Regardless of age, experience, and gender, strength training can improve performance and all-around fitness beyond a chosen sport or activity. Intelligently designed, consistent, progressive strength training is one of the most powerful tools to slow and in some cases, reverse, the physical changes that are a natural, biological process of aging. Strength gains are still fully possible via central nervous system (CNS) improvements even after testosterone levels decline [5]. The central nervous system regulates the force produced by muscles. Strength training takes what was once a bumpy gravel road connecting the CNS to the muscle fibers and turns it into smooth pavement, capable of transmitting greater power to the muscles. Aerobic systems lose little with age, so the combination of the improved CNS, healthy muscular system, plus a robust aerobic base can power boats well into one’s masters years. In fact, if you have relied solely on technique and aerobic training to this point in your career, the addition of intelligent and progressive strength training could unlock the door to new personal bests and faster times.

It is vital for masters rowers to track or record training volume, on the water or erg as well as in the weight-room. Renowned rowing coach and masters rower Larry Gluckman says he tracks his heart rate while rowing as well as his weekly volume, and that each year his goal is to match last year’s volume with a similar heart rate. If his heart rate is too high for the given volume, he makes a note and reduces volume for that workout [14]. A similar approach should be applied to the weight-room. Remember from the Terms and Definitions section that weight-room volume can be calculated by sets (x) reps (x) weight. If one lifts 300 pounds for 3 sets of 10, the volume for that exercise is 9000 pounds. There are online tools and Excel formulas that can make this tracking much easier. I recommend that every athlete use a workout notebook to record training sessions. In addition to recording the sets, reps, and weights of each workout, take note of soreness (scale of 1-10), amount of sleep (in hours), bodyweight, and perceived difficulty of session (scale of 1-10). This can help develop your approach as you fine-tune your training program. If soreness, heart-rate (whilerowing), and perceived difficulty of session is increasing, it may be wise to reduce training volume. Bodyweight is a useful factor if you are attempting to either lose or gain bodyweight. Stagnant bodyweight or loss of bodyweight if attempting to gain can also be a sign of over-training.

As a masters rower, what you may give up in recovery ability, you make up for with years of training experience, knowledge, consistency, and the wisdom to stick with a program. It is important to use your judgment and not push through acute pain and pay attention to any former injuries when strength training. Employ different variations of exercises or range-of-motion modifications before discarding an exercise completely. For example, elevated deadlifts or trap/hex-bar deadlifts, floor presses, dumbbell overhead presses, and single-leg squats are all viable substitutes if the conventional barbell version of the lift causes pain or injury. You can see all of these exercise variations and more in my free Youtube exercise index. Remember that the #1 goal of strength training is injury prevention, followed by performance improvement. If you’ve been a life-long port rower, dedicate some extra training time to unilateral movements to work your inside side, such as single-leg squats, dumbbell presses, and dumbbell rows.

As with all athletes, proper and thorough instruction of the exercises is crucial to success, as is movement quality and mobility. If you have not strength trained before, or if it has been many years, I highly recommend working with a qualified and experienced personal trainer to develop a solid grounding in the basic lifts before proceeding with a program. Many times, performing the exercise correctly will alleviate pain caused by improper execution of the lift. Nearly every time I have coached an athlete who indicates pain with a certain lift, I find some way that they are performing the exercise incorrectly, provide the correction, and pain is alleviated.

masters rowers strength training
[Photo: Sport Graphics]
Recovery time is also a factor to be considered at greater importance for a masters rower than for a junior rower. It is a simple fact of life that the systemic stress of a heavy workout, weights or rowing, may take longer to recover from than in youth. This is particularly important during the taper, and the timing of the “residual timer reset” workouts. Unfortunately, there is no mathematical formula to find the exact amount of recovery time personally necessary for each rower, so documentation and adaptation is important to reap the full rewards of training. Additionally, you may find that you respond better to certain training variables than others. Some trainees are more sensitive to volume training, while others find volume easier to recover from than intensity. The answer to any problem is an understanding of basic programming methods combined with careful record keeping and willingness to adapt training as necessary. Stay flexible in your training and keep an eye on the big picture of the annual plan, rather than a short-term day-by-day plan.

Finally, while the purpose of this manual is to make rowers stronger, faster, and more competitive, many masters rowers may also be interested in the long-term health benefits of strength training. In Strength Training Past 50, authors Westcott and Baechle provide a list of research-based benefits of strength training for older adults, including maintaining muscle mass and metabolic rate, increasing bone mineral density, increase glucose uptake and gastrointestinal transit speed, and increased full-range lower back strength [7]. While racing faster is certainly a more fun benefit of strength training, reduced risk of osteoporosis, improved body composition through better glucose uptake and digestion, and reduced risk of lower back injury and disease are all great advantages nonetheless.

“Rowing Stronger is my go-to book for masters strength training. Fast boats are a priority for my athletes so having this detailed approach with targeted exercises is a must. A solid strength foundation keeps Roylerowers powerful, healthy, and on top of the podium in world class events. Follow Will’s program and its guaranteed to boost your boat speed stroke by stroke. Highly recommended.” — Marlene Royle


  • [5] Zatsiorsky, V. and Kraemer, W. Science and Practice of Strength Training, 2nd ed. Human Kinetics, 2006.
  • [7] Westcott, W. and Baechle, T. Strength Training Past 50, 2nd ed. Human Kinetics, 2007.
  • [14] Rowpefect UK “Rowing Chat” Podcast. August 2015, Larry Gluckman. Retrieved from

Get Rowing Stronger!

“Rowing Stronger: Strength Training to Maximize Rowing Performance” is the comprehensive guide to strength training for rowing, from first practice of the off-season all the way to peak championship race performance, and for everyone from juniors to masters rowers. The second edition is available now in print and e-book.

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