Is Hamstring Flexibility for Rowers Overrated?
By Simon Moore – Director of Rowing Jeppe High School for Boys
The 2021 series of coaches corner will include some interesting research articles pertaining to various aspects of the sport. Stay tuned every two weeks for some interesting stuff!
Hamstring flexibility for rowers seems to always rank high in concerns for both coaches and rowers. “My hamstrings are tight” is offered as an explanation for everything from low back pain, poor stroke technique, restricted reach on the recovery, and the decline in the stock market. However, perhaps we’ve been chasing the wrong culprit with our seemingly endless hamstring stretches.
During my research I kept coming across references to “Koutedakis, 1997,” in regard to the muscular imbalance of quadriceps and hamstrings in rowers and resulting low back pain. “Knee Flexion to Extension Peak Torque Ratios and Low-Back Injuries in Highly Active Individuals” was an intriguing study as described in other research, despite the bland name, as the authors reportedly did a 6-8-month study hamstring flexibility for rowers of female rowers with a history of low back pain, assigned a hamstring strengthening intervention, and found a decrease in days missed from practice for low back pain. I got the article through interlibrary loan, dug in, and it turned out to be even more interesting than I hoped.
The researchers noted that the lack of correlation between sit-and-reach results and low back pain runs counter to the current research that suggests that poor lumbar and hamstring flexibility is related to low back pain, and that good flexibility indicates good musculoskeletal function. The authors suggest that different statistical procedures may have produced this result. There is a problem in exercise science research of researchers manipulating research to report statistically significant findings, rather than finding no result (the null hypothesis), as in the current study. You can read more about this by Greg Nuckols here.
However, Koutedakis et al. also propose that the difference could be due to their participants not experiencing symptoms at the time of data collection. It is possible that pain limits flexibility, and that other studies researching subjects currently experiencing pain would get different results.
The researchers also found that the mean flexion-to-extension ratio of 50% in rowers is lower than the 55-80% that researchers suggest is optimal for trained and untrained populations. They suggest that this is due to the high emphasis on the quadriceps in rowing, and the absence of dedicated hamstring strengthening exercises in most traditional strength training programs. Their results support this conclusion, as improving the flexion-to-extension ratio in the 22 female rowers from 51% to 61% during the strength training intervention resulted in a decrease in days missed from training.
Overall, the conclusion is that hamstring flexibility for rowers is overrated. This is partially because of how popular hamstring flexibility and stretching is, as well as how little it may actually do for us compared to other alternatives. Does this mean hamstring flexibility for rowers is never a concern, and should be entirely ignored? Of course not. A straight leg raise test, as Blake Gourley demonstrates in the picture above, can still provide some helpful information about an athlete. Dynamic hamstring stretches as part of a rowing warmup can help prepare the body to row.
Finally, if static hamstring stretching feels good, then that is a benefit in and of itself.
Follow these general principles from https://rowingstronger.com and you will be well on your way to reaching your rowing goals 😊