The Specific Preparation Block of 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 USA 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 amidst all the busyness so that your athletes get the most out of the work they put in during the summer General Prep Block.

One difference between the General Prep and Specific Prep blocks is the quality of rowing work you do. If you followed my recommendations and spent the summer cross-training, sculling, or at least sweeping from your non-preferred side, the Specific Prep Block is more specific largely because you’re returning to dedicated rowing training.

The Goal

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 training unprepared. Thus, we tune the intensity, or how closely we operate to 1-rep max (1RM) weights, up slightly 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 than in the General Prep Block. 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” that characterizes the Specific Prep Block.

The Program

Our university weight-room has just been entirely renovated, so I have the ability to use some new exercises and structure our training a little differently with the new schedule, floor plan, and equipment.

We’re still lifting twice a week, both days full-body. We have exactly 1.25 hours to train, which is perfect for allowing enough time to get everything done, and done well, while still encouraging a sense of urgency while training. Our general template is:

  1. Full-body warmup
  2. Main work #1
  3. Main work #2
  4. Superset or circuit of assistance work exercises
  5. Core

We focus on solid technical execution of these lifts during our main work, letting technique guide the amount of weight used. For sets and reps during this time, I like a rotation of 3 sets of 5, 5-3-2, and 6 sets of 1. These are your “working weights” and do not include warmup sets to get to those weights. Warm up gradually and use that time to dial in technique.

Main Work

On Day 1, our main work lifts are a squat exercise and an overhead press. For this block, we’ll be using the front squat and half-kneeling overhead press. I’ve just added a video of the half-kneeling OHP to my Youtube channel exercise guide, so check that out here.

The front squat is one of my top 10 lifts for rowing performance, and it might be my #1. 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 prevent bullheaded athletes from sacrificing technique for more weight or reps. It 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.

I was recently introduced to the half-kneeling OHP and like it a lot. Rowers often struggle with torso bracing and thoracic mobility on the barbell overhead press and end up pressing from unstable spinal 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.

On Day 2, our main work lifts are the kettlebell swing and trap bar deadlift. Both are fantastic lower body exercises for rowers to develop specific strength for the rowing stroke.

I’m officially a kettlebell swing convert. It is 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 to allow for practice on the lift, focusing on torso tightness and good hinging. It is also a phenomenal way to practice the pulsing motion of the rowing stroke, and I cue my 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 simply follows through with the upper body. A key benefit of strength training is in teaching similar lessons to rowing training.

I’m thrilled to finally have access to enough trap bars to make trap bar deadlifting our main deadlift variation for this season. It’s easier to get into proper position for long-limbed rowers 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.

Read More: The Best Deadlift for Rowing

Assistance Work

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. Examples of a few of our circuits include:

  • Circuit 1: 4 rounds of 8 reps each
    • Dumbbell incline bench
    • Inverted bodyweight row
    • Romanian deadlift
  • Circuit 2: 3 rounds of 30 seconds each
    • Pushups (on knees if necessary)
    • Chinups (band assisted if necessary)
    • Left leg split squat
    • Right leg split squat

My two main core variations this season are the dead bug and TRX fallout. Both of these are fantastic exercises for developing a strong torso. They are both a lot harder than they look. Joe said a line on one of our podcasts that stuck with me–proximal stability for distal mobility–and both of these exercises epitomize that ethos of core training.

Check out an overview of the whole year of rowing strength training here. As USA collegiate rowers focused on spring 2k performance, the Specific Prep Block will last us from mid-September or early October until late January or early February when we’ll transition to the Pre-Competitive Block to get ready for racing season and the Competitive Block beginning April and leading us up through our peak performance at championship races in May.

fall rowing strength training

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