Written by Tom Barras – courtesy of APPI Education
31 Gold, 24 Silver, 13 Bronze Medals and the only GB team to have won gold at every Olympics since 1984. Yes, I’m talking about the British Olympic Rowing Team. However, that success has not come without years of dedication. Rowing is a relentless sport, with each member of the team having to complete three sessions of two hours a day, six days a week, all whilst averaging compressive loads of 3919N (men) and 3330N (women) for each and every stroke they take .
So why am I talking about this? Well, aside from being a fully qualified and practising physiotherapist, I have also earned my place as a member of this British Rowing Team. I wanted to use my knowledge of anatomy and physiology to further investigate the ways I could reduce my risk of injury and increase performance. In elite rowers, cardiovascular fitness and strength are arguably the most important elements which affect performance. However these are also the two things which can be lost the fastest as a result of being unable to train.
Recent research  has shown that 32-53 per cent of rowers will have at least 1 episode of low back pain within a 12-month period, and that low back pain accounts for over 50% of all rowing injuries where time lost from training was greater than five days . However, was it really that surprising to me to hear the prevalence of low back pain in rowers. Especially considering the repetitive, compressive loads I mentioned earlier? No, but should I have needed any further convincing, then this research of MRI scans comparing lumbar abnormalities in rowers with age matched non rowers would have confirmed my thoughts- with 85% of rowers displaying abnormalities, compared with only 20% of non rowers .
From this research and my own personal experience, I could clearly see that one of the biggest influences of training capability and performance was the management and prevention of lower back pain. The question was- where should I go from here? What would I need to do to reduce my injury risk? Well, to reduce compressive loads on the spine, rowers must be able to achieve considerable anterior rotation of the pelvis, whilst also being able to maintain a healthy back position throughout a session . Therefore, It seemed that pelvic positioning and spinal stiffness were the two key areas needing further investigation.
I knew that a major restraint to pelvic motion in rowers is often the length and stiffness of the hamstrings, with tightness here often causing a backwards tilt of the pelvis. Then, because rowing technique requires you to have a long stroke (the distance between the blade entering water to exiting water), tightness in the hamstrings could cause the spine to over-flex, to compensate for the lack of possible movement at the pelvis. This, then combined with instability around the lower back, means that the structures of the spine were going to be placed at increased risk .
Hamstring length and lumbar stability were two things I needed to address. The easy option would have been to just stretch and ‘do core’. However, I have previously found the research into the positive effects of static stretching for athletes debatable , and the idea of just completing a generic core session un-specific. I wanted something different, something focused, something functional and something which ultimately I would be able to get my own clients to use to their benefit as well as mine.
There has been plenty of research which show the positive effects exercise can have on lumbar stabilisation and pain management  , with the National Institute for Clinical Exercise (NICE) now recommending it for most people suffering with low back pain . Whilst dynamic stretching  and eccentric training  seem to be the recommended modalities to improve muscle length.
With this knowledge to hand, I set about trying to find an exercise programme which I felt would benefit both me and my clients the most. This is when I came across the APPI Pilates Programme. It had a course curriculum designed by physiotherapists and which was guided by ‘scientific evidence on movement dysfunction, segmental spinal stabilisation… pelvic stability and functional movement retraining’ . Basically, it had everything I was looking for.
I took the plunge and signed up for the online variation of the APPI Matwork Level 1 Course, and I’m glad I did as the course was nothing short of brilliant! Glenn (the class instructor) eloquently explained the methodology behind each movement in this modern pilates repertoire and how each exercise could be used to benefit a functional movement pattern. Each exercise had been broken down into stages- giving me the freedom to adapt each exercise to the level needed. Whilst personally I found it enlightening to realise how little I had been focusing on my ‘supportive’ inner core, especially considering its importance in creating spinal stability. However, this course not only taught me the exercises, but also how to teach the exercises as well- perfect for taking back with me to my physiotherapy practice.
Having the option to complete the course online also benefitted me significantly; training Monday to Saturday doesn’t give much time to attend courses in person. The online version gave me access to all the course content and videos that I needed to complete the course outside of rowing. The online course also gave me the added bonus of being able to go back and re-watch any of the videos I felt I needed to.
Having now completed both the level 1 and level 2 parts of the matwork series, I have learnt how to teach and practice the basic exercises, lead a warm up and cool down, structure a class and modify the exercises in the collection. I am now able to use the APPI exercises each day after training to improve the two key aspects I wanted to focus on- hamstring flexibility, and segmental spinal stability. Though it also gives me that nice extra hit on the shoulders, glutes and hips- in total, a complete body session.
I eagerly look forward to completing my APPI Matwork Level 3 course, continuing with my own pilates sessions and teaching others the benefits to be had from completing this repertoire. I have personally found the the exercises so incredibly beneficial, and believe they will support me in my journey as I build (hopefully injury free) towards the now delayed Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
Tom’s Top 5 Exercises
1) Hundreds Level 4 (Supine) – feel it helps with my scapula control and shoulder posture- reducing my risk of shoulder impingement.
2) Scissors Level 5 – great exercise to get a hamstring stretch at the same time as getting an abdominal/ oblique workout. (2 in 1 exercise).
3) Roll Up – helps build those neural pathways – reinforcing the correct pelvic position to be in for rowing. Also feels really nice to get spine articulating/ moving having been quite fixed whilst out rowing.
4) Clam series Level 1-3 – lovely combination to get glutes activating and switched on, it takes work out of the hips and puts it back into those stronger buttock muscles.
5) Foot series – great series of exercises which help me develop both calf capacity and balance.
Barras started rowing at the age of 11 at Burway RC near Staines, under the tutelage of Jim Mathieson and has proved himself to be a great sculling talent. He has won numerous domestic titles in the single scull and has been a reliable member of the junior and under-23l teams.
Barras studied Physiotherapy at Cardiff University, where he rowed for the university club under the guidance of coach Ian Shore.
His first international performance came at the 2011 Coupe de la Jeunesse where he was selected to race in the men’s single scull. He went on to represent Great Britain at the 2012 World Rowing Junior Championships in Plovdiv, finishing 12th alongside James Rudkin. As an U23, Barras raced for Great Britain at the 2014, 2015 and 2016 World Championships – his best result was a fifth place at Rotterdam in 2016.
Domestically, Barras won a bronze medal at the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Rowing Championships in the double scull, and claimed the BUCS single-scull title in 2015.
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