This breakdown was written by Kelly Sheppard, a member of the Greater Columbus Rowers Association, who worked with Project Lift from November 2016 to May of 2018. Kelly moved to Washington DC in the summer of 2018.
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My experience at PL
I started lifting at PL in November 2016, and I have used it as a lifting plan to support rowing, my main sport. The Olympic lifts have a lot in common with the rowing stroke, and using them for lifting has a lot of benefits. The coaches at PL then add another layer that is very specific to lifting at PL. So, I’m going to first explain why I think Olympic lifts are excellent for rowing, and then why PL is the place to do it. As a backdrop: I learned to row in April 2016, and I have been racing since September 2016.
I shaved 3:30 minutes off my head race time (head race = 5k, a 20-25 minute race) from a November 2016 race to November 2017 race, and that represents the time I was lifting and rowing. The conditions were actually worse in the second race, and the winning time in the race was 30 seconds slower than the year before, with people who raced both years averaging about a minute slower. My improvement certainly came some from rowing a lot, but my main improvements were in form and power, both of which I got through lifting at PL and translating that to the boat.
Olympic lifts and rowing
Both the lifts and the rowing stroke are motions that involve explosive power in one direction with the need to, briefly, move in the opposite direction. In rowing, the “recovery” is the part of the stroke where you move counter to the boat and get ready to take the next stroke that will propel the boat forward. In the lifts, you have to drop under the bar in order to be able to lift the weight up. Therefore, they both require power and control. The movements are different, but the differences have actually helped me translate the lifting in the boat.
Set-up: At the catch in rowing (the start of the stroke), you have to be braced and balanced and ready to drive, blades in the water. This position requires core stability, leg strength and mobility, and shoulder strength and stability. At the beginning of the snatch and clean and jerk, you have to be in almost exactly the same position with the same requirements (braced, shoulders engaged and stable, legs ready to drive). These are so similar it doesn’t need a lot of explanation why the lifts are helpful for the catch.
Drive and transition: The drive in rowing and lifting needs to be smooth and controlled. You need power, but you can’t be reckless. In the rowing stroke, you’ll need to get the blades out of the water at the “finish”, right before the recovery when you head back to the catch. The finish needs to be very quick and not upset the boat. You just spent all that effort propelling the boat in the correct direction, you need to be quick but controlled getting the blades out and heading in the “wrong” direction. In lifting, you have to drive to the point where you drop down to get under the bar. Your drive has to be powerful but controlled enough to allow you do that without dropping the bar, and the transition has be quick enough that you don’t fail to get under the bar. The lifts have been crucial to me understanding this transition point in rowing.
Recovery: The recovery is the part of the rowing stroke that doesn’t have a direct parallel to the lifts. However, there are some interesting similarities I’ve learned. In lifting, once you are under the bar, you have to actually lift the weight all the way up. For snatch, that’s it. You need strength and the ability to keep the bar stable overhead through the motion. In the recovery in rowing, you need your blades to be off the water, meaning you are balancing the boat with your core and engaged shoulders. It is weirdly similar to the lifts despite seeming like very different motions. I have found the stability and mobility work for my lifts to improve my recovery and ability to keep my blades off the water more than anything else I’ve done in the past year.
Two problems I fixed with lifting: The lifts have noticeably helped smooth out my finish and helped me keep my blades in the water longer. In rowing, you are only moving the boat forward when your blades are in the water (during the drive), so you want that to be as long as possible. Your feet are attached to the foot stretchers, and you are only applying power as long as you are pushing on the foot stretcher.
In lifting, your drive sets the whole thing up. It’s where you get the power to get to the transition to drop under, and your feet need to be connected to the floor to supply that power. The connection required in both translates well so when you work on the drive and connections in your lifts, you then do it better in the boat. I feel most powerful rowing the morning after lifting.
Additionally, the need to drop under the bar is very similar to the need to get the blades out smoothly and cleanly at the finish. You actually want to almost back the blades into the space created by your drive in the water (actually path of least resistance) and pull them out on the square before feathering. You engage your core and start pushing forward with your lats engaged and stabilizing the oars.
Dropping under the bar requires bracing, keeping that core really stable as you change direction and move very quickly. The quick movement and need to move straight up and down (not pitch forward or arch back) is exactly what you need in the boat as you get the blades out.
Current problem lifting is helping: I have a hang at the catch, a pause right when I need to change direction and apply power. I have the same pause in my clean motion (sometimes I just move slowly instead of pause, but it’s the same effect). I have been working on turning over and getting under the bar quickly – removing the pause. The same exact correction is needed in the boat. I need to reach the catch and quickly change direction and drive.
With the clean, I can do one at a time, examine how it went and how it felt, and try again. That’s difficult to do in the boat. We use “pause drills” to accomplish something similar, but the need to keep the boat upright brings in a lot of variables that make it difficult for the rower to assess exactly what is happening and what needs correction. The clean is helping me eliminate the pause. I am doing significantly better in winter training on the erg. I can feel a smoothness at the catch on the erg that wasn’t there before. I have faster splits without any additional effort when I can get this smoothness turning around quickly (my steady state moved from a 2:25 to a 2:18 /500m).
It’s still a work in progress, and we’ll see what happens in the boat in the Spring, but the lifts are giving me the opportunity to examine this issue and start to solve it in a way I can’t do in the boat.
Why lift at PL
Project Lift offers some specific benefits that you can’t get just doing the lifts anywhere else or on your own. First, the focus at PL is on stability and mobility. You don’t do the lifts until you are ready to do the lifts. I was not allowed to do front squat or overhead squat because I had poor connection with the floor and poor core stability.
Now, these are regularly part of my program, and I’ve added more weight than I’ve ever been able to lift. Many people find putting the time into the mobility and stability boring, but it is 100% worth it. You will only go so far without those elements. I reached a plateau in my back squat weight when I played tennis in college. Looking back, it was because I never focused on the stability or mobility to really do back squats properly.
I made progress at first, but I hit a plateau that I never broke through and caused some injuries in the process. It’s worth the time PL spends on mobility and stability, and the coaches are relentless about it. You will not be allowed shortcuts. Second, ah yes the coaches. The coaches at PL are above and beyond the best I’ve had in a sport training area.
They don’t let you get away with anything, which is good. You get individual coaching each time you are in the gym. They know their stuff, hands down. They know how to explain what you need to do. They want each lifter to fully understand the lift so they can make progress on their own. It is rare that all these elements come together. There is always the coach who knows a lot but struggles to explain it or really only knows a few things and can’t go deeper.
There are coaches who don’t feel the athlete needs to understand the motion, they just need to do it. PL has none of these problems, and it shows in the progress their lifters make. I’ve noticed that very few lifters who lift primarily at PL and don’t do a lot of other things (ahem, CrossFit) are injured lifting. So many people using other lifting programs injure themselves, and it is a true testament to the coaches and lifters at the gym that following the program keeps you safe while you make progress in lifting and rowing.
That is no small feat. Finally, the other lifters. PL has amassed an awesomely weird and dedicated group of lifters 🙂 Like most rowing clubs, the lifters come from all over the place, are weirdly enthusiastic about their sport and don’t care who knows, and are fiercely protective of everyone in their group. It is a very supportive and fun place to lift.
I think the coaches engender this attitude because everyone starts with the stability and mobility work. You could be an Olympian, but if Drew or Chelsea or Chelsea 2 or Tyler or Heather or Stephanie see that you have a weakness somewhere fundamental, it’s back to square 1 until that weakness is addressed. Everyone lifting at PL has been there and knows exactly how to help you get through the process. We have a good time lifting together, on the good and the bad days. Really, there aren’t bad days, just learning days 🙂