In Rowing, Sports Applications, Videos

April 03, 2010

Video Article

Cam Birtwell is a strength and conditioning coach at the Canadian Sports Centre Pacific (CSCP), as well as the owner of CrossFit Zone in Victoria, B.C. He works with specialists including Olympic gold medalists and generalists, and he talks about the strategies he uses for both groups.

In CrossFit, we often state that we are training for the unknown and unknowable. Most frequently, we accomplish this goal by utilizing an intensive stimulus that is varied in time and mode. What about when we encounter a group of athletes who are preparing for a known entity, such as a 2000-meter row at the international level? Instead of constant variance, we need planned and progressive training that is sequenced in such a way as to minimize interference with sport-specific training while building toward maximum performance at the right time of year.

Within the Rowing Canada team program, all the technique, anaerobic-lactic, aerobic-power, muscular-endurance and power-endurance work are taken care of by the head rowing coach. As a professional strength and conditioning coach with CSCP, I don't feel the need to develop those qualities in the weight room as they are best developed in the most specific manner possible: either on the water or on the rowing ergometer. Instead, the weight-room focus is on the development of maximal strength and alactic power.

As a CrossFit affiliate owner and planner of our member’s training, the need is different. I lay out both the training of varied work capacity and strength/power to create the most efficient and well-rounded stimulus.

Programming for the Canadian rowing team relies on consistency in exercise parameters through four-to-six-week blocks. This allows the athletes to have maximum exposure to the exercise selection, intensity and volume of that phase of training. Too much variety in these parameters generally leads to an inaccurate training effect and variable levels of soreness and fatigue. These adversely affect our athletes’ ability to perform in and adapt to their on-water programming. This is in contrast to the non-specialist CrossFitter, for whom a certain variety in mode, volume and intensity may be the best path to becoming an athlete competent in several domains.

Even though I am an affiliate owner and CrossFit athlete myself, I recognize the need for differences in programming for elite athletic performance and for the unknown and unknowable of everyday life or work. In this video interview shot at CrossFit East Sacramento, we discuss some of the details of the Rowing Canada team’s training during a recent training camp in Sacramento. The video highlights the nature of being a specialist athlete at the elite level in Canada and how these athletes train toward Olympic performance. We also touch on some of my own feelings about the benefits and power of CrossFit for individuals outside of such a narrow sporting domain.

Additional reading: Rowing a Sub-7 2K—Without Rowing? by EvaClaire (E.C.) Synkowski, published March 30, 2009.

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11 Comments on “Training for the Knowable: Rowing Canada’s Men’s Team”


wrote …

I could've sworn this was released a few days earlier with a comment from Cam saying it was misleading. It looks changed now.



wrote …


It was, if you go to the comments board on that day (I think three days ago) you will see a post from Tony Budding that said that it was taken down to fix some errors, like what gym Cam owned and some other pertinent facts.


wrote …

Cam - youre my hero.



Justin Medeiros wrote …

Atta boy, Cam!! You're my hero too, buddy!


wrote …

This article describes a program that uses functional movements, but not Crossfit. This seems to be contrary to the common message put forth by CF and the CFJ. Glassman repeatedly states that pullups make better skiers, and more pushing improves rowing. Developing power in as specific a manner as possible?!? Too much variety??! That is not CF!

If your goal in the weight room is "the development of maximal strength and alactic power", then you should probably go hangout with Louie Simmons.

Didn't K-Star and Boz (and the rest of the CFSF crew) train Erin Cafaro with Crossfit?? I think she did it on the side to her crew/rowing training. She won a gold medal. I haven't watched it in a while, but the "Throwing Grace" video has her in it. I think they say CF is her 'secret weapon'. Was her CF training specific like this, or was she actually doing CF (aka constantly varied functional movements performed at high intensity) ??

Basically, my point is that, your workout plan might be well organized (using efficient movements), but that doesn't make it crossfit.

Furthermore, do all rowers have bad posture and forward shoulders? I suspect not. Is it a product of the rowing or a program that failed to provide adequate flexibility and midline stability training? Might never know, but improving your weaknesses seems to be the best route to success.


replied to comment from Matt Solomon

Hi Matt,

You're right, the training I conduct with the rowing team isn't CrossFit. The point of the written part of the article is to support what Glassman has always said - specialists require specialist training.

CrossFit is by nature non-specializing, which is why when it is programmed and applied properly, participants gain fitness across broad time and modal domains.

Training for rowing is a very narrow and known entity - which (in my opinion) requires more narrowly focused training. Rowing crews may win medals by utilizing CrossFit principles however I believe there is a more targeted way to accomplish that goal.



replied to comment from Cam Birtwell


CF-style approach, but not really long as they win gold!



wrote …

Very nice Cam. I rowed at a competitive crew college and would have loved a program like this.
And Matt Solomon, yes, the kyphotic posture is common in rowers. The big lats and chronically hunched rowing posture pull the shoulders forward. Overhead work is a godsend for shoulder health for rowers, not to mention the other benefits of CF.


wrote …

Nice to see some discussion of CF principles (physical and mental) and their applicability, or lack of, to elite sport. I'd like to see even more of this kind of thing in the CFJ - balanced discussion of how high performance athletes in different sports have been implementing CF and which aspects of CF have been of most & least use to them. Nice Cam and great work qualifying at the BC Sectionals for Canada Regionals!


wrote …


What's with the guys doing box jumps in the beginning not reaching full extension? Have you found this not to be beneficial in rowing or are these guys just learning the full CrossFit ROM? It seems that exploding (jumping) off the box at full extension on top would fall in line with rowing.


wrote …

Good comments guys...

Dach, the purpose of these box jumps is to focus on the power required to get up to the height of the box, not the remainder of the power required to stand up on top. It's an "activation" exercise instead of an "outcome" exercise - what that means is that we keep the box height at 35-40" throughout the training season and we are simply looking to get the legs firing quickly. In an outcome exercise, we would be looking to increase the height of the box as we progress with the jumps, but still the major important part of the power outcome is their ability to simply get up to the box (in crouched position, with both feet up on top of the flat surface).

Going from a seated (unloaded) position in the seated box jump to a fast contraction is similar to what the rowers go through when coming forward into the catch position then driving back out strongly with the legs.


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