New research aims to help rowers take the strain off their backs

November 30, 2000

Rowers of all abilities are set to benefit from new scientific research which will help improve their technique and may lead to less back injuries in the sport.

Researchers at Imperial College, London report today in the journal Clinical Biomechanics that they have developed a technique which will allow rowers to measure and visualise how well the different sections of their lower back are moving together whilst they are rowing.

The researchers also show that their technique clearly reveals how good and bad rowers differ in their spinal movements during the rowing stroke.

Dr Anthony Bull, Lecturer in the Department of Biological and Medical Systems and member of the BioDynamics Group, said "Rowing is one of the most physically demanding and strenuous sports. It also places a premium on technical skill and demands high levels of consistency and continuity from individuals in order that they build and maintain crew synchronisation.

"Our research demonstrates for the first time how small changes in lower back movement can be picked up and analysed and related to alterations in the rowing technique," he said.

To assess their system's performance the researchers recruited six male rowers of elite standard from Imperial College Boat Club. At the Olympic Games in Sydney this year, three former rowers from the club won gold medals in the GB men's eight.

The researchers fixed small lightweight receivers to the body of each rower, and these were then hooked up to an electromagnetic motion tracking device known as the 'Flock of Birds'. This device allowed the angles between key parts of the lower spine and legs to be measured whilst the oarsmen practised on the ergometer - a rowing simulator machine.

After rowing strenuously for a 10 minute period - leading towards fatigue - the rowers were asked to simulate bad technique in three common faulty styles - known as 'bum-shoving', 'taking the catch with the shoulders' and 'leaning back too far'.

Each of the spinal motion recordings clearly showed the difference between the normal, fatigued and forced poor technique variants. The researchers validated their spinal measurements using an open interventional MRI scanner at St Mary's Hospital, Paddington. This scanner - the only one of its kind in the UK - is unlike a conventional MRI in that it consists of a vertical gap between the magnets allowing functional positioning of subjects in the scanner. This meant the researchers could scan the spines of rowers in simulated rowing positions within the scanner, allowing verification of the current study.

Both British Olympic gold-medal winning rowers and novice oarsmen are now set to benefit from a novel scientific research programme into rowing technique based at Imperial College that will follow the development of this system.

Some researchers have speculated that the introduction of a modern rowing style which emphasises 'the drive off the legs', may impact spinal loading greater than earlier styles. The Imperial development will allow this idea to be studied further and a series of investigations into it are currently underway.

The research team also hopes to use the device to carry out studies comparing styles between individual rowers and between different boat houses and clubs.

Dr Alison McGregor, Lecturer in the Department of Musculoskeletal Surgery and member of the BioDynamics Group, said; "Our ultimate aim is to develop a system capable of providing dynamic feedback to rower and coach alike that will assist in training and help reduce bad technique."

"It will teach an effective and safe rowing action to both novice and developing rowers, but also speed the return to the sport of rowers injured through poor technique," she said.

This research represents one of the first steps in a long-term project launched by the BioDynamics Group at Imperial College into the mechanics of rowing technique and its impact on performance and injury.

The Group has its own specially-equipped performance laboratory at Imperial College's Charing Cross campus in Fulham, west London, just under a mile away from the newly-refurbished Imperial College boathouse on the River Thames in Putney.
For further information please contact:

Dr Alison McGregor
Department of Musculoskeletal Surgery and BioDynamics Group
Imperial College
Charing Cross Campus
Fulham Palace Road
London W6 8RF
Tel: +44 (0)20 8383 8831

Tom Miller
Imperial College Press Office
Tel: +44 (0)20 7594 6704
Mob: +44 (0)7803 886248
Fax: +44 (0)20 7594 6700

Notes to editors:

1. The research is published in the journal Clinical Biomechanics on Friday 1 December 2000.

Title: Measuring spinal motion in rowers: the use of an electromagnetic device.
Authors: Anthony M Bull, Alison H McGregor

2. Three Imperial College alumni won gold for Great Britain in the men's eight event at the Sydney Olympic Games. They were Simon Dennis who studied zoology at the College between 1994 and 1997; Louis Attrill, a civil engineering student between 1993 and 1997 and Luka Grubor who studied computing between 1992 and 1996. All were Imperial College Boat Club rowers as students. The eight was coached by Martin McElroy, a management school student at Imperial in 1993.

3. Dr Alison McGregor, was recently awarded a UKP153,000 three-year grant by the Arthritis Research Campaign (ARC) to investigate lower back pain. Thirty elite oarsmen from Imperial College Boat Club will take part in this study to investigate the role of spinal muscles in low back pain. The BioDynamics Group have also recently received equipment grants from the ARC and the FH Muirhead Trust, and they are currently submitting rowing research funding bids to UK sports organisations including Sport England, the British International Rowing Office and the Stewards of Henley Royal Regatta.

4. Imperial College Boat Club is one of the top student rowing clubs in the country. The club's record at Henley Royal Regatta includes eight appearances in the final of the student eights event in the last ten years.

5. Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine is an independent constituent part of the University of London. Founded in 1907, the College teaches a full range of science, engineering, medical and management disciplines at the highest level. The College is the largest applied science and technology university institution in the UK, with one of the largest annual turnovers (UKP330 million in 1998-99) and research incomes (UKP173 million in 1998-99). Web site at

Imperial College London

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