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Core Principles

BY VOLKER NOLTE
PHOTO BY PETER SPURRIER

Read about the core and you’ll discover:

  1. There’s no consensus about how to define it;
  2.  There’s no settled understanding of how it works;
  3.  There are widely divergent views about how best to develop and maintain core strength.

Core refers to the portion of the body between the diaphragm and the muscles of the pelvic floor and it includes the spine; the abdominal muscles, tendons, and ligaments; and the stomach, intestines, and other internal organs. The mid-part of the body plays an essential role in generating functional movement. The core stabilizes the chest and pelvis, and well-developed core muscles help prevent injury. In addition, the core is vital to your ability to sense movement and your body’s location in space (proprioception), which is essential for balance.

Because of the core’s importance, be careful when transitioning from ergometer training to on-water rowing. Rowing on the water employs muscles and nerves that are not exercised optimally on a rowing machine. The fact that we get exhausted so quickly when we return to water rowing is proof that our bodies are being taxed in different ways.

On the erg, you don’t engage your transverse abdominis muscles, and your proprioceptive system is in sleep mode. Unstable sliding seats or thick seat pads fail to imitate adequately the sensation of a rocking boat and the movement of crewmates. Worse, an unstable seat can lead to a laterally tilted pelvis during the rowing motion, which can cause injury. A boat that rolls to one side will breed problems with bladework, but an athlete on an indoor rowing machine can ride on a tilted seat easily. On the water, rowers need to right the rolled boat immediately, and as the blades touch the surface, the entire crew participates in making the boat level.

Here’s my advice: Don’t start with an intense 20K the first time you’re on the water, no matter how inviting the weather. Instead, start easy. Row a few hundred meters, stop, do some balance exercises, then keep rowing lightly for another kilometer or so, and repeat for 45 minutes. Increase the length and intensity of your rows slowly so your core can adapt to the exertion.

Of course, you should supplement your on-water training with core exercises on land. The aim is not a six-pack, which is more cosmetic than functional and a poor indicator of a strong core. Heavyweight weightlifters need a mighty core to handle the staggering loads they lift, but their abdomens hardly resemble the washboards of fitness-mag cover models. Your core is used and conditioned every time you take a step or a stroke, but to prepare it for peak performance and the strain of high-level competition requires deliberate, targeted exercise.

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