Coaches' Corner: Managing Bodyweight and Composition for Optimal Performance

Rowing is about getting the body to perform. If you desire to be an elite athlete, you must treat your body, in many ways, like 'a well-oiled machine.' The less cliché way of putting it is to say that you must take care of it, and make sure it is a finely tuned piece of equipment that will be capable of producing high performance at the desired time. Your body is the vehicle with which you pursue your athletic goals. Of course, it requires an extreme amount of mental discipline and dedication, but I believe each of us has a great deal of control over the shape, size and composition of our bodies.

Before we get into it, let me make a few things clear:

First, I understand and am aware that there are a lot of pressures and misconceptions about ideal body image/composition, and that there are discrepancies sometime between what is healthy and what people want their bodies to look like–I am sensitive to that reality. I am not recommending a diet or preferred body type. I do, however, want to see the people who may have a desire to have a different size, shape or body composition, achieve their desired result.

Without a doubt, there are many problems with body image in society and real, very serious psychological problems that are associated with topics like this, which should all be considered and treated very carefully. I am absolutely of the opinion that those are dangerous issues, which are prevalent in our society, and in no way do I intend to brush that aside–for any serious issue, you should consult a doctor. I am strictly writing from an athletic performance perspective and addressing certain people who may have a desire to gain muscle mass to improve their performance or those that are looking to become leaner and more efficient.

Now that we have that established, let's move on, shall we?

Whether it is a lightweight rower, trying to lose a bit of weight while staying strong and fit, or a heavyweight rower trying to add muscle and mass to increase power and strength in order to compete with naturally taller, stronger athletes, issues of weight gain, weight loss and changing body composition are quite relevant in rowing as in most sports. Each sport tends to have an ideal or prototypical build. This is especially true of strength and endurance sports (like running, cycling, swimming, rowing, etc.) and less true with skill sports (like golf, baseball, etc.). If you think of the prototypical elite heavyweight male rower, it would be someone about 6'4"-6'8" roughly 195-225 pounds with very well developed quadriceps, glutes and lats among other sport-specific muscles. When you think of an elite marathon runner, sprinter, or cyclist you will get a similarly clear image of what sort of build they are each likely to have. Obviously, not every athlete fits the prototype, but it is not a coincidence that people of similar build tend to succeed in a given sport.

Some of this build is natural, some of it is developed. If you row 30k a day and train at an elite level, you are going to have very well-defined quadriceps and back muscles. If you are a marathon runner logging upwards of 120 miles a week of running and doing no upper body weight lifting, you are likely to be pretty lean with very little upper body muscle. The reality is that body shape and composition can play a role in success in these sports. It is important to pay attention to these things if you aspire to become great and develop yourself in a way that will help you reach your individual potential whereever that may be.

The course at Bled, from the grandstand (Photo: B. Kitch)
You should treat weight gain or loss and muscle building as though you have complete control of it, because you do. It is, in many ways, a very simple process. Simple doesn't mean it is easy! It requires a great deal of work and discipline with respect to nutrition and hard work in training to gain good, functional weight (muscle). Ask most professional cyclists or distance runners and you will discover that actual body weight and composition is very important in making sure they are able to achieve their optimal racing performance. Matt Fitzgerald wrote a book addressing this specific issue.

In the famous (infamous?) 1977 film, Pumping Iron, Arnold Schwarzenegger makes a comparison between a body-builder and a sculptor. "Good body-builders have the same mind...that a sculptor has. You analyze it, you look in the mirror and you say, 'okay, I need a little bit more deltoid. A little bit more shoulders so that we can get the proportions right,'" Schwarzenegger says. "So what you do is you exercise, and you put those deltoids on, whereas an artist would just slap on some clay on each side–that's maybe the easier way. We do it the harder way because we have to do it on the human body."

Just like an artist can add to a sculpture and get the desired result if he or she does the work, so too can you add muscle/strength through weight training and nutrition or lose fat to become leaner (you can also do the same thing with aerobic training and increasing your endurance). These things are all just processes the body must go through–if you do the work and follow the formula, you will always get stronger or leaner or fitter or faster. The sculptor doesn't have to cross his or her fingers and hope to get lucky. If the sculptor has the talent and does the work, the desired result will be achieved.

I believe that, generally speaking (and I know I'm in the minority on this), most individuals can choose to shape their bodies however they want. I believe that almost anyone is capable of gaining a bunch of weight and looking like one of the contestants on 'The Biggest Loser,' or working to achieve the look of  a lean but muscular body builder, and everywhere between the two extremes. These different body types are not necessarily easy to achieve for every individual, and indeed in some cases, certain people may have a very difficult time getting to one extreme or another (i.e. someone with a slow metabolism is going to have a very difficult time becoming skinny and lean just like a person with a fast metabolism will have a very difficult time if he/she tried to become obese). My point is not that it is easy for everyone to achieve any result with his/her body, just that it is possible. If you are trying to achieve a certain result and you are failing, I would say that in most cases it is either because you lack the extreme discipline and diligence required, or you are simply going about it incorrectly. Unless you suffer from some sort of medical condition in which your body actually shuts down or stops producing certain chemicals at a certain point, affecting your body chemistry, I see no reason why you cannot shape your body like an artist would create a piece of art.

Still, in training and coaching, I've often heard the phrases, "I just can't gain weight," or, "I can't seem to lose weight," when the more appropriate/accurate statement might be, "I don't know how to lose/gain weight," or, "I lack the discipline and work ethic to gain/lose weight." If you really want to gain weight, then eat more calories every 24 hours on a daily basis until you gain the weight. The same thing goes for trying to lose weight. If you are not losing weight, then either eat less or burn more calories everyday with consistency until you do. Weight gain and loss is, ultimately, a simple equation. If you consume the same number of calories as your body burns on a daily, weekly and monthly basis, you will neither gain nor lose weight. If you consume more calories than your body burns on a daily, weekly and monthly basis, then you will gain weight in an amount proportional to the discrepancy between the calories consumed and calories burned. This is a very simple concept, which I think most of us are fully aware of in theory, but in practice many people seem incapable of utilizing it to achieve results.

There are complicating factors, however, as certain foods allow the body to store more water, which can lead to rapid short-term weight gain. (This can be extremely important for lightweight athletes managing weight during a period of competition.) So, management of nutrition is extremely important in addition to the calorie game.

As with most aspects of athletic training, consistency is key. If you burn 3500 calories a day, and you eat 4000 calories three days in a row, but only eat 3000 calories the fourth day, that is not doing everything you can to gain weight. It is the same concept as someone who trains hard on the erg twice a week and the rest of the time doesn't do much training. It doesn't matter how hard the person works in those two sessions a week, if there is not consistent training throughout the entire week, every week, then there may not be significant change or improvement.

Once you have this as the baseline, two other things will determine what type of weight/mass you are adding. Obviously, just eating more than you are burning everyday with zero exercise will only add fat, which is not good, functional weight and would decrease your athletic performance. In order to make sure the type of mass you are adding is functional, the two things you must do are 1) train very hard and 2) eat the proper nutrition in terms of ratio and amount of protein, carbohydrates and fat in your daily diet.

Lastly, if you are a smaller rower trying to gain muscle mass to be able to compete with those naturally bigger and stronger than you, then remember, you must work very hard and really push yourself in the weight room. Hard work helps to break your muscle fiber down every time you are in the weight room, and then, through proper nutrition and rest between lifting days, your body will rebuild and add mass to become stronger, which is the only goal that matters. Weight gain by itself does nothing to increase rowing performance if you are not stronger, fitter and more powerful.

-Justin and the RR Team

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