Strength training is important for rowers to increase total force production, rate of force development, gain or maintain muscle mass, and train the muscles and movements that are neglected by the rowing stroke. Good strength training for rowing improves general athletic coordination, rowing performance, and resistance to injury. In this article, we’ll cover the basics of what strength training exercises rowers should do and how to construct a basic strength training program to support rowing training and performance goals.

Table of Contents:

basics of strength training for rowing cover graphic with text demonstrating bodyweight squat, pvc pipe hinge, pushup, and bodyweight row exercises

Why Is Strength Training Important for Rowing?

Strength training is important for rowing because it is a different physiological training stimulus than we can achieve through erging, rowing, and other common forms of cross-training. Rowers often tell me that they just do high-drag erging or rowing, such as increasing the fan damper on the erg or using cans or bungees on water, and that this is “strength training” enough. I disagree, because strength training is more than just increasing the resistance of the sport movement. We can increase resistance on the athlete far more, and in a much more targeted stimulus, with strength training through different exercises and forms of loading.

One way is through eccentric muscle actions with strength training, which we don’t get from erging and rowing. Eccentric muscle actions occur when the muscle is lengthening under load, resisting force or gravity such as when lowering a load. Eccentric muscle actions occur during almost every strength training exercise, but occur very little in the rowing stroke. The recovery of the stroke is not eccentric, because it’s unloaded and muscles aren’t resisting any significant force, so no matter how much drag we use, we’re always missing this stimulus if we aren’t strength training. Eccentric actions generate the greatest amount of muscular force and can increase gains in muscle strength and size, especially when this such a novel stimulus for an athlete missing eccentric actions from sport training.

Another way that we can increase resistance through strength training that we can’t achieve through erging and rowing is changing the plane of movement. Almost all rowing and erging occurs in the sagittal plane, as muscles flex and extend to achieve the rowing motion. There is a small amount of rotation for a sweep rower, but only to one side. Strength training offers an opportunity to train lateral movements in the frontal plane and rotational movements in the transverse plane. This again offers a different stimulus than what we get from rowing and erging, and training these different movements helps decrease risk of injury by improving muscle and movement balance.

Strength training also allows us to train one limb at a time, which we cannot effectively do when rowing and erging. Single-leg squat and single-arm push and pull exercises help maintain balance between left and right sides of the body, also improving performance by increasing total force output and decreasing risk of injury by reducing muscle imbalance.

We can increase the external load on the athlete a lot more through strength training than with any amount of high-drag erging and rowing, and we can do so more safely with less risk of low back and rib injury as these areas are commonly overloaded in the rowing stroke. Good strength training should be done close to technical failure, the point at which the rower can’t achieve any more weight or reps with good technique. We do not need to train past this point to muscular failure, or the point at which no more weight or reps can be done with any technique at all.

Strength training helps rowers develop peak force from the top-down while we row, erg, and do aerobic cross-training to build endurance from the bottom-up. I refer to this in my book as the “force ceiling and the endurance floor.” Strength training increases the maximum amount of force that a rower can produce, and how quickly the rower can produce that force, and then aerobic endurance training develops the cardiovascular system and specific technique to transmit force effectively for performance. The increased maximum force production decreases the amount of effort required per stroke, because each stroke at race pace is a lower percentage of the rower’s maximum capacity. This increases endurance, because the rower can more easily operate at a submaximal intensity than one closer to max output. It also increases stroke output in starts, power moves, and sprints, which are decisive for racing performance.

Ready to begin? Let’s go into the exercises we use in strength training for rowing.

Strength Training for Rowing Exercise Progression

Basic strength training for rowing focuses on major exercises of the squat, hinge, push, and pull movements. We also do supporting movements for the hip, shoulder, and core muscles. We often do plyometric exercises as well. The squat, hinge, push, and pull exercises use multiple muscles together through big movements. These are our main exercises for peak force production and developing muscle mass. The supporting hip, shoulder, and core exercises build the force transfer points between the major movers. Plyometric jump and throw exercises train general athletic coordination and improve rate of force development.

We use very few machines and isolation exercises in strength training for rowing. Rowing is a dynamic, full-body movement, and our strength training needs to reflect that. Bodyweight, free-weight, and resistance band exercises help rowers improve the ability to be strong and stable. Machines that take over stability and lock joints into specific ranges of motion may improve strength and muscle mass, but not in a way that transfers well to the nuanced movement of rowing. Rowing uses many muscles in complex patterns of coordination. Single-joint exercises might also increase individual muscle strength and size, but fail to transfer this ability to rowing due to the intense coordination requirements.

Squat movements train lower body strength with an emphasis on knee extension and the quadriceps muscles. If we want good force on the footplate, it starts with the legs and squats! Begin with the bodyweight squat to master the basic technique, then add some load with the goblet squat. Increase challenge by adding load and decreasing stability with the front squat, either using two dumbbells or kettlebells or going straight to the barbell. We also do single-leg squats, progressing from lunge exercises to the rear-foot-elevated split squat. Read more about squats here.

strength training for rowing squat exercises, progression from bodyweight squat to goblet squat to double-dumbbell/kettlebell squat and finally barbell front squat

Hinge movements train lower body strength with an emphasis on hip extension and the posterior chain muscles of the hamstrings, glutes, and back. These muscles and the hinge movement are crucial for transferring early drive force into the middle drive and late drive stroke phases. Begin with the bodyweight hinge using tactile feedback from a dowel or PVC pipe. Progress to low-load variations of the single dumbbell or kettlebell Romanian deadlift, performing the movement in the exact same way as with the tactile feedback. Add more load and decrease stability a bit more with the double dumbbell or kettlebell Romanian deadlift, then the barbell Romanian deadlift. At this point, I prefer to use the hex bar deadlift instead of the barbell deadlift from the floor. Read more about deadlifts here. The kettlebell swing is a dynamic hinge and a great lift for rowers once they master the hinge technique and build some basic posterior chain strength.


strength training for rowing hinge exercises, demonstrating the advanced hinge progression from barbell romanian deadlift to hex bar deadlift and finally kettlebell swing

Upper body push movements train shoulder stability and address muscles neglected by rowing training without strength training. The pushup is a great exercise, but many rowers need to begin with the elevated-hands pushup to perform the exercise well for the target number of sets and reps, before progressing to pushups from the floor and more challenging variations. Pushup variations might be enough for rowers to adequately train the upper body push muscles. We will sometimes use loaded horizontal presses such as dumbbell bench press exercises, as well as single-arm vertical press exercises such as half-kneeling or one-arm overhead press exercises. Read more about upper body exercises here.

Upper body pull movements train the back, shoulders, and biceps muscles that are crucial for performance in the late drive phase. Begin with the bodyweight row from a high handle position. This is a simple exercise that offers a lot of benefit to rowers when mastered, for its focus on upper body pulling muscles from a good shoulders-down position with little stress on the low back. Decrease handle height to increase challenge. Add load with the single-arm dumbbell row, which also adds a focus on left-right muscle balance. Many rowers struggle with the bodyweight chin-up exercise and are better off using a resistance band to assist the chin-up and build up strength. I do not use the bench pull exercise for rowers and recommend against it for several reasons.

The hip, shoulder, and core muscles benefit from a wide variety of strength training exercises. These areas are our points of force transfer between the big muscles of the legs, back, and arms. We might be able to generate a lot of force on the footplate, but this only becomes boat-moving (or flywheel-spinning) performance if we can transfer this force through the long kinetic chain of the full body to the handle. These muscles are also key to reducing common rowing injuries. Without adequate strength, these smaller bodyparts are often overloaded and stressed beyond their ability to recover, resulting in injury.

The hips can flex forward, extend backward, abduct to move the leg away from the body, adduct to bring the leg toward the body, and externally and internally rotate. When rowing, however, the hips mostly just flex forwards to the front end of the stroke on the recovery and extend backwards to the back end of the stroke on the drive. Strength training offers opportunities to train lateral frontal plane movements and rotational transverse plane movements, as well as movements like the Nordic hamstring curl and glute-ham raise that offer eccentric hip and hamstring loading that we cannot achieve through rowing and erging. The Nordic hamstring curl and glute-ham raises are not quite hip hinge exercises, but are intense for the hamstring and glute muscles and I often use them like a hip hinge exercise in a training program.

Similarly, the shoulders can elevate upwards, depress downwards, protract forwards, retract backwards, abduct to move the arm away from the body, adduct to bring the arm toward the body, and externally and internally rotate. These are many more movements than actually used in the rowing stroke, so strength training fills a valuable gap with exercises like the Y-W-T raise, band pullapart, and band or cable facepull.

Core training is popular in rowing, but rowers and coaches need to go beyond static exercises like plank holds and spinal flexion exercises like abdominal situps and crunch variations to train the core in a manner more specific to rowing. Rowing has the unique demand of a stable spine and a mobile hip from a seated position. Plank variations train a stable hip and stable spine, so this misses an element of rowing’s complexity, although I do like the side plank for training the lateral core muscles. Crunch variations train a mobile hip and mobile spine, so this risks ingraining bad movement patterns of a mobile spine. Better core training exercises for rowers include movement at the extremities (hands and feet) around a stable spine, such as TRX or gym ring suspension trainer exercises, and the seated rockback exercise that directly trains the mobile hip, stable spine demands of rowing. Read more here in Core Training for Rowing.

strength training for rowing core exercises, demonstrating the seated rockback, side plank, and ring/TRX suspension trainer exercises

Plyometric exercises are our final category of basic strength training for rowing. These are dynamic exercises to train athletic coordination and rate of force production (power). Do plyometric exercises for short sets of high outputs, just 1-5 reps per set of a jump or throw. We do jump plyos for lower body power with two-leg jumps and jumps on one leg or from one leg to the other. We also do throwing exercises to train power transfer and upper body force production, such as the backwards overhead medicine ball throw, the forwards overhead (squat) throw, and the medicine ball slam. Read more about plyometric exercises here.

strength training for rowing plyometric exercises, demonstrating the 2-leg jump, 1-leg jump, backwards overhead throw, forwards overhead (squat) throw, and medicine ball slam

In the next section, we’ll discuss some key points of strength training for rowing before we get into how to do these exercises in a strength training system.

Key Points of Strength Training for Rowing

I am always coaching rowers on three main things during strength training.

The first is using good technique. Good movement transfers to the sport performance, while bad movement fails to transfer or even conflicts with sport performance. Here are a few specifics that you can see me demonstrate in my exercise videos:

  • Squats: Even pressure between forefoot and hindfoot, not shifting to the forefoot with heel lifting off the ground. Stable knees, with no caving or bowing. Hips and shoulders rise together, not hips popping up ahead of shoulders.
  • Hinges: Neutral low back position, not rounded. Stable knees, with no caving or bowing. Hips and shoulders rise together, not hips popping up ahead of shoulders.
  • Pushes: Shoulders down, not shrugging upwards under load. Elbows at 45-degree angle to the torso, not flared outwards or tucked against the body. Hold the plank position during pushups, with a straight line from feet to hips to head.
  • Pulls: Shoulders down, not shrugging upwards under load. Elbows at 45-degree angle to the torso, not flared outwards or tucked against the body. Hold the reverse-plank position during bodyweight rows, with a straight line from feet to hips to head.

The second is lowering and lifting tempo. Control the lowering phase and accelerate the lifting phase of all exercises as a starting point. I usually coach the “2:1 tempo,” with a two-count on the lowering phase and a one-count on the lifting phase. “One, two” on the way down, and then “Up!” on the lifting phase. Connect this to the rhythm of rowing and the ratio between recovery and drive phase at moderate stroke rates. The controlled lowering phase achieves the eccentric muscle actions and greater muscle strain that we want from strength training. The accelerated lifting phase trains the rate of force development. I find that rowers often default to “reverse ratio” tempo, doing a controlled fall to the bottom position of an exercise and then slowly grinding the lifting phase. This is an easy thing to coach and do without any additional equipment or technology requirements. Free gains!

The third is range of motion (ROM). Rowing is a long-ROM sport, so we don’t want to decrease ROM to achieve more reps or more weight. Rowers should aim for a parallel-thigh bottom position on squats, plates-to-floor on hex bar deadlifts or as much hip ROM as possible on Romanian deadlifts, body-to-floor on pushups, and body-to-bar on bodyweight rows. Preserve this ROM while attempting to increase reps or weight.

Focus on good technique, the 2:1 tempo, and achieving full ROM on all exercises. This is enough challenge for many rowers, especially those new to strength training. As rowers master these basics, add challenge with load. Load is the fourth most important factor, well after technique, tempo, and ROM.

Remember to train with technical failure as your guide, not muscular failure. Technical failure is the point at which the rower can’t achieve any more weight or reps with good technique. We do not need to train past this point to muscular failure, or the point at which no more weight or reps can be done with any technique at all. Training to muscular failure increases risk of overtraining and injury as the rower pushes past the ability to hold good technique. The rower is getting worse at this point, not better.

Now that you know what exercises we do for strength training for rowing, let’s get into a few ways of putting these exercises together in a strength training system.

Two Simple Ways to Start Starting

My go-to starting place for basic strength training for rowing is the 30-30-for-30 system of circuit training. Don’t read “circuit” and think high-rep aerobic training. 30-30-for-30 means 30 seconds on, 30 seconds off, for 30 minutes total. We might do 6 rounds of 5 exercises, 5 rounds of 6 exercises, or 3 rounds of 10 exercises. The 1:1 work:rest ratio, the limited “on” duration, and the limited total training time keeps this focused on strength and movement quality for good early development.

I have used this system with all ages, types, and levels of rowers, from junior rowers learning how to strength train, to masters rowers coming back to strength training as adults after many years away, and collegiate and post-collegiate high-performance rowers as a way to rebuild strength training volume following the post-season time away. Read more about the 30-30-for-30 system here, including a bank of ready-to-go strength training sessions.

The 30-30-for-30 system is great for at least a few weeks, up to a few months, of basic strength training for rowing. I’ve found it starts to lose effectiveness after 2-3 months, and that most rowers are better off at this point to transition to a more conventional set-and-rep type of strength training system. Some rowers are ready for this right away, and don’t feel the need to do the 30-30-for-30 introductory phase, and that’s fine too.

Below is a basic template demonstrating how I arrange the movements in a twice-per-week strength training system. The rower or coach should select the exercises best for the rower from the fundamental movement progression above. Use my video exercise index to see examples of each exercise and category, and select the ones that best fit your ability, preferences, and available equipment. Read more about how to use this template here.

strength training for rowing basic training template of 2x/wk full body strength training program design

Periodized Strength Training for Rowing

Once rowers have a few months of experience with basic strength training and have mastered the movements, the key techniques, and built some basic strength, it’s time to start thinking more strategically. 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 an illustration of an annual periodized plan for strength training for rowing. Continue reading for a breakdown of each training block, the goals of training, how it benefits rowing performance, and what to do in strength training.

strength training for rowing periodization graph, illustrating how strength training moves through the four phases from preparation to pre-competitive to competitive and finally rejuvenation after peak performance

Block #1. General Preparation

12-16 weeks before start of fall season

  • Primary focus: Muscular balance, body composition
  • Secondary focus: Strength
  • Sport focus: Cross-training and general 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, especially for younger athletes.

Read More: Off-Season Rowing Strength Training

Block #2. Specific Preparation

8-16 weeks of fall head racing season and winter training

  • Primary focus: Strength
  • Secondary focus: Muscular balance, body composition
  • Sport focus: Technique and specific aerobic 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.

Read More: Fall Rowing Strength Training

Block #3. Pre-Competitive

6-8 weeks before first major race of spring season

  • Primary focus: Power
  • Secondary focus: Strength
  • Sport focus: Anaerobic fitness, maintaining aerobic

Now it’s time to tune up the base strength we built in the previous blocks into boat-moving power! We may use two or three strength training workouts per week focusing on the 70-85% range, 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

6-12 weeks of spring sprint racing season

  • Primary focus: Health and recovery
  • Secondary focus: Maintain strength, power, muscle mass, mobility.
  • Sport Focus: Race prep and performance

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 two per week. The basis of our in-season rowing strength training program is low volume, moderate intensity sessions designed to maintain power, muscle mass, and technique, with specific high intensity strength training sessions to maintain maximal strength. 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.

Continue strength training when your racing 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.

I take a simple approach to strength training peaking that is really just another domain of in-season energy management, trying to get rowers to races in healthy, strong, powerful, and mobile condition. For minor races, we will train through or drop one single strength training session. If we’re racing more than ten times in a season, we train through more early season races than if we’re only racing five or six times. We typically strength train on Monday and Wednesday, or Tuesday and Thursday, so we eliminate the second session for the “day-off taper,” or only do the warmup and main work and eliminate the assistance work. For major races, we’ll use an “advanced taper” of 7-21 days, depending on the experience and strength of the athlete, and the intensity of the rowing training load. More experience, more strength, and more rowing training means a longer taper cycle.

Read More: In-Season Rowing Strength Training

Rejuvenation: Immediate Off-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!

Last updated January 2024.

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