The literature review is a form of scientific writing designed to provide breadth of knowledge about a subject. They’re great for the “big picture” of a subject compared to the depth and specificity of an original research article. One handy literature review I found during my “Research Methods in Sport Coaching” class last year was a review of 89 original research studies aiming to identify key factors in organization of sport and strength training for rowing, canoeing, and kayaking. I’ve taken their research and added my own experience and advice to develop the five keys to strength training for rowing. Master these five principles and you’ll be well on your way for short and long-term success in rowing.
Now, we know that rowing, canoeing, and kayaking certainly have their differences, but the similarities in muscles used, style of training, and distance of racing makes it practical to lump them together to study broad patterns in training and performance. Physiologically, if not technically, these sports are similar and are training similarly.
The authors were specifically interested in the interference effect and what research-supported strategies exist to minimize it. The basic idea of the interference effect is this that strength training and endurance training develop opposite physiological qualities, and at a certain point, the training of one begins to interfere with the performance and/or training of the other.
Rowing, canoeing, and kayaking are classified as power-endurance sports. As the name implies, power-endurance sports rely heavily on both muscular power and aerobic endurance to produce high power over a prolonged amount of time compared to pure power sports like throwing, short sprints, and powerlifting. The puzzle of rowing training is how to maximize adaptations to both power and endurance training while minimizing the interference effect between the two.
The 89 studies the authors reviewed focused on training methods, volume of training, balance of endurance vs. strength training, and more. They developed five main points that stood out most consistently across the research articles as the key to unlocking this puzzle. I should note that almost all of the research reviewed was conducted on male athletes between 18 and 30 years old. This is great for those of you interested in college and post-college training for male rowers, but leaves some to be desired for those who work only with female rowers or masters rowers. While I believe that the five keys still apply to those populations, it would be nice to see more extensive research done to confirm this.
#1: Periodize Your Training
Periodization sounds like a complicated word, but really it just means having a system of organizing training for your sport. There are too many variables to train in rowing to be able to train them all simultaneously, so it is essential to have some system for prioritizing factors in your training. The authors found that focusing on two fitness factors per 5-week training cycle yielded the best performance. They found that block periodization was supported over a traditional system of trying to drive every fitness factor simultaneously. I’ve based most of my written material on block periodization as I have found it to be the simplest and most effective system of strength training for rowing.
Read More: “The Basics of Strength Training for Rowing”
Read More: “Strength Training for Masters Rowers: Periodization”
#2: Strength Train 2-3 Times Per Week
The authors found this to be the sweet spot of training where it was enough to develop gains in muscle power, strength, and size, without dominating the athletes’ recovery for sport-specific endurance training. I typically program two full-body workouts per week during fall and spring seasons, upping it to three per week in the summer off-season and winter pre-season. I tend to use an upper/lower/full split when training three times per week, rather than three full body workouts, but if you have the recovery for it, three full-body sessions can work as well.
“A training volume close to 3-5 sets in 4-6 specific and multi-joint exercises, during 10-12 weeks of training cycles, seems to be an adequate stimulus for an optimal strength development in highly trained rowers and kayakers”
#3: Avoid Training Muscular Hypertrophy and Aerobic Power Close Together
Performing higher volume hypertrophy or muscular endurance training in the gym is too similar, yet also too different, to aerobic power training on the erg or on the water. It’s too similar because local muscular fatigue will be very high in both cases, racking up fatigue in the gym as well as on the water and digging into recovery. It’s too different because the energy system used in a set of 10+ reps isn’t going to carry over to the energy system used in rowing training for aerobic endurance and power. You are generating a lot of muscular fatigue without the training effects from one carrying over to the performance of the other. I’m a big fan of lower volume strength training for in-season rowers. Train for strength and power and minimize fatigue to save energy and develop endurance on-water, then crank up the gym volume in the off-season when aerobic performance is not as great of a concern.
Read More: Maximize Your Off-Season
#4: Strength Training Before Endurance Training
Ideally, strength training and erg/water sessions should be separated by at least eight hours to allow recovery to occur between each. If you must do them back-to-back, do your strength training before your rowing. While your training splits may suffer a bit, lifting before rowing carries a lower risk of injury and less of an interference than rowing before lifting. Your endurance will suffer less from prior fatigue than your power, and the load on your body is safer when rowing instead of lifting.
#5: Avoid Training to Failure
Training 1-2 reps shy of failure is just as effective as training to failure for muscular power, strength, and size, and costs you a whole lot less in “recovery credits” compared to training to muscular failure. A big part of the rowing training puzzle is minimizing unnecessary fatigue, and training to muscular failure just isn’t worth the additional recovery cost.
Training with these five keys in mind requires a thoughtful, intelligent, sport-specific approach to strength training for rowing. Applying conventional wisdom of recreational lifters, random “go hard or go hard” workouts, powerlifting and bodybuilding training methods, or strength training programs from other sports is unlikely to yield you the best results as a rower. Learn how to train appropriately for rowing, learn how to listen to your body, and use this knowledge to structure and adjust your training the best way for your short and long-term improvement and performance in rowing.
Research Article: Garcia-Pallares, J., & Izquierdo, M. (2011). Strategies to optimize concurrent training of strength and aerobic fitness for rowing and canoeing. Sports Medicine, 41(4), 329-343.