Kristin Hedstrom: How Olympic Rowers Train for Strength (Podcast)

Today we’re talking to Kristin Hedstrom, a personal trainer who is also an Olympian in the sport of rowing. Kristin isn’t the first Olympian we’ve had on the BarBend podcast, but she is the first elite rower to give us insight into what it’s like to train in that sport at the highest level. We discuss the importance of strength training to rowing performance, how Kristin and other top rowers train throughout the year. We also discuss Kristin’s career after rowing, where she specializes in helping clients, particularly women, achieve their fat loss goals.

On this episode of The BarBend Podcast, host David Thomas Tao talks to Kristin Hedstrom about: 

  • Kristin’s origins in rowing and how she became elite after a slow start in the sport (2:46)
  • Reaching your “peak” in rowing (5:00)
  • The difference between heavy and lightweight rowing in training and requirements (9:00)
  • Cutting weight in rowing and endurance sports (11:40)
  • Training seasons as a professional rower and how elite rowers strength train (14:00)
  • Do rowers ever max out on lifts? Which type of strength is important for them? (16:30)
  • Why fat loss can be so different between women and men, including societal pressure and biological differences (22:40)
  • Common misconceptions on fat loss and goals (26:00)

Relevant links and further reading:

Transcription

Kristin HedstromKristin Hedstrom

…and for a lot of elite athletes, I think the hardest part is, being OK with just being mediocre, [laughs] at exercise and working out, right? I get on the rowing machine now. I’m nowhere near the numbers I used to pull. I’m shocked at myself that I could ever pull those numbers. [laughs] It’s like, “Who was that person?”

David TaoDavid Tao

Welcome to the “BarBend Podcast,” where we talk to the smartest athletes, coaches, and minds from around the world of strength. I’m your host, David Thomas Tao, and this podcast is presented by barbend.com.

 

Today I’m talking to Kristin Hedstrom, a personal trainer who is also an Olympian in the sport of rowing. Kristin isn’t the first Olympian we’ve had on the BarBend Podcast, but she is the first elite rower to give us insight into what it’s like to train in that sport at the highest levels.

 

We discuss the importance of strength training for rowing performance, how Kristin and other top rowers train throughout the year, and some other topics that I think even strength athletes will find it interesting about the rowing community. We also discuss Kristin’s career after rowing, where she specializes in helping clients, particularly women, achieve their fat loss goals.

 

Also, I want to take a second to say, “We’re incredibly thankful that you listen to this podcast.” If you haven’t already, be sure to leave a rating and a review of the BarBend Podcast in your app of choice. I’d also recommend subscribing to the BarBend newsletter to stay up to date on all things strength.

 

Just go to barbend.com/newsletter to become the smartest person in your gym today. Now let’s get to it.

 

Kristin, thanks so much for joining us today. I go to say you’re not the first Olympian we’ve had on the BarBend Podcast. I’m sorry I can’t give you that distinction, but you are the first Olympic rower we’ve had on the BarBend Podcast. Give us a little background as to your career in that sport.

Kristin HedstromKristin Hedstrom

It’s great to be here. Thank you so much for having me. I started out as your token chubby kid in middle school and tried every sport out there. My parents wanted me to get into sports, and I was not having any of it. I didn’t find a sport that I loved until I found the sport of rowing.

 

Rowing for those of you who…maybe the CrossFitters are thinking about the rowing machine, what we were doing is racing in those long skinny boats with the long oars on the water. I found it in ninth grade.

 

I took to it immediately. I was not good at it when I first started. [laughs]

 

I spent my high school years getting better and better and just learned the system to getting good at something over my first few years. I went off to college, ended up rowing for four years in college. After that, I honestly thought I was going to retire from the sport and just live a normal nine-to-five-office-job life.

 

I had a coach in college who said, “You know, you’re showing some promise by now. Why don’t you just try out for the national team?” I had at that point been on a couple of under-23 national teams. I said, “I don’t know if I can do that, but here’s what I’ll do. I’ll give it one year after college. I’ll see if I can make the senior national team,” which was really the big leagues.

 

I trained alongside my college team for that one year. I got to some of the initial selection regattas. I ended up doing really well at those. Actually, by the end of that first summer, I was competing at the world championships in Poland as the youngest woman to ever represent the US in that boat class. It was an unlikely journey to that point. Then, from there, I was hooked.

 

I said, “OK. This went well in the first year. I’m just going to keep going with it for the foreseeable future and see how high I can get in this sport.” I ended up rowing for another six years past that on the elite circuit racing at world cups, world championships, and representing the US at the 2012 Olympic Games.

 

That was the, like I said, totally unlikely rise to the top but learned a lot along the way.

David TaoDavid Tao

This is interesting to me. I want to dive into career length in rowing because in strength athletics there are a lot of different ages at which you peak. Weightlifters tend to have their prime years a little earlier than say powerlifters or strongman athletes. CrossFitters seem to get on the elite level younger and younger every season.

 

What is that prime age? Then there are obviously exceptions. What is that prime age range for rowers on the international elite level?

Kristin HedstromKristin Hedstrom

I would say mid-20s to 30 pretty much. People go beyond that. You’ll see athletes who buck that trend and compete well later than that. Generally speaking, mid-20s to 30, I will say, too, in the US one of the biggest things that affects it for us as athletes is that we don’t get paid to do it.

 

The amount of money that we would get is laughably small, so that will really highly effective because people can’t do this forever. It’s really hard to do several Olympic cycles when you’re not getting paid.

 

David TaoDavid Tao

Yeah, you’re not going to support a big and growing family off of your rowing checks necessarily, is what you’re saying.

Kristin HedstromKristin Hedstrom

Exactly.

David TaoDavid Tao

Why is that age range a little bit older than as far as the prime years than what we might expect from some other Olympic sports? We see swimmers competing at the highest level as teenagers. You were in your early 20s and that was preposterously, if I can actually remember how to say the word, young for an American woman in your boat class.

 

Why is it just taking that many years to build the strength, endurance and capacity and experiences and more of a refining technique, why do you think that is?

Kristin HedstromKristin Hedstrom

It’s both of those things. Rowing is one of these sports that is highly technical and also really challenging with the strength and endurance piece of it. If you compare 100-meter dash for sprinters to a marathon, you’re using really different energy systems for those. The athletes are going to be totally different for those. Rowing, there’s one distance, everyone races the same distance.

 

It’s one of these really challenging distances where you’ve got to be a really good sprinter but also good with endurance, if the races are about seven minutes long. There’s this huge technique component. Anytime you’re doing a water sport, swimming tends to be more similar in this technique portion too.

 

For rowers, you’re putting a blade or an oar in the water, and then taking it out of the water, which seems really simple on the surface. It’s so hard to get that right. You’ve got changing water conditions, you’re outside. Just to learn all the technical skills and marry that with the strength and endurance component, is challenging.

 

The last thing I’ll say too, is that a lot of rowers, at least in this country, they don’t get started till later. Many rowers that you’ll find are starting in college, their walk-ons in college. You’re not even beginning this sport, you’re not even introduced to this sport, until you’re 18 years old or so.

David TaoDavid Tao

Let’s talk about rowing stereotypes because I’m very curious. I actually went to a high school that was very big into rowing. In college, rowing was also one of our major sports. I feel I got exposed to rowers a little bit earlier than most, and I’m not that tall. Most of these people just seemed preposterously tall to me.

 

Let’s talk about height and rowing. Is that really the case, that you have to be just monstrously tall in order to succeed in the sport?

Kristin HedstromKristin Hedstrom

[laughs] It helps to be very tall in the sport. You’re using levers, right? It’s like physics. If you’ve got long levers, long legs, long arms, you’re going to have a genetic advantage. However, I will say that there are a lot of really tall rowers out there who never go very far in the sport, and there are shorter rowers who go really far in this sport.

 

It’s mental toughness at the end of the day. You’ve got to have the mental component in order to be good at it. I’ll say too from my perspective, there’s also this segment of rowing called lightweight rowing. Within rowing, there’s heavyweight rowing and there’s lightweight rowing. Heavyweight rowers, those are all the six-foot plus athletes men and women.

 

You’ve got lightweight rowing, which is a little different because we have to step on a scale before every race. If we are over the limit, then we’re disqualified, like wrestling, but not.

David TaoDavid Tao

Or weightlifting which has bodyweight [inaudible 9:33] .

Kristin HedstromKristin Hedstrom

Exactly. I am 5’6″, but I was racing as a lightweight throughout my 15-year career. The weight limit for that is a little different between high school, college and elite. High school and college, it’s 130-pound limit. Once you go to the elite circuit, get this, you actually have to average your weight with your boat mates to hit a certain standard together.

 

That gets a little interesting as far as your teamwork together. [laughs]

David TaoDavid Tao

I can’t imagine the shade if someone comes in a little heavier or they’re not losing weight at the same rate, which means you have to lose weight quicker. Is that what it is?

Kristin HedstromKristin Hedstrom

Yeah. You got it, exactly. It’s a true team sport, lightweight rowing.

David TaoDavid Tao

As someone who’s had to cut weight for competitions in strength athletics before, I don’t think I could deal with the pressure of having my weight impact someone else’s performance leading up to a competition. Are you still friends with the people you rode with or do those relationships just get shattered based on weight cuts?

 

Kristin HedstromKristin Hedstrom

[laughs] I don’t think it’s so much that they get shattered from weight cuts. I do, I’m still in touch with my many of my teammates. I think the relationships have the potential more to get soured just from the intensity of the level we were racing at.

 

The other thing, too, with lightweight rowing, is that it really levels the playing field. I’m sure it’s the same with weightlifting, where you’re not competing on the heavyweight circuit, where you might be a shorter athlete competing with really tall, much heavier athletes.

 

In lightweight rowing, everyone is right at the cuts. We’re all hitting it as close to the limit as we possibly can. For that reason, when you line up against your competitors, whether that’s different countries on the elite circuit, or different schools on the college or high school level, everyone’s the same. We all weigh the same. That level of intensity can be crazy.

David TaoDavid Tao

How much weight did you generally have to cut leading up to a competition, and what were your strategies for doing so?

 

When strength athletes need to cut weight, one antiquated thing people will say is, “Just do a little bit more cardio.” You’re doing plenty of cardio as a rower. How much weight did you generally have to cut, and how did you do that?

Kristin HedstromKristin Hedstrom

I was an athlete. They would call me, and women like me who were racing, as the lighter of the teammates on the team, they would call me the weight maker.

 

I was usually a lot lighter to begin with, so I was helping the heavier athletes make weight because I was bringing the average down. I’m naturally a little bit of a lighter athlete. I would usually lose about five pounds for weigh-ins.

 

On the elite circuit, I was weighing in at 121 pounds. I was training more like 126. I, throughout my career, ran the gamut. There were times that I was too light. There were times that I was too heavy and struggling with it on that end of the spectrum, as well.

David TaoDavid Tao

Let’s talk a little bit about strength training and rowing. Rowing is something that a lot of people in the strength community have exposure to because they walk into a CrossFit gym, and they see a lot of urgs. They might maybe even get into it and compete in indoor rowing.

 

Rowing is a complex sport. You’re training indoors, you’re training out on the water, techniques, obviously, a huge component that you touched on. What strength training regimen were you, with the highest level rower, doing in season and out of season?

Kristin HedstromKristin Hedstrom

Strength training wa2s a big part of what we did. It really depended on the season. Similar to how runners have a cross-country season in the fall and then a track and field season in the spring, it’s the same kind of thing with rowing. We actually have longer races in the fall, and then relatively shorter races, the seven-minute races, in the spring and summer.

 

If we were training for the fall races, the strength training that we would do, especially as a lightweight athlete, having a high level of endurance is going to help you a lot, because it’s a little bit of a longer race compared to some of the heavyweight athletes.

 

In the fall, we would do this really gnarly circuit, called endurance weights. Because in rowing, you’re trying to do a certain number of strokes per minute.

 

If you’ve ever rode on a rowing machine, you’ll see that number will pop up, and it’ll say you’re rowing 30 strokes per minute or whatever. In these endurance circuits, we would have to set a timer. Then we would lift as heavy of a weight as we could.

 

Let’s say it was squats, in two minutes, you had to do 60 squats, so that you were mimicking that 30 strokes per minute stroke rate. Does that make sense?

David TaoDavid Tao

Yeah, it does make sense. Something we don’t cover as much as we should on BarBend is kettlebell sport, where you have to do a max number of a certain kettlebell movement in a certain time domain without putting the bowels down.

 

If you’re training like jerks in the kettlebell, the short cycle, you tend to do it at a pace and you train at a pace. You’re aiming for this many reps per minute. That’s something that seems pretty familiar.

 

Also, in the CrossFit world, you’ll have an every minute on the minute workout, where you have to do a certain number of reps in that specific time domain. That is somewhat familiar to a lot of strength athletes, I think.

Kristin HedstromKristin Hedstrom

Exactly. We would be that kind of thing. If you were able to get your 60 reps in two minutes, then you had to increase the weight. If you weren’t able to, then you would stay at that weight until you could.

 

There would be, I don’t know, nine different exercises. We do three rounds of them, or something like that. It was a horrible circuit. It’s like burned into my memory [laughs] forever.

 

Then I would get to the fall races. I would race against a lot of the heavyweights in the fall because it’s not our main season and so a lot of the races, they’ve lumped the lightweights in with the heavyweights. I could be really competitive with them.

 

I remember, you spent time in Boston [inaudible 16:22] is one of the biggest regattas for rowers in the fall. You get to the third quarter of that race, and all I’m thinking about is, “Thank goodness, I did all those endurance circuits, because I am ready to dig in in a way that my competitors are not about to expect right now.” That was definitely a beneficial circuit.

 

The spring season was more around your classic, like slower pace number of reps lifts. It aimed at just building strength through your legs, through your core, through your arms, throwing some full body sports. We don’t discriminate on what you are working on.

David TaoDavid Tao

For the strength circuits, what are some of the…You mentioned squats is one. I’m sure a lot of pulling exercises. What are some of the movements that maybe you saw over the course of your career, that you saw rowers focus in on for strength training, specifically, some specific movements?

Kristin HedstromKristin Hedstrom

Your back squats, your front squats, your deadlifts are all going to be great, RDLs are also great. Then for upper body, the one that you’ll see a lot is bench pulls, which I don’t find in a lot of actual gyms.

 

In rowing, you find these in the boat houses all the time, where someone just builds a very high bench situation, and then you’re pulling the bar up and hitting the bottom of the bench you’re lying down on it. Bench pulls are one of the standard ones.

 

Then a whole lot of core work because boats are skinny. The rowing boats are really skinny so you’ve got to have a lot of core control to be able to balance it well.

David TaoDavid Tao

In your rowing career, did you ever max out on a lift for a one-rep or a three-rep max?

Kristin HedstromKristin Hedstrom

I did not do a lot of one-rep max lifts, shockingly. That was not one of the things that we focused on in the sport of rowing.

David TaoDavid Tao

It makes sense. I’m not surprised to hear that, but it’s worth checking. It’s certainly something where, obviously, high reps are important, but I wonder if you all, in any particular season or on any cycle, were prioritizing your limit strength like that.

 

I think that’s the answer I expected. It was maybe a stupid question, but I have to ask it. This is the BarBend Podcast.

 

Let’s talk about your transition out of rowing. In your professional life these days, you train a lot of athletes, specifically women and specifically a lot of folks who have fat loss goals. What got you particularly interested in that aspect of training because training is a big space, right? There are a lot of people with a lot of different physical goals.

 

What about fat loss for women really hooked you in the first place?

Kristin HedstromKristin Hedstrom

I started personal training in 2012. I had just gotten back from the Olympics in London, and I thought I was going to retire from rowing at that point. I wanted to, but I wasn’t 100 percent, so I thought I’ll get my personal training certification.

 

I’ll start off with that. Then if I want to go back to the sport, I’ll have a really flexible job because when you’re racing for Team USA, for rowing, you’re traveling all over the country and all over the world.

 

We would do multiple weeks in Mexico City, altitude training. We would go overseas for four weeks to race at world cups. I needed a job that would pay the bills, because I was living in Oakland, California, the Bay Area, which the rent is not cheap here. [laughs]

David TaoDavid Tao

A little expensive on the coast sea. I’m in New York, and I can feel your pain there.

Kristin HedstromKristin Hedstrom

Great place to train for rowing, not so great if you’re not getting paid. [laughs] I needed something to supplement it, I thought, “OK, I’ll start some personal training and see how this goes.” I started out personal training in 2012.

 

I started like many personal trainers do, at a big box gym. This one happened to be a women’s only gym. By default, I was only working with women to start with. I continued doing it in tandem with rowing training, because I ended up going back for the next three years.

 

What started as a side job, I totally fell in love with it. I loved working with women. There was so much crossover between my athletic background, training, and then also racing as a lightweight. It’s like I did probably over 200 weigh-ins in my lifetime.

 

I got good at losing weight, so I knew the strategies that were helpful versus just dropping weight really fast at the last minute, and just like shooting yourself in the foot when it came to performing in a race. Sustainable weight loss was definitely in my wheelhouse.

 

After I retired from the elite competition in 2015, I decided that I loved it so much I was going to go into it fulltime. I branched out onto my own, made my own business. Now I work with women in a fitness capacity and in a weight-loss capacity.

 

None of them are rowers. I work with a few high school rowers, [laughs] but it’s all non-rowers now. I work with them on finding a sustainable balance between…A lot of women struggle with the black and white thinking, like, “All or nothing. I’m either going to be on this really restrictive diet.

 

“Not eat anything, exercise every day, or I’m just going to say f it, I’m doing whatever I want.” I helped them find the balance and reach their weight-loss goals through that.

David TaoDavid Tao

What do you think is specific? I’ve asked this before on the BarBend Podcast. There is one question and there are a thousand different answers, and everyone’s individualized it. This is not meant to say there’s one way that’s absolutely perfect for everyone, or there’s one approach or mindset.

 

When it comes to fat loss or weight loss for women, what are some of the specific challenges that you think women have? It could be from a physical standpoint. It could be from a societal standpoint that maybe their male counterparts don’t encounter with as much frequency.

Kristin HedstromKristin Hedstrom

Societal pressure. Women are marketed to at a very young age that they need to be dieting all the time. A lot of women have mothers who put them on weight-watchers at age 10. There is some serious pressure to know how to lose weight and look really good.

 

An expectation that going on a diet is just a regular thing that you do in your life, and if you’re not doing that, then you probably should be doing that, that’s something that, honestly, it tears a lot of women apart. They get really frustrated, because these diets that are out there, they’re not designed for lifelong habits.

 

If you’re going to go on some restrictive diet where you’re not allowed to eat X, Y, or Z, you’re not going to do that for the rest of your life. It’s going to be your birthday at some point. You’re going to want some cake on your birthday, and then the diet’s going to fall out the window. [laughs]

 

Finding this sustainability is really challenging, because everything that women are taught from a young age, the expectation is to be on a diet.

David TaoDavid Tao

I get that. I’m not a woman, I have not been marketed to like this, but that seems to make a lot of sense. Are there any particular physical challenges that you think women face when it comes to fat loss or weight loss, that might be different from men?

 

This could just be something where you’re like, “I work with mostly women. I don’t work with a lot of men, I don’t know the answer,” but I’m curious as to your take there.

Kristin HedstromKristin Hedstrom

Women have more fat on them anyway, just as a standard. Body fat percentages for women are always higher than men, or I should say, usually higher [laughs] for women than for men. Women are designed to bear children, they also will hold on to a little bit more fat, because that’s something that is going to help in that process.

 

Biologically, your body is going to want to hold on to a little bit more. For that reason, it’s typically a little more challenging for women to lose weight than for men. I work with a lot of women who are going through menopause that will totally mess up your hormones.

 

You’re going through enormous changes within your body that are going to highly affect your ability to lose weight, lose fat. That is something that exists just at the very base level.

 

I think that’s also something that women will get often very frustrated by, because if you have a guy in your life, whether that’s a spouse or friend or training partner that is also trying to lose weight, what you’ll find is that he’s typically able to lose weight faster than you. This can make a lot of women feel really frustrated, as well.

David TaoDavid Tao

What are some of the most common misconceptions that you hear from clients, could be new clients, could be folks you’ve been working with for a long time, when it comes to fat loss specifically? We can talk about weight loss a lot but I think that really fat loss is the focus here. You’re probably not focusing on losing lean muscle mass, for your clients.

Kristin HedstromKristin Hedstrom

Yes, I really use it interchangeably, because they are interchangeable in my line of work, and with the clients I work with, but you’re right there. We should make that distinction. This is really fat loss. The biggest misconception is that you should be able to lose 10 pounds in a week, because that’s what some diet told you that you should be able to do.

 

A lot of what I help women with is understanding, this is a process. If you know me and my background from rowing, there was a lot of goal setting that happened in that career. What I work with women on to start is like, “Let’s set a really specific goal for you, around what it is that you want to achieve? How much fat loss do you want to get to?”

 

“Let’s create a timeline for you that will not make your life suck for the next month, or six weeks or whatever.” By doing it over a longer period of time and doing it in a way that’s really sustainable, it doesn’t completely upend your quality of life and your eating routine, in a completely [laughs] opposite way. That way you can actually get to your goals, and enjoy the process.

David TaoDavid Tao

One thing that I’ve encountered personally, and also in my life and a lot of people I know, is that former athletes, you could be a former college athlete, formerly lead level athlete, are often the folks who struggle the most when it comes to weight gain and fat gain. They might have experience being very active, training in a sport, living this rigorous lifestyle.

 

They have a lifestyle change when they’re no longer as active in that sport. Suddenly, the weight starts to pile up, the midsection starts to expand. I have personally experienced that.

 

Do you work with a lot of former athletes who are struggling with that? Because I’m curious as to your approach, what it’s like maybe working with someone who’s used to being an elite athlete and has gone through a lifestyle change versus someone who might not have that athletic background?

Kristin HedstromKristin Hedstrom

Yeah. I mean, I can speak to that from my own experience, certainly, which is that you’re going from two practices a day most days a week. Long practices, tons of structure, teammates, coaches, goals, and then you’re going into…literally, it’s crazy. It’s like the next day you wake up and you’re like, “OK, I guess I don’t have to work out today. This is weird.

 

“Well, now what do I do? I’ve zero routine, zero teammates, no coach, no one. No goals even.” It really can be super challenging to go through that transition. I know it took me at least six months to just come to grips with “OK, what am I actually going to do now? What’s important to me? “

 

For a lot of elite athletes, I think the hardest part is being OK with just being mediocre at exercise and working out, right? I get on the rowing machine now. I’m nowhere near the numbers I used to pull. I’m shocked at myself that I could ever pull those numbers. It’s like, “Who was that person?”

 

I think just becoming more OK with the fact that it’s not going to be what it was. That’s OK. That doesn’t mean you never work out. It just means that it’s going to look a little bit different.

 

One thing that really helped me with this was creating a routine that honestly, to this day, I’m still in and I retired in 2015, that’s five years ago. Where it’s like, Monday is the day I go for an hour run. Tuesday is the day that I do some intervals. Wednesday, I do a circuit, etc.

 

I go through each day and just having that routine. I wake up in the morning, I’m like, “OK, I know what I’m doing today.” has been enough to help me skirt around that.

David TaoDavid Tao

That’s certainly a routine that I think a lot of us can borrow some usage from, not necessarily those specific things. Routine is something that we’re used to as athletes. If we no longer have that, how do we create that? How do we create that pressure?

 

Because I think athletes need a little pressure in our lives. I appreciate that insight. Kristin, where’s the best place for people to keep up to date with you and the work you’re doing?

Kristin HedstromKristin Hedstrom

Yeah. You can follow me on Instagram @kristinhedstrom and find me on my website kristinhedstrom.com. I just did a big overhaul. Go check it out.

David TaoDavid Tao

Thanks so much for taking the time to join us today and we’ll be sure to check those out.

Kristin HedstromKristin Hedstrom

Sounds great.

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