The warmup is an important time to set you up for the best rowing, erging, or strength training session with the lowest risk of injury. You can do a solid full-body rowing warmup in 10 minutes, or 15 minutes if you include the light aerobic time. In this article, we’ll cover my go-to rowing warmup movement sequences so you can start making this a part of your training right away.
Key Points: The rowing warmup prepares the body to generate and transmit force from good positions in rowing, erging, or strength training. Rowing is a long range-of-motion sport requiring performance from challenging physical positions at high outputs, for long durations, and under high fatigue. To make this harder, rowers are often rolling out of bed 30 minutes before an early morning practice or sitting down all day at work or school before an afternoon or evening practice. Use these movement sequences for 10 minutes of physical preparation to get more out of your training with less risk of injury.
Table of Contents:
- Importance of the Rowing Warmup
- Part 1: Brief Aerobic Warmup
- Part 2: Movements and Muscles
- Part 3: Gradual Progression to Working Intensities
- Rowing Warmup Summary (and, cooldowns?)
The Importance of the Rowing Warmup
The first important thing a good warmup accomplishes is gradually increasing heart rate and circulation. This is important to lubricate joints, increase blood flow to muscles, and to prepare the lungs and heart to pump a lot of blood and oxygen during training. The second thing a good warmup accomplishes is priming the muscles for efficient, precise movement. Both of these things play a vital role in reducing risk of injury as well as improving performance in training and competing. The final goal of the rowing warmup is technical preparation and getting ready to perform, whether that’s in the rowing workout or the strength training session. Take the 10-15 minutes and prepare yourself to get the most out of your training.
A rowing warmup should take no more than 10-15 minutes from the time you walk into the gym to starting your first strength training exercise, or from arrival at the boathouse to first strokes on the erg or getting the boat down to the water. This short investment is well worth it to improve session performance and reduce risk of injury. It isn’t worth risking injury from not warming up just to get in a quick strength training, cross-training, or erging session. The warmup is a vital part of the training program to improve flexibility, mobility, muscular activation, and develop good movement patterns, as well as physically prepare the muscular and skeletal structures of the body for training.
Rowing Warmup: Get Moving
The first part of the rowing warmup is about five minutes of light aerobic activity to raise core temperature. This is the “warming up” part of the rowing warmup, and it does a number of beneficial things. Mentally, it provides an opportunity to put whatever else is going on in your day aside. Use this time to focus on breathing, visualize the upcoming training session, and focus on getting the most out of the training you’re about to do. Rowers who skip this and try to jump straight to the workout often feel rushed or are unable to put stress from the rest of the day aside, which then carries over into poor training session, which increases frustration further. Take the few minutes to break the cycle.
Physiologically, the goal of the five-minute aerobic warmup is just to increase heart rate, circulation, core temperature, and joint lubrication for easier, better movement. We are not getting an aerobic workout in here. I prefer that rowers don’t use the erg for this time, because I find the draw of splits, minutes, and meters to be too great. Rowers often end up doing a mini workout on the erg, which is then more fatiguing for the strength training session than it is enhancing. Two rowers “warming up” next to each other on the erg almost always results in a “battle paddle.” I recommend walking, stationary cycling, light jogging, or jumping rope.
Think creatively about your training space. When I coached at Western Washington University, our boathouse was about a three-minute walk from our dock. Each rower walking or jogging his oar down to the dock and back gave us about five minutes of light aerobic exercise, and then we went straight into our movement warmup to start practice. If you drive to a gym, park about five minutes away and then you have your warmup and cooldown time right there.
Rowing Warmup: Work the Muscles
The second priority of the rowing warmup is targeted movement training with dynamic stretching and activation exercises. We do this training to improve the way you move, enhancing the rest of the training session. Again, rowing is a long range-of-motion sport requiring performance from challenging physical positions at high outputs, for long durations, and under high fatigue. We need to set athletes up for success, not assume that they can just jump in the boat or on the erg and go right to it at full performance. Most cannot, and trying to do so risks wasting practice time with awkward movements or increasing risk of injury from forcing movement that isn’t ready yet.
I also like to use the warmup time to “sneak in” some extra work on commonly underdeveloped muscular areas. Most rowers I coach strength train twice per week, sometimes three times per week. If we’re doing the full-body rowing warmup before rowing and erging sessions, we’re getting in many more low-fatigue mini strength training sessions each week. In my experience, this helps athletes make and maintain physical changes and comfort with the major strength training movements. It’s a win-win for performance in the short-term and long-term.
I’ve updated this article in 2023 from my original 2016 warmup series. The new warmup series includes options for the different major movement categories. I’ve found that some rowers like doing the exact same thing to begin each training session, while others enjoy and benefit from a bit more variety. We still move upwards through the kinetic chain, mobilizing joints and activating muscles from the ankles to the wrists. I’ve added in a hip hinge exercise, as I’ve found that rowers benefit from a little extra practice and attention to this fundamental movement before rowing and erging (involving a “hinge” at each body-over position) and strength training.
I demonstrate each movement in my video below, as well as an eight-minute train-along rowing warmup series using the 3-way ankle mobility, 3-way hip opener, glute marching, rolling plank, hands-overhead hinge, band pullapart, pushup-plus, and deep squat progression. Check it out below (skip straight to 8:30 for the train-along).
|Target||Option 1||Option 2||Option 3||Option 4|
|1. 3-5 mins of low-stress aerobic activity||Walk/Jog||Bike||Jump Rope||(Erg if you must)|
|2. Ankle Mobility: Pick 1||3-Way Ankle||Slow Tempo Calf Raise|
|3. Hip Mobility: Pick 1||3-Way Hip Opener||Lunge-and-Twist|
|4. Glute Activation: Pick 1-2||Bird Dog Hold||Glute Marching||Side-Lying Abduction||Mini Band Walk|
|5. Core Activation: Pick 1||Full Tension Plank||Rolling Plank||Stir-the-Pot||Seated Rockback|
|6. Hip Hinge: 10-20 reps||PVC Pipe (easier)||
Hands Overhead (harder)
|7. Shoulder Activation: Pick 1||Band Pullapart||Y-W-T Raise||Face Pull|
|8. Pushup-Plus: 10-20 reps||Hands Flat||Hands Elevated (easier)|
|9. Deep Squat Progression: 10 reps|
If you prefer, my 2016 warmup series video is still available here. I also still like rowing physical therapist Greg Spooner’s 8-minute rowing warmup as another option. This is a great series for those who want to focus more on spinal mobility and hip rotation to achieve good stroke positions. It is also a great standalone mobility sequence to include in your rowing training on recovery days, as a separate session to keep the hips and back loose, or as a cooldown following rowing or erging.
Rowing Warmup: Prepare to Perform
The final priority of the rowing warmup is a gradual progression up to the working intensity of the day. If you’re rowing or erging, plan to take a bit of time either doing some drills or some shorter pieces until you’re full ready to get into the main training of the session. This should take no more than 5-10 minutes, and like the rest of the warmup, it’s critical to set yourself up to get the most out of the rest of the training session. It is important to warm up the heart and lungs for rowing just like the rest of the body and muscles.
This is a common problem for those using heart rate training. If you don’t warm up the cardiovascular system before high intensity training, you won’t hit as high of a heart rate as if you spend 15-20 minutes working up through the percentages. Tests for heart rate max are known as “step tests” for this reason. The early steps won’t feel like much in the way of muscular effort, but they are important to warm up the heart and lungs to get up to full performance.
Similarly, when strength training, take at least a few warmup sets of lighter weights on your way up to the working weights of the training session. This is another area where I commonly see rowers go wrong in the weight-room, with two common, though opposite, errors. The first error is the warmup hero. This athlete does many sets of high reps at lighter weights, and then has much less left for the main working weights of the day. The other is the “do it live!” athlete who goes straight to working weight and does very few or no warmup sets at all. Both of these athletes are setting themselves up for bad training sessions and increased risk of injury compared to a more gradual approach.
Take small jumps in weight, adding around 10% to the bar with each set performed for lower repetitions with full focus on crisp technical execution of every rep and set. High-rep sets of 15+ reps introduce a lot of room for technical error, as well as muscular fatigue before even getting to working weight. Low-rep sets of 3-5 performed with great technique and good movement speed are more effective for performance and for reducing risk of injury.
A full warmup for strength training begins with the 3-5 minutes of light aerobic warmup, followed by 8-10 minutes of movement warmup. Then, let’s say you’re working up to squat 3 sets of 5 reps for your first exercise of the strength training session, and you think you’ll be around 185lbs for your first set. Start with just the bar (45lbs) for 5-10 reps. Go to 95lbs next for 3-5 reps, then 125lbs for 3-5 reps, then 155lbs for 3-5 reps, then your first set of five reps at 185lbs. Take 1-2 minutes of rest between each work-up set, enough time to change weights, take a sip of water, and mentally prepare for the next set to focus on good technique. This is enough time to get a sip of water, add weight, and prepare for your next set or let your training partner work in. By the time you get to 185, your muscles will be warm, ready to work, and your technique will be primed for a productive training session.
Rowing Warmup: Summary (and, cooldowns?)
I recommend using some variation of this rowing warmup before all training sessions, including cross-training, erging, rowing, and strength training. After many repetitions, athletes often get an idea of what they need or don’t need from the warmup, and how they can modify it to suit their needs. Consider the movement sequences above starting points for where most rowers need to give extra attention before training, and then adjust it from there.
The warmup series is also a great short “movement break” during the rest of the day away from training sessions. None of the individual exercises should be particularly hard on their own, so the effect is one of general movement, getting out of seated positions, and getting a small amount of additional training in for some neglected muscles and movements. This also makes for a great break when traveling longer distances for regattas, such as between flights, at road stops for longer drives, and in the hotel room after a long day of travel.
What about cooldowns (or the amusingly named “warmdown”)? I actually don’t think much of cooldowns, which is why I have an article on rowing warmups but not cooldowns. I can identify the physiological purposes of a rowing warmup and how this improves subsequent training efforts, but I’m not sure what a cooldown is supposed to achieve (and how we know when we’ve achieved it). Respiration, heart rate, core temperature, etc. all gradually decline on their own back to pre-exercise baseline.
Indeed, in a 2018 research review and analysis, the authors conclude that an active cooldown does not improve performance later in the day (and may even negatively affect it), has no effect on next-day performance, and does not reduce muscle soreness, improve general recovery or immune system function, or improve range-of-motion. They note that there are no substantive empirical standards for cooldown protocols, making studying the cooldown, determining effects, and making recommendations challenging. They state that an active cooldown likely has no benefits, but also likely has no negative effects either, so athletes may choose to do it or not based on their own individual preferences.
I do believe that athletes should not go straight from training to seated and sedentary. For example, if you finish your final piece on the erg or water or your last set in the gym and immediately go sit on the couch or in a car, that would probably feel bad later in the day from intensely worked muscles going straight to a static, seated position. However, this rarely occurs in reality. Rowers paddle the boat back to dock, dock it, carry it up to the boathouse, and put oars away. The same during the few-to-several minutes of putting away gym equipment, packing up, and leaving the gym. Athletes strength training from home gyms or erging at home actually are at risk of going straight from training to seated and sedentary, and should make plans to avoid this. My go-to cooldown is simply a short, easy walk.
Last updated March 2023.