The squat is one of the most important exercises in strength training for rowing. Done correctly, the squat and its variations build lower body strength and power in a way that cannot be replicated by rowing and erging alone. In this complete guide to squatting for rowing, we’ll break down the importance of the squat, variations of the squat that I use in rowing training, and how to train the squat throughout the year to build to peak performance.
Table of Contents
- Squatting for Rowing: The Why
- Squatting for Rowing: The How
- Squatting for Rowing: Teaching Technique
- Squatting for Rowing: FAQs
Squatting for Rowing: The Why
The squat is one of the most effective exercises to develop lower body strength and power. Rowing is a sport that is highly dependent on lower body strength, power, and endurance. Increasing your strength decreases the effort required to pull the blade through the water, which improves endurance. If it takes 150lbs of force to pull the blade through the water at race pace, and the most you can squat is 165lbs, you’re working harder on every stroke than someone who can squat 205lbs.
Read More: Why Strength Matters in Rowing
However, squat exercises can also be intimidating for the beginning lifter. All training has a risk of injury, but strength training often gets a bad rap thanks to poor instruction, poor supervision, and poor execution of the lifts, rather than inherent faults of the lifts themselves. We can greatly reduce the risk of injuries that happen while strength training with good instruction, good supervision, and always keeping technical execution of the lifts as the primary goal. After all, we are training to build better rowers, not better powerlifters, bodybuilders, or to boast the biggest numbers at the gym, so squatting for rowing should always support that goal.
Leg strength and power isn’t just important for lowering your splits. Researchers in a study of national team rowers found that rowers with rib stress injuries had a lower ratio of strength between knee extensors (ie. quadriceps muscles) and elbow flexors (ie. biceps muscles) than rowers without rib stress injuries. Rowers who lack adequate leg strength to power the stroke will get it from their upper body instead, which may increase risk of rib stress injury.
Weak leg muscles also make it harder to achieve good technique in the stroke. Rowers with weak legs tend to struggle at the catch when the highest leg force is required. They will often shoot their slide or fall behind their teammates in the early drive phase of the stroke, setting them up for technical problems through the whole rest of the stroke. Coaches may address this as a technical issue when it’s actually a strength issue. There’s no quick fix for getting stronger, so an intelligent and rowing-specific approach to strength training needs to be a part of every rowing program from the earliest possible level.
I totally believe in sport-specific conditioning and rowing or erging your way into cardiovascular fitness. It’s much harder to row or erg your way into strength, thanks to the relatively low load of the stroke compared to what we can achieve in the weight-room, as well as the numerous technical factors of rowing. You can increase the drag of the stroke to emphasize strength, but you run the risk of altering rowing technique and increasing risk of injury. I’d much rather see rowers use the weight-room to develop strength, power, and muscle, and use the boat and erg to develop technique and sport-specific conditioning.
Squatting for Rowing: The How
If you’re sold on the importance of squatting for rowing, let’s talk about how to train the squat and all of its variations to build stronger, faster, healthier, better rowers.
Back Squat: The back squat is the variation most people are familiar with, but it’s the one I use the least in strength training for rowing. There are a few reasons for this. Rowers naturally have strong backs, and the back squat allows them to maximize this strength. Unfortunately, that comes at the expense of leg development, reducing the effectiveness for our primary goal of building better rowers. I also find that the back squat is easier to do wrong, and that the consequences from doing it wrong are greater than other squat variations. Caved (valgus) knee position, rounded backs, and shifting weight forward onto the toes are all common errors that may increase weight or reps immediately, but have potential consequences for injury and also detract from our focus on the target muscles for building better rowers.
Front Squat: The front squat is my #1 squat variation, and offers numerous benefits to offset the negatives of back squatting for rowing. In the front squat, the lifter holds the bar across the shoulders and collarbone, using either the clean grip or the cross grip, shown below. This positions the lifter’s torso more upright than the back squat, emphasizing the quadriceps, core, and mid back postural muscles more than the back squat. Competitive strength athletes or recreational lifters may fault the front squat for over-emphasizing the core and postural muscles compared to the lower body muscles. When it comes to squatting for rowing, however, this is a feature, not a bug, as rowing also emphasizes the core and mid-back muscles.
The front squat is also much harder to “cheat” than the back squat. If the lifter shifts their weight forward or pops their hips up quickly out of the bottom of the lift, rounding their back, the bar will simply roll out of their grip and onto the floor. While failing lifts should not happen in training, it sometimes does, and it’s easier to bail on the front squat than the back squat, offering another safety benefit. Finally, tall athletes tend to have an easier time reaching parallel depth when front squatting. We have some of those in rowing, so this is an important consideration. The front squat is a fantastic way to build lower body strength and power, as well as postural strength, while mitigating many of the safety concerns of back squatting.
Goblet Squat: The goblet squat is a useful squat to prepare for front squatting. I use the goblet squat with weaker lifters who don’t yet need the heavier loading of a barbell. The dumbbell or kettlebell provides some more balance than the front squat, and as long as you have heavy enough weights, the goblet squat does a great job of building the same legs, core, and mid back muscles as the front squat. I also use the goblet squat as an assistance exercise. During the General Prep Block, we will often do front squats or deadlifts as our main work, and then do higher reps on the goblet squat.
Bodyweight Squat: The bodyweight squat is the most scaled-down version of the bilateral squat that we’ll use. Depending on the strength and skill of the athlete, external load may not even be necessary for a challenge. I like it as a warmup for squatting, but find that it’s usually just not challenging enough for most rowers to build lower body strength, power, and muscle. If you are using circuit-style training, the bodyweight squat can be a good lift to include.
Single-Leg Squats: There are lots of different kinds of single-leg squats, and all of them can be great for rowing. The lunge or reverse lunge is the simplest and easiest version. The rear-foot-elevated split squat (RFESS) is one of the most challenging. The step-up is also a good variation, as long as the athlete can keep the emphasis on the raised leg and not cheat by using the down leg to push off the floor. I prefer to load with dumbbells or kettlebells held in the front rack position, like a goblet squat, instead of held in each hand, suitcase-style. The goblet or front rack hold helps the athlete hold an upright posture, while holding at the sides often results in bending forward under fatigue.
I typically use single-leg squats as assistance work to focus on building the leg muscles, developing left-right muscular balance, and improving sense of balance. These are important general athletic qualities that rowers should keep in their training to reduce risk of injury. It is also particularly important for sweep rowers to develop both the left and right sides of their body evenly. Despite the rotational component of sweep rowing, it is still important for performance both legs to contribute as much as possible. Left-right imbalance of the legs can create poor postural and gait dynamics, resulting in a long-term injury risk in the knees, hips, and lower back.
Belt Squat: The belt squat requires a pretty rare piece of equipment, or some creativity, but if you can make it work, it can be a great way to strengthen the legs without relying on the torso. I like this more than a leg press, because it still requires the lifter to stabilize their torso and avoids the potential consequences from poor-fitting machines. I have used this exercise most with rowers rehabbing low back pain or rib stress injuries, to still work the legs while offloading the torso.
Leg Press: The leg press isn’t a squat, and I don’t use it in my strength training for rowing. There are too many potential negatives, including high shear force on the lumbar spine, poor fitting equipment, and athletes taking unnecessary risks with loading, and too many benefits from free-weight squatting for rowing for leg pressing to be worth your time. I typically find that anyone who can row can find some version of a free-weight squat that works for them.
Box Squat: I’ve seen coaches use the box squat with new athletes to teach them to squat, but I think that the box becomes a crutch rather than a teaching tool. It supports the athlete at the bottom of the lift, the hardest part, and then removing it can make athletes panic and go back to cutting the lift high. This also has little applicability for rowers, who must support themselves in strong positions at the position of deep knee flexion, the catch. Adding support here and unloading the rower makes little sense, and I would rather used a paused squat to train control at the bottom position and acceleration through the whole lift. I think the box squat has utility for athletes with injuries, but that’s about it.
Depth Check Tip: With newer lifters or those struggling with squat depth, I will often set up a light band across the power rack to give them a depth measurement. This provides a depth check without providing any support at the bottom of the lift, and won’t become a crutch the way a box squat may. It’s just an indicator and saves coaches and athletes from wondering if every rep was to depth.
Squatting for Rowing: Teaching Technique
Whether or not squatting benefits your rowing performance depends almost entirely on how you perform the lift. A lift performed poorly results in poor physical adaptation (strength, power, muscle), increases risk of injury, and decreases the carryover to rowing. Common faults of the squat include squatting too high, knees caving in, and the hips rising too quickly out of the bottom of the lift, putting excess pressure on the spine at the expense of leg development. It’s important that we squat in a way that maximizes both physical adaptation and also carries over to improved rowing ability, and also minimizes risk of injury for the athlete. For the squat, this means a braced torso, descending to at least to parallel depth or slightly below, knees staying roughly in line with the toes, and even rising of the shoulders and hips.
Most rowing programs are fortunate to have one strength coach, let alone a sufficiently sized coaching staff to adequately instruct 20+ athletes all at once. Below is the system I use to teach a large group of rowers the basic exercises in a manner that is both time and space efficient, while making sure that athletes receive quality instruction and improve their understanding of the technique for the squat.
Rowers are used to thinking of things in 3-4 parts, such as “arms, body, legs” or “catch, drive, release.” Keeping in this style of thinking, I followed the part-whole method and broke each of the lifts down into 3-4 parts and made that the basis of my instruction. This is helpful for introducing athletes to the technique, so that they can perform the exercise and begin the “real” learning at full speed and under increasing weights.
I first get the athletes in groups of 3-5 athletes of similar heights. This is the easiest way to minimize adjustments once the athletes start lifting. I also find assigning groups to be much more successful than asking them to come up with groups on their own, as it avoids developing cliques and helps new athletes quickly assimilate into the group.
Once the athletes are organized, I instruct the full-body warm-up sequence, then we move on to the lifts. I demonstrate each lift or have an experienced rower demonstrate the lift, explaining the cues I’ll use and what I’m looking for at each point in the lift. Each platform has one athlete lifting at a time, all following the same lift sequence, with an empty or lightly loaded barbell. This is just instruction, not an actual workout, so we’re not worried about loading up the movement and getting a workout in…yet!
For the squat, familiarize yourself with the basic cues for back squat and front squat from my exercise guide, then watch the instructional video below as I demonstrate and explain the lifts following the part-whole method.
#1: Rack position—“Walk it out”
On the back squat, the first position is simple. Look for straight wrists, braced abs, and good posture. On the front squat, teach the proper rack position with either the clean grip or the cross grip. For the clean-grip, cue the athletes “elbows up and in” to create a stable shelf for the bar and reach full thoracic extension, then look for abdominal bracing and good posture. Check stance width here too. Front squat stance should be just inside shoulder width, while back squat stance should be outside shoulder width.
#2: Descent—“Down, ready DOWN”
Look for controlled descent, not dropping into the hole, with proper form. On squats, many athletes initiate the descent with the knees and need to be cued to break from the hips first. Check depth. Athletes should be close to, if not slightly below, parallel depth. Collapsed arches of the feet is a common problem with rowers. Since rowing doesn’t develop the muscles of the foot the same way a field sport does, many rowers have either poor motor control for their feet or poor musculature to support them. Many rowers also use minimal shoes, which can exacerbate this. I recommend an arch support for these athletes. Good foot stability leads to better knee and hip stability, which means safer, more effective squats.
#3: Halfway up—“Halfway up, UP”
Watch for athletes to rise evenly from the chest, torso, and hips. The hips should not “pop up” out of the hole, nor should the rower over-extend the upper back, throwing their chest backwards. The hips and chest should rise evenly and simultaneously to roughly 45 degrees at the halfway up point. One issue that will often arise at this point is caving (valgus) knee position. Many rowers have weak glute muscles, which can cause the knees to cave when squatting. Glute activation work can help, but athletes who are unable to correct knee cave need to use a different squat variant until they can squat correctly. Many will be able to correct this when cued and when the weight is light enough, so make sure to give them time to work on it before ruling the squat out entirely.
Remember, rule out instruction first. Make sure the athlete knows to push the knees out, keeping them in line with the toes, on both the descent and ascent.
Next, If the athlete can keep the knees out at light weight, but caves under heavy weight, they need to do more reps and more work to master the lighter weights and increase the weight gradually while also performing other exercises to strengthen the legs and hips in general.
Finally, if the athlete is unable to keep the knees in line at any weight, they may have a mobility restriction, structural problem, or significant muscular weakness and should be referred to a physical therapist.
Make sure that athletes lock the weight out under control. I rarely see problems from halfway up to the finish, but sometimes an athlete will hyper-extend or finish in a poor postural position. If an athlete is hyperextending, cue them to squeeze the glutes and core muscles to complete the lift. This will get them using more of their hip and torso musculature and create a better brace without hyperextending the lumbar spine.
That’s one rep. I’ll usually have the group do 5 broken-down reps while I make any adjustments to their technique, then they do 1-2 full reps on their own with no breakdown. We then cycle through athletes and repeat the process until everyone has gone through the lift. If you’re just focusing on one lift in the session, you could have the athletes add weight from this point so they start learning under more realistic circumstances. The goal of the part-whole method is just introducing athletes to the technical principles and the cues that you will use to correct technique.
Squatting for Rowing: Frequently Asked Questions
Don’t squats hurt your knees?
Anything has the potential to cause injury, and this risk can be greatly reduced with good instruction, good supervision, and smart training to keep technical execution the priority. The squat is an exercise that is challenging to learn correctly on your own, but many people are reluctant to seek out qualified coaching, so a lot of people end up squatting incorrectly. I can most often make a technical adjustment for an athlete who reports knee pain from squatting that alleviates the pain. However, if you have a prior injury, or correctly performed squats truly do hurt your knees, experiment to find a variation that doesn’t. Maybe the higher loads of back squatting hurts your knees, but the lighter single-leg squats don’t. Maybe an above-parallel close-stance box squat is necessary for you. At the end of the day, you want to find some way to strengthen your legs for rowing in a manner that doesn’t cause you pain.
How often should I max out?
Strength training is not all about the 1-rep maximum (1RM). We will occasionally use a 3-5RM, or max reps at a set percentage, but remember that the time you spend testing is time you could have spent training. A test every 10-12 weeks can be helpful for tracking progress and calculating percentages for the next cycle of training. In between tests, you should be able to look at your training weights and see improvement. For example, if you go from squatting 165lbs for 3 sets of 6 to squatting 165lbs for 4 sets of 8, we can definitely say you’ve gotten stronger without having to do a rep-max test to confirm this.
Also, remember that the goal of squatting for rowing is to build a better rower. If your squat weights, sets, or reps make little improvement, but your rowing splits get faster, that means training is working. As a rower putting in 10+ hours of week of hard rowing training, don’t expect to see the same improvement in the lifts as someone who only does strength training. You have a narrow window to be a competitive rower, and a lifetime to chase bigger lifts. Keep the goal the goal!
Back Squatting: High-Bar or Low-Bar?
If you must back squat, do it with a high-bar position in which the bar is held on top of the trapezius muscles, not the low-bar position in which the bar is held between the rear deltoids and trapezius muscles. The front squat offers numerous advantages such as upright torso position, a closer stance to be more similar to rowing, and greater ease for achieving parallel depth. The high-bar squat is the next closest squat. The low-bar squat tends to require a more inclined torso position, a wider stance, and athletes typically just reach parallel. This is not a similar position to the rowing stroke. Remember that our goal of squatting for rowing is to build better rowers, not necessarily to lift the absolute most weight possible.
Is it better to go heavier or go deeper? How deep is deep enough?
Range of motion is more important than maximum weight lifted. A lot of new lifters struggle with the mentality of a full depth squat. I don’t think “butt to heels” is necessary, but parallel depth should be attainable for anyone who can get to the catch in the stroke. Parallel depth is a good compromise of requiring a baseline level of mobility and still being able to load the exercise enough to be challenging for strength and muscular development. In my experience, rowers who can reach a good catch position can usually squat to parallel depth (top of thigh parallel with the ground) with minimal extra instruction. Those who can’t reach parallel on a squat probably aren’t getting to full catch either. Check out Mobility for Rowers to figure out what’s limiting them, and refer to a physical therapist if you can’t figure it out.
Should my stance be as narrow as it is in the boat? Is it OK if I turn my toes out?
We will use “rowing stance” or “erg stance” as an indicator of foot width for the deadlift, but not for the squat. For the back squat, I coach a stance just outside shoulder width with individual modifications made for athlete comfort. For front squat, a little closer. There’s a lot of variation in athletes’ hip shapes and biomechanics, particularly across genders and ages of athletes, so I don’t think a “one size fits all” approach is effective. As I general rule, I encourage athletes to be as narrow as they can while still achieving parallel depth and as upright of a torso as possible. This tends to be just outside shoulder width. If athletes have to turn their toes out more than about 45 degrees, there’s something limiting their mobility and that will show up in the boat too. I’ve noticed that rowers who splay their knees out at the catch tend to turn their toes out too much when squatting as well, and that this is often an ankle mobility restriction. Check out Mobility for Rowers to figure out what’s limiting them, and refer to a physical therapist if you can’t figure it out.
Squatting for Rowing: Off-Season, In-Season
If you follow the block periodization system of strength training for rowing, you know that the off-season Preparation Blocks are the time for building the base of strength and muscle that will power you through the rest of the year. We manipulate major training qualities of volume, frequency, intensity, and specificity through the block periodization system. The off-season is the time for higher volume, moderate frequency, lower intensity, and lower specificity squatting for rowing. This typically means higher reps, with more work in the 8-12 range, 2-4 training sessions per week, intensities in the 65-85%1RM range, and high variety of movements. 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps with 1-2 minutes rest for the higher volume sessions, 2-3 sets of 4-6 reps with 2-3 minutes of rest for the lower volume sessions. We’ll use bilateral squats like front or back squat, as well as unilateral squats, to build a great foundation of strength and muscular balance between the left and right legs. Fixing imbalances is a major objective of off-season training.
In the Pre-Competitive Block, we start to prepare for racing and want to tune up the base of strength built in the Prep Blocks into boat-moving power for great starts and sprints. We gradually decrease the volume, decrease the frequency, increase the intensity, and increase the specificity to focus in on our major objective of the training year–peak race performance. Training during the Pre-Competitive Block is more focused on power production and the concept of training with full explosive intent on every low-rep set. 4-6 sets of 1-3 reps around 75%1RM for the power work.
Read More: Peak Power Training for Rowing
The Competitive Block begins just before the important races of the main racing season. The entire focus during the Competitive Block is being ready to race. This does not mean stop squatting entirely! Quite the opposite, in fact, as rowers who stop strength training when their competitive season begins are strongest at the start of the season, when it matters least, and weakest at the end of the season, when it matters most. The goal of strength training during the Competitive Block is maintaining the strength, power, and muscle mass you built up during the rest of the year’s training, and making sure that all of your hard work pays off on race day. For main work, we use low volume, moderate intensity, power training (3-5 sets of 2-3 reps around 75%1RM performed with full explosive intent), with occasional very low volume, high intensity training sessions (work up to a single top set of 1-3 reps around 90%) to maintain maximum strength. 1-2 training sessions per week during the Competitive Block.