Rowing peak power is the main training goal of the pre-season or pre-competitive block of training. This phase of training occurs between the off-season and race prep or the in-season phase of multiple races. We take the base of general strength, muscle mass, and aerobic fitness that the rower developed in the prior off-season training phases and turn it into boat-moving, flywheel-spinning peak power for fast starts, power moves, and sprints.

This article is Part 3 in my annual programming series. Read “The Basics of Strength Training for Rowing” for the general overview of the annual strength training plan, and then individual block-by-block articles for Part 1 Off-Season/General Prep, Part 2 Specific Prep, and Part 4 In-Season/Race Prep.

Table of Contents: 

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Why Train for Peak Power?

Rowers already know the importance of an aerobic base in a majority aerobic sport like rowing. Aerobic endurance is trained and trained and trained from the first time you sit on an erg or in a boat, while doing pieces specifically for aerobic endurance and while doing technical training. There is so much aerobic endurance and technical training in rowing that it becomes less and less of a separating factor the longer you row and the higher level you achieve. Aerobic endurance and technique are absolutely important factors, but countless hours of practice are already dedicated to their training. Peak power is also an important quality, especially for 1km and 2km racing, and one that many rowers don’t dedicate adequate training time to and have not developed to full potential. Let’s break down how you can improve your rowing peak power on the erg, in the boat, and in the weight-room.

The math on this is pretty simple. Using a 2k-to-watts calculator, we know that you have to average 480 watts for a 6-minute 2k. It will be easier to hold 480W for six minutes if your max watts is 850 than if it’s 550. Remember, increasing strength results in decreased per-stroke effort, which increases endurance. Train to increase your max watts while at least maintaining, if not improving, your aerobic base, and your performance at lower wattages will improve as well.

Rowing Canada strength coach and Rowing Faster contributor Ed McNeely provides further justification for this shift of focus in his 2009 article on rowing peak power training. He suggests that target 2km pace should be less than 55% of peak power as measured by a 10-second max watts test. If 2km average pace is more than 55% of max watts, the rower won’t be able to sustain this output for the whole duration. Our 6-minute 2km rower averaging 480W would need to achieve more like 875W in a 10-stroke test, or risk attempting to pace at too high of an intensity, going anaerobic too early, and “flying and dying.” McNeely then provides recommendations for peak power training on the water and on the erg. These are great for specific sport training, but we miss a huge opportunity for peak power development outside of the boat. If increasing peak power is your goal, incorporate some of McNeely’s recommendations for your erg or water training, and incorporate some of my suggestions from this article into your strength training.

Read More: All About Rowing Power Testing

A 2020 study on high-performance single and pair rowers adds some more helpful data and details. The researchers analyzed oarlock power data for 47 2km races of international-level rowers in the men’s and women’s single and pair events. Among other results, they found that peak force and time to achieve peak force were critical factors in boat speed. Specifically, the time to peak force was 0.43s in the men’s single, 0.39s in the women’s single, and 0.36s in the men’s and women’s pairs. That’s not as fast as true sprint and power sports, but it’s still pretty quick, and faster than I think most rowers would guess. We’d expect it to be even faster in faster moving team boats like eights and quads than the slower singles and pairs.

It’s much easier to train force development qualities through strength training in addition to rowing and erging than through only rowing and erging. We can train general force production skills with heavier, slower strength training exercises in the off-season, and then transition in the pre-season to more jumping and throwing plyometric exercises, accelerated tempo training on basic strength training exercises, and exercises like the kettlebell swing that inherently prioritize rate of force development.

“Rower force development should be prioritized as a key component of power output and boat velocity.” From Technical Determinants of On-Water Rowing Performance (2020)

Strength Training for Peak Power

We start to focus on rowing peak power during the Pre-Competitive Block of training, approximately 4-6 weeks before race prep begins or 6-8 weeks before the first major race of racing season. For junior and collegiate rowers in the USA, this is typically the winter season between January and March. Spring sprint rowers who begin racing earlier may make the pre-season shift from December to February. This also lines up with most rowers’ highest volume and intensity of ergometer training. It is important that we decrease strength training volume from the Prep Blocks and focus on moving lighter weights with greater power, both to help athletes learn to move more quickly with starts and sprints, and also to reduce load on the athlete. More details on this ahead.

Masters Rowers: Peak power is even more important for those who race the shorter 1km sprint distance! Age-related strength and power decline also hits the hardest at the higher intensity outputs. This makes peak power training more important for masters rowers. Begin using the below strength training methods 4-6 weeks before shifting to race prep mode if you’re doing a single race, or 6-8 weeks before racing season begins if you’re doing multiple sprint races. Masters rowers who focus on head races may not need to do a formal Pre-Competitive Block, due to the decreased power requirements of the longer distance, lower intensity races. You can stay in the General Prep Block and Specific Prep Block for longer if you focus on head races and do not do sprint races. I still use peak power training during the Competitive Block with masters rowers who focus on head races.

First, if you are not currently strength training at all, start! If your maximum force potential is low, it doesn’t matter how fast you can move a load if the load isn’t heavy enough. Power will naturally increase naturally along with your strength for the first year or two of training before power-specific strength training is necessary. Junior rowers and masters rowers beginning strength training should focus on building muscle mass and basic strength across a variety of rep ranges before focusing on more maximal strength or specific power training.

Rowers need to master the 2:1 lowering-to-lifting default tempo with good lowering control to make the most improvement in the off-season, and then in order to do the “2:X” (for explosive) tempo in the pre-season and in-season. Training with a “reverse ratio” of faster lowering phases than lifting phases doesn’t prepare rowers for this change, and training with “grinding reps” of heavy, slow lifting phase speed in the pre-season and in-season just isn’t effective for improving rowing performance.

If you have already been strength training, especially if you’ve gone through the General Prep and Specific Prep Blocks to gain at least 4-6 months of solid strength training experience, then we can make a few tweaks to include some more power-specific strength training. Power is defined for these purposes as force multiplied by velocity. This is also known as the rate of force development. The graphic below shows how the force curve changes based on load. At the upper left of the graph, we have maximal strength, with high force, very high load, and low velocity. At the bottom right, we have peak power rowingmaximal speed, with low force, very low load, and very high velocity. Think of these as the difference between a max squat and a vertical jump.

For rowing peak power training, we want to be somewhere in the middle of this, in the strength-speed or speed-strength zone. Most of our work will be with sets of 2-4 reps at a load between 70-80% of 1RM. For rowers who use the Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) system of strength training, this works out to doing sets of 2-4 reps at a load that you would usually use for sets of 6-8 reps. The reason for the low reps is that it is very hard to maintain full explosive intent with high rep training. Full explosive intent requires mental and physical commitment on every rep, which is very tiring for the nervous system and muscular system and hard to maintain for more than about five reps. “Old school” rowing training of multiple sets of 20+ reps just doesn’t cut it for developing peak power.

Our power-specific training exercises will typically be 5-8 sets of 2-4 reps with about 60 seconds of rest, again at around 70-80% of 1RM or with a weight you would typically use for 6-8 reps. This ensures that you are mentally and physically fresh enough to give each rep your full commitment, while still teaching you how to access that power under some fatigue. By the fifth or sixth set with short rest, you’ll have to dig deep to access that explosiveness, and that’s where we develop more power under fatigue.

Watch my demonstration video below for a quick explanation and how to lift with full explosive intent on squat, deadlift, and overhead press exercises. If you count all of the reps you already do for warm-ups and work sets, really working each rep with full acceleration can cumulatively add up to a lot of basic power work with no added exercises.

Rowing Peak Power Exercises

The below exercises are the ones that I’ve found most valuable for improving rowing peak power. We focus mostly on the rowing performance muscles here, or the muscles that produce force in the rowing stroke. These exercises trained for power make up our “main work” of each training session. We follow the main work with “assistance work” for building muscle mass and balance (both left-right and front-back), as well as exercises for the core, shoulder, and hip. You can see an example of my peak power training program below. For this section, let’s focus on the exercises we’ll be using.

#1. Front squat or back squat

Use whichever is more comfortable, performed as close to parallel depth as possible. Correctly performed, the squat is the single best way to increase leg strength and power. The front squat is my preference for its emphasis on the postural muscles of the upper back, more upright torso position, and more “fool-proof” technical nature.

#2. Kettlebell Swing

This lift has vaulted to the top of my rowing-specific power lifts thanks to its excellent ability to teach and load the hinge motion in an explosive manner, while emphasizing a strong push with the legs through a tight and stable torso. Performed correctly, it has great carryover to the “push-swing” motion of the rowing stroke.

#3. Hex/Trap Bar Deadlift or Romanian Deadlift

I was a big barbell fan for a long time, and while the barbell deadlift is still a great lift, it is too easy to do incorrectly for the goal of becoming a faster rower. Round backs, heavy grinding lifts, and lack of leg drive all take away from the carryover to rowing performance. The hex bar deadlift is easier to get right and its greater emphasis on leg drive and upright torso greatly increases carryover to rowing. It is also easier for tall athletes to get into a good pulling position. If you do not have a trap bar, go ahead and use the barbell so long as you can keep the goal of becoming a faster rower the goal, not getting sucked into trying to be a better powerlifter or bodybuilder. If all I have is a barbell, I prefer using the Romanian deadlift here to train the hinge motion with less the stress on the low back.

#4. Push Press

The push press is another great exercise to develop rapid power application from the lower body, transferred through a stable torso and shoulder girdle, and expressed on an implement held in the hands. Moving a weight overhead helps teach the concept of “full explosive intent,” because athletes can see the weight move quickly to lock-out when they get it right. I will use a dumbbell here for a one-arm press more often than a bilateral barbell lift.

#5. Plyometric Exercises

Plyometric jumping and throwing exercises train the fast muscle fibers, the nervous system activating the muscle fibers, and the reflexes and physical skills involved in rapid full-body force development. The goal of plyometrics for rowers is improving the deep neuromuscular ability to more rapidly develop lower body force and minimize the time between blade entry and full stroke power. I will often use plyometric exercises as the first exercise in a superset with another lower body exercise like a squat or deadlift for strength or power. We send the rapid signal with the plyometric exercise, then use that in the heavier strength or power exercise. As with other power training exercises, it’s important to use lower reps to maximize power output on each rep. I do not use plyometric exercises for more than 5 reps with rowers, as the intensity is simply too low to do much other than make them tired.

These are mostly lower body exercises, because the lower body is the main power generator in the rowing stroke. Exercises like the kettlebell swing, deadlift, and push press use the upper body in a similar way to the rowing stroke, as the point of transfer between lower body power and an implement held in the hands. These are really full-body exercises. The majority of the power is coming from the lower body, but that force still has to go through a solid torso, shoulders, and arms.

Why no Olympic lifts? I wrote a whole article about why I don’t feel Olympic lifts are a valuable use of training time and energy for rowers. You can read it here: Why I Don’t Use the Olympic Lifts for Rowing (and what I use instead).

Rowing Peak Power Sample Sessions

We can focus on peak power development in the Pre-Competitive Block without doing 100% of our main work training for peak power. It is still helpful to have some lower volume maximal strength work from the Specific Prep Block, and some general muscle-building work from the General Prep Block, to maintain all of these qualities until the Competitive Block and main racing season. We can achieve this balance in a couple different ways. I will focus my descriptions below on the main work manipulations for strength and power, as the assistance work is very similar to what I’ve written in General Prep Block and Specific Prep Block articles.

One way is by training for both maximal strength and power in the same training session. We do the power work first to develop peak power, then the strength work next to maintain maximal strength, then finish with assistance work to maintain muscle mass and balance. Here is an example week in this design.

Day 1

  • Full Body Warmup
  • A1. Plyometric Jump/Throw: 5 x 3
  • A2. Front Squat: 5 x 3 with full explosive intent, rest 1-2 mins
  • B1. Romanian Deadlift: 4 x 8 @ RPE7-8
  • B2 1-Arm Row: 4 x 8 @ RPE8-9
  • B3. DB Bench Press: 4 x 8 @ RPE8-9, rest 2-3 mins
  • C1-3. Core, Shoulder, Rotational/Lateral Hip

Day 2

  • Full Body Warmup
  • A. Kettlebell Swing: 6 x 3
  • B1. Plyometric Jump/Throw: 5 x 3
  • B2. Hex Bar Deadlift: 3 x 5 @ 85%1RM or RPE8, rest 2-3 mins
  • C1. Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat: 4 x 8 @ RPE8-9
  • C2. Bodyweight Row: 4 x 8 @ RPE8-9
  • C3. Half-Kneeling OHP: 4 x 8 @ RPE8-9, rest 2-3 mins
  • D1-3. Core, Shoulder, Rotational/Lateral Hip

Another way is by alternating one day training for more strength and the other day training for more power, and then alternating this schedule each week. For example:

Week 1, Day A (Strength Focus)

  • Full Body Warmup
  • A1. Plyometric Jump/Throw: 5 x 3
  • A2. Front Squat: 3 x 5 @ 85%1RM or RPE8-9, rest 2-3 mins
  • B1. Romanian Deadlift: 4 x 8 @ RPE8
  • B2. 1-Arm DB Row: 4 x 10 @ RPE8-9
  • B3. DB Bench Press: 4 x 10 @ RPE8-9, rest 2-3 mins
  • C1-3. Core, Shoulder, and Rotational/Lateral Hip

Week 1, Day B (Power Focus)

  • Full Body Warmup
  • A. Kettlebell Swing: 5 x 3, rest 1 min
  • B1. Hex Bar Deadlift: 5 x 3 with full explosive intent
  • B2. 1-Arm DB Push Press: 5 x 3 with full explosive intent, rest 1-2 mins
  • C1. Rear-Foot-Elevated Split Squat: 4 x 8 @ RPE8-9
  • C2. Bodyweight Row: 4 x 10 @ RPE8-9, rest 2 mins
  • D1-3. Core, Shoulder, and Rotational/Lateral Hip

Week 2, Day A (Power Focus)

  • Full Body Warmup
  • A1. Plyometric Jump/Throw: 5 x 3
  • A2. Front Squat: 5 x 3 with full explosive intent, rest 1-2 mins
  • B1. 1-Arm DB Row: 4 x 10 @ RPE8-9
  • B2. DB Bench Press: 4 x 10 @ RPE8-9, rest 2 mins
  • C1-3. Core, Shoulder, and Rotational/Lateral Hip

Week 2, Day B (Strength Focus)

  • Full Body Warmup
  • A1. Plyometric Jump/Throw: 5 x 3
  • A2. Hex Bar Deadlift: 3 x 5 @ 85%1RM or RPE8, rest 2-3 mins
  • B1. Rear-Foot-Elevated Split Squat: 4 x 8 @ RPE8-9
  • B2. Bodyweight Row: 4 x 10 @ RPE8-9
  • B3. 1-Arm DB Overhead Press: 4 x 8 @ RPE8, rest 2-3 mins
  • C1-3. Core, Shoulder, and Rotational/Lateral Hip

I generally prefer the alternating weeks design more than the all-in-one-session design. It spreads out the strength, power, and muscular stimulus a little bit more and allows the rower to focus their output on the priority goal of the training session, either strength or power. However, don’t let perfect be the enemy of good enough! If you are working with limited strength training time or rowers who need a simpler and more concise training plan, the combined session will still achieve our goal of developing rowing peak power while maintaining strength, muscle mass, and balance.

The goal of the Pre-Competitive Block is to transition the rower from the General and Specific Prep Block off-season building phase to the Competitive Block performing phase. Strength training for rowing peak power supports this goal, aligns with the goals of the rowing and erging training moving from aerobic base development to more anaerobic fitness qualities, and also reduces load on the rower by not training with higher intensity main work and higher volume assistance work.

Next up is the Competitive Block of training that lasts through racing season with the goal of maintaining all of the strength, muscle mass, mobility, and power that you’ve developed over the last months of training. Read on…

Last updated January 2023.

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  1. When you’re looking at the force-velocity curve, you describe the maximal speed area as “Very low force, very low load, and very high velocity.” I’m curious, why would the force be low here?

    1. Hey Brendan, thanks for commenting. I actually just went back and removed the “very” because I do think that was misleading. Force is lower in a vertical jump than in a max squat because force = mass x acceleration. Although the acceleration is higher in a vertical jump, the mass is so much higher in a max squat that force still ends up being lower in the vertical jump. Does that make sense?

      1. Yes, understood. I always associated jumping high/running fast with high amounts of force but never considered that the mass involved is so much lower than a heavy squat.

        Thank you!

  2. Just found this site, so sorry my question is about 3 years old. Any suggestion for the challenge of using good technique while also emphasing full explosive intent? It seems that the explosiveness increases gains, but also risk of injury (especially in my high school athletes.

    1. Better-late-than-David,
      No worries! It’s a good question. Technique does need to be a priority, because otherwise the athletes are just learning to express power through a poor movement pattern, which won’t help with long-term development or rowing performance. One factor to consider is do your athletes need to focus on peak power? Strength and power will develop together with novice athletes, because power is still force-governed and that means you need strength to develop force first. It is possible that you can maintain your focus on strength work, with limited, very simple peak power work, and be fine until your athletes are more experienced. Simple peak power work would be stuff like kettlebell swings, squat jumps, and medicine ball throws if those are available. Make sure to follow the peak power sets/reps and avoid turning it into aerobic work! This is always a temptation for rowing coaches. This keeps the load low, the injury potential low, and the motor patterns general, to at least introduce full explosive intent and peak power training, then keep building their strength and muscle with the rest of the training plan.

  3. Hey!
    So my coach is wanting us to improve our strength with more strength training. Given the global pandemic, I do not have access to dumbbells, squat racks etc. What would be good workouts with resistance bands, light barbells, medicine ball and pull up bar… :/
    Any help would be much appreciated!

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