Q&A with 2x Olympic World Champion Rower: Moe Sbihi (2016)

Moe Sbihi

On this site we like to talk about strength sports such as Powerlifter, strongman, Olympic lifting, gymnastics, sprinting and other sports of that nature. Nowadays we are trying to expand our horizons on the site by getting a multitude of other athletes because I have been getting some requests about other sports too so from time to time I will be posting Q&A’s with other athletes.

Today I will be doing a Q&A with a professional rower who goes by the name of Moe Sbihi. Moe is a British rower who has competed in the 2012 Olympic games in London and he has also won gold world championships in places like Amsterdam, Chungju and Aiguebelette.

If you know a thing or two about this site then you know that barbel rows are probably my favorite back builder and their sport revolves around rowing, its even in the name! Rowers also have a very unique kind of build and they are usually very developed in the back, bicep and forearm region. A lot of people think that all that they do for their sport is the rowing machine for high reps, but the truth is that it could be a very difficult sport and this is especially true at the advanced level so its always interesting to learn about their philosophies and where exactly they are coming from.

What made you get into rowing as opposed to something like sprinting or swimming?

Growing up, I had tried many sports. I was active kid and played all the team sports that my school offered. I played football and tennis outside of school and was handy at both. However, I was not going to make it in either. I was 15 years old, sat in an assembly being told that all the tall kids will be tested. A week later, a talent ID scheme called World Class Start tested all the tall kids in my year. I didn’t think of it as anything special. Rowing was not offered as a sport in my school and didn’t really know much about it other than Steve Redgrave, Matt Pinsent and the Boat Race.
A few months later, my parents get a phone call from World Class Start and they say that I have exceptional raw talent and that if I started rowing, there is a chance that I might win Olympic medals. This was in 2003. They predicted I could win medals in 2012. Nothing was a given and guaranteed. They pushed the dedication, sacrifice and motivation angle very hard.
From there I started rowing. They gave me a full time coach and off I went in a rowing boat. I was useless and hated the sport. It’s very hard to comprehend as a teenager, going into a sport like rowing. I found hitting and throwing a ball really easy and almost second nature. Staying afloat in a rowing boat however, was a different type of skill. My frustration almost led to me to quit. However, I didn’t. Now I am an Olympic champion.

What are your current goals in the sport of rowing and what do you feel like you need to work on?

Technique is my biggest challenge. Rowing is a sport that there is never perfection. The perfect rowing stroke is always developing and it’s a evolution to get there. Because we are an out doors sport, the conditions are always changing and the rowing stroke is always catering for this change. In addition, you are always changing who you are rowing with so it becomes about gelling with the others around. I used to be stubborn and not change the way in which I rowed. This meant I never accommodated for others and the boat didn’t go as fast as it could.
Physically, you can always improve. So my challenge is to start each season and PB on the major things we do through the season. This includes; bench press, bench pull, squat, clean, 2km, 5km and 30min rowing machine tests. It is quite a big list of things to improve on but if I make that aim each season then that will be a challenge. As each test is spread throughout the season, I constantly have a physical challenge that I can aim towards. PBs and records are what makes an athlete push themselves to new levels.

The typical bodybuilding program looks like this:

Monday: Chest + Triceps

Tuesday: Legs

Wednesday: Cardio + Abs

Thursday: Back and Biceps

Friday: Shoulders + Traps

Weekends: Off

What does your program look like as far as the set up is concerned? Also how are the weights implemented into your routine as far as the frequency and volume is concerned? What rep ranges do you like to work in for the most part?

My typical training week consists of;
Monday – 70 mins weights session. 2 hour row. 1hr rowing machine row.
Tuesday– 70 mins weights session. 2 hour row. 1hr rowing machine row.
Wednesay – 1.5/2 hour row. 30min Intensity session.
Thursday – 70 mins weights session. 2 hour row. 1hr rowing machine row.
Friday – 70 mins weights session. 2 hour row. 4-6 run and core season. 45min technique session or rowing machine row.
Saturday – 45 min warm up paddle. 1.5 hour session including intensity.
Sunday – Recovery or day off.
The rows are generally at a low steady state. The aim is to improve our aerobic capacity and efficiency. This goes hand in hand with the development of our technique. The long sessions allow us to row the stroke over and over again and improve our boat skills.
The intensity sessions vary depending on the time of the year but often they are a level or two above steady state. Through the winter we work on our aerobic transport and sometimes we need to push the intensity up a few levels to achieve the desired changes. We do this by increasing our stroke rate. During steady state we are around 18/19 strokes a minute. During the intensity sessions, we aim to increase speed and our stroke rate can go to a 40+ depending on what the session requires.
During the winter, we use the weights and gym more than the racing season in the summer. Weights is used for two purposes. To develop power and conditioning with the aim to decrease the chances of injury. We use big compound lifts to develop the power. Rep ranges from 2-8, with sets ranging from 3-6. The lifts include power cleans, press and pull, deadlift and squatting.
The conditioning side we have rep ranges from 10-20 reps, sets of 2-5. Exercises include spilt squats, Bulgarian squats, single leg squats, DB press and pull and band exercises. The conditioning is very important. Injury rates in rowing are very high and anytime spent out of the rowing boat or rowing machine is time lost. Very hard to recover from a few weeks out of a boat.
Days off can be rare and it all depends on how the coach wants us to be through the season.

I’m assuming that rowers incorporate a lot of rowing variations into their programming, what kind of rows do you like to incorporate in the gym? Also what was the most weight that you’ve ever barbel rowed and do you use straps?

It is true. We use different variations of the rowing stroke. The main one is the rowing machine. This is not like rowing on the water. It is simpler but the technique used during these sessions are very important for your technique on the water. More importantly, it is the best physical development as a rower.
In the gym, we are using all manners of variations for the pull and push of the rowing stroke. Straps are used but only during heavy cage bar dead lifts or heavy bench pull. Bands and Dumbbells are used. Bent over row, jump squats and rowing on a sit down row are always used.
The heaviest I have ever rowed…. I think 80kgs. But it is a common mistake to think of rowing as an arm exercise. It’s main supply of power comes from the legs and glutes. The power is transferred through the core and then the arms. The arms need to be strong but the legs must be stronger.

What are 5 weight training exercises that NEED to be in every rowers routine?

The 5 weight exercises that a rower must have, in order of importance; Power Clean, Squat, Bench Pull, Bench press and core exercises.

Do you ever incorporate any vertical pulling exercises into your programs?

Not much vertical pulling is incorporated other than Power cleans.

What does your leg training look like for rowing and what do you do for core work?

I think I answered that well above.

What are the most common injuries in swimming  and what do you do to prevent common swimming injuries from occurring as much as possible?

Common injuries in rowing are back related problems. Slipped, protruding and torn discs are extremely common and most rowers have them. Major forces go through the lower back and this puts a lot of strain on that area of the body. This is why we condition a lot on the gum. To be able to withstand the hours and hours of old that goes through the body during the rowing stroke.
Rib and hip injuries are also common. The ribs are often the weakest part of the torso and can develop stress fractures. The sooner these are caught, the better as their recovery takes a long time. Especially when the fracture is large.
Regular core and conditioning alongside a good stretching routine helps fend away the niggles and injuries. Saying that, rowers are extremely robust and often will train through what other athletes consider a session stopping niggle. This hardiness is what separates us from other sports. The program is hard and you have to complete it to be successful.

Is there any benefit to being a heavier rower for extra strength or does the extra weight just weigh the boat down more?

This is a good question. It really depends.
On the rowing machine, it pays to be taller. The extra weight you carry needs to be functional. It allows you to have a longer and stronger stroke. This can give you a better score. However, you still need the training to develop the aerobic capacity to see those benefits.
On the water, it pays to be lighter but there are limits. You want to keep your power output as high as possible. Sometimes you can be light and be fast and be heavy and fast. If you are a larger frame and heavier, you need to learn how to use that to your advantage. It is something that I have developed over the last 4 years. I am the heaviest and biggest guy in the squad. I have learnt to be effective on the water with it and can go fast due to my physical aerobic capacity and the technique.

How do you warm-up for a big rowing competition?

Warming up for a big competition, we will taper. Make sure that we are well rested in comparison to our normal training program. We are still training just not to the same level as before.
As our sport is aerobic, we will always do some sort of warm up on the water a few hours before our race is scheduled. Therefore we have a paddle in the morning. Warming up for the race itself, we have a 40 minute window before the start time that we go in our boat and paddle. We go through a range of difference paces and spend a lot of time on the race pace. Our aim is to find this during the race and it is key that we touch it during the warm up.

What are some big rowing mistakes that you typically see in novice rowers?

The biggest mistake in novice rowers…arms and backs. They use them too much. They rely on them for speed. It’s a strange feeling. When you use your arms and back too early, it gives you a sense that you are going fast. However, this is not the case. Timing the back and arms takes a long time. They must always come after the main part of the leg drive. It is something that I am still developing myself. The aim is to press with your legs for over half of the stroke, to transfer the power through your hips and guide the handle round with your arms. Timing the finish of the legs and arms almost as one.

What are some of the top myths with regards to competitive rowing?

Good question. One i have encountered a lot in novice and junior rowing, is the amount of food you eat before a race. Often I used to see juniors gorge on jelly beans or sweets. It gives you a good sense of energy and perkiness but this is false. Have a bit of food 3-4 hours before your meal. Have a light snack 1.5-2 hours out of the race. If you feel hungry the closer you get, resist temptation as this is your body preparing to perform. Chewing gum has helped me a lot in this.

What was your best moment that you have ever experienced in your rowing career up to date and what do you want your legacy to be when you retire?

I can say becoming Olympic champion was the best thing I have done yet. I have a world record, British records and many championship titles. But the Olympics is the pinnacle and I am glad to say that I have achieved it.

My legacy….who knows. Maybe someone that took physical achievements to a new level on the rowing machine. There will be someone who will come along and beat me. There will always be someone stronger. But it is about creating a competitive environment to push the scores along. If o have played my part in that then I am happy.

Thank you for your time! If you would like to see more of Moe then you could check him out at: