How to Build a Heart of Steel
Scientists say rowers have healthier tickers than any other athletes. Here, Dick Dreissigacker, a former Olympian oarsman guides you through the utility of this lifesaving waterborne workout.
My doctor calls it an athlete’s heart, and it’s common among experienced rowers. My left ventricular chamber is so much larger, and its walls so many millimeters thicker than an average heart, that an inexperienced cardiologist could easily mistake it for an abnormality. Cyclists, as would be expected, have strong hearts too, but experts say that rowers’ hearts are stronger, although it’s not completely understood why.
What I love about rowing is that it provides more all-around fitness than most any other exercise, and it has much less impact on your joints and connective tissues than, say, tennis or running (a bonus for older guys like myself). My brother, Pete, and I started making indoor rowing machines in 1981, and we’ve received a lot of letters from ex-runners who have taken up rowing and say it has given them a newfound life. Yet rowing requires more than just aerobic fitness; you must apply a substantial amount of force in order to move a boat. Learning the motion of paddling is simple: You just push with your legs and pull with your arms, back, and core. You can learn to row in a couple of days, but it takes a lifetime to perfect it. I started rowing my freshman year at Brown University and I’m still honing my stroke.
I wake up at six o’clock in the morning in the summertime and row on a lake near my house for an hour. In the winter, I move indoors and use a rowing machine, which we call an “erg.” Warming up is crucial. I row at a very easy pace for five minutes, and then I do another five minutes rowing alternately between hard and easy 30-second intervals. I build strength by working high-intensity bursts into the mix or, if I’m on an erg, I’ll crank the damper to the highest setting to add resistance. People have a tendency to do long distances in the same slow, steady pace, but that doesn’t give your heart as good a workout.
When I was younger, I tried to get faster every year. I finally made it to the 1972 Olympics in Munich. The terrorist attack happened the second week, and I was lucky to have finished all of my competitions in the first week. The next Olympics, Pete and I tried out together at the trials in Princeton, New Jersey. We didn’t make the cut, but we still compete in several races a year. Every October for 28 years, we’ve rowed with the same eight guys at the Head of the Charles, a major regatta in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
It’s a -thoroughbred group of former national and Olympic team members from the ’70s. The event provides motivation for us to train, and when we reach the competition season, we have a full-body conditioning routine to prepare ourselves. Ultimately, this sport is a very personal thing, and my main goal is simple: Stay in the best shape I can, for the rest of my life.
Dick Dreissigacker, 69, has rowed for more than 50 years. He and his brother, Pete, own Concept2, a rowing company in Morrisville, Vermont.
Build a stronger heart and a more powerful body with this simple routine.
While rowing on an erg at a pace of 25 strokes per minute, monitor your distance on the machine’s computer. At 1,000 meters, sprint as fast as you can for 10 strokes by pushing with your legs and pulling with your upper body. Return to your regular pace. At 2,000 meters, sprint for another 10 strokes. Continue this pattern for an hour to build your anaerobic capacity by strengthening your hamstrings, quads, core, and lats.
Kneel with an abs roller (a wheel with a handle through its center) near your knees. Grasp the handle, position your shoulders above the wheel, and straighten your back. Roll it forward, keeping your abs and lower back straight. When your arms are fully extended and your torso is parallel to the floor, hold for 10 seconds, and then slowly roll back to your starting position. Try to work your way up to doing three sets of 10 repetitions.
Squat with your thighs parallel to the floor, your arms bent at a 45-degree angle, and your forearms parallel to the floor. Remain as upright as possible. Jump into the air as high as you can; swing your arms slightly behind your hips. Repeat immediately. Do this exercise 30 times for one set, rest for 10 minutes, and then do a second set. A staple among competitive rowers, this exercise will strengthen your quadriceps and create an explosive stroke.
Raise a weight bench to arm’s length from the ground. Lie facedown on it and grasp a 20-pound dumbbell in each hand. Holding the weights perpendicular to the bench, bend your elbows to lift the weights to chest level and then slowly lower them.
Do 10 reps, rest for 10 minutes, and then do two more sets. This will build your lats as well as your supporting upper-back muscles by simulating the pulling phase of a stroke.
Lie on your back with your legs flat on the floor and your hands beneath your hips. Slowly raise your legs until they are perpendicular to the floor. Steady your hips with your hands, raise your lower back, and bring your toes to nearly touch the floor behind your head. Hold here for 10 seconds, slowly return to the starting position, rest for 10 seconds, and then repeat. This is a great stretch for the muscles in your lower back that rowing tightens.