Resistance bands are a versatile tool to have in your strength training for rowing toolbox. Resistance bands are fairly inexpensive compared to other strength training equipment, require little storage space, are portable, and are adaptable for use with a wide range of athletes. If you train out of a boathouse or a home gym, resistance bands can simulate dozens of exercises that you might need dumbbells or a cable machine for otherwise. Rowers can learn to how to maintain tension at different ranges and directions of motion, making resistance bands an effective strength training tool to provide a different stimulus than traditional free weight exercises alone. We’ll do resistance band rowing specific exercises, as well as exercises to develop non-rowing movements and muscles. Programmed and instructed thoughtfully, resistance bands can add another layer of challenge, flexibility, and stimulus to your rowing strength training.
Benefits of Resistance Band Rowing Strength Training
Resistance bands offer a few major benefits for rowers.
First, they are portable and easily storable. Unlike dumbbells, kettlebells, or other heavy strength training equipment, you can throw a few resistance bands in a bag whether you’re training at a commercial gym, training while traveling, or at a regatta, and be set for a pretty good workout. They can be stored easily in a boathouse, and attached to a variety of structures for use. Many rowing programs don’t have access to a full strength training facility, and are making do with limited equipment. Resistance bands are a cost-and-space-saving substitute for an entire cable machine, as well as a lot of dumbbell movements.
Second, they are adaptable and can be used by athletes with a wide range of strength. Having to do a bunch of set-up and weight changes takes time when training a team of rowers, in a way that just picking up a band and finding the right resistance point does not. This can improve efficiency of training, and also the ability for each athlete to find the right resistance, rather than using whatever weight was left by the previous lifter.
Third, the increasing resistance of the bands can do a great job teaching lifters to maintain torso tightness while lifting, in a way that another free-weight exercise might not. Resistance bands require more force the more you stretch them, so most movements get more difficult as the athlete completes the concentric phase of the lift. For example, if a rower is struggling with losing torso tightness and sagging at the finish of the stroke, some x-band rows from a kneeling or seated position can be a great help in teaching the skill of squeezing with the back and arm muscles while maintaining a tight, upright torso, as well as developing the rowing-specific muscles through a similar movement to the stroke.
Finally, resistance bands offer a layer of additional challenge to many bodyweight exercises. For example, athletes who can easily do a set of 20 pushups can add a resistance band across their back to increase the challenge for sets of 8-12 reps. You can also use bands to make bodyweight exercises easier. For example, athletes who struggle with bodyweight chin-ups can attach a band to the bar, put their foot or knee through the bar, and the band will give them assistance, instead of resistance, at the bottom, hardest part of the lift.
Check out my video below demonstrating resistance band rowing strength training exercises, then let’s get into how to set up, program, and do some resistance band rowing strength training!
Setting Up Resistance Bands for Strength Training
You can do a lot with resistance band rowing strength training just with bands and the space to use them. Stand on one end of the band, and hold the other in your hand to perform the lift. Adjust the resistance by shortening or lengthening the band as necessary.
The ability to wrap the band around or attach the band to something will open up another level of exercises. If your boathouse racks are sturdy enough, and have enough space around them for safe usage, you can loop one or both ends around the rack to do x-band rows, face pulls, lat pulldowns, one-arm rows, hip pull-throughs, and more. Or, if you have thick wooden beams in your boathouse, consider having a qualified professional drill some eye bolts into the beams. If you are in a weight-room, you can also loop or wrap the band around the upright of a squat rack, as I demonstrate in the video.
Keep safety in mind when you are setting up resistance bands. Don’t take a risk with a boat, a piece of equipment, or the well-being of an athlete.
Resistance Band Programming, Techniques, Sample Circuits
I use resistance bands most in my strength training for rowing plans as assistance work, in superset or circuit-style training. One major downside of bands is that they don’t offer a challenging way to load the lower body, so dumbbells, kettlebells, and/or barbells are still necessary to do heavier lower body lifts like squat and deadlift variations. However, bands can make for great assistance work.
If you follow the block periodization system of strength training for rowing, around which I base most of my programs and writing here, you probably guessed correctly that resistance band work best fits in the Preparation Blocks of training. Resistance bands are great for higher volume, lower intensity, higher variety strength training that characterizes these blocks of training. The General Prep Block is really the only time of the year that I include minor assistance work like biceps and triceps isolation work. The goal is building a foundation of strength, muscle, and muscular balance, and the lower intensity of training leaves room for these exercises in a way that in-season training definitely does not.
It’s hard to train really heavy with resistance bands alone, because the tension at the top of the lift will be so much greater than the tension at the bottom of the lift. It just isn’t what they’re built for. Use bands for your assistance work, for sets of 8-20 reps, and enjoy the variety and different muscular stimulus and feedback that bands provide.
Bands are great for developing the “squeeze” feeling in muscles, and can be helpful for learning to activate certain muscles. For example, the x-band row is one of my top lifts for rowers for the way it teaches the position of scapular retraction and depression in a similar position to the finish of the stroke. Band-resisted y-raises or face pulls can light up the mid back and low trapezius muscles in a way that bodyweight alone just might not provide. Cue athletes to really find that squeeze position as they are using bands, and see if it makes a difference when going back to rowing and free-weight strength training.
During the Preparation Blocks, you could do resistance bands for all of your assistance work and be in good shape. For example:
Lower body, deadlift-focused session:
- Full-Body Warmup
- A. Romanian Deadlift: 4 x 8 @ 70%, 90s rest
- B. RFESS: 4 x 10 @ 70%, 60s rest
- C1. Band Good Morning: 3 x 15
- C2. X-Band Row: 3 x 15
- C3. Band Pull-through: 3 x 15, 60s rest
- D. Pallof Press: 3 x 12 each side, 60s rest
Upper body session:
- Full-Body Warmup
- A. 1/2-Kneeling OHP: 4 x 8 @ 70%, 60s rest
- B1. Pushup: 3 sets max (around 15 reps) with light band resistance
- B2. 1-Arm Row: 3 x 12 (each arm)
- B3. Band Pullapart: 3 x 12, 60s rest
- C1. Biceps Curl: 3 x 15
- C2. Triceps Extension: 3 x 15, 60s rest
You could also construct a circuit-style workout entirely using resistance bands and bodyweight exercises. Check out my “Strength Training Circuits for Rowing” article for more information on the when, why, and how of circuit training.
I do still do some limited resistance band training in later blocks of training. Resistance bands can be a great way to get in the hypertrophy maintenance work in the Pre-Competitive and Competitive Blocks. I also highly recommend bringing some on the road when traveling to regattas. I always encourage athletes to do a dynamic warmup from their hotel room to revive travel-weary muscles and joints for racing, and resistance bands offer a nice way to add a bit of challenge here without causing fatigue or soreness. If you use resistance bands in your routine practice warmup, bringing them on the road with you only makes sense so you can do the same warmup before racing. They are also great for stretching, so long as you can find a friendly tree, trailer rack, or other stable attachment site! Hotel shower curtain rods not recommended.
Where to Buy Resistance Bands
I’ve found that EliteFTS and Rogue Fitness are the two most reliable and durable brands of resistance bands. The bands that I have and use in my videos are EliteFTS brand, and we’ve used Rogue bands a lot at the university weight-room as well. I had an EliteFTS band fray once from routine use, sent their customer service a picture of it, and they sent me a replacement promptly. I have had my bands since 2013, and the rest have held up under pretty rigorous use. Cheaper bands tend to not provide enough resistance to be difficult, or they fray or snap under use. Before you scrimp here, think about how much you want a piece of rubber in your eye mid-way through a set of face pulls!
I have several different tensions of resistance bands that I use with rowers for different exercises.
- The “Pro Short Minis” are useful for putting around the knees for glute activation work.
- The “Pro Micro” is the lightest tension long band. It is useful for weaker athletes, as well as for exercises like Y-Raises that are very difficult to do with heavier resistance. If you work with HS-age athletes, particularly female athletes, I’d recommend a couple of these bands.
- The “Pro Minis” are the next step up and are the band I use the most for pullaparts, face pulls, pushups, Pallof press, x-band rows, and biceps and triceps exercises.
- The “Pro Monster” is another level heavier. We use these for one-arm rows, lat pulldowns, pushups, x-band walks, pull-throughs, stronger athletes’ x-band rows, shrugs, and good mornings.
- The “Pro Light” is really the heaviest band we use for strength training, for Romanian deadlifts and good mornings, pull-throughs, and x-band walks for stronger athletes.
- I do use the “Pro Average” for two hip stretches (hip flexor and figure-4), but the Pro Light works for these as well. Given that I don’t use the Pro Average for anything else, I’m not sure it’s worth the money on its own.