A simple eye-test should tell you that the deadlift is a great lift for rowing performance. With a big push with the legs, a tight torso to transfer the force, and an external load held in the hands, deadlifting for rowing should feel similar to the early drive of a rowing stroke. Including deadlift variations in rowing training provides a great opportunity to teach and reinforce similar skills as in the rowing stroke. Deadlifting for rowing also builds up the muscles of the lower body and posterior chain, important for performance and back health. Remember that the goal of deadlifting for rowing is to become a better rower. If all you care about is lifting the most weight or the most reps, go compete in strength sports. What we care about here is finding the best deadlift for the goal of rowing stronger, faster, healthier, and longer.
Table of Contents
- Deadlifting for Rowing: The Why
- What’s the Best Deadlift for Rowing?
- Deadlifting for Rowing: Teaching Technique
- Deadlifting for Rowing: FAQs
- Deadlift Programming: In-Season, Off-Season
Deadlifting for Rowing: The Why
The deadlift is a lift that has the potential to have excellent utility and carryover to rowing. I emphasize “potential” because many rowers perform the lift with the goal in mind of deadlifting the absolute most weight or reps that they can, rather than deadlifting for the goal of becoming a better rower. Training for rowing always comes back to this question—am I using this activity correctly to become a better rower? In many cases, lifting the absolute most that you can is NOT actually making better rowers.
A correctly performed deadlift teaches the rower to apply force through the legs while maintaining a braced torso to transfer power through the shoulders and arms to lift the barbell. The deadlift also requires great torso strength from the abdominals and back, making it an excellent exercise for the entire trunk stabilizing muscles. Finally, the deadlift forces the rower to go through a full hip extension cycle, something that doesn’t happen in the normal rowing stroke. Using the hip muscles through a full range of motion is critical for reducing risk of injury. Rowers who are proficient in deadlifting know how to put power down with the legs while keeping a tight braced torso and putting all of their strength to work.
The biggest mistake I see with rowers’ deadlifts is turning the lift into a pull with the back rather than a push from the legs and hips. The deadlift should look similar to a half-slide rowing stroke. Three main errors are: turning the deadlift into a squat (too much knee flexion), doing a stiff-leg pull (too much knee extension), or failing to maintain a braced torso and neutral spine (too much spinal flexion). Correcting these errors and providing training time in the stable environment of land training can help the rower learn to move better in the more dynamic, more challenging environment of erging and on-water rowing.
What’s the Best Deadlift for Rowing?
Conventional barbell deadlifts are the most popular deadlift you’re likely to see in a gym or weight-room, but my favorite deadlift for rowers is the hex bar deadlift. Sometimes also called a “trap bar,” these hexagonal-shaped implements (hence the name, although sometimes they’re also four-sided diamond shapes) allow for a simpler overall movement with a more upright torso position, less stress on the spine, easier on the grip, and an easy way to accommodate tall rowers with the option to use high or low handles.
I also find that the hex bar is more “fool-proof” than the barbell deadlift, similar to the advantage of the front squat over the back squat. Aligning the load with the lifter’s center of mass, instead of in front of the lifter like a barbell does, typically eliminates severe spinal flexion at the bottom position, doesn’t pull the lifter forward during the lifting phase, and reduces spine hyperextension at completion of the lift. These are errors we commonly see in the conventional barbell deadlift. The deadlift isn’t a competition event for rowers, so I’m happy to take the simpler exercise with great strength training benefits without the need for as much technical practice and coaching feedback.
The only real downside to the hex bar is that they aren’t universally available the way barbells are. Hex bars are pretty common in athletic weight-rooms, and even commercial gyms if you know what to look for, but often aren’t high up on the acquisition list for home-gym lifters as a single-purpose piece of equipment. This is my top recommendation for non-essential equipment, though, as soon as people have the basic barbell, weight plates, and squat stands or power rack. Hex bars aren’t particularly expensive, as far as strength training equipment goes. CAP Barbell sells a basic model for around $150 with high and low handles that can go up to 495lbs, which is more than enough for most rowers. USA-made Rogue and EliteFTS offer models with more loading capacity, as does Titan Barbell.
Read More: Building a Home Gym for Rowing Training
Should you use high handles or low handles? Hex bars usually have two sets of handles, one in line with the sleeves and the other raised up about four inches. I usually put rowers taller than about 5’10” on the high handles, so they can get in a good bottom position still with a decently long pull. I’m open to using high handles with any rower who can still get adequate range-of-motion (ROM). Athletes shorter than 5’7” will usually be starting the pull from above their knees on the high handles. This lets them move a lot of weight, but it isn’t really useful for training for the long-ROM movement of rowing. Those who can use either height with good technique have two variations to use in training right away. Finding the right fit is also about arm, leg, and torso length, as well as overall height. A taller lifter with a shorter torso and longer arms may be able to use the low handles just fine, while a shorter lifter with a longer torso and shorter arms may need to use the high handles. Experiment and find the variation that works for you or the rowers you coach.
There are some good studies on the use of hex bars in strength and conditioning training. Although these studies aren’t on rowers specifically, they still offer some clear reasons for why I like them so much with rowers. I will update this section with any insightful new research on rowers, female athletes, and older adults.
In one study from 2011, 19 male powerlifters from the Scottish Powerlifting Association did 1RM testing on both barbell conventional deadlift (a competition lift in powerlifting) and hex bar deadlift (from low handles). They then did two reps with 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, and 80% of 1RM on each lift, while the researchers measured force plate and joint angle data. All lifters lifted more in the hex bar deadlift 1RM than in the conventional deadlift, 584lb average versus 537lb average (remember these are trained powerlifters). The researchers found lower peak moments (length of resistance arm) in hex bar deadlift at the lumbar spine, hip, and ankle, and higher peak moment in the hex bar deadlift at the knee. In the submaximal tests, lifters using the hex bar produced higher peak force, peak velocity, and peak power than with the conventional deadlift.
In a second study from 2016, 20 experienced male lifters, average age 23 and all of whom could deadlift more than 1.5 times their bodyweight, did 1RM testing on conventional deadlift and hex bar deadlift, and then reps with 65% and 85% of 1RM. Researchers collected electromyography (EMG) readings on the quadriceps, hamstrings, and spinal erector muscles, and force data. The lifters performed similarly in the 1RM test with both hex bar and conventional deadlift, achieving an average 1RM of 400lbs. The researchers found greater quadriceps activation in the hex bar deadlift in both the concentric (lifting) phase and the eccentric (lowering) phase. They found greater hamstrings activation in the conventional deadlift, but only during the concentric phase, and greater spinal erectors activation, but only during the eccentric phase. They found greater force, peak velocity, and peak power in the hex bar deadlift compared to straight bar deadlift in both the 65% and 85% of 1RM lifts.
These benefits point strongly to advantages for rowers. First, trained lifters can lift at least as much weight and produce more power with less low back force using the hex bar compared to the straight bar. This is great for building lower body strength with less load on the low back, in a sport with already high low back pain. The finding of greater power is also great for the fast stroke speed of rowing. Second, increased knee moment and quadriceps activation increases leg strength demands in the hex bar deadlift compared to the straight bar deadlift. Rowing relies on strong quadriceps, so this is great for rowing performance as well. The researchers suggest that a primary reason for these differences is the center of gravity of the hex bar, putting the lifter in a position of greater mechanical advantage and more balanced lower body muscular force compared to the conventional deadlift.
We need more research on rowers specifically, as well as female athletes and older adults. One limitation of the hex bar is that the handles are a fixed width. Male lifters of average frame can usually reach straight down to hold the handles, while female lifters and those with smaller frames will have to reach down and slightly out to hold the handles. This changes the mechanics of the lift, and may affect the muscular stimulus and strength development. We won’t know until someone studies it and publishes their findings. In my own experience, this is a small limitation against the limitations of the barbell deadlift, and I still believe that the hex bar is the best tool for the job for most rowers.
While the hex bar is mostly designed for lifting from the floor as in a deadlift, I have found three additional hex bar exercises that I will occasionally use in strength training for rowing. One is the Romanian deadlift variation (RDL), which we can do the same as with a straight barbell. Another is a bent-over row, which isn’t a deadlift but is a nice way to get some more use out of this bar and train the back muscles from a neutral grip position. Finally, I’m not a big fan of Olympic lifts for rowers due to the high technical investment and lack of triple extension in rowing, but the hex bar jump can be a good way to train more explosive force production in a simpler technical environment. These aren’t common exercises in my programs, but I will use them depending on the available equipment and desires and needs of the athlete. You can see all these variations in the video below.
Other Deadlifts for Rowers
The hex bar deadlift is the best deadlift for rowing, but the conventional barbell deadlift is still a fine option if you don’t have a hex bar. The main disadvantage of the conventional deadlift is that the starting height is the same for all athletes, about 9” off the floor. This is only due to the diameter of a 45lb plate being standardized in the early days of Olympic weightlifting to prevent a lifter’s skull from being crushed due to a failed lift. There is no inherent need for all rowers to begin the lift from this starting position. Many force themselves to anyway, contorting into awkward positions at the bottom of the lift that don’t carryover to good rowing technique and expose the spine to increased risk of injury.
If you struggle with the conventional barbell deadlift, consider the elevated barbell deadlift and the Romanian deadlift. With tall rowers and rowers who struggle to get into a good position in the conventional barbell deadlift, I’ll often just use one of these variations for all the same posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes, back) strengthening benefits. Both of these variations allow us to customize the starting position for the athlete: How low can you go while focusing on good spinal support and hip positioning? Keep control and technique the focus and increase ROM from there if necessary, rather than forcing rowers to fit a certain ROM. After all, a 6’5” rower pulling from 13 inches off blocks is proportionately pretty close to a 5’10” rower pulling from 9 inches off the floor.
The dumbbell/kettlebell Romanian deadlift is also a good hinge exercise, as long as the lifter has access to heavy enough dumbbells or kettlebells. I will often begin the teaching progression with a single dumbbell/kettlebell Romanian deadlift, progress to a double dumbbell/kettlebell Romanian deadlift, and then use a barbell or hex bar depending on the available equipment and needs of the rower. The dumbbell/kettlebell Romanian deadlift is also a good assistance exercise for the posterior chain muscles, using lighter loading and higher reps.
Rowers often ask me about the deficit deadlift. In the deficit deadlift, the lifter stands on a weight plate or box to raise their height relative to the bar and increase the ROM. Although the longer ROM would be better for rowing in theory, I don’t find this a useful lift for rowers in practice. What tends to happen is the rower gets into a poor start position and turns the whole lift into a rounded back lift with a lot of spinal flexion and overall poor movement. If we want to train deep ROM lower body lifts, I’d rather use a squat. Consider also my prior point about taller athletes already being at a “natural deficit” due to the fixed starting height of the conventional barbell deadlift. We generally don’t need to make this deficit even greater.
I also don’t find the barbell sumo deadlift useful for rowers. It’s a very technical lift, and the super-wide stance doesn’t apply in the narrow foot position required in rowing and erging. I do like the sumo-stance kettlebell deadlift as an entry-level lower body exercise. Most people don’t have access to kettlebells over 100lbs though, so this exercise is really only challenging for weaker lifters and those new to strength training. The challenge will become limited by lack of loading, and then it’s time to progress to a different hinge exercise.
What about the kettlebell swing? The kettlebell swing is a great hinge exercise for rowers, but it is less of a deadlift than the other hinge lifts, so I am leaving it out of this article. You can read all about kettlebell exercises in “Kettlebells for Rowing Strength Training,” as well as fellow rowing strength coach Joe DeLeo’s guest chapter in my book, “Rowing Stronger: Strength Training to Maximize Rowing Performance.”
Deadlifting for Rowing: Teaching Technique
The hip hinge is a prerequisite for deadlifting, and should be considered a prerequisite for rowing as well. The hip hinge is the fundamental movement pattern of pushing the hips back while maintaining a neutral spine, with a slight bend of the knees, and keeping weight balanced between forefoot and heel. This is the point of optimal strength of the main muscles of the quads, hamstrings, glutes, and back.
The hip hinge is a universal athletic position, the foundation of nearly all exercises used to develop posterior chain strength, and key to improving rowing performance and reducing risk of injury. Yes, one movement pattern can be all of these things, which makes it even more unfortunate that it is often neglected in physical education and development of rowers!
In the rowing stroke, the hip hinge is key to achieving reach and power through the hips, rather than through the spine. This improves rowing performance and reduces risk of low back pain and rib stress injury from rowing. The hip hinge is one of my “essential rowing movements” for rowers on ergs, on-water sculling and rowing, and in land training.
In strength and conditioning training, nearly all exercises we want to use in strength training for rowing depend on mastery of the hip hinge movement pattern. The hip hinge is the foundation of the squat, deadlift, kettlebell swing, Olympic lifts, and even exercises like the push press. These exercises develop the posterior chain muscles, further improving rowing performance and reducing risk of injury.
Note: I produced the video below originally for the May, 2021 issue of Science of Rowing.
Some athletes will pick up the hip hinge intuitively. Others, particularly those with a limited athletic background or pre-existing weakness or mobility restrictions, will need more work. I have found a variety of cues to be effective, depending on the needs and background of the athlete. I always try to rule out instruction before jumping to weaknesses or restrictions. The hip hinge in particular is such a subtle and intuitive movement that athletes often just need more time to struggle with it at a motor pattern level.
#1. The Drinking Bird
I’ll get the dumbest cue out of the way first. The drinking bird toy is a great visualization of a hip hinge. It’s not a perfect example, but this can help athletes get the idea of what we’re looking for, particularly those struggling with excessive knee movement or rounding the lumbar spine. The bird helps emphasize key points of maintaining a neutral spine and pivoting from the hip, not squatting from the knees or bending from the spine.
Standing a few inches away from a wall or upright of a power rack, instruct the athlete to slightly bend their knees and push their butt back until it touches the wall. At first, many athletes will attempt to squat down or round their lumbar spine. The tactile aid of the wall makes errors like this clear. Cue athletes to maintain no more than a slight bend in the knees and keep a neutral spine, THEN reach the butt back.
#3. PVC Pipe
Hold a PVC pipe with three points of contact: head, between the shoulder blades, and top of the butt. Then, perform the same motion–knees slightly bent, push the hips back, while maintaining all three points of contact. This makes faults with the hip hinge very clear when the athlete loses a point of contact with the PVC pipe, and provides tactile feedback for the athlete.
Once athletes have the unloaded pattern of the hinge down, use a simple exercise like the Romanian deadlift to challenge them with some load. I use the dumbbell or kettlebell RDL at first, to encourage athletes to position the load between their feet instead of out in front of them. When we move to the barbell, novice hip hingers especially need to be cued to keep the barbell in contact with their legs at all times. Novice hingers will often push the implement away from them, reaching forward with the back rather than hinging from the hips, and we want to break this habit early.
Read More: Mastering the Hip Hinge for Rowing
Barbell Deadlift Technique
Now that we’ve got the hip hinge down, we’re ready to deadlift. Using the same part-whole system of breaking the lift down into separate parts from the Complete Guide to Squatting, here is the barbell deadlift. I will often use more than an empty barbell to begin instruction of the deadlift, because we need to raise the bar off the ground and up to close to the standard starting height with 45lb plates. We can use light bumper plates if they are available, or blocks or boxes if not. Many trainees can work up to using 45lb plates (135lb total weight) fairly quickly, but others may take more time to work up to this weight. Continue to use bumper plates or boxes with these athletes to keep the bar as close to the standard starting height as possible, rather than making the lift even harder due to the lower starting position like a deficit deadlift.
Due to the set starting height of the deadlift, I find that many rowers, particularly those over 6’6”, have trouble getting into a correct start position. Rather than work endlessly on mobility exercises, I’ll often have these athletes pull from 4-6” blocks instead on the elevated deadlift. Remember, we’re training rowers, not powerlifters, and the goal of the deadlift is to improve posterior chain strength and lumbopelvic coordination to carry over to rowing performance.
First, familiarize yourself with the basic deadlift cues, then watch the instructional video below.
#1: Start position
We begin with every athlete standing straight up, before touching the bar. We first check their stance width, to ensure that athletes are in their “jump stance.” Then, hip hinge backwards, arms straight down in front of the thighs, grab the bar, and squat down to it. This is typically very close to the starting position. If athletes round at the lumbar spine, or squat down with excessive forward knee movement, it could be a hip hinge motor pattern problem or a mobility restriction. Rule out instruction first. Revisit the hip hinge cues and work with the athlete to achieve a good starting position. If they still cannot, try raising the height of the barbell by a few inches, and try again. If you can’t figure it out, it may be a mobility restriction and should be referred to a qualified physical therapist.
#2: To the knees—“Halfway up, UP”
Pausing at the knee ensures that athletes are breaking the ground correctly. We are looking for even rising with the hips and torso, and maintaining a braced spine. Many rowers used to rowing with a rounded upper-back will deadlift with the same style, but I prefer that rowers maintain a more neutral spine when deadlifting. Rounded thoracic spines can easily become rounded lumbar spines as weights increase, especially for athletes who still new to the deadlift. Athletes should also have their weight balanced more toward the hindfoot when deadlifting, not on the balls of the feet. I have athletes hold this position at the knees for 2-3 seconds to find that torso tightness and sweet spot of balance on the feet.
#3: Finish—“Lock it out”
Check that athletes are simply standing straight up, not hyper-extending to finish the lift. From the knees, I will cue athletes to think “hips to bar” to finish the lift, instead of swinging the shoulders backward. This is one way in which the deadlift is different from the stroke. The finish position of a deadlift is standing straight up, with knees locked out, not leaning backwards or rolling the shoulders back or shrugging the shoulders up.
I instruct the athletes to control the weight down. This is not to be confused with a slow eccentric, where the purpose is fatigue, but simply control to help them stay in a proper starting position for the next rep without having to fully reset for each rep. Dropping the weight from the top of the lift is loud, obnoxious, and potentially damaging to the equipment, and it also makes the athlete re-set up before each repetition. Maintaining control of the lift, rather than flopping to the floor, helps the athlete maintain torso tightness and proper technique.
Hex Bar Deadlift Technique
Hex bar deadlift instruction is very similar to conventional deadlift instruction. The biggest difference is that rowers simply tend to “get” hex bar deadlift better than conventional deadlift, and struggle less to find the right starting position.
The starting position of a hex bar deadlift requires a slightly more upright torso with slightly more forward knee movement than the barbell deadlift. It should feel like a compromise of a deadlift and a squat at this point.
From here, the athlete focuses on keeping a tight torso while driving with the legs to get the bar off the ground. This is very similar to a conventional deadlift, and should feel like the starting first strokes of a race.
Athletes should avoid hyperextension at lockout for a hex bar deadlift. In a conventional deadlift, the bar acts as a sort of brake for the lockout of the deadlift. However, due to the side handle position of a hex bar deadlift, athletes who hyperextend at lockout can end up pushing the bar behind them, hyperextending further and putting excessive pressure on the lumbar spine. It is even more important that athletes squeeze the glutes and focus on standing up straight, not leaning backwards, to finish a hex bar deadlift. Start by looking at hand position relative to the hip joint to assess hex bar lockouts.
Deadlifting for Rowing: FAQs
How should I set my stance?
Your stance width should be roughly your “jump stance.” This is also very close to your foot width when rowing or erging. Your feet may be slightly turned out, but should not be further than 45 degrees. If an athlete is unable to deadlift without turning their toes out severely, look to mobility restrictions in ankles, hip flexors, or glutes.
Should I use straps, double-overhand, hook grip, or mixed grip when deadlifting?
Rowers should use double-overhand as long as they are able to, and then straps. It is very rare to have such strong and specific grip strength to be able to double-overhand maximum deadlift weights, and nearly all athletes can lift more with the use of straps. Your back and legs should be stronger than your hands, so it is natural that your grip gives out before you reach a maximal weight. Some rowers may be comfortable using a mixed grip, and others are not. I am concerned at the potential for imbalance of the back and arm muscles, in a sport that already has a lot of potential muscular imbalances, as well as the increased risk of bicep tear from the mixed grip. The hook grip is a hyper-specialized grip from the sport of Olympic weightlifting. It is very painful on the thumbs and is not worth using with rowers.
Straps are the best of both worlds, for a cheap ($10-20) investment. You can continue lifting with the double-overhand grip position, but without grip strength limiting your weight or reps. This spares your grip for all of the grip work you get from rowing anyway, and protecting your hands from the bite of the barbell.
Clockwise from left: Double-Overhand, Mixed Grip, Strap Grip, proper strap alignment. Straps have a left and right. Align your straps so the loop is on the little finger side of your hand, not your thumb side, for the most secure grip on the bar.
Should I wear a belt?
It is a popular myth that lifting belts are designed for safety, and that there is a certain level or weight one needs to reach in order to earn wearing a belt. Belts exist for the sole purpose of helping the lifter lift more weight. Belts act similarly to a sprinter sprinting out of start blocks. By providing something for the trunk muscles to push against, torso bracing is more effective and more weight can be lifted. Using a belt in the absence of good torso bracing is not safer, and will result in improved performance. Learn more about belt use from Greg Nuckols here.
Should I reset every rep or do touch-and-go?
Coming back to the question “is this building better rowers,” I coach a dead-stop for every rep, rather than using touch-and-go (TNG). TNG deadlifts tend to turn into an awful bouncy affair by the end of a hard set, with athletes slamming the bar down to maximize the rebound out of the bottom. This can put you in a terrible position and cause injuries, so I avoid even introducing the idea of TNG with rowers. Dead-stop deadlifts help you achieve good starting position to deadlift for every rep, minimizing risk of injury, and also build the most strength at of the bottom position of the deadlift, which is where we want to build power for the rowing stroke.
Should I do 25+ reps for endurance or 1-rep maxes for strength?
Neither! The deadlift should always be done with attention to good technique. It is very difficult to maintain focus on technique when doing very high reps. A breakdown in technique under high fatigue from high reps can result in injury, so I tend to use simpler exercises for up to 15 reps at most, rather than compound lifts for sets of high reps. I find the sweet spot for deadlifts to be between 2-8 reps. If we go above 8 reps, we’re typically using a Romanian deadlift (RDL) to focus on developing the posterior chain muscles without the risk of fatigue in the bottom position of a conventional deadlift. The 2-8 rep range does a good job building strength and power without being overly taxing to recovery or exposing the rower to unnecessary injury risk. We will also often perform lighter, more explosive, peak power work using the deadlift to build power and connection for starts and pressure pieces.
Is the hex bar deadlift really a deadlift, or is it more of a squat?
The hex bar deadlift is a “dead-lift” in the sense that you’re picking the object up off the floor with no momentum, but really, who cares? Categorize it however you’d like. It’s my #1 lower body movement for rowers to strengthen the legs, hips, and back muscles. My favorite way to program is one full-body day beginning with the front squat and including the Romanian deadlift, and a second full-body day beginning with the hex bar deadlift and including single-leg squatting. This gets us the best of all elements of lower body strength training for rowing. I’ve also coached rowers who have a hex bar, but don’t have a squat rack. We use the hex bar as our heavy lower body movement of the week, then do lower body work with dumbbell squats, single-leg squats, and other assistance lifts.
Programming the Deadlift for Rowing
Programming the deadlift is about sets, reps, and loads, but it’s also about how exactly we perform the deadlift. There are a few different options and variations of the movement itself that we can use in different training phases, for different goals, with different trainees. I have a demonstration video of all of these variations following the written descriptions below.
The first variation is tempo. I generally recommend a 2-to-1 lowering-to-lifting ratio, or approximately two seconds on the lowering phase and one second on the lifting phase. We can vary this further with how long we pause between reps in the deadlift. We typically write tempos in strength training programs as lowering-bottom position-lifting-top position. For example, a 2-0-1-0 tempo indicates a two-second lowering phase, no pause at the bottom position, a one-second lifting phase, and no pause at the top position. I rarely find it necessary with rowers to go to this level of detail in normal training, but it’s a good concept to be aware of for the following three variations in deadlift training.
One variation is “the full reset,” in which the lifter basically rests for 2-3 seconds between each rep, placing the bar down, breathing and resetting the hips, and then lifting again. We might write this as 2-3-1-0 in our tempo notation: two seconds lowering, three seconds resetting, one second lifting, no pause at lockout. This is helpful for lifters still working to achieve a consistent starting position on each rep, rather than being at the mercy of momentum with truly continuous reps. However, the consequence of this style is that sets take longer and can become more fatiguing due to the prolonged duration. Rowers can also develop the bad habit of prolonging the between-reps pause further to get more reps or use more weight, which just makes the sets take longer and become even more fatiguing. I find the full reset variation only useful for sets of 2-4 reps where the goal is heavier loading and high force output.
Another variation is “the hard stop,” in which the lifter touches the ground firmly for about a second, but maintains tension the whole time and does not rest or reset the hips. We might write this as 2-1-1-0 in our tempo notation: two seconds lowering, one second pausing at the bottom, one second lifting, no pause at lockout. These continuous reps are my preferred method of training for rowers. We can use this with all rep ranges to keep deadlift work smooth, under control, and improve ability to generate tension in the early part of the deadlift. I find that this has better carryover to rowing and the controlled catch position and high early drive force.
A final variation is “touch-and-go,” in which the lifter only touches the ground between reps. We could write this as a true 2-0-1-0 tempo with no pause at the bottom position at all. Touch-and-go training can be helpful for higher rep training (8-12) with more of a muscular emphasis, though lifters need to avoid turning it into “BOUNCE-and-go.” This is the option I use least with rowers due to the tendency to get carried away with rep output and start bouncing to grind out additional reps. There is also more risk with touch-and-go deadlifts of being in a poor position right off of the ground, but using the momentum of the bounce and the stretch reflex at the bottom of the lift to correct for poor positioning. If the rower doesn’t correct perfect, they’ll be out of position later in the lift and could get injured from making a late-stage correction. The only time I use touch-and-go deadlifts is in the off-season, away from rigorous rowing training, with an experienced rower who needs to focus on building strength and muscle in the posterior chain–hamstrings, glutes, and back. With rowers in general, I find it better to train with more control and more emphasis on tightness at the bottom position of the lift for most rowers, using the “hard stop” style.
Now onto sets, reps, and loads for different goals and phases of training. In general, we can program the hex bar deadlift using the same sets, reps, and percentages or RPEs that we use with the conventional barbell deadlift or elevated barbell deadlift. I do find that rowers can tolerate slightly higher training volumes on the hex bar deadlift, likely due to the more balanced load profile (anterior and posterior) and reduced low back strain, but that doesn’t mean you have to train with higher volumes.
See my “Basics of Strength Training for Rowing” article for the basic periodization outline of a year of strength training for rowing. In general, the off-season training phases are the time for building general strength and muscle mass, then we shift to more maximal strength and power as the in-season training phase approaches, before moving strength training to maintenance volumes during racing training.
The General and Specific Preparation Blocks of the off-season is the time for higher volume, moderate frequency, lower intensity, and lower specificity strength training. I will often use an upper body, lower body, full-body training split for three sessions per week during at least the General Prep Block, with the deadlift on the full-body day. I’m very careful about programming volume for deadlifting, due to the tendency for technique to breakdown under fatigue and the injury risk from doing so in a sport with already high amounts of low back pain and injuries.
I usually program the deadlift in one of two ways during the off-season. With rowers who tolerate deadlifting well, especially those using a hex bar and doing less rowing training, we can increase volume and train the deadlift harder to build the posterior chain muscles: 3-5 sets of 5-10 reps per set, 2-4 minutes of rest per set. For rowers who don’t like the deadlift, don’t feel comfortable deadlifting, don’t have a hex bar, and/or are still rowing and erging a lot in the off-season, I typically move the deadlift to more of a maintenance role with just 2-3 sets of 2-6 reps per set. We keep this quick, then move onto the focus objective of off-season training, building muscle hypertrophy and balance. Romanian deadlifts are a staple here, because they focus the effort on the posterior chain muscles and minimize stress from the bottom position of a conventional deadlift and having to break the floor with every rep. For example, 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps with 1-2 minutes rest. Dumbbell, kettlebell, and barbell RDLs are all great here. Unilateral deadlifts and RDLs can also be a good challenge to build left/right muscular balance, as well as actual proprioceptive balance. This is also a great time for hip thrusts and higher rep kettlebell swings, going into the 15-20 rep range. Fixing imbalances is a major goal of off-season training, and hinge exercises provide a great opportunity to build strong posterior chain muscles to balance the anterior chain muscles (quadriceps and hip flexors) that are worked so heavily in rowing.
In the Pre-Competitive Block, we start to prepare for racing and want to tune up the base of strength built in the Preparation Blocks into boat-moving power for great starts and sprints. Improving force is a goal of the off-season; improving rate of force development is a goal of the pre-season. We decrease the frequency back to twice per week if we increased it in the off-season, then gradually decrease the volume, 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 1-4 reps around 80%1RM for the power work. Hex bar and other deadlifts are excellent exercises for building stroke power. We will typically have one squat-focused training day and one deadlift-focused training day during the Pre-Competitive Block, with upper body and single-leg assistance work on both days.
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 strength training or deadlifting entirely! 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 to make sure that all of your hard work pays off on race day.
We will still deadlift during the racing season, using low volume, moderate intensity, power training (3-5 sets of 2-3 reps around 80%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 90-95%1RM) to maintain maximum strength. We do one or two training sessions per week during the Competitive Block. I will often rely on the hex bar entirely in the Competitive Block as our heavy lower body movement, using squats for the power movement or assistance work only. The more upright torso position and lower spine forces of the hex bar deadlift is a huge advantage during in-season training when rowing intensity is highest and low backs can be especially sore or fatigued. With rowers who do not have a hex bar, I will often use the Romanian deadlift only during in-season training. Remember, the deadlift isn’t a competition lift for rowers! The goal of the deadlift is to build strong legs, glutes, and backs to help rowers move boats quickly on race day.
Last updated June, 2021.