Get stronger to get faster: an interview with Alex Wolf
For many rowers, the phrase “strength and conditioning” conjures up images of dark and dusty corners of boathouse basements overflowing with old heavy weights, bars and medicine balls. Some rowers love lifting weights while others avoid it at all costs. Yet strength and conditioning training is far more – and far more important for speed in rowing – than its intimidating reputation let’s on.
“The textbook definition of strength and conditioning is physical preparation of athletes. When it is done well. it is about aligning physical preparation of athletes with defined outcomes,” says Alex Wolf, who has written a new book, Strength and Conditioning for Rowing.
With 15 years of experience as head of strength and conditioning for the English institute of Sport and a key player in Britain’s rowing successes at the 2012 London and 2016 Rio Olympic Games, Wolf hopes to change minds about this important aspect of rowing performance.
“People often do strength and conditioning training independently from the event they are training for,” says Wolf. “It is important to get away from that idea and focus on physically preparing for a sport.”
In other words, rowers wanting to see improvements on the water from their time in the weight room should focus on exercises to that relate directly to rowing performance and not just lift weights for the sake of lifting weights. Wolf suggests thinking of it as “a way to develop fundamental rowing qualities.”
“What strength and conditioning training can do is allow rowers to generate large amounts of force during a race,” says Wolf.
Getting the boat up to speed off the start line is one place where increased force has a big impact, but it can help in the body of a race as well and in training. “If rowers are working at maximal capacity and you improve that maximal capacity, they get faster.”
Wolf illustrates his point with an example. “A rower can hold on average about 75 per cent of their maximal force capacity through a (2000m) race,” he says. “If that 75 per cent is around 800 Newtons for an average male rower, by improving their maximal capacity they could start rowing at 820 Newtons on average.” So being more powerful means they can be more efficient as well.
Injury prevention is another main reason to include strength and conditioning training into a programme, according to Wolf. “It can really help manage the risk from overuse injuries and also improve range of movement and what the trunk can tolerate.”
This last point, strengthening the trunk, is something that Wolf’s experience leads him to believe every rower could benefit from. “Every single rower I have worked with has had weaknesses around the trunk,” says Wolf, who has dedicated an entire chapter of his new book to training the trunk. “Taking care of that makes performance more effective.”
One of the most important things that coaches and rowers can do, however, is to “test and identify what is limiting performance,” he says, circling back to his belief that good strength and conditioning training should be done to benefit sport performance and not as an end in itself.
As for working strength and conditioning into the overall training plan, there are many different ways to do it, says Wolf. “There are nations who don’t do any strength and conditioning in the weight room. They use other methods to arrive at the same outcomes. Absolutely you can train some of those things through the rowing stroke. Low rate power strokes are a good practical example of strength and conditioning training.”
Whatever methods a rower uses to improve their power output, Wolf stresses that the key to effective strength and conditioning is looking first at what you are trying to achieve.
“Fundamentally, it always starts with the outcome,” he says. “Then work backwards from that performance. You can be quite creative in trying to achieve that.”