Rowing stretches: What to do and how to do them.

Over the course of your coxing or rowing career, your coach will more than likely ask you to lead your boat or the team in stretches. For athletes who haven’t participated in other sports before crew (and even some seasoned vets) this elicits a mild panic. Most coaches don’t go over what stretches to do and instead leave it to the rowers and coxswains to figure out. You guys have heard me say enough times now that stretching is an imperative part of your workout, as is doing stretches that are rowing-specific. The stereotypical right arm across, down to the left leg stretches are…cute…but the problem with them is that it tends to be the only stretches people know how to do (and most people don’t even do them correctly).

Below I’ve outlined a 10ish minute long stretching routine that you can do before and/or after practice. All you need is a stopwatch of some kind to keep track of time and maybe some mats if you have them. Holding each stretch for the appropriate amount of time is important. Anything less than 15 seconds doesn’t illicit the appropriate physiological response that you want to get from stretching, which essentially means you’re wasting your time. Stretching the muscles for 20-30 seconds helps increase their mobility, which is a huge factor in injury prevention. This routine is fairly quick, but if you have the time, you can extend each stretch to 30 seconds. Research has shown that 45-60 seconds of stretching yields minimal additional benefits over stretching for 30 seconds, so going for longer than that is unnecessary. Do NOT let your teammates half-ass their stretching. If you’re on my team and I see you holding a stretch for 17 seconds instead of 20, I’m judging you and questioning whether I want you in my boat. Don’t be THAT teammate that can’t spend ten minutes stretching out…chances are good that the one who slacks off during this part of training is going to be one of the first ones injured.

Remember that in addition to stretching, a proper warm-up and cool-down are necessary parts of any workout. You should do a 5 minute run or erg before stretching to get your muscles warm so that the stretches you do will be more effective. Think of your muscles like taffy…when is taffy more pliable, when it’s cold or warm? (Correct answer for those of you still counting it out on your fingers: warm.) After practice, a 5-10 minute cool down on your way back to the dock or on the erg helps the lactic acid start clearing from your muscles.

Upper back
Reaching upper back stretch || Start with your fingers interlocked and your hands straight out in front of you (shoulder level). Push your palms away from you until you feel the stretch in your rhomboid/deltoid muscles. Hold this for 10 seconds then slowly bring your arms up over your head, palms facing towards the sky. Push your palms away from you until you feel the stretch in your lat muscles. Hold this for 10 seconds.

Core (abs & low back)
Lateral side stretch || Interlock your fingers and raise them straight up in the air above your head. When you feel the stretch in your lats, lean to the left/right. Keep your hands over your head – don’t bring them down in front of your face. You should feel the stretch all the way down your side. The goal is to keep your arms straight. Only go over as far as you can without bending your arms. Also make sure that your head stays in line with your spine (i.e. not resting it on your shoulder or arm). Hold for 20 seconds, return to the starting position, then lean to the other side and hold for 20 seconds.

Cobra || Lie flat on your stomach with your hands and elbows in close to your body. Push yourself all the way up until your arms are straight. You should feel the stretch throughout your entire torso, as well as your low back. The closer your hands are to your body, the better the stretch you’ll get because you’ll be able to push your upper body up higher. Hold for 20 seconds.

Child’s pose || Starting from the “Cobra” position, bring your butt and back onto your legs so that your butt is resting on your heels. Your arms should be reaching out in front of you. The stretch should be in your lats, shoulders and back. The Cobra stretch should transition to this stretch in one fluid motion. Hold for 20 seconds. Make the transition just like you would make a transition in the boat. Say something like “OK, we’re going to bring it back into Child’s Pose in two – one, two – and bring the body back, keep the arms straight out in front of you.”

Hips, groin, and glutes
Sitting back stretch (low back and hip flexors) || Sit on the ground, spread your legs, and lean forward, reaching with your arms. Try and keep your back as straight as possible – don’t let your shoulders round too much. If you’re able, try walking your fingers forward just a little bit to get an even better stretch. Hold for 20 seconds.

Pigeon stretch || Bring one leg up in front of you like you’re going to sit cross-legged on the floor. Take your other leg and straighten it directly behind you. Lean forward until you feel the stretch. If you’re flexible enough you can rest your forearms on the ground in front of you, but if you’re not, you can place your hands beside the knee of your bent leg to keep your upper body upright. Make sure the core is tight and you’re not sinking into your hips. Hold for 20 seconds and switch sides.

Pretzel stretch (glutes) || Lie flat on the floor. Bring one knee up to a 90 degree angle, then place the ankle of your other leg on the knee of your bent leg. This leg should look like your legs look when you’re sitting cross-legged. Place your hands on the back of your 90 degree-bent leg and pull towards you. You’ll feel the stretch in the glute of your cross-legged leg. Make sure you keep your bent leg at 90 degrees instead of just letting it hang there. Hold for 20 seconds then switch sides.

Groin stretch || Standing up, spread your legs as far apart as you can while still keeping your feet flat on the ground until you start to feel a stretch in your adductors (the muscles of your groin, on the insides of your thighs). You can either lean forward and rest your palms flat on the ground (while keeping your legs straight) or if you’re not that flexible, rest the palms of your hands on your thighs. Make sure you keep your back flat and your head up when you lean forward. Hold for 20 seconds.

Calves and Achilles tendon
Plank stretch || For this stretch, there are two ways of doing it. The first is what’s shown in the photo to the left and the second, I couldn’t find a picture of. The first way is to get in a downward dog position and place the toes of one foot on the heel of your other. Use the weight of the upper leg to push your heel into the ground. You should feel the stretch through your Achilles and calf. The other way of doing it is to get in plank position and place your toes of one foot on the heel of the other and press your heel back away from your body. Hold for 20 seconds then switch.

Kneeling hamstring stretch || Get down in the lunge position. Extend one leg straight out in front of you with your toes pointed in the air. Lean forward to stretch the hamstring. Don’t push your knee into the ground though – this will hyper-extend it and can seriously injure the joint, as well as compromise the popliteral artery (the artery directly behind your knee). Hold for 20 seconds, then switch sides.

Seated hamstring stretch || Sit on the floor with on leg extended straight out in front of you and the other one bent in a cross-legged position. The heel of the foot on your bent leg should be parallel to the thigh of your straight leg. Point the toes of your straight leg straight up to the ceiling as far as you can. With straight arms, lean forward and try to touch your toes. If you can’t touch them, at least be reaching for them – don’t just hang there. If you can reach your toes, try and walk your fingers down the back of your foot until you feel the stretch in your hamstring. Hold for 20 seconds then switch sides.

Illiotibial band
Leg crossover stretch || Sit with your legs straight out in front of you. Bend one leg and cross your foot over the other leg – make sure that the bottom of the foot on your bent leg is flat on the floor. Push the bent leg into your body with your elbow while twisting your torso to the opposite side. You should feel the stretch along the bottom of your butt and up the side of your leg where your IT band is located. Hold for 20 seconds before switching sides.

Lying quad stretch || Sit with your legs straight out in front of you. Bend one leg and pull it behind you so that your ankle-knee-hip forms a 45 degree angle. Lay back on your forearms or flat on your back. Make sure you don’t bend your knee any more than 45 degrees – you don’t want to feel any tightness or pulling in the knee joint. Hold for 20 seconds then switch sides.

Shoulders and arms
Shoulder rolls || With your arms relaxed at your side, roll your shoulders forwards for 15 seconds, then reverse the direction and roll them backwards for 15 seconds. Take your time and really feel the stretch in your shoulder muscles. You can either roll both shoulders at the same time or alternate between rolling one then the other.

Rotator cuff stretch || Extend your arms behind your back and with your palms facing your back, interlock your fingers. Push your hands away from your body until you feel the stretch in your shoulders, pecs, and in between your shoulder blades. Start with your hands down by your waist and gradually lift them up towards your shoulders as far as you comfortably can. Hold for 10 seconds, then release your hands and swing them in front of you like you’re doing arm scissors for 2-3 seconds before repeating the stretch one more time.

Forearm stretch || The forearms are the often-forgotten muscle groups. To stretch the bottoms of your forearms, extend your arm straight out in front of you, palm facing away, and pull your fingers in towards your body. Hold for 15 seconds then switch. To stretch the tops, reach your arm straight out in front of you with your fingers to the side (or down, like the photo). Pull them towards you with your other hand until you feel the stretch in your wrist and forearm. Hold for 15 seconds then switch.

Another great way to work out any lingering soreness after a workout or particularly hard week is by using a foam roller. If you don’t have one, I highly recommend getting one to keep at your house to use when you get home or after a hot shower. If you’ve never used one, check out the video I’ve posted below. It gives a great run down of everything you should do with it, as well as what you can expect as far as any discomfort goes. The first few times you use the foam roller it will hurt a little because it’s essentially like getting a deep tissue massage. As time goes on though the discomfort will subside. You can find them at Dick’s Sporting Goods, Wal*Mart, Target, and Amazon, among other place. They typically run between $15 and $20, which seems a little expensive for a piece of foam, but the investment is worth it for the benefits it provides. The pressure on your muscles really helps to further eliminate the lactic acid from your system, which again, helps you recover faster and aids in injury prevention.

Hopefully this will help you the next time you coach asks you to lead stretches or when you’re stretching out on your own after a long row. Feel free to send me any questions you have regarding stretching, muscle pains, etc. Remember to not push yourself too far when you’re stretching to avoid pulling or tearing a muscle. If something doesn’t feel right, STOP. Make sure you know the difference between the “good pain” you feel during a stretch and the “bad pain” you feel when you’ve gone too far. This will go a long way in helping you prevent avoidable injuries.