8 Squat Variations for Competitive Rowers

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Squat Variations

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.

Overhead Squat
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.

  • Hold bar overhead with locked elbows, wide grip and feet shoulder-width apart
  • Squat with control until tops of thighs are parallel to ground, keeping knees behind toes
  • Drive up through heels and hips to start position; repeat for specified reps

Overhead Squat

Back Squat
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.

  • Assume athletic stance with bar on back and feet slightly wider than hip width
  • Place bar directly on back of shoulders and neck
  • Keeping back straight and knees behind toes, sink hips back and lower into squat until thighs are parallel to ground
  • Extend hips and knees to drive up out of squat position
  • Repeat for specified reps

Back Squat

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.

  • Assume athletic stance with bar on back and feet slightly wider than hip width
  • Keeping back straight and knees behind toes, sink hips back and lower into squat
  • Tap box at bottom of movement
  • Extend hips and knees to drive up out of squat position
  • Repeat for specified reps

Low Box Squat

Single-Leg Squat
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.

  • Stand on one leg with opposite leg straight out in front
  • Keep arms straight in front of chest for balance
  • Lower until thigh is parallel to ground, keeping knee behind toes
  • Drive up to start position

Single-Leg Squat

Front Squat
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.

  • Assume athletic stance with feet shoulder-width apart
  • Rest bar across front of shoulders with clean grip
  • Keeping back straight and knees behind toes, sink hips back and lower into squat position until thighs are parallel to ground
  • Explode up by driving through heels and extending knees and hips to return to start position

Front Squat

Goblet Squat
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.

  • Assume athletic stance with feet shoulder width apart
  • Hold weight at chest height
  • Keep head up, back straight and lower backside toward ground
  • Go as low as comfortably possible and drive back to start

Goblet Squat

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.

  • Stand in lunge or stride position with back foot on bench or box
  • Hold dumbbells in both hands with arms extended at sides of body
  • Bend front knee to lower into lunge position until thigh is parallel to ground; keep front knee behind toes
  • Extend hip and knee to drive up to start position

Dumbbell Rear-Foot Elevated Split Squat

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.)

  • Place physioball between lower back and wall
  • Begin in athletic stance with feet slightly wider than shoulder width
  • Lower with control until tops of thighs are parallel to the floor
  • Keep knees behind toes
  • Drive up into start position

Physioball Wall Squat

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.

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