The Specific Preparation Block of fall rowing strength training can often get left behind in the overall hustle and bustle of fall rowing season. It’s an exciting time in the collegiate or junior rowing programs. Athletes return from summer break, enthusiasm for a new year high. New novice rowers join the program ranks. Coaches rush around like forest creatures using every last bit of daylight to make final preparations for the changing seasons, squeezing in extra meters to get athletes up to speed. Coxswains sweat out the twists and turns of upcoming head races. It is vital to have a solid plan for fall rowing strength training amid all the busyness so that athletes get the most out of the work they put in during the summer General Prep Block, and are ready to build their foundation for the upcoming year of training.
The major training difference between the General Prep and Specific Prep blocks is the type and quantity of aerobic and rowing work. The General Prep Block is characterized by high volumes of mostly aerobic training and an emphasis on cross-training, to develop different muscles and ways of moving and avoid burning out on erging and rowing before the hard training even starts. The Specific Prep Block is more specific largely because athletes return to dedicated rowing training, and increase the specificity of their aerobic work. We do make some additional adjustments in strength training, but it’s tweaks to the program rather than big sweeping changes.
Read More: The Basics of Strength Training for Rowing
Masters Rowers: You may focus on the fall head race season as your main competitive events. If so, then your Specific Prep Block will actually begin in the spring or early summer, followed by the Pre-Competitive Block in August or September, and then the Competitive Block once your fall racing season begins. The information in this article remains the same as far as strength training guidance for the Specific Prep Block, other than the re-alignment of the training schedule and calendar year. If you focus on fall head races and want to know how to manage the Competitive Block of strength training during race prep training, read “In-Season Strength Training for Rowing.” For more information about masters strength training planning, including how to manage a training calendar that includes August US Masters Nationals as well as fall head races, read “Strength Training for Masters Rowers: Periodization.”
The rest of this article will assume a standard junior/collegiate training schedule with the Specific Prep Block representing the 10-16 weeks of fall season and early winter season training, building up to spring sprint racing.
Fall Rowing Strength Training: Goals
It’s crucial that we use the Specific Prep Block to gradually increase intensity of training to build into the winter season Pre-Competitive Block of training. No matter what they did over summer, rowers who neglect fall strength training are in for a shock if they try to jump straight into the next block of higher intensity training unprepared. Thus, we tune up the intensity, or how closely we operate to 1-rep max (1RM) weights, to operate more in the 70-85%1RM range compared to the General Prep Block’s emphasis on the 60-75%1RM range. When intensity rises, volume falls, so we do slightly fewer total reps in Specific Prep than in General Prep. We also use a more focused panel of exercises compared to the higher variety of lifts used in the General Prep Block. All of these factors–the specific rowing training, the increased intensity, the decreased volume, and the more focused exercise selection–contribute to the “tuning up” of training that characterizes the Specific Prep Block.
Fall Rowing Strength Training: Programming
The structure of the lifting sessions doesn’t need to change much from the General Prep Block. Two full-body strength training days per week can work year-round. Some athletes seeking greater gains in muscle mass will do strength training three, or even sometimes four, times per week during the General Prep Block. However, once dedicated rowing training resumes, we drop that back down to the standard two sessions per week to accommodate for the increase in rowing training volume and intensity.
Here is the general template for fall rowing strength training:
- Full-body warmup
- Main work #1
- Main work #2
- Superset or circuit of 2-4 assistance work exercises
- Circuit of core, shoulder, and hip exercises
Main Work Strength Training
In the main work, we focus on solid technical execution of these lifts, letting technique guide the amount of weight used, and taking 2-3 minutes of rest after each set so that each set can be of high quality and output. I will use a variety of sets and reps with the goal of achieving around 12-20 challenging total reps per main work exercise. I like to do a different set-and-rep scheme each week, repeating each month. For example:
- Week 1: three sets of five reps (3×5, 2-3′ rest)
- Week 2: one set of seven, one set of five, and one set of three (7-5-3, 2-3′ rest)
- Week 3: four sets of six reps (4×6, 2-3′ rest)
- Week 4: one set of five, a set of three, and a set of two (5-3-2, 2-3′ rest)
We then repeat this progression the next month, with the goal that the athlete can add a small amount of weight to each session for improvement. Note that these are the “working weights” and do not include warmup sets to get to those weights. Do a full-body warm-up, then work up gradually in weights to your working sets of the session, using that time to prepare your body and dial in technique.
Because these are full-body strength training workouts, each day will include exercises for the upper and lower body. Full-body, lower volume strength training sessions improve strength and muscle mass in rowers without significantly interfering with rowing training from fatigue and muscular soreness. Remember, we are not powerlifters or bodybuilders pursuing absolute maximal strength or muscle mass, but rowers training for the “best of both worlds,” increasing strength and muscle mass while still keeping the focus on performance in a full-body, aerobic, power-endurance sport.
On Day 1, our main work lifts are a squat exercise and an overhead press. For example, the front squat and half-kneeling overhead press. The front squat is one of my overall favorite lifts for rowing performance. It is easier for taller rowers to learn and achieve full depth than the back squat. It has some “fool-proof” mechanisms in place to help athletes focus on maintaining good technique and control of the weight, rather than sacrificing technique to grind out more weight or reps. The front squat also places a higher demand on the postural muscles of the mid-back and the torso muscles to remain upright through the lift. All of these make it a fantastic developer of full-body strength for rowing.
Read More: The Complete Guide to Squatting for Rowing
The half-kneeling overhead press is a great intermediate shoulder pressing exercise for rowers. Rowers often struggle with torso bracing and thoracic mobility on the barbell overhead press and end up pressing from unstable torso positions. This reduces effectiveness of the lift and increases risk of injury. If you have good torso bracing and thoracic mobility, by all means, go ahead and use the barbell OHP or push press here. For those who need some extra help, the half-kneeling variation makes it easier to get a good brace and the unilateral element of the lift allows for greater focus to left-right muscular balance.
I find the kettlebell swing to be a fantastic way to train the hip hinge motion, a commonly weak motor pattern in rowers. We will do 4-5 sets of 8-10 reps for practice on the lift, focusing on torso tightness and good hinging, and we will progress this in the winter to higher intensity, lower rep power work. The swing is also a great way to practice the pulsing motion of the rowing stroke, and I cue athletes to think “push-swing” on each rep just like in rowing. The lifter pushes explosively with the lower body, sustains the movement through a tight torso brace, then follows through with the upper body. It’s nice when strength training exercises can double-up to teach similar physical lessons to rowing technique.
The trap/hex bar deadlift is my favorite deadlift for rowers. It’s easier to get into proper position for long-limbed athletes, and provides a much more balanced lift between the anterior chain (quadriceps) and posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes, and back) with less shear force on the spine. It is a compromise of the squat and hinge motions, and I find it easier for athletes to learn and move from technical challenges to physical challenges. However, if you do not have a trap bar, a standard barbell deadlift or elevated barbell deadlift can work just fine as well.
Read More: The Complete Guide to Deadlifting for Rowing
Assistance Work Strength Training
In the assistance work, we continue the focus from the prior General Prep Block on building muscle mass and balance, both between the left and right sides of the body and the front and back. Use 2-4 assistance work exercises for 2-4 sets of 8-15 reps per exercise. Pick exercises for the upper body pushing and pulling muscles, hinge exercises, and single-leg squats here. Finish the session with core, shoulder, and hip exercises for no more than about 10 minutes.
An additional goal of fall rowing strength training is to continue building muscle and improving muscular balance to build for future performance and reduce risk of injury. Assistance work is next, and is focused on muscular effort, generating more fatigue, and building up muscles neglected by rowing-specific training. These are “circuits,” because they are multiple exercises sequenced together with minimal rest in-between each, but these are maybe not what rowers usually associate with that word. Here are a few example assistance work circuits:
- Example: 4 sets of 8 reps each
- Dumbbell incline bench
- Inverted bodyweight row
- Romanian deadlift
- 1-2 minutes of rest before next set
- Example: 3 sets of 30 seconds each
- Pushups (elevated if necessary)
- Chinups (band assisted if necessary)
- Left leg split squat
- Right leg split squat
- 1-2 minutes of rest before next set
Note that the body parts alternate, the reps or duration of each circuit is lower, and there is 1-2 minutes of rest after each set or sequence of exercises. We need to keep the intensity high in the Specific Prep Block. Rowers often do circuits with very high reps and low rest. This results in low intensity and high volume and a mostly aerobic stimulus. Rowers get plenty of aerobic stimulus from their on-water training. We want to use strength training time to train for strength, muscular development, and movement quality.
We conclude the session with a circuit of core, shoulder, and hip exercises. This should take no more than about 10 minutes, certainly under one-third of the total session time. You can read about what core training exercises I like here. We train shoulder external rotation and full retraction range-of-motion with exercises like pullaparts, face-pulls, Y-W-T raises, and pulling exercises like batwing row variations and x-band rows. These muscles and movements are neglected by the rowing stroke, but they contribute to shoulder health and stability, so it’s important to train them with strength training. We also do rotational and lateral exercises for the hip abductor and adductor muscles, following a similar rationale of using strength training to train muscles and movements neglected by the rowing stroke.
Fall Rowing Strength Training and Head Racing
Junior and collegiate rowers typically race head race events during the fall season, even though the spring season is the main competitive season. Head race events are longer distance, usually between 3.5km and 10km, and use a staggered start, so while this is specific in the rowing sense, it is not specific in the strategy and energy system use of spring 2km sprint racing. We tend to train through these fall season races. Peaking requires a significant amount of training time investment, and doing so multiple times per year carries the cost of all that training time and energy. We can accommodate the fall racing schedule by simply turning the second day of the weekly strength training session into a lighter session, or taking that session off from strength training entirely. If the first day of strength training falls on a Monday or Tuesday, the three or four days before a weekend race is plenty of recovery time to avoid feeling sore or fatigued. Training can resume again normally following the race.
USA junior or collegiate rowers focused on spring 2km racing performance will take the Specific Prep Block from around mid-September until January or early February. We’ll transition to the Pre-Competitive Block to get ready for racing season approximately 6-8 weeks before the first important sprint race of the season. The Competitive Block begins at that first important race and lasts through our peak performance at championship races in May. Read “Peak Power Training for Rowing” as the next article in the periodization series covering the Pre-Competitive Block of strength training for spring sprint rowers.
Masters rowers who focus on fall head races as your main competitive events should read “In-Season Rowing Strength Training” for details on the Competitive Block of strength training during race prep and racing.
Last updated September 2021.