Why a strong core is so important for rowers.

For me, a strong core is the second most important physical thing to improve rowing performance, the first being maximal aerobic power. But what is exactly a strong rowing core ?

Differences between core, functional core & specific core strength :

In this good old book that we love so much, “La bible de la préparation physique”, Didier Reiss and Dr. Pascal Prevost describe core strengthening as follows: “Applied to the lumbo-abdominal area it becomes the ability to control the position and movement of the trunk in relation to the pelvis to allow for the optimal production, control and transfer of forces and movement of the distal segments in sports activities.”

They then tell us about different types of core strength, the first of which is the static, basic core strength, the one that is trained while we do the plank. On this subject they say: “Static core strength is rare. It’s a waiting position under stress. (…) It corresponds to the minimum of activities. So it is difficult to find a sport situation that corresponds exactly to this form of work.

Static core is a necessary basis but what will interest the strength and conditioning coach is more often the second type of core training, the motion core or functional core: “It is the most frequent. It ranges from sliding while walking to a sudden change of direction or a straight line sprint.”

On a personal level, I like to talk about specific core strength, which could be defined as the ability of an athlete to apply the power produced by his body as required by his specific sport movement without losing the power because of a deformity, a lack of muscle strength or postural support. This core strength is different in each sporting gesture and can concern each part of the body individually.

Since we’re interested in rowing I’ll give you my definition of the rower’s specific core strength : the rower’s ability to pass the power of the body, generated during the drive, through the pelvis, chest and upper limbs all the way to the handle. The big challenge here is the power generated with the legs on the foot bar. Many rowers lose this power due to a lack of connection during the drive while the propulsion from the arms and back is fairly easily transmitted to the handle.*

*I’m talking about transmitting power to the handle to stay on the physical side of performance. I am well aware that this force will then have to be transmitted to the blade. For me, this part is technical and that’s not what I’m talking about here, even though they are very related aspects.

Why is specific core strength so important ?

The specific core strength is therefore halfway between technique and physic, both for rowing on a boat or on the erg.

When I was at the New Zealand Nationals, I was watching the last 500m of the heavyweight women’s skiff final in which Zoe McBride was competing despite being a lightweight. Five boats where battling for two spot on the podium behind Emma Twigg. I remember seeing Zoë do what all rowers do in these cases: put the most powerful strokes possible before the line. I was impressed to see how hard she pushed, how she drive her boat, how powerful she was. It wasn’t a question of getting a great run, more precise ends or rowing with a lot of economy … NOOOO !! Zoë had to swing her bow as fast as possible on this line and for that she had to put all the watts she had left. I remembered thinking at that moment “but how so much power can pass through such a tiny body”. When she passes in front of me, there were 60m left, she was fifth and on the line she came third. A light-weight 57kg rower that tops two international standard heavy weight rowers in the last few meters it is very impressive !

This example illustrates why, in my opinion, the specific core strength is the second most important factor in physical performance in rowing. In the end, no matter the size, the one who wins is the one who makes his boat go the fastest, so he is the one who applies the most power to the water via his blade and he is also the one who loses the least between the leg drive and the blade. This specific core strength is like all other physical qualities, there is a part of talent, a part of trainability and the major part: the work, the training !

I also remember a video of the Norwegian sculler Kjetil Borch in which he is rowing at a high rate and his chest does not move at all on his whole leg drive, a real piece of wood, a real trunk on which a pair of legs pushes so fast and so hard.

This is the goal!

Imogen Grant – Henley Royal Regatta 2018, Henley on Thames, England. Friday 6 July 2018. © Frank Leloire

Then how to develop your specific core strength?

Unfortunately I have no secrets on this one, I won’t teach you much. You have to make kilometers, miles, kilometers and miles. The specific core strength can and must be trained at any time. But, we can also, very easily, miss it.

On water training : 

During rowing training, pay special attention to be “connected”, i.e. when your seat moves 10 cm forward your hands also move forward on the same horizontal plane. Feel your support in the hollow of your belly and vary the intensity. Overall the French program in which you spend a lot of time at a low rate and try to go as fast as possible is a very good exercise. The French B1 and B2 will make you progress in your specific core strength, that’s for sure

On the erg : 

It’s the same process as on a boat with one difference, but it is a big one, the ergometer is a static system with a static foot bar. This means that with each stroke you have to throw all your body weight backwards instead of pushing a foot bar forwards (like in a boat or on the mobile erg). This makes the ergometer more “hard,” more “dense,” a little more traumatic but also more stimulating for the musculoskeletal system. Valery Kleshnev had measured a difference between the ergometer and the boat and it emerged that the ergometer was more demanding on the upper limb than the boat (4). That’s why I think it’s important not to be afraid of the ergometer, not to be afraid of spending a lot of time on it, it’s an excellent exercise to work the cardiovascular system but also to work the functional core more intensively than in a boat. Keep in mind that the fixed ergo has this advantage over the mobile ergos.

But also, how to develop functional sheathing?

These two qualities are therefore very similar, in weight training we speak of functional core strength since we do not reproduce exactly the gesture of the stroke but the functional core strength is an important work to improve the specific core strength and the quality of the drive.

In strength endurance training :

The french C2 session is a Federal Strength Endurance Training and it is an excellent opportunity to work on your functional body armour. Each movement must be performed in a very linked manner, without jerks in the execution, always thinking of tucking in the stomach and engaging the abdominal muscles. Keeping control of the loads throughout the session, on each exercise will make a big difference at the end. It’s an aspect that is very difficult to do on your own and that’s why I think we have to follow the rowers as much as possible when they do C2 sessions. We have to be behind them to remind them of the important core and connection instructions. 

In heavy weight training (hypertrophy, strength, power) :

This is one of the great interests of heavy weight training, it requires the core strength on very high levels of intensity without necessarily the trainer or rowers being aware of it. We tell ourselves that we’re going to develop strength and we’re going to do heavy weight training, but the body is not stupid. It feels well that to move heavy loads it is necessary to activate important muscular engagements to control this load and this is in fact core activation (more or less functional according to the movement executed)

Note that you will then have to switch the power from the handle to the paddle but this is purely technical, but my goal is to talk about physical preparation.

Conclusion :

I wanted to insist on the specific and functional core strength that are still too unknown in rowing. My point is not to say that static core strength is not interesting. It is an indispensable basis for rowing training as well as an element of prophylaxis whose effects have been demonstrated. It has been proven that training protocols that develop static core can reduce back pain, especially in the lumbar region. Keep in mind that there is no such thing as bad training, there are only bad applications. 

To dig deeper I advise you the following books (with which I have no partnership, but just in case …) :

  • « Abdominaux arrêtez le massacre » from Dr Bernadette De Gasquet 
  • « Becoming a supple leopard » by Dr Kelly Starrett

Thanks for reading, I hope I have been helpful.
See you around a rowing course,

Jean Noury

Bibliography : 

1) Cissik J « The role of core training in athletic performance, injury prevention and injury treatment » Strength and Conditioning Journal 33 : p10-15. 2011

2) Faries MD & Greenwood M Phd « Core training : Stabilizing the confusion » Strength and Conditioning Journal 29 : p10-25. 2007

3)  Kibler RT and Asmundson GJG « The role of core stability in athletic function » Sport Medecine 36 : 189 – 198. 2006

4) Kleshnev V « Comparaison of on-water rowing with its simulation on concept2 and rowperfect machines » (2008)

5) Reiss Didier & Dr Prevost Pascal « Comment développer un gainage fonctionnel » dans La Bible de la Préparation Physique p 527-550 Ed Amphora 2013

6) Starrett K, Cordoza G « Becoming a supple leopard » Victory belt Publishing. 2015