In Rowing, Videos

May 08, 2010

Video Article

Cam Birtwell is a strength and conditioning coach at the Canadian Sports Centre Pacific, as well as the owner of CrossFit Zone in Victoria, B.C.

At CrossFit East Sacramento for a training session with the Rowing Canada team, Birtwell talks about movements he uses to push his athletes to the top of the podium. Some of the exercises include seated box jumps, barbell jump squats, overhead squats, shoulder-elevated hip thrusts and ball slams. Flexibility work is also emphasized for athletes who generally have tight shoulders and hips.

These rowers, including three Olympic gold medalists from the Beijing Games, are specialists who don’t use CrossFit, but their methods can inform the training of CrossFitters looking to improve their rowing performance.

6min 49sec

Additional reading: Smoother Rowing for More Power by Tom Bohrer, published April 1, 2008.



10 Comments on “Exercise Selection for Elite Rowers”


wrote …

Looking at the movie, three questions:

1. If the rowers are weak on opening the hips, why don't they open the hips when jumping on the box?
2. In what sense is the shoulder-ring exercise more beneficial for the scapular strength than pullups?
3. From a broader point of view, how does using specialised exercises that mimic rowing adhere to CrossFit methology where you introduce other exercises to increase the capacity in the specialised field? Also, in what part of the session was this filmed - is this the technique part or the wod - if it is the wod, where is the intensity?

Thank you in advance for the answers.


replied to comment from Roland Jungwirth

I won't try to answer most of your questions, but the part of the session they were showing was the warm up. Which would explain the lack of intensity.


replied to comment from Roland Jungwirth


Im sure Cam will answer your questions but I thought id throw in my two cents.

The difference between reverse flys (with or without rings) and pullups has to do with the plane of movement. Reverse flys are done in the transverse plane, while pullups are done primarily in the coronal plane. As such, reverse flys recruit muscles involved in scapular retraction (rhomboids) and humeral extension (rear delts), while pullups recruit muscles involved in downward rotation of the scapula and humeral adduction (lats).

Rowers typically have tight pecs, which pulls their shoulders forward protracting the scapula (moving it away from the midline). Therefore, they need to do exercises that strengthen their scapular retractors (ie reverse flys, seated rows, etc).

Hope this helps.



wrote …

Thank you for your answers.

Jon, I understand the difference in the activated muscles. The exercise does target specific muscles making it very "isolated" in its application. In this I don't see the point as it does not - in my humble opinion - leverage the most substantial benefit of CrossFit, it's generalisation.

If rowers have tight pecs, I would assume that a mobility drill would be more efficient (pnf stretching) etc. If the scapular retraction need strengthening, I would use heavy deadlifts with focus on scapular retraction and full extension in the hips (maybe even using bands to increase the load in the top part of the lift).

Also, I am not stating that this would be better or critisising the program - I would just like to understand it.

Warm regards


replied to comment from Roland Jungwirth

Hi Roland,

Your comments raise a couple of issues.

"I don't see the point as it does not - in my humble opinion - leverage the most substantial benefit of CrossFit, it's generalisation."

First of all, if we look at the purpose of crossfit we see that it "delivers a fitness that is, by design, broad, general, and inclusive. [Crossfit's] specialty is not specializing." In other words, crossfit prepares the individual for the unknown and unknowable and develops all ten aspects of fitness (strength, flexibility, power, speed, etc). The exercises are programmed to be as functional and general as possible in order to increase the likelihood that this fitness will be applicable to any situation that may arise.

However, in this case we are not talking about individuals training for general fitness and the unknown, we are talking about high performance specialists that are training for the known and knowable. Thus, their goal is not to "leverage generalization", but to maximize their effectiveness in a particular domain. Let me be clear, I am not saying that there is no room for crossfit principles, that cross-training is not an effective tool, or that high performance athletes should only be doing isolation exercises (quite the contrary!). What I am saying is that it is important to recognize that "generalization" is not at the top of their priority list.

"If the scapular retraction need strengthening, I would use heavy deadlifts with focus on scapular retraction and full extension in the hips (maybe even using bands to increase the load in the top part of the lift)."

Since we know that crossfit prepares the individual for the unknown and unknowable, it makes sense that the prescribed exercises would be as functional in nature as possible. 'Functional' becomes synonymous with 'compound' as it is obvious that the body operates as a system, and its parts are rarely used in isolation. That is why leg extensions are replaced with squats, and bicep curls are replaced with chinups. In both these examples the isolation exercise is omitted for its lack of functional (real world) applicability. In this particular case, however, the rowers face a very specific problem; one which requires a specific solution. Since they have tight pecs and weak scapular retractor muscles, it is obvious that the pecs need to be stretched and the retractors need to be strengthened. One is not better than the other, as you suggest, rather, they are complimentary. And I know Cam prescribes both.

Now your suggestion to replace reverse flys with deadlifts seems a little misguided. As I previously mentioned, isolation exercises are typically replaced with exercises that encompass the isolated movement in a more systemic, or functional, way. The leg extension is replaced with squats because the quads are part of that system. Now although the scapular retractors are isometrically active during deadlifts, the muscles of the trunk and lower limbs are not involved in retracting the shoulders, and thus, are not part of that system. Therefore, it seems like a bit of a stretch to prescribe deadlifts in order to improve shoulder posture. Extending the hips and using bands are great tools for improving your deadlift, but they do nothing to solve their problem. Under the circumstances, the priority should be to find the most effective means, not the most generalizable.

Great discussion!



wrote …

Hey Jon and Roland, great comments and questions. Roland I'll just put my perspective on your questions.

1. We have exercises that focus on hip opening and others that are focused on other outcomes. The box jump focuses on power production in a pattern similar to that found in the rowing stroke (i.e. from "unloaded" legs and without full opening of the hips). The opening of the hips once on top of the box is not necessary as the power has already been produced to get the body up there.

2. The ring reverse flye challenges the shoulder girdle muscles in a different way (i.e. plane and loading pattern) than pullups. Deadlifts are a decent option however don't necessarily have a transfer to the correction of movement and activation we want to see in the scapular muscles as the deadlift challenges those muscles in strictly an isometric sense.

3. Keep in mind that the training these guys (and girl) go through is dissimilar to crossfit training (see my first article and video for more info). As Jon mentioned, these are highly specialized athletes training towards a very well-known and clearly defined competition, so their training in many ways reflects that. As far as intensity, these athletes were pummelled with 28-56km of rowing each day of that camp - intensity in the crossfit sense (sustained power output and a high density of work) was not necessary - corrective exercises, mobility, and maintenance of strength and power were the key outcomes.



wrote …

Jon and Cam, thank you for your comprehensive arguments.

28-56 km per day of rowing put the exercise selection into perspective ;)

Do you think that - similarily to CrossFit endurance - it would be more beneficial for the rowers to row less and do CrossFit more often? I understand very well that theses are specialists in what they do but so would a marathon runner be.


wrote …

Roland, these are WORLD CLASS ROWERS!! I think their coaches know what they're doing when they are programming their workouts, and I don't think a volume of

High volume low intensity training in the rowing world has been proven over the years, in the base and build periods of training, to give superior results than intense training from the start. Sure, as these rowers approach race season, they won't be rowing 50k per day, but will be doing more intense work like 4x2000m and other intervals on the water, but Crossfit is not the way to go for elite performance in endurance sports, although it is the way to go for many many other goals.

As you say, a marathon runner is a specialist like these rowers, and there is no way anyone is going to get within 95% of WR pace by doing CF+CFE!

BTW, I am a rower, and I do CF+CFE in my offseason, and 3-4 CF workouts per week in season, along with 15-20 hours of rowing training, but I am competing at a level far from what these guys are competing at!


wrote …

My comment has been edited, at the end of the first paragraph should read: volume of....less than 10 hours per week, as with CF + CFE, is not going to help them meet their goals.


replied to comment from Susan Morgan

Susan, I am not questioning their programming or telling anyone what to do. I am mearly asking out-of-the-box questions.

On a side note: doing something "over the years" does not necessarily prove that they are superior to any other way - only that they are more ingrained in specialists way of thinking. There are many examples in history that show that specialised approaches are not always the most successful.

Regarding your comparison between your and world class levels - as we near our potential in one skill, doing more of that skill will only result in very small - if any - improvement and will introduce the probability of repetitive strain injuries. So - if this theory is correct - because of their high level, they *might* benefit from doing (e.g.!) only CrossFit in off season and then 4-5 CrossFit workouts per week in season with 10-15 hours of rowing. It would be interesting to see, whether anyone has tried this approach.

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