Some rowers find themselves without the time, equipment, ability, or desire to make dedicated strength training a regular part of their rowing training program, due to external circumstances or personal choices by the coach or rower. Sometimes this can be a temporary situation, as in during a time of very heavy rowing training, travel, or increased time demands outside of rowing. The minimum rowing strength training plan often focuses on the performance work and discards the supporting work and training to reduce injury risk. In this article, I hope to convince you that it should be the other way around. Your performance work can be better replicated by rowing and erging than the assistance work for the non-rowing muscles and movements, and it is here that you will find the greater benefit to overall performance and reducing risk of injury.
The common minimum rowing strength training program tends to involve a lot of muscular endurance work in the off-season or pre-season, usually focusing only on the muscles that produce stroke motion, and then only rowing during the racing season. The result of this is rowers strengthening the muscles that are already strong from rowing, which misses development of muscles neglected by rowing training and increases risk of overuse injuries and muscular imbalances. The lack of an in-season approach means that these rowers are strongest at the start of the season when it matters least, and weakest at the end of racing season when it matters most. Instead, coaches and rowers seeking the bare minimum rowing strength training should strength train for the goal of reducing risk of common rowing injuries by building movements and muscles that rowing alone neglects. I call this “rowing mitigation work,” and it’s the most important part of rowing strength training, and the easiest to implement in a rowing training program.
Strength training to reduce risk of injury doesn’t sound as sexy as training to improve performance, but consider this: Does it matter how fit, fast, technical, or strong the rowers are if they’re too hurt to row to their full potential? Reducing injuries increases availability to practice and race. More rowers available to practice and race means more opportunities to refine technique and improve aerobic base, more competitive seat-selection and racing, better athlete retention, easier recruitment and fundraising, and more. Even the most performance-focused rowers, or coaches who don’t feel an ethical responsibility for injury rates, can believe in reducing injuries to increase opportunities to improve performance.
The rowing motion prioritizes the big powerful muscles of the quadriceps, glutes, lower back, latissimus dorsi, upper trapezius, and biceps. These are the muscles typically strengthened again by common bare minimum rowing strength training approaches, typically involving a lot of planks, squat jumps, burpees, more planks, bench rows, and sloppy pushups. This approach fails to develop the hamstrings, hip rotators, mid-back postural muscles, shoulder rotators, and chest and triceps muscles. This increases risk of common rowing injures like low back pain and rib stress injuries, as well as other common aches and pains from muscular imbalances.
Poor muscular development and movement coordination can also cause rowers to commit a variety of stroke errors that may look technical, but are actually more muscular in nature. For example, achieving stroke length through the spine rather than through the hips, lunging with the shoulders at the catch, failing to maintain an upright posture under fatigue, or shooting the slide under pressure. I see these errors in rowers who cognitively know what the right technique is and can often perform it under controlled conditions, but lack the musculature to consistently achieve it at race pressure or under longer duration rowing. Rowers need strength in all areas of the body, not just the stroke muscles, to produce stroke motion, protect their bodies, and achieve good technique for high outputs and under fatigue.
My minimum rowing strength training plan focuses on building the two major movement patterns of the hip hinge and shoulder rhythm, and the corresponding muscular areas of the hip and the shoulder.
Teaching the Movements
The hip hinge is a universal athletic movement. The hip hinge requires the athlete to bend the knees slightly while pushing the hips back and tilting the torso forward, neither squatting straight down nor only bending over forward, but finding the midpoint between the two movements. In rowing, this is commonly referred to as lumbopelvic coordination, or how the rower coordinates tilting at the pelvis with bending (or not bending) at the lumbar spine. Rowers who struggle with this movement also tend to struggle to achieve a solid torso position at the release position, and struggle further to achieve reach on the recovery through the hips, rather than through the spine and shoulders. A dysfunctional hip hinge is bad for technique, performance, and risk of injury. Practice the standing hip hinge first, then move to the erg, then work to refine it in the dynamic on-water environment.
Read More: Mastering the Hip Hinge for Rowing
Lumbopelvic coordination is to the lower body what scapulohumeral rhythm is to the upper body. Shoulder rhythm describes the ability to coordinate movement between the shoulder (scapula) and arm (humerus). The shoulder girdle is a critical point of connection between the lower body power and the handle or blade. A strong and functional shoulder is required to effectively transfer lower body power to the handle. Rowers with poor S/H rhythm tend to move the arm bone without support from the shoulder muscles. This commonly leads to stroke errors of rounding the shoulders and mid-back excessively during the recovery, lunging the shoulder forward at the catch, and poor blade connection in the early drive phase.
It doesn’t matter how strong the rower is if shoulder rhythm is poor, because their physical positioning won’t allow them to express that strength effectively through the refined motion of the rowing stroke. I start by teaching the different ways the shoulder can move: upward elevation, forward protraction, downward depression, and backward retraction. For rowing, we want mostly neutral with some downward depression, and controlled partial protraction and retraction. Rowers usually achieve better technique just by being more aware of these different positions during the stroke. We can then challenge these movements and the muscles that make the movements through strength training exercises.
Building the Muscles
Introducing these movement patterns is a good first step in the minimum rowing strength training program. We can do better by including specific opportunities for athletes to practice the movements and develop strength in the supporting muscles.
The major muscles supporting the hip hinge movement are the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back. These can be trained with bodyweight and resistance band exercises, such as hip thrusts, single-leg/marching hip thrust, pendulum hip extension, band good mornings, and band pull-throughs. Rowers often struggle to adequately engage the hamstring and glute muscles with the hip hinge, and make all of the movement happen with the low back muscles. Strength training offers practice opportunities to correct this pattern!
The hip rotator muscles don’t directly contribute to the hip hinge, but they’re neglected in rowing and the deficiency can lead to hip and torso stability problems, and lower back pain. Developing them is also easy to do with just bodyweight and resistance band exercises. See the video below for several demonstrations of different low-load lateral and rotational hip exercises.
We can train shoulder rhythm and the supporting muscles with YWT raises, band pullaparts, and band facepulls. In the horizontal plane, pushup variations and bodyweight rows with good technique are also great to build the bigger muscular movements onto the improved coordination of the smaller muscles. Rowers often perform pushups and bodyweight rows with common errors of limited range-of-motion, sagging torsos, and shrugged-up shoulders. Raise the height of the hands to scale the exercise to the skill and strength of the athlete, and then progress in challenge from there.
Ideas into Practice
There are two simple ways to implement opportunities to build these movements and muscles in rowing training. One is through a full-body warmup. Programs often include dynamic stretching before rowers launch onto the water, but fail to include muscular activation work. The warmup is a great time to sneak in some extra work on neglected musculature. My full-body warmup includes both dynamic stretching and muscular activation, takes no more than 10 minutes to complete, and includes movements for hip hinging, shoulder rhythm, and the supporting muscles. Through routine use of this dynamic warmup before rowing and erging sessions, athletes gain extra opportunities to improve movement patterns, build muscles neglected by rowing training alone, and reduce risk of common rowing injuries for more productive rowing training and racing.
Read More: The Complete Guide to Warming Up for Rowing
The other opportunity is a short circuit-style workout of bodyweight and resistance band exercises. Coaches and rowers are often worried about free-weight strength training due to injury risk. They may lack qualified instruction on the exercise technique, there may be too many athletes to adequately supervise, or there may not be enough equipment available to safely and effectively use. However, bodyweight and resistance band strength training performed for reasonable workloads across a variety of basic movements and muscles might be achievable.
The 30-30-for-30 system is my go-to here. It’s 30 seconds on, 30 seconds off, for 30 minutes. You can do as many different exercises within that time frame as you want. I like for the exercise rotation to work out cleanly, so I tend to use 6 rounds of 5 exercises, 5 rounds of 6 exercises, or 3 rounds of 10 exercises.
I’ve used this system for years as a way to start strength training for rowing, during the gym/boathouse closure phase of the pandemic, for rowers traveling away from their normal gym equipment or routine, and as a long-term strength training approach for rowers more interested in the general physical activity benefits of strength training than the performance benefits. With a bit of creativity, we can design these sessions in dozens of different ways to keep training engaging and productive.
You can read my “How to Start Strength Training for Rowing” article to learn a lot more about the 30-30-for-30 system, including a bank of sample training sessions.
The 30-30-for-30 system fixes a lot of the problems with conventional strength training circuit designs:
- Workload limited to the 30-second “on” duration. We can’t generate THAT much fatigue in 30 seconds using good technique and tempo. Aim for 8-15 reps per 30 seconds on most exercises. The longer range-of-motion exercises like a squat will usually get fewer, while the smaller exercises like a band pullapart will usually get more.
- 1-to-1 work-to-rest ratio increases intra-session recovery compared to circuits with a greater amount of work than rest. It takes a very strong and experienced trainee working at relatively low muscular outputs to keep technique crisp under the fatigue of a circuit session with long work durations. Athletes can achieve better technique on each rep with the limited work duration and the 1-1 work-rest ratio.
- Entire session limited to 30 minutes, of which only 15 minutes is “on” time, keeps the workload manageable, recoverable, and repeatable. This training will build you up over weeks and months, not break you down with brutal efforts that can’t be sustained in the longer term.
You can use both the full-body warmup and the 30-30-for-30 system year-round, in the off-season, pre-season, and in-season, without overly fatiguing rowers for rowing, or sacrificing significant practice time. This is much better than a minimum approach of muscular endurance work for stroke motion muscles with no plan to maintain through the racing season. I hope rowers and coaches will see and feel the benefit of this approach and will eventually want to do more with strength training beyond the minimum.
The next stage is improving general strength, improving the force potential of the stroke motion muscles, while maintaining the rowing mitigation work. If we increase strength, then we decrease the amount of effort required to move the boat through the water on each stroke. If we decrease per-stroke effort, we improve endurance. We use strength training to build the force potential ceiling, and then use erging and rowing to build the specific aerobic and muscular endurance floor, while continuing the rowing mitigation work to reduce risk of injury and improve performance by maximizing availability to practice and race.