If you want to become a better rower, you’re going to have to develop a more powerful lower body. And no exercise is better at developing lower-body rowing power than the Squat.
But since both rowing and Squats place a great deal of stress on the back, is the traditional Squat really healthy for rowers in the long run? Or are there alternatives that still build power without placing a constant load on the spine? In this article, we’ll go through a number of Squat variations and discuss their effectiveness for rowers.
No matter what variation you use, focus on three to four sets of three to six reps at 75 to 90 percent of your one-rep max to build maximum power and strength (use 90 percent only during the off-season for Back Squats). Beginners should start with eight to 10 reps, using only bodyweight or light weight and focusing on learning proper technique.
The Overhead Squat helps build flexibility in the hips and strength in the core, providing a base for more complex Squats. If you're new to this exercise, begin by using a wooden dowel and perform the motion without your heels coming off the ground or shoulders rolling forward.
Since the Back Squat places a tremendous amount of pressure on the spine, it is crucial for rowers to maintain good posture throughout the motion. Once you lose posture or allow your heels to come off the ground, lower your weight immediately. Using too much weight too soon will encourage bad habits and hinder the effectiveness of the exercise.
Low Box Squat
This is the perfect in-season exercise for rowers since it helps increase depth without overloading the body. Find a box that you can sit on with a 90- to 100-degree knee bend, and use weight that is, at most, 60 percent of your one-rep max. Using lighter weight and focusing on depth is perfect for in-season strength maintenance.
This is an important exercise for creating the flexibility to get deep into the Squat. You can use a box to check your depth as long as you tap it at the bottom of the movement instead of sitting on it. If you lack the balance or strength to perform the exercise properly, drop the weight and hold on to a pillar or rack to achieve proper depth.
The Front Squat can be hard on the back, especially for athletes who lack core stability. Because of this, rowers should incorporate it into their workouts only every few weeks. Since good form is crucial to the Front Squat, feel free to use lighter weights to maintain form and straps to hold the bar.
You can use heavier weight for the Goblet Squat while still maintaining perfect upper-body posture. Rowers shouldn’t exceed more than eight reps, because the goal isn’t to increase endurance or muscle size, but rather power and strength.
Dumbbell Rear-Foot-Elevated Split-Squat
This exercise is a more advanced movement, so you’ll need to develop a strong base before progressing to it. Feel free to complete this exercise with either dumbbells or barbells.
Physioball Wall Squat
The Physioball Wall Squat is a variation used mainly for rowers with back problems, because it takes pressure off the low back. You can hug a plate or hold a dumbbell in each hand. (Read more about physioball training.)
Since each exercise has its own strengths, there’s no right or wrong variation to choose. In the end, the combination that works best for you may not work for another athlete. Experiment, maintain good form and follow the guidelines outlined above to develop the rowing power you seek.
Jeremy Golden is an assistant strength and conditioning coach at Cornell University. He was previously the assistant strength coach at Colgate University and was also the first strength coach in team history for the Albuquerque Thunderbirds of the NBA Developmental League. In 2007, he served as the head strength coach for the Los Angeles Sparks. Golden received his bachelor’s degree from The University of Tulsa and his master’s degree in sports administration from the University of New Mexico. He holds certifications from the National Strength and Conditioning Association, National Academy of Sports Medicine and USA Weightlifting.