Welcome to RowingStronger! In this article, we’re going to cover the basics of strength training for rowing from a programming standpoint. You’ll learn what periodization is and why it is essential to long-term improvement in rowing, how to organize a strength training program to line up with your rowing training, and of course, what sets and reps to use in the gym to achieve the goal of each training block. This article is designed with the spring 2k-focused competitive rower in mind. If you aren’t a spring 2k rower, don’t worry, I’ve got you covered here–“Strength Training for Masters Rowers: Periodization.”
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We use the weight-room to train strength from the top-down while using the water and erg to train endurance from the bottom-up. This pushes your endurance in a sport-specific manner on the water or on the erg, while gradually improving your maximal strength in the gym to improve peak power and your strength ceiling. Peak power and the strength ceiling is important because increasing your strength decreases the amount of effort required per stroke, which improves your endurance and long-term potential. This is much, much more effective than training endurance all the time with super high reps in the weight-room that won’t even carry over fully to the specific motor pattern required for rowing and erging. Keep the “strength” in strength training!
Read More: Why Strength Matters in Rowing
With this philosophy of using the weight-room to train for strength and power and the water and erg to train for endurance, we use the “main work” of each session to train the primary objective of each training block. These exercises are usually squats, front squats, deadlifts, and/or overhead presses, and are usually done for multiple sets of low reps at at least 65% of the lifter’s one-repetition maximum.
After the main work, we do “assistance work” for two important purposes.
First, to build the main work lifts with close variations to improve specific strength for rowing performance. This may include front squats, Romanian deadlifts, dumbbell presses, and other exercises to improve muscle strength, size, and performance.
Second, to reduce risk of injury. Rowers who do not strength train are very likely to develop movement and muscular imbalances. Common imbalances from sweep and scull rowing include: quadriceps-dominance, gluteus muscle weakness, hip flexor tightness, thoracic kyphosis (rounded upper back), internally rotated shoulders, and restricted movement to their non-stroke side.
These imbalances result in poor movement efficiency, which means slower times and dampened performance, as well as a variety of short and long-term aches and pains and increased risk of injury. We can improve performance and reduce risk of injury with targeted assistance exercises focused on the movements and muscles that rowing fails to develop: the gluteus muscles, thoracic extensors, shoulder stabilizers and external rotators, and upper body pressing muscles.
Because assistance work is consistently focused on building the lifts and reducing risk of injury throughout the year, the rest of this article will discuss how to manipulate the main work of each session to achieve the goals of the training block. You should follow the main work program with assistance exercises focused on building the lifts and restoring muscular balance in the muscle groups listed above. We typically perform 2-4 sets of 8-15 reps per exercise on these exercises, and I like to use a variety of exercises to keep things challenging mentally, muscularly, athletically. Bodyweight, kettlebell, dumbbell, resistance band, unilateral (one arm or leg at a time), and free weight exercises can all be great for improving strength, muscle size, movement quality and coordination, and reducing risk of injury.
Before starting any strength training program, get instruction from a qualified coach or personal trainer. Performing exercises correctly and confidently will help you get the most out of your program and reduce your risk of injury. I always say that getting strong is a secondary goal to getting healthy. Being a weight-room hero doesn’t earn you any honors if you can’t row because of injury.
Watch: Free Exercise Index
What Is Periodization?
Periodization simply means organizing one’s training to prioritize certain qualities over others at different times of the year. The advantage of periodization, rather than “everything-at-once-ization,” is the ability to focus on developing specific qualities to build to a championship performance rather than burning yourself out trying to improve fields at once. Strength, endurance, power, technique, and balance are all important factors in a rower’s training, and it is impossible to train all to their full potential simultaneously. Periodization provides the answer for how to get the most out of each training variable and apply it to race season when it matters most.
Below is a graph of what this might look like over a year of training. Check it out and then continue for a breakdown of each training block, the goals of training, how it benefits rowing performance, and what to do in the gym.
How to Periodize for the Spring 2k Rower
The Block Periodization system is broken up into four main blocks of training, each of which builds on the one before it as athletic qualities are developed and maintained on the road to peak performance at the most important competitive event of the year. The spring 2k rower will typically have a major regional or national competition at the end of their season as the peak performance date. We work backwards from that date to plan each training block, so the annual training program begins with the block of training furthest away from the peak event.
Not a spring 2k rower? Check out “Strength Training for Masters Rowers: Periodization“
Block #1. General Preparation
12-16 weeks before start of fall season
- Primary focus: Base-building, muscular balance and hypertrophy
- Secondary focus: Strength
- Sport focus: Cross-training and aerobic base
Athletes coming off a hard competitive season are often fatigued and possibly carrying aches or minor injuries. The goal of this training block is to build a foundation for future training. We focus on restoring muscle balance, building some muscle mass, and building a great strength and aerobic base. Main work strength training typically consists of approximately 3-5 sets of 6-12 reps in the 70-85% intensity range. We’ll do 2-4 strength training sessions per week and 3-4 aerobic workouts per week of 60 minutes or less, usually cross training with cycling, sculling, running, and/or erging. It’s also great to play another sport during this time to build aerobic base and athleticism and take some time away from rowing. I’m a big fan of multi-sport athletic development.
Block #2. Specific Preparation
8-10 weeks of fall head racing season
- Primary focus: Strength
- Secondary focus: Muscular balance and hypertrophy
- Sport focus: Technique and specific base
Although most rowers will return to rowing in the fall, I consider the fall season an extension of the off-season for the competitive spring 2k rower. On-water workouts during this time tend to be focused on longer distances to continue to building aerobic base and refining rowing technique in the boat. In the weight-room, we use this time to integrate new rowers and continue building the strength and size that will last use through the spring season. Drop to 2-3 strength training workouts to accommodate for the increase in volume from on-water practice, but keep the workouts much the same as the General Prep phase. We continue to focus on building strength in the 70-85% intensity range for 3-5 sets of 6-12 reps per main work exercise. It is vital to get the most out of your Preparation blocks to build the foundation of training for the rest of the year.
Block #3. Pre-Competitive
8-10 weeks of winter, before spring season
- Primary focus: Power
- Secondary focus: Strength
- Sport focus: Anaerobic base
Now it’s time to tune up the base strength we built in the previous blocks into boat-moving power! 2-3 weight-training workouts per week focusing on the 70-85% range, but using fewer reps to maximize speed and power output. Main work usually consists of 5-8 sets of 2-3 reps performed with maximum explosive intent for power development. This is key–even though the intensity stays the same, the fewer number of reps and full explosive intent will help convert your strength gains to power production. This is also the last chance to really build strength before going into the strength maintenance cycles of the spring competitive season.
Read More: Peak Power Training for Rowing
Block #4. Competitive I
First 5-6 weeks of spring season, until 2 weeks away from our first major regatta
- Primary focus: Health and Recovery
- Secondary focus: Power
- Sport Focus: Race Prep
During this time, everything in the weight-room is done with preserving the rowers’ energy for practice in mind. Strength training workouts again drop to 2 per week, often using the one-heavy/one-light approach, and we reduce volume as well to 3-5 sets of 1-3 reps in the 70-85% rep range with full explosive intent. The whole focus is being ready to practice at full intensity, so I avoid programming any fatigue-heavy training such as higher rep sets (6+ reps) on main work. I also prescribe more active recovery work during this time, such as foam rolling, stretching, and other exercises to help my athletes feel better for the next day.
Do not stop weight training when your season begins. This is a mistake I commonly see with many athletes. If you stop training at the start of your competitive season, you are your strongest at the start of the season when it matters least and weakest at the end of your season when it matters most. Do not make this mistake—just learn to adjust your training volume to manage fatigue!
Block #5. Competitive II/Taper
Final 6-8 weeks of spring season, major regattas to conference/Nationals
- Primary focus: Health and Recovery
- Secondary focus: Maintain strength through the taper
- Sport Focus: Race Readiness
All of our focus is now shifted toward performance at regattas. Strength training workouts are not fatigue-inducing and are geared entirely toward maintaining our gains from the previous 4 training blocks. During the final 6-8 weeks of the season, we will only do 3-4 workouts above 85% intensity, spaced out such that we maintain strength throughout the season while coming to each important regatta fresh and recovered. I suggest twice per week lifting, usually Monday/Wednesday to maximize performance for a Saturday regatta. Aside from the 3-4 85% intensity workouts, other lifting sessions are comprised of no more than 3-5 sets of 1-2 explosive reps in the 65-75% intensity range. You will be surprised at how much strength and power you can maintain during this time as long as you are putting full explosive intent into each main work rep. Because our rowers train through spring season, we arrive at our peak regattas just as strong as when we started the season, with the added benefit of removing the fatigue from the rest of the season to peak for our final races. The taper strategy relies on the concept of Residual Training Effects as outlined in Block Periodization Vs. Traditional Training Theory by Issurin, which suggests that maximal strength can be maintained for 21-28 days. Using this concept, plan for one 85% weight-training session at least once every 3 weeks, planned at a time that does not conflict with a major regatta, and you will maintain your strength through the late spring season.
2-4 weeks after final spring race
Mental AND physical rest, recovery, and rejuvenation. Stay active through whatever you enjoy, whether that is ultimate Frisbee, ping-pong, cycling, etc. No structured workouts during this time. This is a vital time to rest and recover from a hard competitive season and to get ready for the next year’s annual training cycle to begin.
Remember, the purpose of strength training for rowers is to get better at rowing, not necessarily to get bigger biceps or have the strongest bench press in the gym on Bench Press Monday. Following powerlifting, bodybuilding, or non-rowing programs won’t get you to championship weekend, so use these principles to get stronger and faster in your rowing training!
This article was updated February 2018.