I have found that rowers go wrong in one of two ways during in-season rowing strength training. Some rowers train hard in the off-season doing cross-training, strength training, improving rep-maxes, and putting on muscle mass, but when racing season starts, suddenly that’s all in the past. Rowers who stop strength training when their racing season begins are strongest for the early regattas when it matters the least, and weakest for the final regattas when it matters most! Other rowers increase strength training when the season starts, believing that they need to do more work and more reps to drive performance adaptation for rowing.
In my experience, there’s a better way to maintain your hard off-season work so you arrive at the championship podium at least as strong, muscular, and mobile as you were for the first race of the season. An in-season rowing strength training program makes use of lower fatigue baseline strength and power maintenance sessions, specific high intensity sessions planned ahead around the training and racing schedule, and muscular recovery sessions to improve mobility and reduce risk of injury through a hard racing season.
Table of Contents
- In-Season Rowing Strength Training Basics
- In-Season Energy Management
- How to Maintain Strength and Power
- Why I Don’t Do Strength-Endurance Training
- Peaking for Championship Performance
- Next: Transition or Rejuvenation
In-Season Rowing Strength Training Basics
The primary goal of in-season rowing strength training is maintaining what you built through the off-season and pre-season. Some rowers improve beyond that, and that’s great too, but at the very least, we can maintain the strength, muscle, and mobility that you had when you started the season. After all, you get medals in rowing for how fast you go, not how hard you train, so all of the off-season training has to contribute to boat speed in order for it to be worth doing.
Maintaining through race season also builds momentum for multiple years of training. If you gain in the off-season, and then lose during the racing season, and then re-gain in the off-season, before losing again in the next racing season, you’re just taking two steps forwards and two steps backwards. If you maintain through the racing season, then you can take more steps forward in the off-season, instead of just putting in work to get back to where you were. This is how we can build over a four-year high school or college cycle, so that first-year rowers are stronger, more muscular, and faster when they row across their senior year finish line four years later, and how masters rowers can also maintain and even keep improving year after year despite (or better yet, in spite of!) age-related decline.
Read More: The Basics of Strength Training for Rowing
Masters Rowers: “In-Season” can mean a lot of different things on the more diverse regatta schedule of masters rowers. Think about “in-season” as “race prep” if you have multiple priority regattas in a calendar year. For example, a USA masters rower with a priority of CRASH-B or San Diego Crew Classic will go to in-season strength training mode during the 8-12 weeks of race prep for that regatta. You might then have a mini off-season after that regatta until race prep for summer sprint races or even fall head races, at which point you would go back to in-season strength training during race prep.
The big idea is having a plan to maintain the work you do in the off-season phases so that you can build on each phase of training without significant regressions. Masters rowers who stop strength training entirely during race prep can lose strength, power, and muscle mass quickly. This has a negative performance impact on the race, and also means that we spend a significant amount of the off-season just working to get back to where we were when we started the race prep phase. Plan ahead and train to maintain!
Read More: I cover some different racing schedules in “Strength Training for Masters Rowers: Periodization.”
In-Season Energy Management
In-season rowing strength training isn’t all about lifting heavy weights and doing grueling reps. In fact, that sort of training is best left for the off-season, when feeling sore and tired the day after a hard strength training session doesn’t have a significant effect on the rest of the training plan and ability to perform well in races. The most important factor during in-season rowing training is maintaining energy and availability to row and race. We use in-season strength training to support this goal. With advanced training and racing planning, we can identify which weeks are going to be hard, which weeks we want to be fresher for, and which weeks are going to be the deload or recovery weeks.
When I write an in-season rowing strength training program, the first thing I do is write down all of the upcoming regattas, erg tests, and seat-racing days. We don’t need to be in peak performance for every one of these, but no rower wants to go into an important erg test, seat race, or regatta feeling especially tired and sore, and it’s usually not a problem to adjust the schedule ahead of time to build in extra recovery around these events.
How to Maintain Strength and Power
It takes much less training time and effort to maintain strength and muscle mass compared to the amount of time and effort required to build it. This is a key training principle for in-season rowers. In-season strength training for rowing uses low volume, moderate intensity sessions designed to maintain power, muscle mass, and technique, with specific high intensity strength training sessions to maintain maximal strength. Some rowers will continue to gain strength, power, and even muscle mass during in-season rowing, but the minimum goal is at least to maintain all the progress you made in the off-season.
Technique is an important part of in-season maintenance. If front squatting or hex bar deadlifting were as simple as a grip test or isometric knee extension, or even a leg press, then you might be able to walk away from it entirely for two or three weeks and still perform close to your maximal strength. However, these lifts are more complicated, so we have to do some training on these major lifts to maintain technique, so that when we want to do a heavy strength stimulus session, the technique is comfortable and athletes can perform close to their best. I’ve observed that moderately skilled, moderately strong, rowers with at least six months of dedicated strength training experience can maintain their strength in these major movements for 14-21 days, as long as they are doing the maintenance sessions in between the heavy sessions.
One of our two weekly power-and-maintenance sessions might look like this:
- Full-Body Warmup
- A. Kettlebell Swing: 5 sets of 5 reps, 60s rest
- B. Hex Bar Deadlift: 6 x 2 @ 70%1RM, 60s rest
- C1. Alternating DB Bench: 4 x 8, n/a
- C2. Batwing Row: 4 x 8, 60-90s rest
- D1. Facepull: 3 x 12, n/a
- D2. Any Core: 3 sets, n/a
The kettlebell swing and hex bar deadlift are designed to maintain strength and power, without the high volume or intensity that might conflict with the next rowing training session. The C and D exercises help maintain muscle mass and range-of-motion, while staying away from high volume training that might conflict with rowing.
We do a strength stimulus session every two or three weeks, scheduled so that the next day of rowing training is either a rest or low-intensity training session, and does not conflict with the racing schedule. These sessions look like this:
- Full-Body Warmup
- A. Kettlebell Swing: 6 x 4, 60s rest
- B. Hex Bar Deadlift: Take 4-5 sets to work up to a heavy set of 2-3 reps around 85-90% of approximate 1RM. For example, 45 x 5, 95 x 5, 115 x 5, 135 x 3, 150 x 3, 165 x 3, 175 x 3, based on an approximate 1RM of 205lbs.
- C1. Alternating DB Bench: 3 x 10, n/a
- C2. Batwing Row: 3 x 10, 60-90s rest
- D1. Facepull: 2 x 12, n/a
- D2. Any Core: 2 sets, n/a
The nice thing about working up to a heavy set of two or three, instead of a one-rep max, is that it’s still heavy enough to stimulate maximal strength, but it can be cut short at one or two reps if movement quality suffers. One-rep max testing doesn’t offer enough predictive ability or insight into training to be worth the injury risk and cost to recovery.
Masters Rowers: If you focus on the fall head racing season as your main competitive events, then things can be a little different. I have found power to be less of a critical factor for races over 2km in distance. I consider 2km the standard for power-endurance performance, with high-intensity outputs between 5.5 and 9 minutes depending on your age, level, and boat class. 1km races over 3-5 minutes are more dependent on the start, power/stroke rate, and sprint, and have a greater reliance on top-end strength and power. It’s still important to be strong for distance races, but the pure stroke power is less of a factor due to the longer duration and greater technical and strategic factors of head races. In my experience, distance races are less strength/power dependent, most distance-focused rowers are masters, and masters generally have less training time than younger rowers. If that describes you, then this can be a good time to scale strength training back if you need more time, energy, or recovery in your schedule.
For example, I coach some masters rowers who spend their summer season in singles or mixed boats rowing 3-4 times per week and strength training twice per week. In September, they take the eight weeks before Head of the Charles and move into race lineups and row 4-5 times per week. To make room for the increased frequency and intensity of rowing training, we reduce strength training to what I call “one-and-one” strength training. One session is a typical, full-body strength training day using barbells and free weights to train with higher intensity and lower volume. For example, front squat, Romanian deadlift, push press, and one-arm rows. The other session is a low-load session using bodyweight and resistance bands. This session takes 30-45 minutes (including the warm-up) and consists of more of our assistance exercises such as single-leg squats, pushups, band rows, and shoulders, hips, and trunk work. We will often use the “30-30-for-30 system” for this second session. I have found this an effective way to reduce the overall strength training load to focus on fall rowing and racing, while still maintaining strength, power, and muscular development.
Why I Don’t Use Strength-Endurance Training
“Strength-endurance training” is typically defined as strength training designed to improve muscular ability to perform at submaximal levels for a greater amount of time. This kind of training is usually high rep (>20) or long duration (>60s) and low load (<30%1RM), usually with short rest intervals or circuit-style training.
The “old school” model of in-season rowing strength training was to do more strength-endurance training closer to racing to prepare for the demands of racing. Rowers would follow a periodization model of heavier weights for maximal strength in the off-season and then gradually decrease weight and increase reps over the year of training. I use the exact opposite periodization model, beginning the year with higher volume, lower intensity strength training to build coordination and muscular capacity, and then gradually increasing weight and decreasing reps over the training year.
This “new school” model does essentially no strength-endurance training by the conventional definition, and especially not in-season when rowers are doing a lot of rowing and erging to prepare for racing. All training has an opportunity cost, especially when we’re talking about the non-specific stimulus of strength training. With limited training time we need to be selective about the kind of training we do, as doing one type of training means that we have less time, energy, and recovery to do other types of training. We build up in the off-season, then we shift to maintenance for the in-season with a focus on strength and power.
There are three main reasons that I prefer this approach for in-season rowing strength training.
#1. The changing needs of rowing training
Strength-endurance training is popular from a time before the modern era of rowing training. Rowers without consistent year-round water access had to do something to keep up their training. Most programs did not have enough early ergometers or seats in a rowing tank to be able to achieve a sufficient training volume to drive performance. Lifting weights was the next best thing, so jack up the reps and work hard. This is where low-load circuits, coffee can barbells, squat jumps, bench pulls, etc. came from in rowing culture.
Concept2 changed this with the commercially available rowing ergometer in the late 80s. Now, most boathouses from the junior level on up, plus many commercial gyms and private residences, have enough ergs to be able to do year-round, high-volume, semi-specific rowing training. It’s not exactly rowing, but it’s a whole lot closer than lifting weights or jumping around with bodyweight circuits.
Why would modern rowers need to do strength-endurance training if we can just get on an erg? What is a set of 50+ low-load squats or bench pulls doing for us that erging sets of 250-500m isn’t already doing, or doing even better? It’s different if ergs aren’t available, but most competitive rowers have consistent access to ergs.
Concept2 also changed things in the early 90s with the hatchet-shaped blade. This increased the per-stroke load compared to spoon-shaped blades, moved the force profile to earlier in the drive, and changed the standard physical technique to get the most out of the new equipment.
Power has become more of a determining factor in performance for these reasons. Rowers can do more specific, higher volume, year-round training thanks to ergs, so endurance in the general stroke motor pattern is more standardized. Hatchets changed the standard technique to a shorter, more powerful stroke with a more upright posture and more lower body emphasis so rowers could put more force down per stroke to row faster. Strength training has to change to meet these new demands.
#2. Opportunity cost of training time
“How to fit in all the training” is always a question for rowing. We usually don’t have enough time, energy, and recovery ability to be able to do all the training that we’d like to do to be at our best. We need to maximize benefit from each area of training to get the most out of our efforts.
High-rep strength-endurance training has some major downsides. It can take a while to do all of that work due to the high training volume. Strenuous strength-endurance training is also very fatiguing, and the high number of eccentric muscle actions often results in a significant amount of muscular soreness. This can interrupt the more valuable in-season rowing and erging training. Strength-endurance training presents a redundant stimulus to rowing and erging already, and then can also interfere with those forms of training. I see this as a lose-lose situation.
#3. Injury risk
One of my biggest reasons is injury risk from lifting with high reps to high levels of fatigue. Mental attention can slip over high rep sets. Technique can break down due to mental and physical fatigue. Injuries can occur as athletes continue to push into greater levels of strain and fatigue in this environment. I have found it easier for athletes to focus on a challenging set of 3-8 reps, completed in under 30 seconds of effort, for greater physical benefit with less risk of technique breakdown and injury.
We also have to consider fatigue spillover from fatiguing high-rep strength training. Fatigued, sore, tired athletes will have a harder time recovering between sessions to be able to give high efforts again in rowing training. This is particularly important during in-season rowing training, when training intensities are higher to train sprint work and race pace output, and when performance is more important. We need to strength train in a way that sets rowers up for success in this environment, not in a way that breaks them down and makes performance more challenging when it matters most.
Peaking for Championship Performance
We’ve maintained strength, power, mobility, and muscle mass through almost the whole competitive season, and now it’s time to peak for championship performance. The most important part of peaking is not screwing up your months of prior training. For the majority of rowers, having great technique, fitness, strength, a healthy body, and a race plan, is the best kind of “peak” we can get. The purpose of peaking for rowing performance is alleviating fatigue from training. Fatigue masks fitness, so we must remove fatigue in order to express your full fitness, strength, and performance.
A true peaking cycle is going to involve a period of strategic overtraining, or overreaching, where the athletes experience high fatigue and dampened performance. This is followed by a gradual reduction in volume, and then a reduction in intensity, to allow the fatigue to dissipate so the athletes feel awesome right before the main competitive event, and theoretically achieve an even greater performance than in training. This is called “supercompensation,” and it’s a very tempting approach, but there are a few major drawbacks to consider:
- Increased injury risk during the overreaching period, because you’re purposely outpacing your recovery. You can’t display your strength, fitness, and technique on race day if you get injured in training.
- It takes significant experience, precision, and good luck to be able to overreach enough to get the supercompensation adaptation, but not so much that you fail to recover before the big race. It’s one thing to pull this off for a single sculler or erger, and entirely another to do so for all athletes in a team boat. I’ve seen plenty of rowers achieve better times in the week after the race due to different recovery timelines.
- It requires a lot of control of non-rowing variables. Athletes have different recovery curves, especially outside of the very top level without equivalently managed eating, sleeping, and low stress outside of rowing.
- Athletes will feel bad during the overreaching stage. I think this is particularly damaging for junior and collegiate athletes who may have final exams, summer job interviews, or other responsibilities that may be negatively affected by their physical and mental fatigue.
You might consider doing a true on-water peaking cycle of overreaching and supercompensation if you are coaching highly skilled and experienced athletes racing on a national or world stage. I think there are too many conflicting variables and unintended consequences for it to be worth doing with sub-advanced rowers. In either case, the on-water peaking should be considered separately from a strength training peaking cycle. I do not recommend “doubling-down” on the peaking cycle and also doing overreaching and supercompensation in strength training. There are even more conflicting variables, and the risks are even higher due to the greater external loads of strength training compared to rowing. I take a simple approach to strength training peaking that is really just another domain of in-season energy management, trying to get rowers to races in healthy, strong, powerful, and mobile condition.
For minor races, such as local regattas and scrimmage duals, as well as moderately important races, such as major regional events, we will either train through or use a simple “day-off” taper. If the usual strength training schedule is Monday and Wednesday, or Tuesday and Thursday, then we do the first session as normal, and take the second session off. If there are multiple races on subsequent weeks, I may restructure the first day of training to include both main work exercises to maintain technique, with reduced assistance work to limit muscular fatigue.
The advantage of training through early races is maximizing early season training time. The disadvantage is grumpy rowers, who may want to feel fresh and ready to race after a long off-season of rowing, erging, and strength training. If you’re racing more than ten times in a competitive season, then I suggest training through more races. If your racing schedule is sparser, then the cost to training time of a day off every few weeks is not so severe, and it may offer greater benefit to athlete morale, enthusiasm for the sport, and overall in-season energy management.
Remember from research on the concurrent training interference effect that moderate muscle soreness and prior strength training does not appear to reduce 2km rowing performance. A 2km race seems to be sufficiently aerobic to be unaffected following 24-48 hours of recovery from moderate strength training. Athletes should not experience more than moderate soreness from in-season rowing strength training anyway, thanks to the lower volume, lower variety training sessions, and the resistance they’ve built up over the prior months of training.
For major races, such as regional and national championships, we will use a 7-21-day “advanced” taper. It’s a large window because the length of the taper depends on the strength and ability of the athlete, and the intensity of the rowing workload. I have found 7-10 days to be sufficient for full recovery, but if the rowing workload is particularly intense, we might increase that to 14-21 days, still within the range of maintaining general strength. We do our final heavy strength stimulus session, then gradually reduce volume, then intensity, using the final sessions as light “grooving” workouts. These lighter workouts are intended to maintain power and mobility, and include lightly loaded exercises with explosive intent, light single-limb and resistance band work with an emphasis on range-of-motion, and specific mobility exercises. We may do one session early in the week of the major race, or we may do no strength training during that final week. Major races often involve significant travel, which means sitting around losing that hard-earned mobility. I recommend doing a version of my full-body rowing warmup during traveling and prior to racing, to maintain mobility and muscular activation. We’re still training until the final race is rowed. After racing, then it’s time for rest and rejuvenation.
Graduation or Rejuvenation
After racing, some rowers will graduate or move on to other pursuits, while others will close the books on one year and begin preparing for another. I believe our responsibility as coaches extends to both, and I’ve written here about athlete transitioning for graduating/retiring rowers. All rowers should take two or three weeks following conclusion of racing season to rest and enjoy recreational physical activity. This is not the time to try for that erg PR that you just missed during racing season. Save it for next year. The brief break is essential to mental and physical recovery from a hard season of training, healing of minor aches and pains before they become injuries, and maintaining enthusiasm for the upcoming year of training.
When you’re ready, the General Prep Block begins the off-season and next year of training.
Last updated February 2022.