My strength training for rowing programs include a deload week for rowing every 4-12 weeks. Being natural pain-addicts and work-a-holics, most rowers resist this. Hey, I get it. I love lifting. Sometimes I have trouble falling asleep the night before a workout I’m really excited about. My dad bought me a used bench and concrete weight set when I was 12 and I’ve been lifting in some way ever since. I still take a deload every 6-10 weeks. I don’t always feel like I need the rest at the time, but I always feel better starting the next block of the program after the deload. Previously, when I’ve tried the “rest when you’re dead” method, I’ve always found myself burned out, injured, or my performance stagnant after about 12-14 weeks.

This doesn’t make for sexy hashtags, but if it’s a simple matter of taking a half-step back during the deload week in order to take three steps forward during the following training block and train with better energy, less risk of injury, and renewed focus, then those 5-8 weeks of reduced training load are well worth it over a 52-week annual training plan.

In this article, we’ll cover the importance of the deload week for rowing training from both a strength and rowing training approach. I’ll lay out four different options for training to achieve the goal of rest and recovery to build for more effective future training with better performance and less risk of injury.deload week for rowing

Why Deload for Rowing Training?

The purpose of the deload is to reduce the training load to promote nervous system and muscular system recovery from training. Loss of enthusiasm to train, achy joints, trouble sleeping, fatigue, elevated heart-rate, increased risk of injury, diminished performance, irritability, and even mild depression are all consequences of over-training that we seek to avoid by scheduling regular periods of reduced training load. By the time you feel these symptoms, you are already over-trained, so it’s crucial that these weeks are planned in advance.

Read More: All About Overtraining

Additionally, research indicates that athletes [NCAA-D1 college football players, in this 2016 study] experience more physical injuries during times of high academic stress. I have figured out to program deloads during final exams and during holidays to help athletes get extra time to study, decrease stress in general, and not worry about how to train with limited equipment at home or while traveling for the holidays. With a brief re-training period following a deload week, I find that athletes come back from a deload week more rested, more enthusiastic about training, and hopefully experiencing more long-term success academically, personally, and athletically than if we tried to push through high stress periods.

The Week-Off Deload

This reduces the strength training load 100%. For masters rowers needing extra recovery, athletes who don’t enjoy lifting, athletes who are traveling the week before a competition, or if the deload week falls during stressful times of the year, this is a totally fine option.

The Intensity Deload

In an intensity deload, you keep your sets and reps close to the same as your normal training while reducing the intensity of your training loads. Most athletes will define intensity either as percentage of 1-rep maximum (1RM) or the rate of perceived exertion (RPE) of your training loads. Basically, you do the same workout but you take about half of the weight off of the bar. Here is an example of an intensity deload session:

  • Full-Body Warmup
  • A. Front Squat: 5 sets of 5 at 60%, rest 90s
  • B. DB Overhead Press: 5 sets of 5 at 60%, rest 90s
  • C1. Bodyweight Single-Leg Squat: 3 x 10
  • C2. Inverted Bodyweight Row: 3 x 10
  • C3. Bodyweight Pushup: 3 x 10, rest 60s
  • D1. Facepull: 4 x 12
  • D2. Pallof Press: 4 x 12 each side

Ordinarily, our 5×5 weight would be more like 80%, so we’ve reduced the intensity of the main work sets. We also reduced the intensity of the assistance work by performing the exercises with bodyweight only, adding no additional load. If bodyweight exercises are challenging given the prescribed sets and reps, modify them to be not as challenging. For example, lunges instead of rear-foot-elevated split squat, elevate the bar or suspension trainer more for the bodyweight rows, and do the pushups with hands elevated on a step or bench.

We also might simply drop the main work out of the session (ie. no squat, press, or deadlift) and only do assistance work. This is a really simple solution to still achieve the goal of reduced training load for a short period of time.

Spending a week on lighter exercises while still performing a decent amount of volume allows the central nervous system to recover, as higher intensities tend to be more stressful, while still allowing the athletes to strength train, promoting muscular growth, work capacity, focus on technique at lighter weights, and an opportunity to mentally de-stress as well.

The Volume Deload

In a volume deload, you keep the intensity high and the volume low. When I interned with the fast-twitchy jumpers and throwers at my university’s track and field team, deloads were typically volume deloads. Athletes would work up to a weight around 90% of their 1RM on one or two exercises, for sets of 1-2 reps only, and that would be that for the session. If the coach desired, an athlete might test a 1-3RM during a volume deload as well. It’s important during a volume deload that you keep volume as low as possible. Work up safely and effectively to your 1-3RM, taking approximately 5-10% jumps in weight past your warm-up weights. After this, however, perform little or no assistance work to keep volume and physical stress low. Because 1RMs are relatively unimportant in rowing and introduce an extra injury risk, I typically do not use this strategy with rowers. However, it is a viable option if you tolerate intensity well but volume tends to wear you out. I have found this to be the case with masters rowers more often than younger rowers, but this is still the least frequent deload option I use.

The hypothetical athlete doing the workout below has a front squat max of 200lbs and a strict overhead press max of 125lbs.

  • Full-Body Warmup
  • A. Front Squat: 45×5, 95×5, 115×3, 135×1, 165×1, 185×1
  • B. Strict Overhead Press: 45×5, 75×5, 95×3, 105×1, 115×1

That’s it! Let the recovery time begin.

The Change-Up Deload

A final way to do the deload week for rowing is to change exercise selection, picking new exercises that still accomplish one of the above goals. This approach requires some caution, because novel exercises can often cause greater levels of muscular soreness, which we generally want to minimize during a deload week. If athletes can keep themselves from going crazy on new exercise variations, this is a very effective way to still make progress during the deload week by focusing on different variations of exercises and different styles of movement.

For example:

  • Full-Body Warmup
  • A1. Front-Foot-Elevated-Split-Squat: 3 x 10
  • A2. Hip Airplanes: 3 x 10
  • A3. Pendulum Hip Extension: 3 x 10, rest 60s
  • B1. Step-Up: 3 x 10
  • B2. 1-arm-1-leg Romanian deadlift: 3 x 10
  • B3. Renegade Row: 3 x 10, rest 60s
  • C. Circuit of Sled Drag, Farmer’s Walk, Sandbag Carry: light loading for 3-4 rounds of 50 feet, rest 2 mins

Again, you have to be careful to keep the the intensity low and not get carried away with the new movements. This can be a very effective deload for rowers as a way to still get some muscular stimulus, reduce intensity for nervous system recovery, and develop some athletic qualities that rowing training often neglects. It is also fun, which is nice if you are scheduling deloads to occur during higher stress personal or academic periods.

Deloading Rowing Training

This article has focused on strategies for the strength training deload week for rowing, but similar concepts exist for the erging or rowing training itself. You could do a week-off deload, taking the entire week off from rowing training and encouraging athletes to stay recreationally active in some other, non-rowing, manner. You could do a intensity deload, doing more volume erging, rowing, and/or cross-training, but staying away from the higher intensity, anaerobic work. You could do a volume deload, doing shorter, higher intensity erging, rowing, and/or cross-training workouts, and reducing total session volume. You could do a change-up deload, doing circuit training and cross-training only during your rowing training sessions and reducing erging and rowing work. You could also combine approaches. For example, a volume deload for strength training and an intensity deload for rowing training. Or, a week-off for strength training and a volume deload for rowing training. The main principle here is scheduling rest time for rowers. How exactly you do that depends on your athletes, training schedule, equipment, and training priorities.

After the Deload: What Comes Next?

It is tempting to slam back into full-speed training, or even more than full-speed training, immediately following a rest week. After all, athletes are rested, recovered, and ready to go, right? However, taking a more gradual approach to rebuilding intensity can reap rewards for weeks to come. Athletes may perform slightly worse in the days immediately following a deload, due to the slight de-training effect that can occur during a week of rest or easy training. In the big picture, this is no problem at all. Rather than schedule an erg test or highly intense training period immediately following a deload week, schedule 1-3 training sessions to gradually rebuild both intensity and volume in strength training and rowing or erging training. Athletes will use these sessions to get back into the swing of training, recover from any small de-training effect that may have occurred during the deload week, and be ready for productive training in the following weeks.

If the biggest challenge of the deload is in convincing yourself or rowers that rest is worthwhile, try changing things up and allow them to train in a way that still accomplishes the goal of the deload. I often don’t overtly label deload weeks in my rowing programs. I simply utilize one of the deload strategies listed above and write the workout into the program just like any other. For myself, as well as many of the rowers I coach, we just don’t like not being in the gym for a week! These deload week for rowing strategies allow athletes to continue to train, doing so in a way that allows for sufficient rest and recovery for the next block of training and supports the overall goals of the strength training program.

Last updated January 2019

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