These Olympic Rowers Say Why You Should Make It Your Pastime Sport

These two men have competed at the Olympics for rowing and they could teach you a thing or two. Here's why you should add rowing to your repertoire.


Kelleigh Korevaar |

Shaun Keeling has represented South Africa and competed in two Olympics, both in the men’s pair in 2008 and 2016. In 2008, him and his partner Ramon di Clemente achieved a 5th place finish. He then achieved a Bronze at the World champs in 2014 and a few Word Cup medals over the years. But it was in 2016 that his years of blood, sweat, and callouses (and a lot of them, too) finally paid off. Shaun teamed up with Lawrence Brittain and they managed to achieve a Silver medal at the Olympics in the men’s pair.

And then there’s John Smith, whose rowing career has comprised of many ‘firsts’ for South African rowing. He was SA’s first olympic champion, world champion, world record holder and under 23 world champion.

You might just be a weekend warrior or looking to improve your rowing splits in the gym, but tips from these Olympic rowers are sure to help you get there.

1. What Does Your Training Look Like?

For Shaun, rowing is a full-time job, his training includes 16-19 sessions a week, ranging from 1 to 3 hours at a time. “It leaves you very little time for everything else. This is when recovery becomes very important and understanding your body is imperative,” he warns.

Here at MH we place a big emphasis on recovery, that’s why we are big fans of foam rolling. Our recommendation? The Trigger Point TP Grid 2.0 Foam Roller (Buy It Here). If you’re strapped for cash this month, the 3-In-1 Foam Roller from Mr. Price Sport is a winner (Buy It Here).

Related: The Truth About Foam Rolling

And for John? “We train 49 weeks of the year, yes including twice on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, with our 3-week holiday [where we’re encouraged] to be very active, in September,” he says. “We train 7 days a week, with every fifth Sunday off. We’re training 2-3 times a day for 4-6 hours a day. Our training consists of rowing, the rowing machine, mountain biking, running, gym and yoga.

“Hard days will consist of starting at 7am with 22kms of rowing on the water (2 hours), then at 12pm it’s a 2 hour recovery mountain bike ride, finally at 4pm we do a 16km rowing machine workout. Easier days which are mostly Sundays are a 2 hour mountain bike or 10km recovery run to be done around 5min/km to prepare for Monday.”

2. How Can I Improve My Grip?

“Your grip should be over-hand like you’re doing a pull up with thumbs underneath the handle. Your grip should not be too tight as this can cause forearm injuries,” warns John. But ultimately, Shaun is a big believer in practice makes perfect.

“You can do a few exercises to improve your grip. But due to hanging off the handle and through training, your grip generally takes care of itself as you adapt and get stronger. This enables you to do longer or more intense training sessions. In my 17-year rowing career, I never worried about grip strength unless it was after an operation,” explains Shaun

John’s secret sweat tip? “If the handle is very slippery from sweat, clean the handle before use and use sweat bands on your wrists.”

Related: This Workout Uses 3 Different Grips And Stances To Spur Muscle Growth

3. How Can I Treat/Avoid Getting Callouses?

“Rowers never avoid callouses as we are proud of war scars. If you’re not into rough hands, you should treat your hands with some moisturiser post-session or wear gloves,” advises John.

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And Shaun shares the same sentiment. “Callouses are unavoidable when you row, you can wear gloves if you can manage them, I know some people use dubbin (leather treatment) or tape when your hands got sore. I find the best is to build up your rowing, allowing your hands to harden over time and to use tape when needed.”

4. How Can I Improve My Rowing Splits?

According to Shaun, “technique and training are the only way to improve your split. Using the proper technique will allow you to go as fast as possible, there are many YouTube videos that can show you this.

“In order to go your fastest when rowing, you need to hang off the handle, using your legs to drive the footboard, then lever your back on the end of your leg drive and only then bend your arms and pull the handle into the body. Think about hanging off the towel rail in the bathroom and driving your legs off the wall, that’s the hanging sensation you looking for.”

Related: 4 Killer Rowing Workouts

Shaun’s split sessions secrets? “For long sessions, something like 3x5km sessions, stroke rate 20, with a 2 minute rest will be good,” he says. “Rest to stretch your back and get a sip of water. For short sessions or racing of 1km -2km, I advise doing 6x500m pieces with a 2 minute rest or 4x1km pieces with a 2 minute rest, both trying to hold 2-3 splits faster than you can on average for a 2km race. This will also give you good confidence going into your next 2km or 1km race.”

According to John, most people don’t use their legs. “The more legs you use the faster you’ll go.” He recommends a drill called ‘legs-only rowing’. “This teaches the rower to push the legs and not pull the stroke which is a common mistake.”

“First, get on the rowing machine, strap your feet in nice and tight and grab the handle. (1) Slide forward at the front of the stroke – compressed legs, arms straight and strong back leaning slightly forward. (2) Pressing the legs flat but keeping the arms straight and back strong, still leaning slightly forward. (3) Then slide forward again and repeat steps 1 and 2.”

5. How Can I Turn Training Into A Fun Competition?

“By trying to beat each other, it’s generally game enough, as there is almost always a winner and the rest of the field in rowing and you can’t hide. But there are also games available on the ergo machines, you could challenge each other on and see who can stay on the ergo the longest.”

“You could also challenge each other over a certain distance and see who completes it the fastest, or see who can get the lowest split over a short period. The Olympic distance is 2km so race that on an ergo and see who wins,” says Shaun.

If you can’t manage a 2km just yet, John has the perfect workout for you: 100m and 200m sprint races on the rowing machine. “Go ‘select workout’, then ‘single distance’. Set 100m or 200m into distance options, then press the bottom right button to start. Once you start pulling the timer will start, and then the race is on to see who is the BEST friend.”

6. Why Is Rowing A Great Team Sport?

“There is no other sport that brings you closer together with a person, never mind you do everything together, training, eating, sleeping. The feeling of being in the hurt and trying to scrounge up something, in the middle of the race and having your mate with you, someone you can rely on, is very important and encouraging. You also have to be exactly in sync! The more in sync you are the faster you go. It’s essentially about making less mistakes than your opposition, and not always about who is right and who is wrong in the boat but what will make the boat go faster – this could be meeting in the middle and doing things together,” says Shaun.

For John? “I have also found that there is nothing quite like a bond found in suffering together on the rowing machine in gym.”

7. Can I Row On Weekends To Take A Break From Gym?

“Rowing can be both competitive and a social sport, you can decide how much you want to do it and on what level, from social rowing to an elite,” Shaun says.

“You could train on land during the week, ergoing, running and gyming and go out to the dam to row on weekends. There is something special about rowing on a peaceful dam as the sunset as well as being in the heat of battle in the middle of a rowing race, it comes down to the effort and results you want out of it.”

“It’s awesome to be out on the water with your friends in some of the most scenic venues our country has to offer,” John adds.

Related: “I Added Rowing To My Workouts. Here’s Why You Should, Too”

8. What Are The Main Muscle Groups Rowing Requires?

“It is rated the second hardest sport in the world behind cross country skiing (and is much cooler) as it utilises most (if not all, at stages) of the muscles in your body. For a break down, quads, hamis, glutes lower and upper back, neck and arms are all engaged during the drive phase of the rowing stroke, says Shaun.”

The biggest misconception according to John? “Everyone thinks that rowing is all about the arms but its’ all about the legs and glutes. The legs are the engine, they are most integral part of the stroke.  Once the oar is in the water the legs push down fast to generate most of the propulsion.”

9. What Exercises Should I Be Doing?

Shaun recommends diversifying your training. “Running is great as it strengthens the intercostal muscles and increases stamina, leg and glute strength. See point 3 for some work out tips, but the most important thing I can tell you is the time you put in is the result you get out!”

These are John’s top exercises:

  • “The Power clean is our exercise of choice in the gym because it’s a similar movement to the rowing stroke. The old faithful exercise, is the deep back squats it is something we love to do to increase strength. Strong legs makes for fast rowers.”
  • “Bent-over rows would you believe also great for rowing.”
  • “Hip thrusters or kettlebell swings are also there to help strengthen technique on and off the water.”

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