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The Ideal Body Type Of A Rower

There has been a long standing stereotype that the ideal rowing body type is someone who is tall. But is this really the best rowing body and is there any evidence to support this assumption?

To get to the truth of this matter, it is first worth looking back in time to determine if this has always been the case…

About the author

Alex is a consultant S&C coach and coach developer. Alex has spent over 15 years working with some of the worlds elite performers including supporting the British and Chinese rowing teams.

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Athlete Health & Fitness

A brief history of body types in rowing

A study looking at male Norwegian championship medallists (Olympic, World and European) between 1970 and 2001 show there has been no change in height with the average height being between 191-192cm tall (Fiskerstrand & Seiler 2014). This would suggest that over the last few decades, the ideal rowing body is an individual who is tall. This is supported by the analysis of American 1992 Olympian rowers, with the males average height being 194.1cm and females being 178.6cm. However, if we look at this from a little further back in history, there is some interesting insights we need to consider. Stephen Seiler presented ‘150 years of rowing faster: what are the sources of more and more speed?’ at the 2015 World’s Leading Rowing Sport Science and Medicine Conference in Marlow, UK (Seiler 2015). Within this presentation, champion rowers from later 1800’s are described as being around 180-185cm tall which is a little shorter than the reported heights of rowers from the 1970’s onwards. So, it does appear that championship rowers have gradually increased in height over the two centuries.

Longer limbs are an advantage for rowing

For rowers to be increasing in height, there must be some advantages for this to be the ideal rowing body type. Mechanically speaking, there are certainly some advantages. It is not simply about being tall but where the length of body segments sits. The advantages of having long legs and arms are of paramount importance too (Akça 2014). Having longer arms and legs allow an increased leverage to apply force to the foot stretcher and the blade compared to those who have shorter arms and legs. A UK Sport and British Rowing collaboration introduced a number of talent identification programmes looking for tool individuals who have the physical attributes to be a successful championship rower, aptly named ‘Tall and Talented’ and ‘Sporting Giants’. While body height is measured, arm span (body length) is also measured due to the mechanical advantage long arms have in the application of force to the blade. There are multiple studies identifying the ideal rowing body type being tall and having long limbs in relation to performance. There are strong to very strong relationships between the height of an elite and sub-elite rower with power output and stroke length (Akça 2014; Rahim & Sulaiman 2014; Sebastia-Amat et al 2020 & Penichet-Tomas et al 2021). The taller the rower is, the greater the power output and stroke length. When investigating the ideal rower’s body further, it is clear there is also a relationship between power output and stroke length to leg and arm length (Penichet-Tomas et al 2021). Therefore, it would be possible to identify the ideal rower body type would be an individual who is tall with long arms and legs.

We do also need to take an evolutionary view of the ideal rower body type. There is evidence to suggest that there has been an increase of 10-30mm each decade in body height of individuals in Europe from the 19th century to the end of the 20th century (Cole et al 2000). This would imply that while there are clearly mechanical advantages of being taller, some of the increase in height we see with today’s rowers are a result of this evolutionary observation. So, the championship rowers in the 1800’s being 180-185cm may actually be the taller individuals of the population at that time, which is reflective of the distribution of today. With a population potentially increasing in height, rather than having taller rowers, we may simply have a bigger pool of individuals to choose from.

While a lot of the evidence has looked at elite and sub-elite rowers determining the ideal rower body type as individuals who are tall with long arms and legs, it is also worth exploring whether this holds true for the non-elite population to avoid the homogeneity of subject type. One study looked at physical inactive female college student’s ergometer performance in relation to anthropometric measurements of body mass, body height, length of upper limbs, length of lower limbs (Podstawski et al 2014). All of these metrics were found to be statistically significant determinants of 500m ergometer performance. This would indicate regardless of level of rowing performance; the ideal rower body type remains those who are tall with long arms and legs. The mechanical advantage of increased power output and stroke length is relevant regardless of rowing experience and level.

Not only tall rowers win however

That said, there is also evidence that lightweight rowers are able to perform close to the performances of openweight rowers while being restricted to a specific and significantly lower body mass when compared to their openweight counterparts. Seiler (2015) presents an analysis of lightweight and openweight male and female boat peak boat velocities of top three finishers across three boat classes over 3 years while racing at Lucerne where the conditions are considered to be stable racing conditions (Seiler 2015). The male openweight outperform their lightweight counterparts in peak boat velocity by only 2% and only 4% between the female classes. If a taller rower has a more advantageous rower body type than a shorter rower, then the degree of advantage is disproportionate to height advantage. Some of this can be apportioned to the difference in the associated increases in body mass of taller rowers and therefore the boat hull having an increase in drag compared to their lightweight counterparts. However, there is also a scaling factor to consider. With increases in height and weight, the associated strength and fitness characteristics only increase to 2/3 to ¾ of what may be expected with these increases respectively (West et al 1997). As demonstrated with the small differences in boat velocities between lightweight and openweights, the advantages of being taller have diminishing returns, therefore it is possible for shorter individuals to perform at near comparable levels to taller individuals.

This brings up an important point about body mass too. Taller rowers tend to be heavier rowers, so the improvements seen in performance is not solely down to height and limb length of rowers. While these features clearly create a mechanical advantage, there is a requirement for muscular contractions to generate the joint torque to actually move the joint and apply the force to the foot stretcher and blade to take advantage of this mechanical opportunity. There is evidence, particularly in female rowers, that increases in total and lean body mass are also associated with increases in rowing performance (Penichet-Tomas et al 2021). My observations of working with female rowers support this finding of female (and males but to a lesser degree) rowers who have increased lean and total body mass perform better in the weight room and have greater power outputs. Check out this interesting article around the height and weight of women rowers.

Body mass considerations for rowers

To highlight the importance of body mass, one rower I worked with transitioned from a lightweight to an openweight as they were unable to maintain the restricted body mass. To give the rower the best opportunity to compete in the openweight class, it was agreed that a 2000m ergometer performance of around 6 minutes would be required. With the rower being 187cm tall and this being unchangeable, the decision was made to increase lean and total body mass as this was the only way to increase the required power output through increases in muscular contractions to generate the required joint torques. Over the period of about 10 months, the rower increased their body mass by around 14kg from 73kg to 88kg while maintaining a fairly stable lean and fat mass. The testing within the weight room via a countermovement jump demonstrated a huge increase of 1800W in power output which in turn created a relative power output of about 15W.kg-1 (Watts per kg of body mass).

The resultant 2000m ergometer performance dropped from 6:16.9 to 6:01.8, a 15.1 second performance improvement. While clearly some of this improvement came from changes in metabolic and fitness characteristics, for around 45 weeks within this programme, fitness training was reduced to no more 50-65km a week, a ¼ to 1/3 of the normal volume at that time with 12km to allow for 4-6 weights sessions a week. Normal volume and intensity of rowing training only really resumed after week 45, once posted the 6:01.8 2000m ergometer. This training was in preparation for Henley Royal Regatta where he was in the bow seat in the victorious Ladies’ Challenge Plate Men’s 8+. While no physiological markers were taken during this time, with the limited volume of metabolic and fitness based training completed during the 45 weeks, it is safe to assume the majority of 2000m ergometer performance improvement is a result of the increase in lean and body mass and the associated power output that came with this.

This clearly demonstrates that while being tall and having long limbs may be the ideal rower body type, body mass and lean body mass is also hugely important. The ability to generate large joint torques, specifically around the knee will significantly contribute to boat performance (Wolf 2020). Watch an excellent overview of the ideal rower body type in this Anatomy of a Rower video. Whilst this video highlights some important considerations around ideal rower body types, the knee peak torque is demonstrated to be ‘in a league of its own’, higher than all other elite athletes assessed within the series, demonstrating just how important lean mass and limb length is torque production. Building on the picture of the ideal rower body type, we can now state being tall, with long limbs and a comparative lean body mass to match the body height is advantageous.

The Coach’s perspective on body type in rowing

When asking rowing coaches what the ideal rowing body type is, it is interesting to hear what they observe and what is important to them. World Rowing’s Body of a Rower video provides an excellent insight to the perspective of coaches. While there is an acknowledgement of the endurance requirements and potential preference of being tall, Paul Thompson nicely articulates that ‘no rower comes as a complete package’ and why there are ‘always exceptions to the rules’. Josy Verdonkschot at the end of the video clip states he can’t give an ideal rower body type as he would take the tall and short ones; the successful ones are those that can race. This brings up an important point that while we have explored the ideal rowing body type, the bit that this ignores is the psychology and trainability of rowers. Just because someone is tall doesn’t mean they will be a successful rower, even though it has been demonstrated height and limb length regardless of level or experience is related to improved rowing performance. Without the ability to apply the wherewithal and having the technical ability to move a boat, simply being tall will not make you a successful oarsman or oarswoman. Racing is a skill so while some rowers may lack the optimal rowing body type, they are maybe successful because they know how to race better than the rest of the field.

Interestingly, the ‘Tall and Talented’ talent identification programme run by UK Sport and British Rowing also included a third point of ‘trainable’. This refers to the idea of asking are identified individuals coachable, do they have capacity and willingness to train to put themselves in the optimal position to be confirmed as a talented individual and demonstrate they are competitive while racing? These are hugely important considerations when identifying ideal rowing qualities; it is not simply the optimal rowing body type that needs considering but the individual’s ability to train and compete which no single assessment will ever be able to truly measure until they are in the arena itself.

 

References

Akça, F. (2014). Prediction of rowing ergometer performance from functional anaerobic power, strength and anthropometric components. Journal of Human Kinetics. 41, 133-142.

Cole. T. J. (2000). Secular trends in growth. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society. 59, 317–324.

Fiskerstrand, A. & Seiler, K. S. (2014). Training and performance characteristics among Norwegian International Rowers 1970–2001. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sport. 14, 303-310.

Penichet-Tomas, A., Pueo, B., Selles-Perez, S. &. Jimenez-Olmedo, J. M. (2021). Analysis of anthropometric and body composition profile in male and female traditional rowers. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 18, 7826-7837.

Podstawski, R., Choszcz, D. J., Konopka, S., Klimczak, J. & Starczewski, M. (2014). Anthropometric determinants of rowing ergometer performance in physically inactive collegiate females. Biology of Sport. 31, 315-321.

Rahim, A. A. & Sulaiman, N. (2014). Relationship of anthropometrics and fitness level between elite and university male rowers [Paper Presentation]. Proceedings of the International Colloquium on Sports Science, Exercise, Engineering and Technology, Penang, Malaysia.

Sebastia-Amat, S., Penichet-Tomas, A. & Jimenez-Olmedo, J. M. (2020). Contributions of anthropometric and strength determinants to estimate 2000 m ergometer performance in traditional rowing. Applied Science. 10, 6562-6571.

Seiler, K. S. (22-25 January 2015). 150 years of rowing faster: what are the sources of more and more speed? [Conference Presentation]. World’s Leading Rowing Sport Science and Medicine Conference – “Improving Performance Naturally”, Marlow, UK.

West, G. B., Brown, J. H. & Enquist, B. J. (1997). A general model for the origin of allometric scaling laws in biology. Science. 276, 122-126.

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