This is what I would do if I could only do 10 exercises for rowing strength training. In reality, I use more variations of our basic exercises of the squat, hinge, push, and pull movements, plus exercises for the core, shoulder, and hip muscles. However, these 10 exercises are a great starting point for strength training for rowing. In this article, we’ll go through each one with how it improves rowing performance, reduces risk of common rowing injuries, and how I use it in my rowing strength training programs.

Here’s a brief overview on my rowing strength training philosophy to set up these exercises. Rowers need strength training for the muscles that contribute to rowing performance to increase force output in the rowing movement. Rowers also need strength training for the non-rowing muscles that are underdeveloped by the rowing stroke to improve muscle balance and reduce risk of injury. We do some form of strength training year-round in my coaching with rowers of all ages, types, and levels. We build strength, power, and muscle mass during “off-seasons” or times of decreased rowing training and racing. We then train to maintain strength, power, and muscle mass when we focus on rowing performance during “in-season” or race prep training.

We’ll stick to the exercise details in this article, but I’ve written a lot about how to combine the exercises in a strength training program elsewhere on my website. Start with “The Basics of Strength Training for Rowing” and read on from there.

10 best exercises for rowing cover image, barbell and text

The 10 Best Exercises for Rowing

#1: Front Squat

carl offseasonThe front squat may be the single best exercise for rowing performance. Stand with your feet just outside shoulder width, hold the bar in the clean grip or the cross grip, keep your elbows high to prevent the bar from slipping down your arms, sit straight down until your thighs are parallel to the ground, then explosively lift straight back up to the start position.

Rowing Performance: Holding the bar on your shoulders instead of your back, like in a back squat, emphasizes a more upright torso that requires more core strength, more upper back strength, and more quadriceps strength, all muscles that are crucial for big stroke power and endurance. The narrower stance and more forward knee angle of a front squat is also more similar than the back squat to the front-end of the rowing stroke, making the strength built in the front squat more likely to carryover to rowing than the back squat.

Reducing Injuries: Tall, long-limbed athletes often find it easier to hit parallel depth with the front squat than the back squat. The rower in the picture above is 6’6″ and hitting a perfect front squat to parallel thigh depth. The more upright torso of the front squat also puts less shear force on the lower back than the back squat, reducing some injury risk from a commonly injured area. Building leg strength for the front-end of the rowing stroke also helps reduce torso strain when rowing, which can reduce common rowing injuries of low back pain and rib stress injuries.

Read More: The Complete Guide to Squatting for Rowing

#2: Romanian Deadlift (RDL)

best exercises for rowing, the Romanian deadlift. rower demonstrating the hip hinge position as the lowest point of the RDL exercise.Each rowing stroke involves a hip hinge movement, so another great exercise for rowing is this simple deadlift variation that emphasizes all of the good parts of the deadlift without the added challenge of the start position. The RDL starts at the top of the deadlift. From this top position, keep your torso braced and a slight bend in your knees as you hip hinge, pushing your hips backwards until your hamstrings reach their flexibility limit, then reverse direction, driving your hips forward to the bar in one explosive motion. We can do this with a barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell, or even resistance band.

Rowing Performance: The RDL is a great lift both for strength and mobility. Each rep is a deep stretch of the hamstrings as the hip, back, and shoulder muscles work to stabilize the weight and control the descent, before the powerful glute muscles initiate the lifting phase by bringing the hips to the bar. Rowers who struggle with the hip hinge movement and RDL typically also struggle with maintaining an upright posture in the rowing stroke, due to a lack of coordinated hip, trunk and shoulder strength. The RDL offers more practice opportunities for this movement while building up a rock solid posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes, and back) for power on the drive.

Reducing Injuries: The deadlift is a shorter man’s lift due to its fixed height from the ground, and taller lifters tend to struggle to get into a safe and effective starting position. The 6’6″ rower in the picture above can demonstrate excellent hip hinge technique without the low back strain of going all the way to the floor. The RDL reduces this risk. Low back pain can also result from imbalanced anterior hip (quadriceps muscles) and posterior hip (glute muscles), so building up the posterior chain is a key to staying healthy.

Read More: Mastering the Hip Hinge for Rowing

#3: Hex Bar or Trap Bar Deadlift

Once you have the hip hinge movement down with the Romanian deadlift, we can train it harder, heavier, and through a longer range of motion by using the hex bar (also often called a trap bar). I prefer the hex bar to the barbell for deadlifting from the floor because it’s a simpler overall movement with a more upright torso position, less stress on the spine, easier on the grip, and an easy way to accommodate tall rowers with the option to use high or low handles. If you don’t have a hex bar, the barbell deadlift from the floor is still a fine option for rowers who are proficient at the technique and can tolerate the increased low back stress.

Rowing Performance: The hex bar deadlift builds great “starting strength,” generating force at the foot with the lower body, transferred through a stable trunk and shoulders to an implement held in the hands. This is the heaviest load that a rower will handle in training, so ability to perform in the hex bar deadlift means that the rower has the basic strength and whole-body coordination in place to work on the refined technique and faster power application of the rowing stroke.

Reducing Injuries: The hex bar is a “double win” exercise. Training it helps reduce rowing injuries by building a strong lower body, hip hinge movement, and connection from lower body to upper body. The hex bar itself also reduces stress and strain on the low back compared to the barbell deadlift from the floor, reducing risk of injury from strength training. I hate when athletes get injured in the weight-room, because this is the training that is supposed to reduce risk of injury from their sport, so I’ll take most opportunities to reduce risk of injury in the weight-room if we can pick a simpler, safer exercise to still get the same, or greater, benefit.

Read More: The Complete Guide to Deadlifting for Rowing

#4: Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat (RFESS)

Using strength training exercises for rowing to work one limb at a time can offset muscular imbalances that come from a two-leg sport. In the RFESS, we’re working on getting both legs to contribute to the stroke as well as getting a great stretch on the back leg, so it’s another “double win” exercise for performance and reducing injury risk. The front leg does all the work in this lift with the back leg just resting. If you notice that one leg is significantly harder to do than the other, make sure to perform your reps with your weaker leg FIRST and then only match that number of reps and weight with your strong leg. Your weaker leg will catch up to your stronger leg, and then you can push both equally.

Rowing Performance: Sweep rowers often develop one leg more than the other due to the rotational factor in the stroke and uneven pressure on the footplate. The RFESS will make sure you’re building strength in both legs and is a highly effective exercise for the quadriceps (extending the knee) and glutes (extending the hip). The stretch in the back leg hip flexors is also helpful for improving hip mobility and getting into a deeper or more stable position at the front-end of the rowing stroke.

Reducing Injuries: Balanced left and right legs and more mobile hip flexor muscles can help reduce low back pain and injury risk. The RFESS exercise also doesn’t require a lot of load, often no more than bodyweight, so we can work the leg muscles hard without having much load on the spine and other skeletal structures.

Read More: Fixing Rowing Imbalances with Off-Season Training

#5: Batwing Row

The batwing row is NOT a bench pull (one of the only exercises for rowing I won’t use) and offers some major benefits over the bench pull. Dumbbells require greater stabilization and allow for a longer range-of-motion (ROM) than a barbell. This means we can use less load for more muscular activity, which decreases overall stress and injury risk, especially on the rib cage area where rowers are already at risk of injury. The greater ROM also encourages athletes to really target the goal muscles in this exercise, rather than just slamming the weight from floor to bench. Focus on keeping the shoulder blades back-and-down and pulling the dumbbells or kettlebells into your body on every rep. Start light. 20-35lbs is usually plenty challenging if you’re doing this correctly. We will also use the variation of the alternating batwing iso-row for increased challenge.

Rowing Performance: The batwing row strengthens the mid-back, shoulders, and arm muscles for a great squeeze at the release of the stroke. Using dumbbells  or kettlebells builds up better arm and grip strength than a reduced-ROM, fixed-position barbell bench pull.

Reducing Injuries: The batwing row hits the main mid-back postural muscles that rowers are always missing, helping to stabilize the shoulder for better stroke power and reduced risk of injury. Developing the middle trapezius, rhomboids, and posterior deltoid muscles will contribute to better posture and less risk of shoulder injury.

#6: YWT Raise

exercises for rowing for the middle and lower trapezius muscles, a graphic showing where these muscles are between the shoulder blades.This is another exercise for the mid-back and rear shoulder muscles that is more challenging than it looks. I teach this with just bodyweight at first, and then maybe adding 2.5-10lbs per hand as the athlete progresses. Don’t worry about the weight, just focus on using the right muscles at each phase of the lift. The whole key with the YWT raise is teaching and ingraining the “shoulders back-and-down” position and coordination. Rowers commonly shrug up their shoulders to use the big, powerful upper trapezius muscle. The trapezius is one muscle, but it has three different fiber alignments (at right: upper, middle, and lower) that each do different motions. The upper traps shrug up (elevation), while the middle and lower traps pull the shoulder blades together (retraction) and shrug down (depression). The upper traps are the strongest and naturally develop the most, unless we’re doing additional strength training to emphasize the middle and lower trap fibers. The YWT raise is the best way to feel these different movements and “find” the middle and lower traps. We will also use the prone YWT raise for athletes who struggle with the technique or need to reduce any low back strain.

Rowing Performance: Developing strength and coordination via the YWT raise builds a strong upper back for a solid connection from lower body and torso power through the shoulders and arms to the oar or handle. Rowers who are proficient in the YWT raise can use their improved shoulder coordination to get more out of all other upper body pulling movements.

Reducing Injuries: The YWT raise targets muscles underdeveloped from the rowing stroke and uses very low load to do so. Like the batwing row, these muscles will improve posture both in and out of the boat and reduce risk of shoulder impingement and injury.

#7: Bodyweight Row

The bodyweight row offers several great advantages for rowers. It works the major muscles of the mid and upper back without external loading and with minimal stress on the low back. It forces athletes to keep the torso muscles engaged, as sagging away from the bar will not allow completion of the lift. The bodyweight row can also be done in a variety of settings, using a power rack, TRX or gymnastics rings, or even a towel and sturdy post for minimalist or at-home lifters. We can increase or decrease difficulty of the exercise by lowering or raising the height of the handle, allowing for higher or lower reps per set.

Rowing Performance: Strong connection on the drive and powerful release thanks to more developed back, shoulder, and arm muscles. The bodyweight row is also a great exercise to train the shoulder coordination from the YWT raise in a more dynamic environment, keeping the shoulder blade down (avoiding the shrug-up) while going through full-ROM retraction cycles.

Reducing Injuries: As you can tell from this list, I’m big on reducing load on the rower in these assistance exercises. The bodyweight row lets us really work the back, shoulders, and arm muscles without adding a lot of weight for more systemic stress and load on the spine and rib cage.

Read More: Why I Love the Bodyweight Row for Rowers

#8: One-Arm Overhead Press

One-arm overhead press variations from a half-kneeling position or standing position, using a dumbbell or kettlebell, make it easier to work hard with good movement quality. I usually do not use two-arm overhead pressing with rowers, due to a tendency to lose spinal stability and end up in poor positions. It is also just not necessary to use barbells, as long as we have heavy enough dumbbells or kettlebells available to challenge the athlete. We can achieve better movement quality, plus work to reduce left-right imbalances, by training one arm at a time. We begin with the half-kneeling overhead press for our less experienced lifters, progressing to the standing one-arm press and one-arm push press, and then maybe double-dumbbell press and push press or barbell press and barbell push press with more advanced lifters who need the greater challenge and higher load.

Rowing Performance: The upper back and shoulders are the foundation of the stroke and connection to the water. All of the force from the lower body and trunk needs to go through strong shoulders and arms to get to the handle or oar. The overhead press is another way to train for a strong shoulder platform and develop “sit up straight!” ability for rowing. Older masters rowers often observe that overhead pressing makes it easier to move boats between the boathouse and the water, too.

Reducing Injuries: In addition to improving force transfer from lower body to upper body and handle or oar, the overhead press also improves shoulder coordination and helps to balance all of the pulling movements that rowers do while rowing and erging. The shoulder is a four-way joint with lots of ROM, so we need to train it for its many functions for long-term health and stability.

Read More: The Complete Guide to Upper Body Training for Rowing

#9: Pushup

Don’t underestimate the basic pushup! My general goal is that a rower can do 20 pushups with good technique and control before adding external load with dumbbell pressing or other bench press variations. Good technique means a braced torso, stable shoulder blades, and the chin, chest, and pelvis all touching the ground simultaneously at the bottom of each rep, with a controlled tempo (lowering and lifting) and lockout at the top of each rep. We can make the pushup harder or easier to challenge the athlete appropriately. Elevate the hands to make the pushup easier so the athlete can build strength with higher reps, and then gradually decrease the elevation to keep increasing the challenge. Or, work it the other way with “ladder pushups,” going from harder to easier. Make it harder by adding a weighted vest or resistance bands, or using gymnastics rings or a TRX to challenge shoulder stability. We can also use cluster sets to increase density and challenge from this simple exercise. Get the most out of the pushup before adding external load.

Rowing Performance: Like the overhead press, the pushup contributes to rowing performance by improving shoulder coordination, but in the horizontal pushing movement instead of a vertical pushing movement. Rowers who are good at pushups, as well as overhead presses and upper body pulling movements, typically have more stable shoulders for better handle control and stroke technique. This is a crucial fundamental movement pattern to get down for smooth stroke recovery and efficient power transfer from the shoulder to the handle.

Reducing Injuries: The pushup is a great simple lift to build muscular balance between the upper body pulling muscles and the pushing muscles. In a pulling sport like rowing, this is very important for keeping the shoulders healthy.

Read More: Upper Body Training for Rowing

#10: The Seated Rockback (Core)

I like to use a variety of core exercises in my strength training for rowers, but if I had to pick just one, it would be the seated rockback. This exercise only requires a bench, box, or stability ball to sit on. For rowers and coaches who appreciate feet-out rowing or erging, this exercise is the core training equivalent. The key point is that the rower must keep pressure down through the foot at all times during the exercise. I will commonly use a PVC pipe or wooden dowel to lightly push on the athlete’s feet to make sure they are maintaining a good connection. This prevents the athlete from “cheating” and using the hip flexor muscles to achieve the sit-up motion, instead of focusing on the abdominal muscles and good control of the torso like we want in rowing. We start out by just training this for movement control, with around 10 reps per set while the athlete really focuses on good control, finding the right ROM, and maintaining downward pressure with the feet. As the rower improves proficiency, we can increase the reps or duration of the exercise, as well as the challenge by moving the hand placement from in front (easiest) to behind the head (harder), holding them overhead (harder), and even holding a light dowel, weight, or medicine ball overhead (hardest). I owe a big thank-you to rowing researchers Dr. Fiona Wilson and Kellie Wilkie for their work on the World Rowing Low Back Pain taskforce and introducing me to this exercise.

Rowing Performance: The torso is the main line of connection between the lower body power and the oar or erg handle. Rowers must have strong torsos, both the anterior abdominal muscles and the posterior trunk extensor muscles, to sit upright in the stroke and effectively transfer force from the footplate to the blade and control the torso movement around the back-end of the stroke.

Reducing Injuries: Weak torso muscles means that the force from stroke pressure has to go somewhere, most often to the skeletal structures of the spine and rib cage, increasing stress and strain and risk of injury. Low back pain and rib stress injuries are the most common and costliest rowing injuries, and improving overall core strength can help reduce risk, while also increasing performance. Rowers with weak posterior torso muscles tend to slump at the front-end or “shoot the slide” in the early drive, while rowers with weak anterior torso muscles tend to slump at the back-end at the release.

Read More: Core Training for Rowing — Research and Practice

Programming the Exercises

Rowing performance and reducing risk of injury are mutually reinforcing goals. Reducing injuries increases the amount of rowers available to practice, which increases the quality and amount of training opportunities rowers have to practice the skill of rowing and develop their aerobic energy systems. This increases performance at the individual level, as well as increases intra-squad competition, improves seat-racing, and improves team morale and retention. We then add to this with lifts specifically for rowing performance muscles and movements to further drive individual performance improvement.

Our general strength training session design is two full-body strength training sessions per week. Each consists of 3-5 work sets of 2-10 reps on 1-2 main work exercises (#1-3 in this article), followed by 2-3 work sets of 8-15 reps on 2-3 assistance work exercises (#4-10). We customize our strength training main work goal to match the goal of the rowing season, and then use assistance work for muscular balance and reducing risk of injury. These simple, effective, and safe strength training sessions allow rowers to get in, put in the work, and get out efficiently, leaving more time for rowing training, recovery from training, racing, and making long-term improvement.

Read more about strength training programming in “The Basics of Strength Training for Rowing,” the gateway article to my four-part annual programming series (including adjustments for masters rowers).

Last updated November 2021.

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  1. Super informative website. As an amateur who picked up the sport later in life and loves it but doesn’t plan to compete would there be a chance of such an article but about building a good strength base to avoid injuries and provide a good base for correct rowing but… as I say for someone far from being an athlete. That would be amazing.

  2. Hi Will
    Thank you for presenting this….it’s a superb Web page with tons of information.
    I only starting erging in 2020 …and have not been on the water as yet.
    At 52yo I’ve started far too late but this site is great.
    Do you happen to do the exercises on something I can follow along in a gym?
    Thank you.

    1. Cheers, Andy. It’s never too late. Unfortunately I don’t have any ready-made templates, stock programs, or online follow-alongs. I do have some sample programs in my book to illustrate how programming concepts come together, using mainly these exercises depending on the phase of training. Most of my program-focused articles (see below for that starting point) have examples in them too. Perhaps I’ll get around to creating more online materials someday–been too busy coaching so far!


  3. I started rowing about a year ago and the articles & videos on this website are pretty helpful for me to improve my skills and see my mistakes.

  4. Hi. Thank you so much for taking the time to write your articles they are very helpful. My son is soon to be 15 and on the short side so we are looking for exercises to improve his technique and build his strength so he can have a chance as at the moment he is struggling to keep up with the top half in competitions with average differences of 30seconds. Two questions. I think it is still too early in life for him to be using weights, would you agree/disagree? What exercises would you recommend the most for him to increase his strength and leg pull so he can row faster than taller rowers (or any other tips to beat the height disadvantage). He is very committed and wants to win but we need a plan of action.

    1. Hi Cova — If you haven’t found my article on long-term athlete development yet, I recommend it for more info on strength training for rowers of different ages and stages of development. Link below. It sounds to me like he’d be in “Stage 3 Beginner” based on his age, goals, and training experience.

      15 is a fine age to strength train with weights as long as the amount of load is appropriate for his technique. If he does the exercises on this list with good focus and attention to technique, he’ll gain coordination, strength, muscle mass, and power from there. If any of the exercises are too challenging, use a simpler version. For example, bodyweight squat or goblet squat instead of front squat, until he achieves the coordination and strength to do front squat. Don’t try to rush development, either in the gym or on the erg/water.


    2. Yup I’m in the exact same position as your son, I can’t really change my height/genetics, but I can do more strength training

  5. Hey, I am a high school rower entering my second year. For endurance, I have plenty of erg pieces that I know, but I’ve been looking for good strength training exercises to improve my power. These are great, and I can’t wait to put them to use. Now I won’t just be doing only squat jumps, wall sits, and calf raises! Thanks!

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