I don’t use 1-rep maxes or strength standards for rowing training. There are lots of ways that strength coaches and rowing coaches can evaluate the efficacy of a rowing training program. What does it tell me about a rower’s ability if they squat 225lbs for one rep? Pretty much just that the rower can squat 225lbs for one rep. Without the context of this lift, it means very little. Strength standards have also always seemed to lack context, even when they are designed around other rep max ranges. Strength is a skill, and rowing is a skill, and I’m not sure that one is predictive of the other. However, we still need some way to evaluate the efficacy of our training program, right?
Rep Max Testing for Rowing
1-rep max (1RM) testing is a tempting way to evaluate a training program with the simple question, did the rower increase his/her 100% capability for strength? However, there are all kinds of training and non-training variables that can influence 1RM performance both positively and negatively. Is everything else in the rower’s life consistent with the previous 1RM test? Is their rowing training equivalently stressful as before? Higher or lower volume or intensity of rowing training will likely affect maximum output. Is sleep, nutrition, and hydration consistent enough to compare conditions? The rower didn’t take any extra caffeine before this session, right? Are non-training stressors such as academics, employment, and relationships exactly the same as before? Now we can get onto actual training. Did the rower’s technique improve or degrade for this new 1RM performance? Strength is a skill, and there are neurological and physical adaptations that result from training specifically to improve 1RM performance as opposed to 10RM performance. If the rower has been training for a 1RM, does their 1RM reflect their “actual” strength, or does it just reflect that they’ve been training for a 1RM?
Of course, we also have to ask if the rower improved at rowing because of this new 1RM. How do we know that increasing 1RM correlates to rowing performance? Does increasing 3RM, 5RM, 10RM, or 20RM also correlate to rowing performance? Should we test all of those to see? On which exercise, or on how many different exercises?
My final, and perhaps most important, reservation on 1RM testing is that of injury risk. I don’t shy away from programming heavy weights and generally think that the injury risk of lifting weights with good technique is overstated (and/or a problem of poor instruction, technique, and supervision). However, there is a difference between training and testing, especially with rowers. Rowers are intensely competitive and have some of the highest pain tolerances and lowest regard for self-preservation of the athletes I’ve worked with. Rowers will almost always give any challenge at least a fighting try, and while that is great for many things, it’s a real risk when we’re talking about lifting maximal weights. Rowers testing rep maxes need very clear standards for performance, boundaries on acceptable/unacceptable technique, and instruction before and supervision during testing.
I will sometimes use a 3RM or 5RM test with experienced rowers, because at least with 3-5RM weights, I know the athlete will get a good rep or two out of the set and we can stop them before going to total technical or muscular failure. Stopping a 5RM and making it a 2RM or 3RM is a lot better outcome than a 1RM becoming a 0RM or an injury. If we want to extrapolate the 3-5RM to a 1RM, we can divide the weight lifted by 0.9 or 0.925 to get a rough projection of a 1RM.
To work up to a rep max, start with just the bar for a few sets of 5-10 reps. I prefer more sets of lower reps when working up to a heavier weight. Add 30-50lbs for your first set and do a single set of 3-5 reps. Take 1-2 minutes of rest and add 15-20% to the bar for each subsequent set of 3-5 reps until you’re at greater levels of strain. For your final 3-4 sets working up to the max set, take 2-3 minutes of rest and add just 5-10%. For example, a rower with a 3RM target of 225lbs might work up like so: 45×10, 95×5, 115×5, 135×5, 165×3, 185×3, 205×3, 215×3, 225×3. If the 225×3 set degrades after one or two reps, we terminate the set there and note it as a 1RM or 2RM. The rower can re-attempt the 3RM on a future test session.
Ultimately, whether the athletes are improving as rowers is the biggest question of rowing training. I’d rather use shorter ergometer tests to evaluate rowing-specific anaerobic power. As to the question of whether or not the athlete is getting stronger in strength training, we can look at their workout logs and see if weights and reps of work sets are increasing. You’re keeping a workout log, right?
Strength Standards for Rowing
One of the more well-known set of strength training standards online are the Starting Strength standards. Starting Strength, like many other organizations, created standards for the overhead press, bench press, squat, and deadlift, with a system of progression from “Category 1” all the way up to “Category 5,” and arranged by bodyweight and rounded to the single digit. But what are these standards based on? They aren’t based on record numbers for powerlifting, although powerlifting deals in the bench, squat, and deadlift. Starting Strength was first a football program, so perhaps they’re aligned with football training and we can extrapolate the standards to other sports?
Fortunately, the author himself gave us an answer! Oh…
I’m only aware of one resource for strength standards for rowing, a 2005 paper by Ed McNeely and Steve Bamel published in the Strength and Conditioning Journal, which was later adapted to a 2009 blog post on McNeely’s website. Now, I can only assume that if I’ve gotten this question a dozen or so times in the few years I’ve been running my website, someone like McNeely was truly inundated, and I’m sure I would have worn down and written something too just so I could stop getting the question. But, I’ve got a few problems with this already.
For one thing, they were published in 2005 based on data from the ten years previous, so approximately 1994 to 2004. McNeely and Bamel begin the article by stating the growth of rowing from 2000-2005, and we know that the trend has continued, as has the popularity of strength training. So, how relevant are these standards now? It’s unfair to blame the authors for the passage of time, of course, but it is a limitation to be aware of if you are using these or any other standards in your own rowing or coaching.
I still hate the bench pull and won’t continue to flog that dead horse, except to say that I especially recommend against using it in any testing context (1RM or max reps of any number) due to the risk of rib injury in a sport where the rib injury is already far too common and too costly. Competitive rowers will compromise technique to achieve a higher score in a competitive pursuit, especially if the result is being used for selection or evaluation. The bench pull may look safe because it eliminates low back spinal flexion (rounding), but the direct impact of the bench and barbell on the ribcage and the risk of injury from back hyperextension (arching) makes it not. Nearly every former or current collegiate or high-performance rower I know has an injury story from bench pull testing. What good is the data when it injures athletes from doing their actual sport?
From a research standpoint…where’s the data? Though I would never accuse McNeely and Bamel of anything like the scatological research practices described by Rippetoe and Kilgore, I do find it curious how nicely these numbers worked out in the crunching process from 10 years of data.
All strength standards suffer from a “chicken-or-the-egg” problem, in that they are correlative, not causative. McNeely and Bamel state this outright in their data collection processes, that the standards, “represent the average strength levels of highly successful athletes at each performance level.” So, which came first, the strength or the rowing ability? McNeely explicitly acknowledges this limitation in his 2009 article, stating that, “decreasing the amount of aerobic training or technical training so that you can spend more time in the weight room may help you reach your strength goal but it may not make you a better rower.”
I don’t want to flame McNeely and Bamel for the standards at all, because all of my critiques are really critiques of the core concept of strength standards, and I really like the rest of both the 2005 and 2009 articles. I think they make a very convincing case for the importance of strength in rowing, and they also note that anaerobic power via a 30-second test is a better determinant of rowing performance and outline standards for peak and average power in erg testing. McNeely’s 2009 article offers great advice on taking a long approach to development, keeping strength in perspective of rowing ability, and performing 45-60-minute strength training workouts that are focused on building strength, not strength endurance. These are all good principles that stand on their own without the need of standards.
So…Why Do We Need Strength Standards for Rowing?
I’ve never proposed any strength standards because I don’t believe that strength standards for rowing actually offer anything in the way of meaningful insight. We’ve established that attaining the strength standards does not guarantee, or even suggest, success in the sport of rowing. I’ve never heard of an athlete with poor technique winning a spot in a boat because of their squat max. I’ve never heard of a rowing coach stuck between two athletes with similar rowing performance and erg scores using deadlift max to decide who gets the seat.
Strength standards attempt to answer the question of “am I strong enough for rowing?” However, there are too many better ways to evaluate rowing performance to answer this question, and most rowing coaches are going to look at rowing-specific evaluations to answer this question before they turn to 1RMs. Don’t just use the 2k test, use a 10-stroke test, a 60-second test, a 500m test, and/or other rowing-specific evaluations that can be completed with reasonably low physical and mental stress. Check out the Jensen Model for one example, and read my “All About Rowing Power Testing” article for more.
We know that strength is important for rowing performance. We know that lifting weights through a variety of rep ranges and movement patterns is important to developing strength. We know that a point of diminishing returns exists where more maximal strength does not yield a worthwhile amount of rowing improvement. We know that we can evaluate rowing performance with a variety of erg tests, and that this gives us better information than any non-rowing test to determine rowing performance.
So, what’s the point? If strength standards exist just to pat ourselves on the back, I don’t think that is worth the non-zero impact on training and the risk of injury to push to 1RM weights. Let’s instead train hard, trust the process of training (and keep records of training to confirm that trust), have some rowing-specific indicator tests for evaluation of strength, fitness, and rowing ability, and then show up on race day and let it rip. After all, races are won on the water, not in the gym, and no amount of predictive evaluation is going to earn you the gold before you row across the line.
Last updated November, 2022.