If you’re looking for athletic inspiration while staring down the barrel of failed New Year’s resolutions, you could do a lot worse than Seth Weil, an Olympic rowing hopeful training — like all hell — to earn a spot on the U.S. Men’s 4 boat in Rio this summer.
“Rowing is a power-endurance sport, so you need sustained, high-power output,” Weil says, explaining why it’s not for the faint of heart. “It’s not quite a full-on sprint, but it’s certainly not a marathon. You have to be able to sprint as long as you can.”
That Weil would become an Olympic rower was pretty unlikely a decade ago, when he was a pudgy freshman at UC Davis who had played zero organized sports in high school. “I was just like, ‘I’m fat, let’s party,’ ” Weil admits. Instead, someone noticed he was 6-foot-7, 280 pounds, and invited him to walk-on to the club rowing team. He had some early success, and that was enough to get him hooked. “I was lucky because I was good at it when I started,” he says.
Before long he had shed nearly 70 pounds and was a linchpin on one of the nation’s best rowing teams. In the years since his college eligibility ran out, Weil has teamed up with rowing royalty Henrik Rummel and earned a coveted promotion to the men’s 4 boat, on which he helped win gold at the 2013 U.S. Rowing National Championships.
But that hardly means he’s a lock to represent the U.S. in Rio. Olympic selection is Darwinism at its finest. Injuries and untimely dips in performance can dash the most carefully crafted plans. Which is why training is both science and religion to Weil — and why you can learn so much from him. You can pick and choose from Weil’s menu, and if you’re brave enough, you can go all in. You might want to clear some time on your calendar, though, and you’ll definitely want to spring for an erg machine. Ready?
Start a Journal
Developing a workout regimen is useless if you don’t track it. “The most fundamental part of this is a journal. You have to keep track of your workouts, always,” Weil says. That’s because your memory is flawed. It may tell you you did better than you actually did, or it may sew seeds of doubt, suggesting you did worse than you thought. Either way, a journal will keep you honest and on track, and, should you suffer an injury or have to take time away for any other reason, it will offer you a roadmap back to where you were when you left off. “Recollection is just notoriously wrong.”
Build a Power Pyramid
The key to sustainable power is to go from endurance, to power-building, to an explosive combination. “It’s like a pyramid,” Weil says. “You’re going from this massive aerobic base, to sustaining something for six minutes. You want to produce as much power as you can in six minutes. And the thing is, they don’t work together. You’re doing cardio, then you’re doing weights. They work against each other. So you’re trying to mold the two worlds together even though you’re taking losses on both sides.”
Start with an aerobic base. You will do this by rowing. A lot. The first phase of training sees Weil and his teammates rowing between 150 and 240 km each week. In the weight room, exercises are higher rep, lower weight — about 60 to 80 percent of max.
As training progresses, reps will taper down into power-producing lifts and, as racing season gets closer, the weight goes back down a little bit and the focus is on explosion, or what Weil likes to call “high-intensity interval type of stuff so you still have the power to sustain.” Specific exercises in the gym are determined by how that power will be put to use.
“Rowing connects your legs to your hands,” says Weil. “It’s as important for us to be able to enervate muscle neurologically as it is to be able to build more muscle. If I can’t recruit that muscle in a coordinated fashion, it doesn’t help me at all. It’s just added weight.”
Traditional back squats are done with a squat bar behind the neck, across the shoulders. Front squats are done with the bar across the shoulders, but under the chin. This keeps your core straight and more engaged. “Rowing puts a lot of stress on your lower back,” Weil says. “Front squats are going to force you to keep your posture a little bit better.”
Trap Bar Dead Lifts
In regular dead lifts, you can cheat and can roll the back forward. Not with the diamond-shaped trap bar, Weil says. “The load is in line with my spine and with my body.” This keeps your spine straight, protects your back, and forces you to lift with your core.
Whether on an inclined or flat bench, the lifter pulls a straight weighted bar or dumbbells toward them, keeping the elbows flexed outward so that the upper arms are at perpendicular angles to the torso. This isolation workout strengthens the middle back, lats, and shoulders.
For Weil, this is about balancing out a strong back, not about building a pumped-up chest. “We spend so much time pulling that we try to remain somewhat balanced,” Weil says. “Having antagonizing muscle groups built up together helps keep us out of physical therapy. As soon as one muscle group starts dominating, it can develop the ability to tweak your body pretty hard.”
Shoulder Plate Rotations
Pick up a plate and rotate it in circles over and around your head. This is supplemental joint work to prevent injury by building stabilizing muscles.
The core work begins. Grab a mat, the two-handled wheel over by the jump ropes, and find some space. Holding the wheel on your knees, stretch your torso to the floor — then bring it back up. This is a great exercise for building the connection between the legs and upper body, “to help transfer the power generated from our legs through our core and into the oar. Any weakness in our core will absorb some of that power, causing inefficiency.”
Sitting on the mat, feet in the air, torso in the air, holding that V-shaped position. Try it with 30 seconds holding that position, 15 seconds off, then increasing the time on.
Starting from the V-hold position, hold a weight and rotate your torso back and forth. “Since we rotate out of the boat, we have to be able to tie that rotation into our core as well,” Weil says. “Twists work the obliques, which help support the rotation out of the boat.”
“Hip flexibility and spine stability ensures the hinge between the legs and body is able to support and translate the power output of the lower body,” Weil says.
The trusty, basic core-strength builder is an Olympic-hopeful rower’s standby. Kick it up a notch by doing rotating planks, building up strength so that eventually you are not pausing in between side, straight, side, and just rotating back and forth.
– Aaron Stern