Strength training circuits for rowing can have a place in a training program, but they’re often overused or used for the wrong reasons. We can improve training with an understanding of when, how, and for what kind of rower we should use circuit training, clearer goals for circuit training, and methods beyond simply working stroke muscles in fatiguing conditions. In this article, I’ll suggest solutions to common problems in circuit training design and provide guidelines and examples of how I use strength training circuits for rowing under different goals and conditions.
When strength training circuits for rowing are used well, they can be great for general athletic development, early muscular and strength gains, mobility, and/or recovery. Circuit training can be highly beneficial for novice rowers or novice strength trainees, who do not need much additional load to begin strength training for rowing. Circuits can be great in the General Prep Block of an annual periodized program, when developing general athleticism, base strength, and muscle hypertrophy are the major goals.
Circuit training also offers athletes a new way to engage in physical movement, and with teammates. I often frame circuit training for beginner athletes as “advanced physical education.” They did, or do, basic physical education in school, learning how to move their bodies through space and enjoy many different forms of physical activity. “Advanced PE” is about learning how to move their bodies to generate and transmit force. Through partners, groups, and other workout designs, we’re also providing space for athletes to engage with each other differently than in traditional rowing practice.
Circuit training goes wrong when used in high fatigue environments, with a focus only on the rowing stroke muscles, without regard for appropriate exercise selection for individual athletes, or purely for the goal of “making athletes work hard.” Athletes in this context will usually fall back on whatever muscles are strongest, which risks worsening imbalances and creating or reinforcing faulty movement patterns. Circuit training can be a source of overuse injury and overtraining due to high training volumes, excess stress on stroke muscles already taxed from rowing training, and sloppy movements resulting in strain on skeletal structures from such high fatigue training. Coaches who use “strength training” in this way miss a major point of strength training for rowing: developing physical qualities in a way that we can’t through rowing or erging.
Common Circuit Training Problems and Fixes
Problem #1: No plan for progression
Progressive overload–gradually and intentionally increasing the demand on the body via sets, reps, or load–is a hallmark of a sound strength training program. Many coaches “just do” circuits. Maybe it’s the same one every time, just designed to be hard without building towards anything, or maybe it’s so different every time that we don’t know if athletes are progressing or regressing. Are athletes improving from the training, or just surviving the training?
THE FIX: Design your circuits intentionally, with a clear goal in mind, and have a plan to progress them. I have sample circuits below for the standard goals of base strength, muscle hypertrophy, and movement or recovery. To create progressive overload, we might add an additional set of a circuit, add load to some or all of the exercises, increase reps of some or all of the exercises, decrease rest intervals, increase work time, prolong the eccentric phase of individual lifts, etc. This should be done gradually and intentionally, haphazardly or all at once. We should also consider fatigue and recovery when combined with rowing training.
Problem #2: Same old stroke muscles
Strength training circuits for rowing are often overly reliant on machines, bilateral exercises in the sagittal plane, and the same muscles used in the rowing stroke. This is a missed opportunity for athletic development. While you can train individual muscles with machines just fine, our goal is to train athletes to become better rowers. That means more of an emphasis on exercises requiring stability, mobility, and moving the body through space. Machines do not accomplish this, and can also cause more trouble than they’re worth with trying to get the right fit for each athlete. Bilateral exercises are great, but when you mash ten of them into one circuit, it’s a ton of cumulative fatigue. This might make athletes feel really tired, but it isn’t doing much for their athletic ability, strength, or muscular growth.
THE FIX: Design your circuits around ground-based, free-weight or bodyweight movements, and use more variety in your circuit training. Think outside the box of bilateral stroke muscle exercises. Check out my exercise index for ideas. Once the athletes have the basic movements down, there are countless ways that you can choose and modify exercises to fit the goals of your circuits.
Yes, core training has a place in circuits too, but let’s get away from planks and crunches as our only options. Planks are fine at the beginner level to learn control of abdominal muscles and posture, but rowers need to be able to move through the hip and at the torso while maintaining abdominal stability. Rowing, after all, is not isometric. We can introduce some movement with the stir-the-pot exercises (on a TRX or physioball), with the TRX/ring fallout exercise, as well as the Pallof press and seated rockback exercise. If we’re using free-weight and bodyweight exercises, not machines, in different planes of movement, then rowers will also be getting “core training” by maintaining torso stability through these other exercises.
We can also use mobility exercises within circuits. Individual movements from either rowing warmup series, animal crawls like this or like this, and other active stretches, are great within circuits as active rest, or in their own standalone circuit designed for recovery. Slow movements of animal crawls can be extremely challenging for the glute, abdominal, and trunk muscles. Circuits like this can be very useful for unexpected land sessions, developing diverse athletic movement and facilitating blood flow without creating much additional fatigue.
Problem #3: Lighter load doesn’t mean injury-proof
Even though athletes are using lighter loads than they would in a conventional, weightroom-based strength training program, we still need to instruct good technique. The majority of rowing injuries are overuse injuries, not traumatic or acute injuries, and movement quality has a lot to do with overuse conditions. Sloppy squats, burpees, pushups, and lengthy plank holds under high fatigue conditions exerts stress and strain on skeletal structures, rather than keeping the emphasis on the muscles.
THE FIX: First, make sure you’re instructing good technique in your strength training circuits for rowing. I have often used an “instructional round” of just a few reps through each exercise in a circuit, to make sure athletes understand how to perform each exercise with good technique.
Second, select exercises that are appropriately challenging for the athletes. For example, beginner athletes may need to use an elevated pushup, rather than a conventional pushup, or a reduced-ROM squat rather than a deep squat. Advanced athletes may need more challenging variations. Add a resistance band to increase pushup challenge. The one-and-a-half squat is a challenging squat variation in which the athlete squats down to full depth, then stands halfway up to just above parallel, descends to full depth again, and then stands up to full completion, keeping tension on the muscles the whole time.
Third, rather than use high reps of 20+ in circuit training, try slowing down and increasing the challenge of exercises. Using prolonged eccentrics, such as a 4-second lowering phase, is a great way to significantly increase the challenge of an exercise, without requiring any additional load or reps. Prolonged eccentrics provide an opportunity for athletes to feel small differences in physical positioning within each rep, and challenge the prime movers and stabilizers of each muscle group.
Pick the right reps for the job. Think ahead of time about what the goal of the circuit is, then design it to achieve that goal. If you want to focus on muscular hypertrophy, you might want a higher volume, lower load circuit with more variety, and an emphasis on unilateral exercises. If you want to focus more on base strength, you might use a lower volume, higher load circuit with less variety, emphasizing bilateral exercises. A circuit for movement or recovery should be relatively low load, high variety, and fairly non-fatiguing. The goal and the sets, reps, and exercises used to achieve the goal, depends on the athletes. In general, start off lighter and easier, and increase the difficulty as the athletes demonstrate proficiency and capacity.
Problem #4: Plyometric exercises under fatigue
We commonly use plyometric exercises like different variations of jumps and throws to improve lower body power production and rate of force development. However, I often see rowers do these for high reps and under fatiguing conditions, which does little for rate of force development. For example, the dreaded “burpee” exercise is a great way to make athletes tired, but doesn’t accomplish much beyond that. Athletes are simply not able to be explosive and develop force rapidly under such a long duration of fatiguing output. Also, compressive forces at the knee in a vertical jump (and landing) can be 6.9 to 10 TIMES the athlete’s bodyweight (Cleather, Goodwin, Bull, 2013). This adds up, especially when combined with high fatigue conditions, technique degradation, and the rest of the rowing and erging training.
THE FIX: If you are going to use plyos, do a few things to set the athletes up for success. First, instruct them carefully, beginning with mechanics of landing. Second, select variations according to challenge level. Third, keep plyos for power production, not fatigue training. Finally, broaden out beyond just bilateral vertical jumps and include unilateral, horizontal, and full-body exercises. In one study of novice junior male rowers, researchers used a four-week plyometric intervention consisting of 100-150 foot contacts spread out over 6-7 different plyometric exercises. The athletes performed plyos in the range of three sets of 5-10 reps, with only one exercise going up to three sets of 15-20 reps. The researchers used plyometrics for the lower body and full-body, including bilateral and unilateral vertical and horizontal jumps, as well as forward and backward throwing. The foot contacts progressed in volume over the four weeks of the study, from 100 to 150 on one day of training.
Read More: Complete Guide to Plyometrics for Rowers
Sample Strength Training Circuits for Rowing
Strength training circuits for rowing tend to be full-body workouts. They may take place in a weight-room or in a more minimalist equipment situation, like a boathouse or open gym space. If we are thinking about “advanced PE” and designing circuits to fit our goal and phase of training, we can adjust our methods to fit any situation. I typically think in categories of movement when designing circuits, with main movements of push, pull, squat, hinge, and minor movements of shoulder, hip, and core. This accomplishes the goal of full-body training, not just hammering stroke motion muscles, and gives each body part a bit of rest in the circuit. We can include unilateral and bilateral exercises from the categories as appropriate for our goals and training situation.
The 30-30-for-30 system is the one method of circuit training I like and often use. It’s 30 seconds on, 30 seconds off, for 30 minutes. You can do as many different exercises within that time frame as you want. I like for the exercise rotation to work out cleanly, so I tend to use 6 rounds of 5 exercises, 5 rounds of 6 exercises, or 3 rounds of 10 exercises. I’ve used this system for years as a way to start strength training for rowing, during the gym/boathouse closure phase of the pandemic, and for rowers traveling away from their normal gym equipment or routine who still want to get in a simple strength training session. I learned this first from a 2018 article by strength coach Dan John and spoke about it in my “minimalist/at-home strength training” webinar for USRowing in April of 2020.
You can read my “How to Start Strength Training for Rowing” article to learn a lot more about the 30-30-for-30 system, including a bank of sample training sessions.
The 30-30-for-30 system fixes a lot of the above problems with conventional strength training circuit designs:
- Workload limited to the 30-second “on” duration. We can’t generate THAT much fatigue in 30 seconds using good technique and tempo. Aim for 8-15 reps per 30 seconds on most exercises. The longer range-of-motion exercises like a squat will usually get fewer, while the smaller exercises like a band pullapart will usually get more.
- 1-to-1 work-to-rest ratio increases intra-session recovery compared to circuits with a greater amount of work than rest. It takes a very strong and experienced trainee working at relatively low muscular outputs to keep technique crisp under the fatigue of a circuit session with long work durations. Athletes can achieve better technique on each rep with the limited work duration and the 1-1 work-rest ratio.
- Entire session limited to 30 minutes, of which only 15 minutes is “on” time, keeps the workload manageable, recoverable, and repeatable. This training will build you up over weeks and months, not break you down with brutal efforts that can’t be sustained in the longer term.
Strength training circuits for rowing can have their place in a training program. Used correctly, they can be an efficient way for many athletes to share equipment, achieve goals of base strength, hypertrophy, muscular balance, and general athleticism, and enjoy different ways of physical activity and interacting with teammates. Design and instruct circuits to help all athletes be proficient in each exercise, using appropriate challenge or load, and plan for a gradual progression system to challenge athletes as they grow stronger and fitter. Remember that there is more to strength training for rowing than just circuit training. Eventually, athletes will be strong and fit enough so that bodyweight and low-load exercises are no longer sufficiently challenging to stimulate gains in strength and muscle. This is yet another value of periodizing training. Circuits can be great in the General Prep Block of highly varied, more muscular-focused training, with a progression plan to return to heavier strength training in the later phases of training.
Last updated November 2022.