’s jump right in with this general statement – women have less upper body strength relative to men, and women have potentially weaker finishes than men, relatively speaking. Before you start bashing your keyboard with hate email, notice that I said potentially.

Rowing is a power endurance sport and power is a combination of strength and speed. The correct application of strength and speed is Dynamic Power. The paradox of rowing is that, while we strive for consistency, every single stroke is unique. Every stroke is a battle between constants and variables.

My job as a coach, and your job as an athlete, is to reduce the number of variables and increase the number of constants.

When the finish is weak, there isn’t sufficient force on the blade for cavitation to occur, and the blade won’t pop out of the water effortlessly as it should.

Not accelerating the handle all the way to the finish and consequently getting stuck at the finish does one really bad thing, among many others; rather than addressing the weakness, the rower might shorten the stroke, decelerating the blade in anticipation of getting out of the water clean and not being late for the next stroke. This undermines the power equation – rowing short to maintain rate without sufficient strength. That is a highly variable space to be in.

Remember, constants good; variables bad.

In order for the athlete to learn this they have to feel it. This is the process of neuromuscular education. As the New Guinea proverb so eloquently states, “Knowledge is just a rumor until it is in the muscle.” I, like so many others, have seen real world examples of rowers with a killer erg score who don’t move a boat well. This is not gender specific, by the way. They’ve got the power. What they don’t have is the ability to apply it dynamically.

Teaching dynamic power can be done a number of ways. I like to call this the principle of “dumbing it down” to reinforce the mind/muscle connection. Examples are bungee rows, coffee can rows, cleans with a powerband attached, and low rate, high and low damper erg pieces.

Visual feedback is an excellent tool. On the erg, use the time/force continuum display (second arrow button from the top on the PM 3 and 4 monitors). Your goal is to create a smooth, symmetrical parabolic trajectory. (Just try to say that a few times really fast.) Two nights ago, I hosted Jim Dietz and his All American Rowing coaching staff at my gym in Ashland, Oregon for a round table discussion on strength training for rowers. Our primary topic of conversation revolved around the Clean as an excellent tool for developing dynamic power. The clean has also been called power clean, high pull, clean high pull and snatch high pull. I think Clean High Pull is the most descriptive. Mr. Dietz, in reference to his UMass women, put it this way, “You show me a girl who can execute a proper (clean) high pull, and I’ll show you a girl who can move a boat.”

Strive to be consistently dynamic.

Andy Baxter is a medical exercise specialist, rowing coach and author of Racing Yesterday,

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