We use plyometrics for rowers to improve general athleticism and increase rate of force production. Although rowing is not truly a plyometric sport, power and rate of force development is still important for strong early drive force with fast legs. General athleticism is harder to quantify, but helps rowers make technical changes and adjustments more easily. In this article, we’ll review some general plyometric exercise information, dig into some research on plyometrics for rowers, and provide practical recommendations for my favorite plyometrics and how I use them in my training programs with rowers of all ages, types, and levels.
Key Points: Plyometric exercise can be safe and effective for improving rowing performance with good planning, instruction, and programming with the rest of rowing and strength training. Rowing research indicates that plyometrics can improve peak power in a short-duration erg test, 500-meter time, and detailed power characteristics like drive speed. In order to use plyometrics for rowers, we must have a safe landing space (ie. not concrete), good landing technique to absorb impact safely, an understanding of why plyometrics exist to train power (not endurance), and ideas of what plyometric exercises we can use for rowers of different strengths, competitive levels, and ages.
Table of Contents
- Plyometric Goals and General Info
- Plyometrics in Rowing Research
- How NOT to Use Plyometrics for Rowers
- Plyometric Exercise Progression
- Programming and Progressing
- Plyometrics for Youth and Masters Rowers
- Wrap Up: Plyometrics for Rowers
About Plyometric Exercise
Rowing misses a few major elements to be considered a true plyometric sport. First, there is no significant phase of absorbing force in the stroke, because the recovery phase is unloaded. Second, because there is no absorption phase, there is no real redirection phase of rapidly reversing force absorption into propulsion. Finally, the propulsive phase or “contact time” of the stroke is too slow compared to the propulsive phase of a truly plyometric movement like jumping or sprinting when running. I discounted plyometrics for rowers early in my coaching for these reasons, but came around to including them again after a few years for two main benefits.
The two main benefits of plyometric exercise for rowers are improving general athleticism and increasing rate of force production. General athleticism helps rowers make technical changes and adjustments. Plyometric exercises can help rowers by teaching and training new and different skills, and it’s the ability to learn different athletic skills that ultimately benefits rowing performance. For rate of force production, while the propulsive phase drive speed of the stroke is too slow to be considered plyometric, my experience and rowing research that we’ll cover later indicates that plyometric training can still improve rowing performance.
Plyometrics train the fast muscle fibers, the nervous system activating the muscle fibers, and the reflexes and physical skills involved in rapid full-body force development. The goal of plyometrics for rowers is improving this deep neuromuscular ability to more rapidly develop lower body force and minimize the time between blade entry and full stroke power. This introduces a rower-specific training factor: those rowing a faster stroke (ie. eights) or with a greater emphasis on early drive force may have more to gain from plyometrics than those rowing a slower stroke (ie. single scull) or with a greater emphasis on later drive force.
Plyometrics offer an advantage for power development over traditional free-weight strength training by training maximal acceleration with lighter loads and no deceleration phase. An athlete doing a front squat with full explosive intent will have to decelerate before completion of the lift to avoid leaving the ground or having the barbell leave contact with the shoulders. Athletes doing plyometric exercises can give maximum effort through the entire concentric (propulsion) phase without having to decelerate before the movement is complete. Despite the lower loading, plyometrics are a high intensity training method due to the maximum acceleration and landing component. As a general rule, athletes should only jump as much and as well as they can land, because all of the power they develop on the concentric phase has to be absorbed upon landing. Rowers must master landing mechanics before increasing variety, volume, intensity of jumping exercises.
Plyometrics are not necessarily for every rower. If an athlete has recently recovered from an injury, are they cleared by a medical professional and have they regained enough strength to safely do plyometric exercise? If the athlete is a beginner, they may benefit more from focusing on simpler strength training exercises for the early phase of their training before being able to safely and effectively do plyometric exercises.
Power and strength will develop together in beginner trainees, just by improving overall muscular coordination and force, and conventional strength training offers benefits to maximum strength and muscular development that plyometric training does not necessarily. Advanced plyometric exercises involve high forces on landing and acceleration, and strength training resources typically recommend that athletes be able to squat at least bodyweight for a one-rep maximum, or 60% of bodyweight five times in five seconds as a prerequisite (Davies, Riemann, & Manske, 2015). I have more on this ahead in the “exercise progression” section, as well as specific research and recommendations for youth and masters rowers.
Plyometrics in Rowing Research
In rowing-specific research, Egan-Shuttler et al. (2017) compared outcomes in 500-meter erg performance from a plyometric intervention versus an aerobic cycling intervention in 18 competitive male high school rowers. The researchers used matched groups based on pre-training 500-meter erg times. All athletes completed the plyometric or cycling training three times per week in 30 minutes, then completed identical on-water rowing training as a team immediately after. There was no additional strength training component, and none of the athletes had prior experience with plyometric training. The researchers performed the study in the fall early season phase when rowers were not doing on-water sprint training or racing. Athletes in the plyometric group performed 30 minutes of plyometric training, including single and double-leg jumps, vertical and broad jumps, and medicine ball throws, programmed to increase from 100-150 ground contacts to 125-170 ground contacts over the four weeks. Athletes in the aerobic group did 30 minutes of stationary cycling below ventilatory threshold, measured by the “talk test.” The researchers conducted pre-and-post-intervention testing for unrestricted rate 500-meter time, rowing economy as measured by an eight-minute incremental step test with oxygen consumption analysis, and 15-second peak power test, all on Concept2 Model D ergs.
The plyometric group significantly improved in 500-meter time from 1:39.8 to 1:34.6, and they were significantly faster than the cycling group at post-test as well. The cycling group was essentially unchanged, going from a 500-meter time of 1:38.8 to 1:38.7. The plyometric group significantly increased power output within the 500-meter test to make this improvement, and stroke rates were not significantly different between groups or tests. Neither group significantly changed 15-second peak power or rowing economy, although the plyometrics group trended up slightly in peak power. This research suggests that a plyometric intervention alone, without additional strength training or high intensity rowing training, may improve short duration erging performance.
However, the researchers were puzzled by how the plyometric group could significantly improve 500-meter performance but not 15-second peak power performance. The plyometric group improved from a single-highest peak stroke of 585 Watts (W) to 629W, an increase of +44W, while the cycling group went from 566W to 569W. Most rowers and coaches would look at an increase of 44W over four weeks and say that that’s a significant improvement, which is why it’s important to read more than the abstract of a study! But, this finding was not statistically significant, which led the researchers to evaluate the findings more specifically.
In 2019, Egan-Shuttler et al. returned to the original data and evaluated the 15-second test using the free ErgData app produced by Concept2 to look at the data by individual stroke, as well as detailed power characteristics of drive length, drive time, on which stroke the rower achieved peak power, and overall force from the entire test. Looking beyond just the single-highest peak stroke revealed significantly greater changes in plyometric group power production. After the four weeks of plyometric training, the plyometric group produced more power over the entire 15-second test, achieved their single-highest peak power stroke earlier in the test, and increased drive speed. These detailed findings are all highly relevant when we think about physical demands of starting a race: more power, produced earlier in the 15-seconds, with faster drive speeds. These detailed findings combined with the earlier finding of five-second improvement in 500-meter time and the +44W peak power increase indicate significant improvement from plyometrics for rowers. See the graphic below for an illustration of the study effects.
In an early research study, Kramer, Morrow, and Leger (1993) evaluated longer term training adaptations from strength training only vs. strength and plyometric training. The researchers studied 28 female rowers, 13 novice and 15 experienced, in a nine-week training program, assessing improvement via a 2,500-meter test and 90-second distance test on Concept2 Model B ergometers, as well as strength and power indicators. They found that 20 minutes of additional plyometric bilateral jump exercises did not significantly improve any performance metrics compared to strength and erging training only. It’s not an exciting finding, but the methods the researchers used offer us insight into how to (and how not to) use plyometrics for rowers.
After pre-testing, all participants did the same erging training and the same strength training program, with the plyometrics group doing an additional 20 minutes of plyometric training after each strength training session. I’ve replicated the study design below. On weeks 1-4 of the program, athletes did the clean pull for 4 sets of 8 reps, half squat, bench pull, and leg press for 6×5, and seated row for 10×10. On weeks 5-9, athletes did 4×10 on all exercises, except the seated row, on which they did 5×20. The plyometrics group did an additional 20 minutes of bilateral jumping–squat jumps, stair jumps, hurdle jumps, and drop jumps–beginning with 1-3 sets of 5-12 jumps and progressing to a weeks 4-9 volume of to 3-5 sets of 10-20 jumps. I’ve created the graphic below to illustrate the study methods.
It is possible that the null finding is influenced by the testing parameters: 2,500 meters, and even 90 seconds, is a longer test distance than we might expect to be significantly influenced by plyometric power. However, that the strength group improved equivalently in the vertical jump test suggests that maybe the plyometric training just wasn’t that effective. For one, the researchers used plyometric exercises for more of a muscular endurance focus, trending up to 10-20 reps per set. It’s possible that a greater emphasis on peak power, not volume, would have improved plyometric results. Additionally, the plyometrics group performed the plyometrics after the strength training, in a fatigued state. Perhaps performing plyometrics before the strength training also would have improved results. Finally, if the athletes completed the plyometric sessions in approximately 20 minutes, there’s no way they were getting enough rest between sets to achieve maximum muscular output. As I’ll explain further in the programming section, work-to-rest ratios for plyometric exercises are at least 1:5, up to 1:10. In weeks 4-9, the plyo group did five sets of squat jumps, 10 sets of stairs jumps (bilateral jumping up a flight of 12 steps), three sets of hurdle jumps, and three sets of depth jumps. This is 21 sets total, which would not even be one minute of rest per set if completed in approximately 20 minutes.
How NOT to Use Plyometrics for Rowers
The Kramer, Morrow, and Leger (1993) study provides a good example of why “rower plyometrics” don’t work: too many reps with too little rest and too much fatigue. This kind of training is common in “old-school” strength training with very high reps for “strength-endurance,” but this kind of training really isn’t applicable in the modern hatchets-and-ergs era of rowing.
If we agree that plyometric exercises exist to teach and train the skills and physical abilities of general athleticism and rapid force development, then doing high-rep plyometrics under fatigue with diminished power output makes little sense. Technique will deteriorate under fatigue, resulting in sloppy reps and diminished, not enhanced, athleticism. As soon as jump height, throw distance, or power per effort decreases, we are training muscular endurance or fatigue tolerance, not power. Rowers get plenty of this already from erging, rowing, and aerobic cross-training, so we don’t need to waste time with redundant training on plyometric exercises, plus increase injury risk from landing forces.
Another common pitfall is variety for the sake of variety, resulting in exercise selection that is too challenging for athlete ability. If the exercise is too challenging at a coordination level, the athlete will be focusing too much on the mechanics and will not be able to give full power to the movement. Athletes need a balance of exercises that challenge athleticism, and exercises that are within their athletic ability that challenge their ability to produce power.
Given that the athletes in the Egan-Shuttler et al. (2017) study had no prior plyometric training experience, the exercise menu from the study suggests to me that they used excessive training variety for the level of athlete. I do not recommend that a coach reading this study incorporates a similar protocol. The use of depth jumps and multiple box-to-box jumps with novice athletes is also questionable. These are advanced plyometric exercises due to the greatly increased forces as the athlete absorbs and immediately redirects energy from landing to jumping. Plus, as I’ll cover later in “Plyos I Don’t Use,” rowing has no absorb-and-redirect phase, so these jumps aren’t relevant enough to be worth the risk.
The key takeaway is captured by the quote from the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s 2017 “Developing Power” book below. Pick 1-2 plyometric exercises per session and train them for short durations (low reps) with high power output. 3-6 sets of 2-5 reps is a good starting point, building up to 5-8 sets of 1-3 reps as athletes get more advanced.
“Low frequency (2-3 sessions per week) and low volume (3-6 sets of 2-5 repetitions) are most appropriate. It is not necessary to perform myriad plyometric exercises. Getting the most out of a program requires mastering the movements of the exercises themselves. For most athletes, two or three plyometric exercises at any one time is sufficient for attaining movement mastery and obtaining considerable benefit.” From NSCA “Developing Power”
Plyometric Exercise Progression
Strength and power will increase together through basic strength training alone in novice athletes. Novice athletes are not limited by rate of force development as much as strength, coordination, and technique. We can still teach plyometrics and power training alongside basic strength training. The advantage of this is that those skills and methods will be ready when the athlete needs to focus more on them. However, we should not emphasize or rely solely on plyometrics and power training with athletes who still have more benefit to gain in the basic strength domain. In this section, I’ll present the plyometric exercises I use most with rowers and the general progression, and then discuss more programming recommendations in the next section.
Watch my 2024 video below on “Plyometrics for Rowers” to see all of these jumps and throws in action, plus key technique points and cues.
Stage 1: Landing
Athletes can only jump as well as they can land. We must teach landing mechanics and see athletes master them before including more advanced plyometrics. I will usually begin plyometric introduction with three or four short sessions only working on landing mechanics, before introducing actual jumping. Athletes can do a small hop or jump down from a small box or step height of 6-12 inches, focusing entirely on the landing position and technique.
Key points in landing mechanics are:
- Hinge position: Slight torso incline (shoulders above hips), back flat, chest and head up without arching the back or craning the neck
- Pressure on the forefoot: Heels still in contact with or close to the ground, not entirely lifted up with all of the weight on the ball of the foot
- Knees generally in line with toes: Minimal inward cave or outward bowing
We also must be aware of the landing surface with all jump-based exercises. A soft surface is generally preferable for minimizing impact and joint forces on the athlete. This allows the athlete to get the most work out of the concentric phase with the least amount of lower body stress upon landing. Gymnastics or wrestling mats are great. Grass or turf is good. Gym flooring is acceptable, but watch athletes for shin splints or other aches and pains. I do not recommend doing plyos on concrete, which unfortunately limits their use in standard boathouses. If you’re doing boathouse-only training, invest in some mats, foam plyo boxes, or just use throw plyos.
Stage 2: 2-Leg Jumps
The first two terms to master in jumping are countermovement and non-countermovement. In a countermovement jump, the athlete descends to the bottom position, immediately jumps, and lands well. In a non-countermovement jump, the athlete holds the bottom position for about a second to break the momentum of descending, and then jumps up and lands well. Countermovement jumps produce greater jump performance and tend to be more athletically intuitive. If you tell someone to jump, this is probably what they’ll do. Non-countermovement jumps increase challenge by reducing the stretch reflex from the lowering phase of the jump movement. I like to use both for rowers for different reasons, covered more in the programming section ahead.
We can then work in two directions of jump: vertical and broad. In a vertical jump, the rower jumps straight up for maximum height. In a broad jump, the rower jumps forwards for maximum distance.
We can also use a box to jump onto, or my preference, to sit on before jumping. In the standard box jump, the athlete jumps up and lands on the box. In the seated jump, the rower sits on the box and then jumps from this position of zero momentum. Think of the seated jump like a “super non-countermovement” jump.
I find that most rowers use too high of a box when doing a standard box jump. The physical quality most important in plyometrics for rowers is dynamic extension of the hip and knee joints. This is what makes powerful strokes and fast drives. Dynamic hip flexion, which is the motion of drawing the knees towards the chest to bring the feet onto the box, is not relevant for rowers. Box jumps to a high box emphasize dynamic hip flexion and increase risk of injury from a missed landing, while box jumps to a lower box can achieve just as much dynamic hip extension while landing more safely with straighter knees and really no risk of missing the landing. See the graphic below for what I mean.
The seated jump is one of my favorite jumps for rowers. It is a go-to for the pre-season and in-season phases of training, in which we want to sharpen up leg drive power for starts and sprints. Sit on a box or bench, let all the momentum dissipate, and then jump from that position. We want as little movement in any bodyparts other than the legs. Do not lift the feet before jumping or rock the torso into the jump. Use as low of a box or bench as possible without any “pre-loading” movements. The seated jump achieves two big rowing goals: power through leg drive, and leg drive from a forward body angle position. We typically just do seated jumps for vertical height, but we can also use a box if having the box as a jump target is helpful.
We’ve now covered the following jump plyometrics for rowers:
- 2-leg vertical jump, countermovement
- 2-leg vertical jump, non-countermovement
- 2-leg broad jump, countermovement
- 2-leg broad jump, non-countermovement
- 2-leg box jump, countermovement
- 2-leg box jump, non-countermovement
- 2-leg seated jump, vertical
- 2-leg seated jump, to a box
Stage 3: Throws and 1-Leg Jumps
The throw plyos I like best for rowers are the backwards overhead throw and the forwards overhead throw. The backwards overhead throw is a throw in the hinge pattern, emphasizing hip extension and a long pull to transfer power from the feet at the ground to the hands holding the object. These are all highly relevant skills for rowers. The forwards overhead throw is a throw in the squat pattern, emphasizing hip and knee extension. This is similar to a vertical jump, and a plyo that I will use in place of a vertical jump if jumping is not tolerable for the rower. Both throws can be done indoors for height or outdoors for height or distance.
The countermovement and non-countermovement terms apply to throw plyos as well. In a countermovement backwards overhead throw, the rower descends to the bottom of the hinge position and immediately reverses direction to throw. In a non-countermovement throw, the rower pauses at the bottom of the hinge position to begin from a position of no momentum. Similarly, in a countermovement forwards overhead throw, the rower descends to the bottom of the squat position and then immediately reverses direction to throw, while a non-countermovement throw has the rower pause at the bottom of the squat position.
1-leg jumps can be useful to increase athletic challenge and total force production requirements. The rower must now stabilize, propel, and absorb their whole bodyweight through just one leg. Begin with the 1-leg-to-2-leg vertical jump. In this jump, the rower descends on one leg, jumps upwards from that same leg, and then lands on two legs. Landing is the phase of highest impact, so landing on two legs distributes this force at first to make sure that the rower is prepared for the next stage of truly 1-leg jumps using only one leg to descend, jump, and land with good technique. The rower can do the same with broad jumps, as well as lateral jumps in which the rower jumps from side-to-side. Launch to the left or right off of one leg, and land with two. Then, launch off of one leg and land on the other leg. Finally, launch and land on the same leg. Lateral stability is quite challenging, especially for rowers who lack this element from sport training, and I approach lateral jumps for coordination rather than power. Overall, 1-leg jumps are the plyos I use least often with rowers compared to throws and 2-leg jumps.
We added the following jump and throw plyos in this stage:
- Backwards overhead throw, countermovement
- Backwards overhead throw, non-countermovement
- Forwards overhead throw, countermovement
- Forwards overhead throw, non-countermovement
- 1-leg-to-2-leg vertical jump, countermovement
- 1-leg-to-2-leg vertical jump, non-countermovement
- 1-leg vertical jump, countermovement
- 1-leg vertical jump, non-countermovement
- 1-leg lateral jump, countermovement
- 1-leg lateral jump, non-countermovement
- 1-leg broad jump, countermovement
- 1-leg broad jump, non-countermovement
I write all of these out so you can see how many options there are just in these relatively simple plyometric exercises. I hope this helps athletes feel less of a need to venture into the following plyos that I don’t use with rowers.
Plyos I Don’t Use: Multiple Efforts, Flexion Throws, and Ladders
Multiple efforts like triple broad jumps, multiple depth jumps, jumping to multiple boxes or over multiple hurdles, and tuck jumps are very advanced plyometrics due to the increased demands on athlete strength, coordination, and power to absorb force on landing and immediately redirect it into propulsive movement. These exercises also have very little application to rowing, since the rowing stroke does not incorporate rapid force absorption, a stretch-shortening cycle, or rapid sequential force application, due to the recovery mechanics of the rowing stroke. I have not yet needed to use this level of plyometrics for rowers. There has always been another training factor for our time and energy offering greater performance benefit.
“Jumpies,” as in high-rep vertical jumps, and “burpees” are not plyometric exercises. These are good ways to make people tired, which is useful for very general “conditioning,” but does nothing to increase plyometric power due to the low propulsive effort and high-fatigue training environment. They are especially damaging when done on boathouse concrete floors, earning the bench pull standard of “never use” on my list.
Medicine ball slams, trunk flexion plyometrics like the sit-up throw, and upper body isolation plyometrics like the supine chest throw don’t offer enough utility for rowers to be worth the training time and energy. Similar to the jumpies or burpees, I most often see these used for repetition effort or “conditioning,” rather than explosive power development. In a sport with limited training time and already high stress on the spine, ribs, and shoulders, explosive flexion exercises in a sport without a forceful flexion component don’t rank for me as a valuable use of effort compared to all the other plyometrics we can choose from with greater application to rowing development. I understand that medicine ball slams are fun, and if fun and stress release is the reason for doing them, I won’t take that away as long as it isn’t the only plyometric exercise in the training program.
Finally, so-called “speed ladder” training is another form of general force production and reactivity training that I don’t use with rowers. The range of motion is too small and the movements are too different to carry over to rowing or erging ability. However, unlike jumpies or burpees, I can see a place for ladders only as a general warmup activity and athletic coordination exercise. Rowers, especially those who specialize and only row, often lose athletic coordination of single-leg, reactive, multiple movement plane movements. Including 5-10 minutes of low intensity ladder drills may offer a way to maintain some of these general athletic qualities. They should not be done with low rest or high intensity as “conditioning,” due to the impact and risk of injury from movement degrading under fatigue, and not on concrete boathouse floors.
Plyometric Programming and Progressing
Basic jump and throw plyos are pretty simple to incorporate into a rowing and/or strength training program for rowers. Focus on teaching the skills of landing, jumping, and throwing, and follow a few simple principles for effective implementation.
Number of plyos: Generally 1-3 exercises per session. Focus on quality of technique and quantity of power, not variety of exercise.
Plyo frequency: Generally 2-3 plyo sessions per week. Plyos involve high forces from landing, and the bones, tendons, and ligaments absorbing this impact need more time to recover than the muscles.
Total volume: Generally 3-5 sets of 2-5 reps per exercise, perhaps up to 5-8 sets of 1-3 reps for more advanced athletes. Remember, we’re training athletic coordination and power, which cannot be done with high-rep sets due to limitations of athlete attention to good technique and duration of full power production.
Work-to-rest ratio: Generally at least a 1:4 work-to-rest ratio, up to 1:10. If one set of a plyo takes 5 seconds, rest for 20-50 seconds before the next set. The rest time allows for full focus and power on each set.
The main way that I use plyometrics for rowers in a strength training program is in a superset with our main lower body exercise. After a full-body warmup, do one set of a jump or throw plyo, then one set of a squat or deadlift exercise, then rest. Repeat this for all work-up and working sets of squat or deadlift until achieving 5-8 sets of plyos. If the rower is doing 3-5 working sets of a squat or deadlift exercise, this plus the work-up sets to achieve the training weight for the day tends to come out to about 5-8 total sets.
I like to pair types or planes of plyos with the main strength training exercise. I typically use a countermovement jump or forwards overhead throw with a squat exercise, focusing on the squat pattern and knee extension. I typically use a non-countermovement jump or backwards overhead throw with a deadlift exercise, focusing on the hinge pattern and power production from a position of no momentum. I find this helps connect physical skills for the athletes and achieves greater enhancement from the plyo to the strength exercise.
If supersetting doesn’t work for some reason, then just start a session with about 10 minutes of one or two plyo variations following the warmup. This works well in a boathouse session, outdoors away from the gym, or before doing the rest of the strength training session. Warmup, then do the plyos with at least a 1:4 work-to-rest ratio. A strategy I use for achieving adequate rest per set for each athlete is to group athletes into groups of four or five, and then do one set each in sequence. Athlete A does one set and goes to the back of the line, then Athlete B does one set and goes to the back of the line, then Athlete C does one set, and so on. A rotation of four or five athletes ensures at least a 1:5 work-to-rest ratio, without having to use stopwatches and careful monitoring. Do not add in extra work during the rest time, such as holding planks, doing pushups, erging, etc. Use plyometrics to train explosive force for a short amount of time, then move on to other training methods to achieve other training goals.
Session order for strength training is first power, then strength, then hypertrophy training. The best time for plyometric exercises is after a full-body warmup and before the strength work. Explosive force degrades rapidly under fatigue, so we want to do power work when athletes are fresh, not after heavy squats or multiple sets of assistance work when fatigue is high, and certainly not after an entire training session like our 1993 study.
We can apply a similar strategy for boathouse-based plyometric work. Do the full-body warmup, then the brief bout of plyometric training, then get on the water or on the ergs. Doing plyometric training after rowing or erging will not be as productive, due to the fatigue carryover from prior training.
I use plyometrics for rowers in at least the Pre-Competitive pre-season phase and the Competitive in-season phase, and often in the Preparation off-season phases as well. We can shift our focus over the year from more athletic coordination plyos in the off-season to more specific power plyos in the pre-season and in-season. For example, go from higher variety with more 1-leg plyos to lower variety and more 2-leg plyos. We can also eliminate plyos from off-season training and just add them in the pre-season and in-season as a final lever to pull for power development.
Plyometrics for Junior and Masters Rowers
In the NSCA position statement on strength training for youth athletes, the authors cite research indicating that plyometrics can be safe and effective for young athletes as long as they are instructed thoroughly, coached continuously, programmed carefully, and are part of a comprehensive strength and sport training program. The International Youth Conditioning Association (IYCA) similarly endorses the use of plyometric exercises for youth athletes, and provides their recommended teaching and programming progression.
If we just throw plyometric exercises at young athletes without regard for movement quality or progression and without other strength training activities included as well, we should expect injuries and poor training outcomes. For example, just doing some jumpies after practice or on a windy day to waste time, or using burpees to punish athletes, is not a safe and effective plyometric training strategy. If you’re going to use plyometric exercises, use them well. Teach landing mechanics, use plyos in limited doses with an emphasis on movement quality and power production, and progress gradually while also developing strength through other full-body movements. If you want to train general strength or muscular endurance, use other non-plyometric exercises and methods.
In the NSCA’s position statement on strength training for older adults, the authors focus on the role of strength training in mitigating age-related loss of strength, muscularity, and muscular power, and making progress for sport performance and general quality of life. Masters rowers racing the 1km sprint distance with a greater priority on anaerobic energy system performance will want to pay even more attention here. Similarly, the NSCA’s “Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning (3rd ed.)” textbook states that plyometric exercise is safe and effective for masters athletes, given professional consideration to pre-training evaluation (ie. injury history, training status, and other risks), thorough instruction, and appropriate exercise selection.
I’ve found that masters rowers can be hesitant to incorporate plyometric training out of concern for joint impact. This is a valid concern, especially when the common example of plyometric training in rowing is high-rep bilateral jumps with heavy lower body impacts and no instruction on landing. As I hope you’ve learned in this article, there are many forms of plyometric exercises available, and we can often find at least one that works for the individual to reap the rewards of power training. For example, doing low box jumps with a soft-topped box can minimize joint impact on landing and provide a safe and effective way to train lower body power. Perhaps jump-based plyometrics truly are too risky or painful. Can the athlete use a throwing plyometric to train lower body explosive force with minimal landing impact? If injuries or other concerns preclude all jumping or throwing plyometric training, we can at least do peak power training with loaded exercises, maximizing full explosive intent without leaving the ground and creating an impact force.
Read More: Strength Training for Masters Rowers
Wrap Up: Plyometrics for Rowers
Rowers from youths to masters can follow the same general principles of plyometric training, with different points of emphasis depending on the individual athlete, goals of training, and available equipment.
Keep explosive power the goal, and incorporate small doses of plyometric exercise after a full-body warmup, before beginning a strength, rowing, or erging session.
Begin with limited volume and frequency: 2-3 sessions per week of 1-3 plyos per session, with 3-5 sets of 2-5 reps per exercise, and at least a 1:4 work-to-rest ratio.
Teach and master landing first, then select more challenging jumping and throwing exercises as appropriate.
Progress by increasing distance or height of jump or throw, increasing challenge of exercise, and/or making small increases in volume while at least maintaining jump or throw height or distance.
Remember that plyometric power is not among the most important factors in rowing performance, so train it in balance with other training for strength, muscularity, mobility, aerobic and anaerobic fitness, rowing technique, and other necessary factors.
Last updated January, 2024