Steady state, intervals, peak power, base endurance, base strength, max strength, technique, mental skills, mobility, nutrition, oh and of course, traveling and racing…There are a lot of skills required in rowing and a lot of athletic qualities required to be a great rower, but how is anyone other than a professional full-time athlete supposed to find the time to train all of those qualities? Strength training for masters rowers is a delicate balance of providing the right kind of training stimulus at the right time without taking time away from rowing or going overboard into overtraining.
The answer is periodization: an annual approach to programming in which focus is strategically shifted between developing certain qualities while maintaining others to gradually build to peak performance. Periodization for masters rowers is especially crucial. Perhaps in your early days of rowing you could do volume until you fell off the erg, get up and do intervals the next day, and hammer the weights in between sessions, but as recovery from training becomes more limited, strategic planning of workouts becomes more important. Here is an annual periodized plan for strength training for masters rowers to produce peak performance.
I’ve written a guide to each block of training in “The Basics of Strength Training for Rowing,” so the rest of this article will draw from that, informing the masters rower what adjustments I make when applying the concept of block periodization to the masters rower competitive schedule. I recommend reading “Basics” first to learn which exercises to use and what each block is all about, and then read this article for the adaptations to the masters training and schedule.
Prefer audio/video? I discuss strength training for masters rowers and periodization systems in detail in webinars for USRowing, December 2021’s “Strength Training Difference-Makers for Masters Rowers,” and April 2022’s “Fundamentals of Strength Training for Masters.”
Demands of Rowing Training
The first step is identifying the needs of the sport. Competitive masters rowers need to be able to perform in both the 1000-meter distance as well as the 5000+ meter distance. Rowers will often complete multiple 1k races in a single day during sprint regattas. This requires:
- Aerobic endurance to perform at longer distances as well as recover in between shorter races.
- Great rowing technique whether sweeping or sculling in small boats or large boats, so that strength, power, and endurance can be expressed to their to full potential in a way that maximizes performance and minimizes risk of injury.
- Flexibility, mobility, and stability to reach, hold, and produce power from sound positions at each stage of the drive and recovery.
- Power and power-endurance to be able to produce and sustain sufficient pressure during a race.
- Muscular strength of muscles relevant for rowing performance as well as muscles that rowing neglects, to minimize risk of injury.
- Competitive muscle mass for their height and age.
As the strength coach, I’m primarily concerned with numbers three through six. I trust the rowing coach to develop on-water endurance, power, and technique, and ask that they trust me to develop physical qualities of mobility, flexibility, stability, power, strength, and muscle mass. A strong partnership between strength program and rowing program makes developing all these qualities much more cohesive and efficient. I’ll make a note of what water or erg training might look like during the different phases, but will focus the specifics on what the athlete should be doing in the weight-room.
The Masters Rower
Second, let’s get familiar with our athlete. We’ll use a typical northern hemisphere masters rower who competes at the national level and does not have water access during the winter months. To keep things neat, she doesn’t have any glaring weaknesses. She has been rowing for six years and her aerobic base, strength, peak power are all on par, and our training plan is going to focus on making improvement across the board while helping her put it all together on race day.
Peak Performance Events
Third, we identify the most important competitions of the year. The masters level is much more competitively diverse than the junior or college level. While the younger levels are traditionally designed around a few 4-6k races in the fall and 2k races in the spring, some masters rowers will focus entirely on one or the other or pick-and-choose based on individual regattas or their home club’s competitive schedule. Our rower will have her eye on Masters Nationals in mid-August and Head of the Charles in mid-October, with a handful of regional competitions in the spring and fall. She will race more than just those two races, of course, but those will be the peaking dates. The cost of tapering and peaking is time, time that you spend tapering and peaking that you could spend building. Tapering and peaking for every single race is neither effective nor a good use of training time, so we will train through these less important races, saving the true taper-and-peak cycle for the 1-2 that are most important to the athlete.
The Periodization Schedule
Now, we work backwards from our competitive goals to develop an annual schedule with objectives for each training block. Let’s break this down.
The general outline of the training year is below. Remember to program deload weeks roughly every 6-10 weeks to manage fatigue and maintain long-term progress. I also program two-week transition blocks between each block of training, starting with one week of deload or active rest followed by one week of 50% of the previous block’s qualities and 50% of the new block’s qualities. This is a great way to build momentum into each block of training.
- November – January: General Prep
- February – April: Specific Prep
- May – June: Pre-Competitive I
- July – August: Competitive I
- September – Pre-Competitive II
- October – Competitive II
Overview of Training Plan and Priorities
- Rejuvenate — Take 2-3 weeks after your final race to do no structured training. Stay active through whatever means you enjoy and don’t stress about anything related to athletic performance. Actually, try to think about athletic performance as little as possible. This period is critical to mentally and physically recovering from a hard competitive season and building enthusiasm for the upcoming training year.
- Fix Imbalances — You’ll likely develop some imbalances over 6+ months of pounding the meters. Sweep rowers commonly have imbalances between their stroke/non-stroke leg and arm, as well as rotational imbalances, and both sweep and scull rowers commonly have underpowered glutes and overpowered internal shoulder rotators. The off-season is the time to set this right again, working unilateral exercises, challenging bodyweight exercises, and even incorporating some yoga-type of training.
- Aerobic Base — I encourage athletes to pick up another form of training aside from rowing and erging in this furthest-away off-season block. Running, cycling, and swimming are all good options, and changing things up helps maintain long-term enthusiasm for the sport, contributes to restoring muscular balance, and achieves the goal of building the aerobic base. Your aerobic system is the foundation of your training, so build the base and build it wide!
Read More: Fixing Your Rowing Imbalances
- Continue to Fix Imbalances — Use plenty of unilateral exercises and find ways to continue to challenge your movement.
- Strength Base — After an intense competitive season, we take the opportunity to lighten the load and build our base of strength for the rest of the training year to come. Keep training variety high and work the 65-80%1RM range, with around 3-5 sets of 6-12 reps per main work exercise. We’ll use a lot of bodyweight, band, and dumbbell lifts during this training block, especially in assistance work where we lighten the load and will do 2-4 sets of 8-15 reps. This can also help with rebuilding any lost muscle mass from the competitive season.
- Continue Aerobic Work — Continue cross-training and building the aerobic base.
- OPTIONAL: If you’re doing the CRASH-B’s or a similar erging event in late February or early March, you’ll likely begin your erg training in December.
- Strength Base — Keep building the foundation.
- Monitor Imbalances — Attention during the previous two months should have fixed any immediate issues, and most rowers can now bump imbalance prevention work back to maintenance. I like to fit some of it into my full-body warmup for before lifting and erging, plus a bit during the assistance work.
- Aerobic Base — After 1-2 months of mostly cross-training, it’s time to start adding erging or rowing back into regular training, continuing to focus on building the aerobic base. Start by just switching 1-3 of your cross-training days over to erging days.
- OPTIONAL: If you’re doing an erg event in February or March, begin training sprint work to get 2k race-ready.
- Strength Base — The Specific Prep Block of training sees an increase in intensity, a decrease in volume, and a slight decrease in variety. We’ll gradually include some higher intensity training, moving into the 70-85%1RM range for main work while continuing to put in the reps for assistance work. A program like 5/3/1 works great here for your main work lifts, with a few rowing-specific modifications in the assistance work. I use unilateral exercises in the assistance work now to continue building muscular balance, and shift the main work to more bilateral strength-focused work like front squats, overhead press, and trap bar deadlifts. Main work lifts are typically done for 3-4 sets of 4-8 reps.
- Phase in Sprint Work — Shift your training over to primarily erging and begin introducing more sprint and interval work to prepare for returning to on-water rowing.
- OPTIONAL: Continue 2k prep for indoor erg racing.
Read More: The Specific Prep Block
- Strength Base — Continue building strength in the Specific Prep Block.
- Return to On-Water Rowing — Most masters will be getting back on the water in March. As you return to rowing technique, this is a great time to appreciate your hard work over the off-season. Celebrate the balanced body, the greater ease of achieving stroke positions, and the extra boost in your power.
- Transition to Peak Power — After 8-10 weeks in the Specific Prep Block, it’s time to move into the Pre-Competitive Block and start tuning up your strength base into boat-moving power. As with the other blocks, make sure to include a two-week transition period between these two blocks of training. Peak power training is all about full explosive intent to get the most out of the lighter weights. Instead of longer sets of 5-8 with 70-85%, now we’ll be working the same weights on 5-8 quick explosive sets of 2-3 reps. Check out my “Peak Power” article and video below for more info and a demonstration. Assistance work stays relatively similar to previous block of training, but drop the volume slightly to accommodate for more on-water training if you find you need the extra recovery.
- Balanced Rowing Training — Still at least two months out from major competitions, your rowing training should be fairly balanced between aerobic steady state, peak power and sprint work, and anaerobic intervals.
Read More: Peak Power Training for Rowing
- Peak Power — Continue Pre-Competitive Block training.
- Increase Sprint Work — Rowing training during this time will likely shift to include more sprint and race-pace work, tapering down on the base aerobic steady state. Between this and your strength training, expect to see and feel a boost in your peak power as you get ready for race season!
- Peak Power — Continue Pre-Competitive Block training. You will be training through your early season races, not tapering for every single one and short-changing yourself valuable training time, but don’t be afraid to hit your main work and then take assistance work off or easy during the single training session before a race. We will often do strength training on Tuesday, then take Thursday off or light, before a Saturday race.
- Race Readiness — Dial it in! Most rowing training is now focused on 1k performance, and repeat 1k performance for masters who will race multiple times in a weekend regatta. Your aerobic base you built up will serve you well in recovering between events, and your power and anaerobic system work will give you the boost within races. Do you have a race plan? Now is the time to start practicing it before you get to your main competitive events of the season.
Read More: Mental Skills for Rowing
- Maintain Strength and Power — It is crucially important that you continue strength training through your competitive season. Rowers who stop strength training when their season begins are strongest at the start of the season when it matters least, and weakest at the end of their season when it matters most! Drop your volume down from the Pre-Competitive Block and keep your full explosive intent high. These should be relatively quick strength training workouts. 3-6 sets of 2-3 reps for your main work lifts, basically just touching some higher intensity weights around 80-85%1RM, then light assistance work. I’ll bring back the bodyweight exercises here from the General Prep Block and emphasize solid movement patterns.
- Race Readiness — Continue dialing in your race plan, technique, etc.
- Recovery — Recovery is always an important factor in rowing training, but it becomes even more important as race prep and competitive events increase. Make sure you are building active recovery into your lifestyle as part of your training. Check out our podcast episode for an in-home, low-cost, action plan for improved recovery!
Read More: In-Season Rowing Strength Training
- Tapering — I typically program a 10-14-day taper, depending on the strength, ability, and training time of the athlete. The higher the potential strength and speed, the more important the taper. Our last heavy lifting session will be 10-14 days away from Masters Nationals, so around August 2nd or 3rd. We’ll do two sessions the following week with the same exercises, but dropped down to 2-3 sets of 1-3 reps at 40-60%1RM. I find it helpful to stay “in the groove” of the lifts and really feel that full explosive intent. 2-3 sets of 10-15 reps light for assistance work, again, just focusing on movement and staying away from muscular fatigue. Depending on the athlete’s travel schedule, we’ll either do another one of these light sessions on August 12th or 13th or spend the day traveling to the regatta. After a day of travel, moving feels nice and can help stave off any pre-race jitters. Resistance bands are inexpensive, durable, and portable, and can be combined with a hotel room routine of some bodyweight or jump squats, a bit of core work, and a nice mobility routine to limber up any travel-weary muscles.
- Race Performance — Let the horses run! This is what you trained for, so enjoy the moment and take pride in yourself.
- Recovery — Stick to your recovery plan in between races as well as after all the racing is done. A week off after Nationals, both from strength training as well as rowing training, to rejuvenate for the next two months of training. If you want to do a light paddle to stay grooved, go for it, but keep the intensity low.
- Strength and Power Boost — We’ll go back to Pre-Competitive Block training for the month of September, getting a strength and power boost before tapering down again for Head of the Charles in October. Begin your first week back exactly the same as your Competitive Block training. Weights should feel light and smooth. Gradually increase your volume by adding 1-2 sets per week to your main work lifts to get back to 5-8 sets of 2-3 reps around 70-85%1RM.
- Lengthening Out — It’s a quick shift from the 1k’s of Nationals to the 4.8k of Head of the Charles, so rowing training will likely be a gradual progression up to higher volume and longer distances to prepare.
- Recovery — Stay on top of your recovery plan as the strength training ramps up and the rowing volume increases to get 5k-ready.
- Maintain Strength and Power — Our rower picked up a head race or two before HOCR, so she follows the same strength training plan as during the first Competitive Block. Decrease volume back to 2-3 sets of 1-3 reps, with the final heavy strength training session 10-14 days before the race and then 1-2 lighter “grooving” workouts the week before the race.
- Race Performance — Enjoy your final competitive race before you close the books on your training year and get ready for rejuvenation followed by the beginning of the next annual training plan. Take some time to reflect on the things that went well in training this year, and the things you’ll want to adjust for next year.
While block periodization may sound complex, the execution of it in practice is really quite simple. Starting from the earliest point in the training year, we build the base of strength and aerobic fitness as the foundation for all other qualities to come. We continue building the base and gradually add back in erging and rowing training, then we refine this base of strength, fitness, and recovery ability into boat-moving power. We come to the championship races strong, powerful, fit, healthy, and primed for peak performance. Then we do it all again the next year!
“Rowing Stronger: Strength Training to Maximize Rowing Performance” is the comprehensive guide to strength training for rowing, from first practice of the off-season all the way to peak championship race performance, and for everyone from juniors to masters rowers. The second edition is available now in print and e-book.
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