Will Ruth

Tell us about your background


I come from a family of rowers, with just about everyone in my extended family having at least tried it at some point in their lives. I got my chance in high school and rowed for Olympia Area Rowing club in Washington, USA. It was a small club and I got a variety of experience rowing in all the different boats from fours and quads to eights, doubles, and pairs. I mostly raced the lightweight single during my senior year, and took 2nd at Northwest Junior Regionals the year before they made it a national qualifier.


I ended up not pursuing rowing in college, but got involved with the men’s rowing team here at Western Washington University helping some of my friends on the team learn how to strength train. I studied kinesiology, or exercise science, at Western with a focus in sport psychology, and officially became the men’s crew team strength coach in 2013. I’ve also interned with the Western track and field team, volunteered with a local high school football program, and currently coach high school lacrosse.


In 2015, I started putting the strength training method I use with the Western team down to paper. This is based on the block periodization system and I also included all the modifications, exercise selections, injury prevention considerations, and instructions for tapering or peaking for championship race performance for 2k rowers, 6k rowers, masters, and youths. I wanted to create a truly comprehensive resource for strength training just for rowers that would provide everything someone would need to know to plan and execute their own strength training program. In October of 2015, “Rowing Stronger: Strength Training to Maximize Rowing Performance” was published by Rowperfect UK. It has gone on to be one of their most successful e-books and is available in their e-store as well as for Kindle. I also produced a companion DVD for them with a video exercise guide for all of the lifts included in the book plus a series for rowing mobility and full footage of a workout with one of my rowers so you can watch me coach a real rower. I still write for Rowperfect and you can find my work on their site, www.rowperfect.co.uk, as well as my blog, www.strengthcoachwill.com.


What is strength and conditioning training?


Strength and conditioning training is the practice of developing physical qualities for a sport. Basically, it’s everything that you do when NOT actually doing your sport, for example, weight lifting and cross-training. However, what makes “strength and conditioning training” different from “lifting some weights and running” is the purpose and progression behind it. The purpose of S&C training is to make you better at your sport, so you need a coach who knows how to accomplish that outside of the boat. I think many rowing coaches go wrong assuming that just because they know how to train an athlete in the boat and on the erg that they also know how to train them in the weight-room. It’s not always the case.


How can it benefit a rower in their 2k time?


The number one reason to strength train for rowing is to prevent injuries. Rowing is a very “2-dimensional” sport that only requires a very specific movement, not a diverse “3-dimensional” range of movements like field sports. Sweep rowers and scullers will develop muscular imbalances if all they do is row and don’t do anything to develop other muscles and ranges of motion. So, one benefit of strength training for the 2k time is that it keeps you healthy and therefore able to practice more to develop your technique, aerobic, and muscular systems by not missing practice with injury.


Second, strength training improves the amount of power you can put down on a stroke. A rower with a 120kg squat will be able to exert more power than a rower with a 90kg squat. This is very helpful in starts and sprints, but also for overall endurance. In a recent survey of 32 GBR rowing coaches, all 32 agreed that strength training enhances rowing performance (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21311351) so the idea that all you need to do to be good at rowing is row and erg really needs to get out of the sport.


Should a rower be lifting heavy weights or light weights?


There are two ways to think about weight training. One way is to use weights to push endurance by doing light weights for very high repetitions. This is very common in rowing with bodyweight exercises and machine circuits, but I believe that training with heavier weight for lower reps is more beneficial, and here’s why.


Training with heavier weights for strength as the goal helps develop what I call the strength ceiling. If a rowing stroke requires about 100kg of force, it will be easier to sustain that force production if you are capable of producing 140kg of force than if your maximum is only 110kg. That is how strength training also improves endurance as well as power. The endurance potential is much higher with a rower who has a higher strength ceiling than a rower who has a low strength ceiling and only trains for endurance. As rowing Ed McNeely said, “strength endurance training without strength only means you are getting better at being weak.” You get plenty of endurance work every day on the water and on the ergometer, so use the weight-room to train for strength and health.


How important is the core muscles?


The core muscles connect your lower body to your upper body and transfer power between the two. In a sport like rowing where there is direct application of force from the lower body to an implement controlled by the upper body, a strong core is vital. Besides strength, it is also critically important to understand how to engage these core muscles. I see a lot of rowers lose engagement at the catch and waste their energy at the start of the stroke by having poor connection from the lower body to the upper body. Strength training with free weights, barbells, dumbbells, and kettlebells, does a great job teaching rowers how to keep their core engaged under load.


What is the most important factor for a rowing strength program?


Effort is the utmost important factor in any program. The worst program executed with the best intent will usually yield better results than the best program executed with poor effort. However, beyond effort, having an intelligent system and progression for strength training is the next most important factor. Having a system of progression around which your training is structured is called periodization. There are many periodization systems out there, so picking the one that works the best for you, your program, and your sport, will yield much better results than doing random workouts without a well thought-out plan.


Thanks for having me on your website! I post a new article every Monday on my website, www.strengthcoachwill.com, about rowing, lacrosse, or mental skills training. Two other strength coaches, Blake Gourley and Joe Deleo, and I are also going on Rowperfect’s free “Rowing Chat” podcast on February 14th to do a strength coach roundtable. Please tune in if you want to learn more about strength training for rowing and injury prevention! It will also be available on iTunes and Youtube.

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