I’m sitting on a rowing machine in front of an audience of 20 people and things have got a bit weird. As I reach for the handle I hear a shout. “DON’T TOUCH IT!!! It’s Satan’s penis!” What’s even weirder is that by this point in the evening I don’t find this odd. Because this is erg-training, Steve Gunn style. Steve Gunn, as many of you will be very well aware, is something of a legend in the rowing world. An Olympic rower himself, he coached the Searle brothers to an extraordinary win over the Italian Abbagnale brothers at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics (be sure to watch the footage if you’ve never seen it – it’s one of the most exciting races of all time). And, fast forwarding to today, he is the head of the GB Rowing Team’s Start Programme which takes promising youngsters and turns them into Olympic rowers. What he doesn’t know about how to row well and fast isn’t worth knowing.

Not touching Satan's Penis Pic by Oarstruck Photography www.oarstruck.co.uk

Not touching Satan’s Penis
Pic by Oarstruck Photography www.oarstruck.co.uk

Steve was giving a Q&A hosted by Welsh Rowing, and an assortment of rowers and coaches were finding out, quite simply, how to make the boat go faster. Which starts, according to Steve, with getting your body right. “If you learn to row with tight hamstrings and hip flexors, you won’t row properly.” And once you’ve started rowing badly, it’s hard to stop. Or, as Steve put it, “If you take 10,000 shite strokes, you’re probably going to row like that forever.” It’s not just the hamstrings and hip flexors that matter. Core stability is crucial – you need to be able to turn your core on and control your pelvis and lumbar spine, and you must be able to engage your glutes.

Which is where Satan’s penis comes in (*cough* as it were). To learn to perform the drive properly, using the handle was strictly verboten, at least at first. This was most definitely not about pulling. It was about learning to fall forward instead of rocking over – as if you’re falling off a cliff for a bungee jump – and then exerting pressure with your body at an even angle in the drive. At least I’m pretty sure it was that. With a crowd of strangers and one of the world’s top coaches scrutinising my every move I was feeling fairly self-conscious by this stage. But hey, I’d volunteered to be the guinea pig (of course I had – I was hardly going to pass up the chance to have my feeble erg technique given the once over by someone like Steve).

Falling with style Pic by Oarstruck Photography www.oarstruck.co.uk

Falling with style
Pic by Oarstruck Photography www.oarstruck.co.uk

We experimented with improving my not-a-rock-over by putting the back of the erg on a chair so gravity pulled me down – a strange but helpful feeling, and then a fellow Monmouth rower provided resistance by pushing against my back to report on how my body was moving.

Getting the drive right Pic by Oarstruck Photography www.oarstruck.co.uk

Getting the drive right
Pic by Oarstruck Photography www.oarstruck.co.uk

As I’d demonstrated by this point that I wasn’t using my glutes as much as I should be, it was on to the mat to learn how to engage them properly. Lying in an oh-so-elegant froggy position, I had to press my heels together, while Steve prodded my butt and showed everyone how my muscles were moving and I tried not to die of (a) laughter and (b) embarrassment.

The last shreds of dignity disappear Pic by Oarstruck Photography www.oarstruck.co.uk

The last shreds of dignity disappear
Pic by Oarstruck Photography www.oarstruck.co.uk

If that wasn’t shame enough, I then had to flip over on to my back and press out against the legs of a friendly Llandaff rower (usually Monmouth oppo) to get my lazy glutes working some more.

The flip side Pic by Oarstruck Photography www.oarstruck.co.uk

The flip side
Pic by Oarstruck Photography www.oarstruck.co.uk

We heard a bit about strength training and tissue conditioning. Weights, said Steve, should be a progression from body weight exercises – the principles of movement are the same and you should gradually add in weight as you get stronger.

But the big take home message for me – the headline news that exceeded my wildest dreams – was this statement from Steve.

“I think that people ergo too much. Especially masters.”

Let me just say that again, in case you missed it (don’t worry if you did; I wrote it in giant capitals in my notebook and I’m more than happy to repeat it on loop).

I think that people ergo too much. Especially masters.

Now before you get too excited, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work on your fitness and endurance. You categorically should. But rather than getting tired on a long erg and working all sorts of bad technique into your stroke, you’re much better doing a decent, strong, much shorter session with good technique and then hopping off and getting on the bike, or swimmming or running. Stimulating your muscles is essential and conditioning, he said, is the best thing. Oh, and don’t neglect mobilisation. Pilates is great, as is anything that stretches out your tight muscles.

All of which made me very, very happy. So thank you, Steve – it was a revelation (in more ways than one). And massive thanks to Welsh Rowing for making such an outstanding opportunity available to ordinary Joes like me.

And in case you’re still tempted by that long erg session this weekend, I’ll just leave you with this image, by way of a reminder. I rest my case.

Satan's penis

See what I mean?

girl-on-the-river-v11

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