Connecting the body to the legs

Getting into a compressed position at the catch requires flexibility of the ankles, knees and hips whilst being able to maintain a flat low back, a curved upper back position and an ability to ‘hang’ with the large lat (latissimus dorsi) muscles about to take load.

As the oar enters the water the knees start to descend and the body starts to open up. When young, developing rowers learn to row they are taught to press the knees down first then open the body up. Rowing is technically very difficult and this is a great way to learn technique. However, as the rower develops, technique can be progressed to adding body opening as the legs are pressed down. This spreads the load across the pelvis and low back in a more even way and makes the rowing stroke more powerful and efficient.

Opening the body while the legs are descending is a very difficult action for the large gluteal muscles. They have to engage when they are on full stretch and have to work through approximately 130 degrees of hip flexion shortly after the catch to approximately 70 degrees of hip flexion at the finish position. They need to brace against the large forces coming from the quads to transfer load through to a stable trunk and arms that eventually impart pressure in the oar.

This featured exercise is a muscle patterning exercise that rowers can use to practice the sequencing of leg to body connection. Rowers need to have enough ankle, knee and hip range  to get into the crouched sitting position that is similar to the position at the catch. Once in this position;

  • bend forward over the legs and cup the elbows
  • cupping the elbows ensures that the shoulder blades come out around the upper back a little as they do at the catch
  • keep the low back flat and the upper back relaxed
  • push through the heels and keep the elbows pointed towards the ground, lifting the elbows can allow you to raise by stabilizing your spine with your hip flexors and pushing through your quads
  • this exercise teaches you to push through your glutes and quads while keeping your trunk muscles on
  • raise up by pushing your knees back and opening your body slightly, keep looking toward the ground and do not stand all the way up – after all, you do not lie flat in the boat!!

3 lots of 20 repetition was performed with control is an ideal amount to aim for.

You can also do this as an active movement exercise as part of your warm up – do sets of 10.


Kellie Wilkie on ABC radio discussing training load for GRowingBODIES

Kellie Wilkie was recently interviewed on ABC Hobart radio about aspiring to be elite in sport, what amount of sport kids should do and injury prevention for developing athletes.  

Kellie starts her segment at 1:02:30 ABC Radio Hobart

Aspiring to be an elite athlete is common in active adolescents.  This is a great aim as it encourages physical activity, relationship building amongst peers and results in kids having great adult mentors.  Eventually though, kids become adults and have to make an assessment about life goals including whether they peruse their sporting dreams or change their goals to focus more on occupational endeavours.  Whatever the choice, aspiring to be the best form of yourself that you can be teaches you lessons along the way that contribute to you being an achiever in life.

In the pursuit of excellence, kids can often do too much sport or specialise in one sport too early in life.  Research reported in the American Journal of Sports Medicine, 2015, found that kids have an increased injury risk if their organised sport hours per week were greater than their age in years.  They also found that if their organised time in sport was twice as much as their unstructured activity time, such as walking to school and jumping on the trampoline, they were also at greater risk.  Parents need to ensure their children are not doing too much but also that they are doing enough unorganised activity so that they are not missing valuable time to experiment with movement and do incidental exercise.

Sports Physiotherapists and Sport & Exercise Physicians are ideal practitioners to consult with if parents want evidence based advice on how much sport is too much, what is the right mix of activity and if their children are meeting minimal physical activity levels.  Sport specific screenings with a Sports Physiotherapist can identify whether a young, growing body has enough flexibility, movement control and strength to participated in their main chosen sport as they start to specialise.  These assessments can assist with injury prevention and performance optimisation, especially if compelted throughout the growing years or just prior to puberty.

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What is most important stretch to prevent injury in rowing?

The most common rowing injury of both the young developing rower and the elite rower is low back pain.
The research agrees with clinicians working with rowers – the less low back flexion (curve) you have the less low back pain you experience.
Most importantly, the more hip flexion (compression) you have the less curve you have in your low back.
In this image, Kim Brennan (gold medalist from the Rio Olympic Games) shows how maximal hip compression results in a very flat low back position. This position is protective of low back injury but also a very strong position for the transfer of leg load to the body. You will notice that her upper back in curved forward, to gain reach. This is exactly what it is designed for. As long at the lower part of the spine is not curved, the low back is less likely to be injured.
Kim Brennan
Photo used with permission from Kim Brennan
The key to getting into this position is stretching your glutes (bottom muscles). Here are two effective stretches that rowers can use to make a change in hip flexion (compression). If you can assume these positions without pain, hold the stretch for 2min, once per day for 2 weeks. This often makes a change in hip motion of up to 20degrees.
Improving motion in your hips is always best done under the care of a Physiotherapist with rowing specific knowledge so that all other factors can be assessed.  Do not persist with these stretches if you experience any discomfort while performing them.

Should you row with a cold?

It’s Winter in Australia and this is a common time of the year for athletes to become unwell.  

The common cold is an upper respiratory tract infection and is typically caused by viruses which are more common in the Winter months.

You can protect yourself against a “cold” by:

  • Frequent hand washing – with waterless hand gel or with soap and water
    • after sneezing or coughing
    • before eating or touching your face
    • after training
    • after using tissues
    • after contact with communal spaces or places
  • Avoiding contact with unwell people
  • Ensuring you & your crew mates practice good hygiene by covering your mouths when coughing or sneezing
  • Practicing good recovery strategies:
    • nutritious food
    • adequate fluids
    • sufficient sleep

Influenza is a different respiratory virus, that can be prevented with the flu vaccination, which should be had every year by athletes due to the potential severity of the illness and the subsequent length of training often missed with this infection.

When you get a cold, should you train?

  • You should never train with a fever (temperature > 37.5oC)
  • A good guide is, if the symptoms are all above the neck, lighter training intensity and shorter duration is recommended for developing rowers
  • If the symptoms are below the neck, substituting a rowing or dry land training session for a light walk is recommended
  • Unwell athletes should be excluded from communal training venues such as the gym or ergo room until they are well to reduce the risk of transmission to crew mates

It is worth noting that some cold & flu preparations used to manage the common cold are not permitted in sport under the WADA code.  All athletes should check any medications they wish to use on Globaldro 


How important is sleep for adolescent rowers?

Multiple research papers describe an increased risk of both injury and illness with reduced sleep hours in adolescent athletes

  • injury rate increased 1.4 times if less than 8 hours sleep 
  • less than 5 hours of sleep meant athletes were 4.5 times more likely to have an infection than those sleeping more than 7 hours
  • more than 8 hrs sleep reduced odds of injury by 61%
  • recurrent illness should trigger a suspicion of poor sleep

To improve sleep, adolescent rowers should consider

  • Keeping a regular sleep schedule, with a consistent go-to-bed time
  • Have a sleep friendly bedroom – cool & dark
  • Avoid screens before bedtime – for at least 60 minutes
  • Have a mental strategy for relaxation before bed – consider a meditation app such as Smiling mind, Headspace or Buddify
  • Consider a daytime nap of no more than 45 minutes, before 4pm (1600)

Milewski J Paediat Ortho 2014
Van Rosen Scand J Med Sci Sports 2017
Prother Sleep 2015
Halson  J Sci Med Sport  2017

What are the most important abdominal muscles to strengthen for rowing?

Rowers often spend significant time working on leg strength BUT if these large forces can not be transferred to the oar the boat does not go faster!

Rowers need a strong and stable trunk to be able to transfer forces coming from the legs and open the body from the pelvis through the drive. As the body moves backwards the muscles on the front of the trunk work very hard to ensure the spine moves with the pelvis from the mid to late phase of the drive. The forces that the trunk is required to withstand are directly related to the forces coming from the quads (leg muscles) and gluts (bottom muscles). If the abdominal wall lacks strength or endurance, spinal movement is not controlled through the drive and low back pain can be the result.

Doing core stabilising exercises for the deep layer (transversus abdominus) of the abdominals is not enough. The muscles that work hard during the mid to late drive are the rectus abdominus (6 pack muscle) and oblique muscles (on the sides of the trunk). These muscles can be strengthened in the position that they are used with a short range abdominal crunch exercise.

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Strong trunk position at the end of the drive – abdominal muscle work evident
Short range crunch exercise designed to challenge the strength of the abdominal wall

There are elements of this exercise that make it challenging for the abdominal wall;

  • Performing it on an unstable surface assists the stabilizing muscles to activate
  • Tilting the pelvis up ensures the rectus abdominus muscles is loaded at the pelvis end and reduces hip flexor activity
  • Having the fingers on the ears and elbows in line with the body loads the upper section of the rectus abdominus muscle and moves the load laterally to load the obliques
  • Performing the exercise in a slow and controlled way keeps the abdominal wall engaged (rowers should not bounce their body off the ball)

Aim for 2×20 slow and controlled reps for a good indication of strength. Building up to 5×60 slow and controlled reps trains endurance so that these muscles can be repetitively used for the duration of a race . Having good trunk control at the finish ensures the leg forces continue to be transferred to the oar.

Overactivity of hip flexors when rowing

Rowers report feeling more flexible through the rowing stroke in their hips after performing hip flexor stretches.  How can this be when the hip flexors restrict backwards movement of this hip and the rower never takes their hip into this position in the rowing stroke?

  • The hip flexor muscle group is large.  It extends from the upper lumbar spine (low back) and inserts onto the front of the hip.
  • Importantly, this muscle has an attachment onto the capsule on the front of the hip joint.
  • When this muscle is tight or overactive the rower will feel a pinch or restriction at the front of the hip when coming into the most compressed position at the catch.
  • This can restrict the hip moving into a fully flexed position and can result in more movement coming from the low back to gain length at the front of the stroke.
  • Increased flexed (forward) motion of the low back within the rowing stroke has been linked to low back pain.

The most important thing for rowers and coaches to understand is how hip flexors become tight or overactive in the first place.  

Tightness can come from prolonged sitting during the day at school or work or from longer periods of travel.  Overactivity can come from the way the the rower moves in the boat.  Ideally, the rower should use their hip flexors to tilt their pelvis forward to initiative ‘rock-over’ as the first part of recovery.  The trunk and pelvis should then remain relaxed as the boat moves under the rower and the rower progresses up the slide.  The hip flexors should then be in a relaxed state as the hips compress at the front of the stroke and therefore should not act as a restriction.

Overactivity of hip flexors can come about under two different circumstances;

  1. The rower does not achieve early rock over (due to timing issues or tight hamstrings) and then has to use the hip flexors to bring the pelvis to upright throughout the recovery and coming into the catch
  2. When a rower begins the drive, they may lift their shoulders, losing the connection on the front of their abdominal wall, this results in a raising of the chest and a reliance on the hip flexors to stabilise the pelvis and spine through the drive rather than the gluteal and abdominal muscles – overusing the hip flexors through the drive makes it very difficult for the hip flexors to achieve early ‘rock over’ as they are still stabilising the spine at the end of the drive, the hip flexors often continue to be active as the rower attempts to tilt the pelvis during the recovery

The best way to reduce hip flexor overactivity and tightness is to make technical change to the rowing stroke.  However, this can take years to develop and optimal technique can also deteriorate when fatigued.

Knowing how to effectively stretch hip flexors and reduce tension held in this muscle groups is an effective way of managing overactivity in these muscles.

Hip flexor stretch – Tuck pelvis under to focus on hip attachment
Hip flexor stretch – Stretching up to focus on spinal attachment
Active movement – Leg swings for reducing tension held in hip flexors

Hip Flexor stretches are best done after a rowing session or after long periods of sitting.  Active movement to reduce hip flexor tension is best performed before a training session.