Upper body training for rowing often gets minimized because of the notion that the lower body produces the majority of force in the rowing stroke. The lower body is the engine of the stroke, but all of that power has to go through the upper body, shoulders, arms, and hands, in order to get to the handle! Rowers also need to train the upper body to reduce risk of injury. Low back pain and rib stress injuries are two of the most common rowing injuries costing the most amount of missed training time, and poor upper body strength is a risk factor for both. In this Complete Guide article, we’ll cover upper body training for rowing performance and reduced risk of injury, including relevant rowing research, specific strength training methods for in-season and off-season training, and what exercises I do and don’t use.
Table of Contents
- Upper Body Training for Rowing: The Why
- Beginner Level Exercises
- Intermediate Level Exercises
- Advanced Level Exercises
- Off-Season/In-Season Programming
- Wrapping Up
Upper Body Training for Rowing: The Why
Rowing is a full-body sport with diverse physical needs. Rowers must be fit aerobically and anaerobically, technically proficient from multiple positions and categories of boats, and strong and mobile in the lower body and upper body. The best rowers are strong in all of these areas: fitness, strength, mobility, technique, and mindset.
We have three major goals for upper body training for rowing to improve performance and reduce risk of injury:
- Improve muscle strength and movement coordination to produce stroke motion.
- Increase muscle mass to improve the athlete’s leverage on the oar.
- Build muscles and movement patterns that rowing training alone neglects.
Some skeptics of upper body training for rowing say that rowing and erging already trains the upper body adequately for the sport demands, so there is no need to apply further effort with strength training. There are several problems with this approach. Most rowers who do only rowing training and no strength training will already have some muscular imbalances from rowing training. These imbalances can prevent effective use of weaker muscles. For example, a rower with disproportionately strong upper trapezius muscles will tend to shrug the shoulders to produce stroke power, which reduces the contributions of the lats and other mid-back and shoulder muscles. In this case, more rowing is only worsening the imbalance, not correcting it.
A skeptic may say that this should be addressed through technical stroke work, continually cueing the athlete to keep the shoulders down and pressure in the lats, but here lies our second major problem. There is a lot for rowers to think about during rowing practice already. It is a physically stressful environment, which increases the challenge of focusing on internal cues like muscular activation. There is interference at play, including unpredictable boat movement from the environment and other teammates, as well as competitive goals during practices and races. “Use your lats! But also, don’t let them walk on you!” Under stress, rowers tend to do whatever they need to do to produce force. This may work to move a boat in the short-term, but won’t work for developing strength, correcting imbalances, and making long-term performance improvements. Even when doing non-competitive technical work, one element of technique may degrade while an athlete focuses on another element. “This drill is for good connection at the catch. But also, activate your lower traps during the mid-drive.” It’s too much for athletes to think about, and too much expect from one training modality alone.
Strength training PLUS rowing training improves general athletic qualities to produce a functional athlete who can then become an excellent rower through dedicated rowing training. We use strength training to improve general strength, rate of force development, correct specific weaknesses, and improve muscle size and balance, and then we apply all of that in rowing training to improve ability to row. Strength training to improve strength, rowing training to improve rowing.
There are instances of reciprocity and mutual benefit. For example, upper body exercises like the push press and some horizontal pulling exercises that train the skill of force production at the lower body transferred through the torso to an implement held in the hands can help rowers learn to improve force transfer and coordination when rowing. As a general rule, upper body training for rowing more often focuses on general athletic qualities and filling gaps in development from only rowing and erging.
Upper Body Training for Rowing: Beginner Level
I begin upper body training for rowing with the main movements of the horizontal push and horizontal pull. The bodyweight pushup and the bodyweight row are the two simplest starting points. As a bonus, these lifts require little or no additional equipment, and can be done in a weightroom, at a boathouse, and even at home.
Athletes need to be able to get 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps with good technique in order to do enough strength training volume to gain strength, muscle, and improve coordination. Many long-limbed, endurance-trained rowers, especially those who are new to upper body strength training, cannot begin pushups and bodyweight rows with their hands in the lowest position and torso parallel to the floor. They might be able to get a few good reps, and may struggle through several bad reps too, but this doesn’t offer enough room for progression. Adjust the height of the hands in each of these exercises to achieve this target, and then progress in challenge from there. Elevate the hands on a box, bench, or barbell for pushups. Raise the height of the handle in a barbell, TRX or gymnastics rings, or towel-handle bodyweight row.
I am constantly coaching rowers of all ages, types, and levels in tempo control when strength training. Rowing has no loaded force absorption phase, so rowers are commonly weak under eccentric stress. This manifests most clearly as struggling to control the lowering phase of each repetition. I coach a 2-0-1-0 tempo, or a 2-to-1 ratio of lowering to lifting, as the default setting of all exercises, especially upper body exercises. We can add more challenge from here, but just coaching a 2:1 ratio is often challenging for novice and experienced rowers alike.
We can keep the pushup and the bodyweight row challenging by decreasing hand height, which increases the amount of the athlete’s bodyweight they are lifting with each repetition. We can also use additional variations with tempo modifications, different equipment, creative set-and-rep combinations, and even adding load with a resistance band or weighted vest. I use variations of both of these exercises with rowers of all levels, from novice juniors and masters to competitive and elite collegiate, high-performance, and masters rowers.
Once rowers have mastered good upper body movement and done some basic training in the horizontal plane with the pushup and bodyweight row, move to the vertical plane for the second tier of challenge. These exercises are the overhead press and variations of the chin-up. The overhead press is easier to scale as long as we have access to sufficiently light dumbbell, kettlebell, or plate weights. The chin-up is another bodyweight exercise requiring scaling to find an appropriate level of challenge for the athlete.
The half-kneeling overhead press is the simplest starting point for vertical pressing coordination and strength. We can also use a barbell in a “landmine” attachment. The athlete is in a one-knee-down position that makes stabilizing the hips and low back easier than the standing press. Using just one arm helps the athlete focus on the movement of the shoulder and arm, and can begin to correct any side-to-side muscle imbalances. Most athletes will naturally have a more comfortable or dominant arm and leg, but rowers need to perform roughly symmetrically with both arms and legs, certainly for sculling and erging and to a lesser degree in sweep rowing. Strength training offers a valuable way to train both sides evenly in coordination and strength.
Scaling the chin-up is more challenging than the pushup and bodyweight row. If we only have a chin-up bar available, athletes can use the slow-lowering chin-up to improve eccentric muscle strength. Muscles can create more tension eccentrically (lengthening under load) than concentrically (shortening under load), and increasing muscle stress increases growth stimulus for greater gains in strength and muscle. If we have resistance bands available, we can do the band-assisted chin-up to reduce the load of the rower’s bodyweight. We can combine slow-lowering and band-assisted chin-ups with unassisted chin-ups. Do as many quality reps as you can unassisted, then finish the set with slow-lowering or band-assisted reps. Gradually increase the number of unassisted reps and decrease the number of modified reps.
Band or cable lat pulldowns and the confusingly named “seated chin-up” using a barbell in a power rack, a TRX, or gymnastics rings are additional ways to train the vertical pulldown general movement pattern and muscles. We can also use overhand, underhand, and neutral grip position for any of these exercises. Watch my demonstration video below for all of these exercises and progression systems.
Upper Body Training for Rowing: Intermediate Level
I recommend that female rowers be able to do 10 pushups with good technique from the floor, and 20 for male rowers, before adding load with barbell or dumbbell horizontal pushing exercises. Before this point, the athlete still has plenty to gain from bodyweight training alone. This is not a firm rule, just a general guideline, and we can certainly do both pushup training and also loaded exercises. Barbells allow for lifting more weight than bodyweight, and dumbbells train the limbs separate from each other with the added benefit of increasing shoulder stability demands. Rowers should continue to use full range-of-motion (implement touching the chest at the bottom of each rep) and a 2-0-1-0 tempo with these exercises.
I prefer to use dumbbell bench press and incline bench press variations versus the barbell bench press out of concern for the rib stress injury. Direct contact between the barbell and the anterior ribcage, as well as greater pressure on the posterior rib cage between the body and bench, is a downside of the barbell exercises that I don’t believe is worth the risk for rowers. Rib stress injuries are disproportionately common in rowing compared to the general population and other sports due to the chronic stress from rowing and erging. As a bone injury, they have a very long healing time and cause the most total missed training time of all rowing injuries with a typical recovery window of 3-8 weeks. Using pushups and dumbbell horizontal pushing exercises is an easy way to minimize this risk.
I continue using challenging pushup variations with rowers of all ages and levels for the main reason of the free movement of the shoulder blades. In a bench press exercise, the shoulders are pinned together and pressed against the bench for maximum strength and stability as the athlete moves the load of the barbell or dumbbells through space. In a pushup, the shoulders move freely around the ribcage as the athlete moves the body through space. This may make little difference in strict development of muscle size, but it makes a world of difference in carryover to athletic pursuits. This keeps the pushup firmly in my list of valuable exercises for all rowers.
Likewise, I continue using challenging bodyweight row variations as a horizontal pull exercise with very low load on the low back. Low back pain is the most common rowing injury, affecting up to 50% of rowers in a given year of training and causing the greatest number of missed individual training sessions. Rowers are constantly using their low back when rowing and erging, so I do what I can with strength training to reduce stress on this area.
The barbell bent-over row is an exercise that rowers need to use sparingly, at times when rowing and erging training is decreased and stress on the back is low. My preference is to use single-arm rows instead for loaded horizontal pulling exercises, including the 1-arm dumbbell row and the 1-arm landmine row. In addition to reducing load on the low back, these exercises train single-arm strength to improve side-to-side muscular balance.
I do not use the bench pull (also known as bench row or seal row) in my upper body strength training for rowing at any level out of concern for both low back pain and rib stress injuries. I think the bench pull is an overrated and outdated exercise, leftover from a bygone era of rowing strength training before commercially available rowing ergometers made higher volume, higher load, year-round training a reality for rowers at almost every level of the sport, and before hatchet blades changed the force profile of the rowing stroke to reward more early power from the lower body. There are too many other better exercises available to the modern rower that don’t put them in a position of rib cage compression and/or low back hyperextension in a sport where low back pain and rib stress injuries are so common and disruptive to training and performance.
- Read More: Why I Hate the Bench Pull for Rowing
We can progress the half-kneeling overhead press to variations of standing overhead presses once athletes master the basic vertical pressing movement and the skill of “scapulohumeral rhythm.” This fancy term simply means coordination of the shoulder blade (“scapula”) and arm bone (“humerus”) to produce effective movement. Rowers have a challenging job when it comes to this movement, especially if they switch between sweep rowing, sculling, and erging. These movements are roughly the same for the lower body, but quite different for the upper body and shoulders. I’ve found it beneficial to train shoulder rhythm in pulling and pushing exercises and in both the horizontal and vertical plane. The generalized ability to control the shoulder joint and produce effective movement seems to enhance rowing ability, especially in different conditions (boats, environment, etc.).
General shoulder pain is another common injury in rowing. Researchers in a 2012 study of 613 collegiate overhead athletes found that rowers experienced the highest prevalence and longest-lasting shoulder pain of all athletes in the study. 31.9 percent of rowers in the study experienced shoulder pain, and 57.5% of those athletes experienced pain for over a year. Researchers suggest that shoulder pain in rowers typically results from poor shoulder positioning and stability due to scapular muscle weakness and neck muscle overuse. Because this is an imbalance and overuse injury, it is extremely challenging to correct or prevent with rowing alone. For example, it is impossible to train the shoulder external rotators through rowing, as the oar handle locks the rower into a position of internal rotation.
The band pullapart, Y-W-T raise, and band or cable facepull offer opportunities to train these non-rowing elements of shoulder coordination and strength. I often use these exercises with beginners, too, but sometimes beginners lack the muscular control to recruit the correct muscles and benefit from their training. By the intermediate level, we are definitely doing this training to continue improving the strength of the shoulder to transfer all of the lower body stroke force through the torso and shoulders to the handle, and to offset the effects of increased rowing and erging training volume. See my demonstration video below for these movements and exercises.
I prefer using single-arm overhead presses, such as the 1-arm strict press with no leg drive and the 1-arm push press with leg drive, as well as alternating-arm dumbbell overhead presses. I generally do not use the barbell strict overhead press due to rowers struggling with thoracic spine (mid-back) mobility and a good two-arm overhead position. Dumbbell exercises offer us the most benefit in doing the exercise correctly, from a stable hip and torso position, and training both arms separately to improve muscle balance.
We can use variations of the chin-up to challenge the intermediate athlete, similar to the bodyweight row. The chin-up is more of an intermediate than beginner exercise anyway. Intermediates tend to be ready for more concentric training in the chin-up, with less slow-lowering and band-assisted chin-up training. The seated chin-up makes a great addition at this stage, in addition to unassisted bodyweight chin-ups using the overhand, underhand, and neutral grip as equipment and athlete ability allows.
Upper Body Training for Rowing: Advanced Level
The two upper body strength training exercises that I’ll consider using with an advanced rower are the barbell push press and the explosive barbell bent-over row. Neither of these exercises are a requirement, and indeed, most rowers I coach stick with 1-arm overhead presses and horizontal pulling exercises that don’t load the low back. By the time most rowers are at an advanced level, their rowing and erging training volume tends to be too high to be worth the risk of adding to low back stress with bent-over rowing exercises.
I do not believe there is a need for rowers to get into split-jerking, push-jerking, or other Olympic lift techniques. These skills are complex, require significant investment teaching and training, and do not transfer back to rowing, where there is no “jerk back under the bar” movement. Use strict overhead press exercises like the half-kneeling press or 1-arm strict overhead press to train the shoulder muscles and torso stability, then use the 1-arm or 2-arm push press to train force transfer and challenge shoulder stability with heavier weights.
Used at the right time and in the right way, the barbell push press and explosive barbell row can build athlete physical ability and also impart lessons of rowing stroke technique. In both exercises, the rower generates force from the lower body and a stable foot position, transfers force through a braced torso and stable shoulder girdle, and then applies force to an external implement held in the hands. Rowers who struggle with connection in the stroke also tend to struggle with these exercises, and vice versa. Strength training provides an opportunity for the rower to learn these lessons in a different context, build strength and muscle from good positions, and then work to apply this back to the rowing stroke.
Again, we need to be careful to use these exercises in a way that does not conflict with the rowing training and overload the rower. We use these exercises sparingly, approximately 3-5 sets of 3-6 reps, typically around 75-85% of estimated 1RM. The goal is more power and coordination, training the full-body power transfer through a more rapid rate of force development, than strength and muscle for higher weights or greater reps.
Other than these two exercises, most upper body training for rowing at the advanced level aims to develop or maintain muscle size and balance. Advanced rowers typically perform a high volume of year-round rowing and erging and are therefore at higher risk of overuse injury without strength training to offset this workload. High workload and a rapid path to achieving a high workload are the two greatest risk factors for all rowing injuries, so strength coaches have a real role to play in helping keep athletes healthy and able to perform.
I find that 3-5 sets of 6-10 reps twice per week on a horizontal push, horizontal pull, vertical push, and vertical pull exercise is sufficient for most rowers to at least maintain upper body strength and muscle mass, if not make small gains. We’ll often do both horizontal plane exercises on one day and both vertical plane exercises on the other day. We’ll usually superset these exercises, doing one, then the other, then taking a rest interval, and repeating this for the number of sets. Use two-arm and one-arm exercises to challenge athlete coordination and maintain side-to-side muscle balance.
Upper body muscle size is beneficial for rowing performance as long as it is accompanied by great technique and aerobic fitness, because it increases the amount of mass with which a rower can pull on the oar. The upper body has a greater number of muscles than the lower body and therefore greater muscle size potential as well, so rowers who don’t do upper body training are leaving lots of overall lean body mass potential on the table.
Openweight rowers should not fear training for muscle size. Rowers are rarely at risk for “getting too bulky” due to the great amount of calories burned from intense cardiovascular rowing training. While some outlier individuals may gain muscle mass very quickly despite high calorie output, I most often find that rowers who gain too much mass have gained more fat than they realize, and did not accompany their body mass gain with equivalent aerobic system improvements. The answer here is to adjust nutrition and the aerobic system training strategy, not reduce or eliminate hypertrophy training. If we hold technique and aerobic fitness equal, a rower with greater body mass will be faster than a rower with less body mass.
Of course, there is a point of diminishing returns where the effort required to add muscle mass does not yield commensurate improvement in rowing performance. Rowers at this point in training may reduce training volume, move hypertrophy training to maintenance only to maintain muscle mass, and pursue other forms of training where they find more performance benefit. Hypertrophy training at maintenance volume is still valuable to maintain muscular balance and reduce risk of injury. The nutritional strategy should be to support recovery from training, rather than seeking caloric surplus to gain body mass.
I tend to not do much grip strength training with rowers of any level. While general hand and forearm strength is important for rowers, we must be careful with grip training for rowers for two reasons. One is ruling out a technical problem before using a strength training intervention. Rowers often over-grip the handle and need to develop a more relaxed grip to reduce fatigue, rather than add more grip strength. The second is to avoid over-taxing an already heavily used area of the body. There is a lot of incidental grip training in strength training already through the use of free weights, and I am not sure additional forearm muscle work is necessary for most rowers. Indeed, I am a proponent of using wrist straps on deadlift and major pulling exercises to avoid turning a back exercise into a grip exercise or an exercise in pain tolerance as the knurling of a bar meets the raw blisters of the hands.
When a rower has an especially weak grip, and the rowing coach agrees that the athlete would benefit from additional grip work, I have begun with one or two sets of a timed hold exercise to each strength training session. Grip strength is very specific, and should be trained in a similar hand position to the rowing stroke for the best carryover. My first recommendation is one or two sets of kettlebell side holds, standing in place and holding a kettlebell in each hand at a weight that is challenging to hold for 30 seconds. I like the kettlebell more than a dumbbell, barbell, or trap bar for its larger handle diameter, more similar to the diameter of an oar handle, and for the lack of knurling. If you do not have kettlebells of challenging weights for this exercise, then my next recommendation is a towel timed hold (below). Roll or fold the towel to get it to a similar diameter to an oar handle. Stick to just 1-2 sets of 30-second timed holds, 2-3 times per week, for the first 3-4 weeks, then reassess. This may be all the grip work you need to help your strength catch up.
Three towel timed hold exercises, from hardest (left) to easiest (right).
Upper Body Training for Rowing: Off-Season and In-Season
The general approach to upper body training for rowing is to make gains in the off-season, and then maintain during the racing season. An overarching principle of training is that recovery is finite, so when we add something to a program, we also have to take something away. You must recover from training to improve from it. If we try to push volume, frequency, and intensity in rowing, erging, and strength training, athletes will overtrain, burn out, and get injured. This is why it is so important to have a year-round approach to rowing training and strength training. Periodization provides a framework to prioritize some variables of training while training other variables at maintenance levels, because we cannot fit development of all major qualities into one single rowing season.
I’ll use a few terms in this section from my “Basics of Strength Training for Rowing” article. Please read that for an understanding of the primary training objectives of strength, power, and hypertrophy, and for the difference in main work and assistance work, and how we develop the annual strength training schedule to complement rowing training and racing.
Off-Season Upper Body Training for Rowing
Improving upper body strength and muscle requires time, effort, training volume, and recovery. Most rowers will not have enough time, energy, and recovery during racing season to make meaningful gains in upper body strength and muscle, so this is a priority for off-season training.
I use the “off-season” term to mean a 10-or-more-week period during which there is little or no important racing. For junior and college athletes, this typically describes the summer season after spring sprint racing but before fall head racing. For masters rowers unattached to a conventional academic year training schedule, this could mean any time of year you choose. You may still row, race, and do camps during the off-season, so long as they are unimportant, low stress, and do not require as much training effort as in-season rowing. A single weekend or week-long technical development camp, a local regatta, and a few sessions per week of rowing or erging training will not derail the entire off-season plans, so long as you can make the most of your other training time to pursue off-season goals.
The lack of intense rowing training in the off-season allows us to increase strength training volume, use greater exercise variety, and possibly increase frequency from two strength training sessions per week to three, if the rower’s schedule and recovery permits. Ideally, the rower returns to rowing training after a productive off-season with improved body composition (more muscle, less fat, and/or more balanced musculature), aerobic system capacity, and base strength, and fully recovered from the previous hard competitive racing season. An off-season consisting of more ergs, more meters, more 2k tests, and poor strength training will not deliver this result.
The training schedule determines the individual training session design. For example, you might only have room in your training schedule for two strength training sessions per week. In this case, we do two full-body training sessions. Each begins with a squat or deadlift variation for main work, followed by a horizontal or vertical pushing exercise for strength maintenance, then 2-4 exercises for 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps for muscular development, followed by 2-3 sets of exercises for the core, hip, and shoulder muscles. We may do some direct arm training in the off-season as well, adding 2-3 sets of 8-15 reps on a biceps curl and/or triceps extension exercise.
If you do three strength training sessions per week, you can do three full-body sessions along a similar structure, or you could do one workout targeted to upper body, one for lower body, and one for full-body. I typically put deadlift on the full-body day, with some extra attention to the upper body pulling muscles. This is my go-to schedule and session design for off-season rowers who are dedicating 2-3 months to gaining strength and muscle, and are willing to reduce their rowing and erging training enough to achieve it. Continue lower intensity cross-training with cycling, walking, hiking, running, swimming, etc. These forms of aerobic training still train the heart and lungs without as much load on the low back as rowing and erging.
Only when strength and hypertrophy is a very important goal for your off-season do I use a 4x/week schedule of alternating upper/lower training. Training volume of individual sessions is lower because the increased frequency will mean the per-week volume evens out. However, I find that most rowers do better on a 3x/week upper/lower/full schedule, and that adding the fourth day of strength training tends to reduce the amount of aerobic training and recovery too much to be worth it. The best training schedule is the one most appropriate for your goals, rowing training, and other life responsibilities, so pick one that works for you and build your training plan accordingly.
In-Season Upper Body Training for Rowing
When the rower shifts to in-season training, we move upper body training back to maintenance. The body tends to respond well to these alternating periods of focused training and maintenance training, and you may be surprised at how well you can maintain hypertrophy compared to the amount of effort you put in to developing it in the off-season.
I almost always use a 2x/week full-body strength training schedule with in-season rowers. We begin with a full-body warmup, then a squat or deadlift for main work, followed by a main work horizontal push or vertical press, and then perform a circuit of one push, one pull, and either a single-leg squat or hip hinge assistance exercise for 2-4 sets of 8-12 reps, with 2-3 minutes of rest at the end of the circuit. We finish the session with 2-3 sets of core, hip, and shoulder exercises.
The quality of your in-season training is directly affected by the quality of your off-season training. If you have done good work in the off-season and built a great foundation of strength, muscle, and aerobic endurance, the reduced volume and frequency of in-season training will allow you to improve strength and power while maintaining hypertrophy, with plenty of room to recover from intense rowing training. If you did not, then it will be very hard to “catch up” on all of these goals with just 2x/week strength training while also pursuing more intense rowing training.
A sport-specific approach to upper body training for rowing will develop movements and build strength and muscle in a way that contributes to rowing technique, minimizes excess stress on vulnerable body parts, and improves long-term performance potential. This requires careful consideration of goals and methods for strengthening the muscles and movements that produce stroke motion, the supporting muscles to improve stability, and the muscles neglected by rowing, to improve performance and reduce risk of injury.
Improving performance and reducing risk of injury are mutually beneficial goals. Good movement patterns, strong prime movers and supporting muscles, and balanced musculature will facilitate the best technique for the fastest times and lowest stress and strain on vulnerable body parts. The best methods for achieving these goals are determined by the demands of rowing training, at a physical, technical, and structural level, as well as a practical level to develop a strength training program that complements your individual rowing training and racing schedule.
Last updated December 2022.