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Core Curriculum

Dear Doctor Rowing, I’ve been out of the game for a number of years but have recently begun to row a single. I’ve checked out a number of websites and watched a bunch of coaches on YouTube. Years ago, I learned the legs-back-arms method of applying power and it’s always worked for me. But lately down at the club all I hear is talk of “the core.” What’s with all this emphasis on the core?
—Back in the Day
Don’t worry. You’ll be OK because you’ve got the most important thing right, power. By focusing on power application and not some incidental thing like “the set,” you’ll move a boat. I know what you mean, though. The core is one of those terms that seems to have come out of nowhere, like gluten-free. Like mushrooms, suddenly it’s everywhere.
While these new-fangled ideas can be annoying, I’m here to tell you that it makes sense to think about the core. When coaches and trainers talk about your “core,” what are they talking about? It’s more than simply the abs, the six-packs that look so great on the beach. You know how toward the end of races it gets harder to keep good body position, how you begin to feel like you are falling into the catch instead of floating into it under control? That’s because your core endurance is suspect.
I heard an excellent presentation about exactly this last month at our annual league meeting. Tyler Page, a high school rowing coach in Stonington, Connecticut, presented a very informative lecture. He is also a chiropractor and a certified strength and conditioning specialist. I won’t try to recreate everything he said, but here are a few things I took away from his talk.
The core is not just the muscles. Bone, cartilage, and ligaments also make up the core. These tissues are fraught with the possibility of injury, as we all know, and it is very important that the load that we place on them is neither too heavy, which could lead to injury, or too light, which could cause them to atrophy and weaken.
Why do so many rowers have back pain? We know that rowing has both a forward lean (flexion) and a lay back (compression of the tissues). Page likened the tissues that make up the spinal column to a credit card. If you fold it back and forth in the same spot, eventually, that crease will deepen and crack. That’s not to say that rowing will cause your tissues to break eventually; a good coach should know not to overload or overdo these tissues. Perhaps the worst exercises that an athlete can do are the Roman chair (When you climb onto the device, hook your ankles under some padding, lie face down with a pad supporting the hips and then flex upward, a kind of opposite sit-up) and the Superman—the one where you lie face down, and raise the arms like the Man of Steel flying through the air while also lifting the legs. These both compress the lower back to an extreme degree. Having all the extremities raised creates the potential for too much compression in the spine.
While doing core exercises, you should practice “abdominal bracing”—tightening your muscles like you are going to get punched in the gut. Don’t suck it in; tighten. When you breathe, let yourself “get fat.” Page emphasized that core endurance is the ability to sustain proper stability and control. This stability is what he calls “super stiffness,” but he stressed that one should keep a neutral curve in the lower back (lumbar). Do not try to flatten the lower back. The stick-up-the-butt posture is never what we are looking for.
When doing core work, technique and execution are important, just like they are in rowing. Don’t speed through an exercise. Do your exercises with focus. Do them right. In order to emphasize endurance, he suggests timing them instead of doing reps. Start with 30 seconds on, 30 off and work up to 50 on, 10 off.
Perhaps the most surprising thing I learned was that Page suggests not doing core routines on steady-state days. “They will already have done a lot of flexion extension cycles on steady state days. Do core routines after shorter, harder intervals.”
By now we all know that there is no secret formula to training or to winning races. Smart, logical training of the important muscles will yield the results we want. I especially liked hearing that the best core exercise for rowing is…drum roll…rowing. It works exactly the right muscles. When the rowing deteriorates, and is bad, Page suggests stopping. That makes a lot of sense to this coach. Is this a new idea or an old one? Whatever the provenance, I’d suggest it is a good one.

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