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How to build a rower's body

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Massachusetts’ premiere boating event, use these six tips to sculpt that coveted crew physique.

After sitting patiently in the shadow of spin bikes and treadmills, rowing continues to move up the ranks among cardio and circuit-training enthusiasts. And for fans of the real deal, this weekend, the ancient sport’s premiere event—Massachusetts’ Head of the Charles Regatta—turns 50. Teams from across the globe will compete, cruising the Charles River on Saturday and Sunday.

“Rowing is becoming more accessible every year,” says Fred Schoch, executive director of the Head Of The Charles, and former crew coach at both Princeton and Georgetown. “If you’re outdoors, it’s beautiful. Being on a river or lake at dawn is mystical, there’s nothing quite like it. And even if you’re indoors, you can use rowing to obtain total-body fitness.”

To maximize your indoor sessions, we asked top pros to share their best technique and training tips. Read on.

slow your row

“When rowing indoors, you’re able to avoid the ‘fly and die’ approach, where you row too-hard-too-fast and burn out,” says Schoch. Your move: Slow down your strokes per minute (SPM) to focus on form, says Nick Knight, a London-based Ph.D. with a background in human performance who rowed for four years at Oxford and recently trained a four-man crew to row the Indian Ocean. The best rowers don’t rush up and down—they have a deliberate yet powerful stroke. “When you are ready to take your next stroke, don’t just slam your legs down but (without pulling with your arms), hang back off the handles and squeeze with your legs,” says Knight. “As soon as your legs are near locking flat, not sooner, pull with your arms. In theory this is one seamless, fluid motion.”
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build upon your intervals

“Typically, the indoor champion distance is 2,000 meters,” says Schoch. If you are trying to achieve this, bite off little pieces. For example, focus on odd minutes: one minute rowing, 90 seconds rest; three minutes rowing, 90 seconds rest; five minutes rowing, and so forth. “I took this approach as a college coach, and still use it in the masters.” Another interval to try: Perform five sets of 250 meter sprints at 25 SPM with your rest between sets being 250 meters of slow, power-free rowing, suggests Knight. This will train your anaerobic—non-oxygen using—cardiovascular system. “Build on extra sets or distance as you feel the fitness gains.”
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shore up your core

“Rowers on the water manage to blend grace and precision with pure engine-room power and endurance,” says Knight. New rowers on the machine? “They are slumped over with their head somewhere approaching their crotch.” The difference, aside from technique, comes down to core strength. “Most people underestimate the importance of it, not just in rowing, but in every sport,” says Schoch. Your move: Pick up a medicine ball. Do standing exercises, play pass with a partner, or sit on the floor and rotate your body from left to right while holding the ball in front of you, says Schoch. Also try three sets of 20-second planks, and build the time up from there, suggests Knight.
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don’t neglect your legs

“Most people think rowing is all in your arms and back, but you drive the strength of the stroke with your legs,” Schoch says. Train your “rowing” legs with a simple squat, suggests Knight: “The ‘up-phase’ strengthens your quadriceps while the ‘down-phase’ (especially when done slowly) strengthens your hamstrings.”
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use adequate (but not excessive) resistance

“Make sure that the damper setting (that’s the handle controlling the fan resistance) is somewhere between 4 and 7, so that it roughly mimics the resistance in water,” says Knight. “A setting of 10 is not helpful and will only win you a visit to the chiropractor when combined with bad technique.”
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focus on rowing-friendly lifts

If you only have 10 minutes, consider this: “The power clean is the closest replication of the rowing stroke—just in the vertical rather than horizontal plane.” If you’ve never done one before, have a trainer help you. And for the most “rowing” gains, focus on lighter weight and higher reps (e.g. three sets of 10 to 15 reps), Knight says. “Your heart rate will jump up, too, as this has the added benefit of being cardiovascularly very demanding.”
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