Strength training for sculling necessitates an understanding of what makes sculling different from sweep rowing and erging, knowledge of the different types of scullers, and management of the different physiological demands between different boat classes and racing priorities. In this article, I will cover some relevant research for scullers, identify a few adjustments that I make specifically for scullers versus other rowers, and discuss how plans change for scullers of different types and priorities.

I also presented on this topic via the Craftsbury Sculling Center Free Weekly Webinar series on August 12th, 2020. This webinar is available for free linked at the end of this article.

Key Points: Strength training for sculling is mostly the same in the lower body as those who erg or sweep row. However, the action around the rib cage and shoulders is very different between the three modalities, and top athletes in each discipline will have specific strengths and techniques to achieve maximum performance. Exercise variations of the squat, hinge, and pulling categories train the relevant muscles for stroke power and performance. We can also use strength training to teach and reinforce specific muscular skills for sculling performance. Finally, we use other exercises to develop muscles and movements neglected by rowing alone, including upper body pushing, lateral, rotational, and shoulder external rotation exercises.

Table of Contents:

strength training for sculling

Needs Analysis for Sculling Performance

A solid, intentional strength training plan begins with a needs analysis. What are the key performance features? What is the athlete already doing in sport training? What movements are emphasized or neglected by sport training? What are the injury risks? What individual factors do we need to consider for each athlete or broader population of athletes?

Biomechanical Differences of Sculling

The main difference for sculling versus sweep rowing and erging is the action around the shoulder and ribcage at the catch. Scullers have two oars and a very wide handle width at the catch with no torso rotation. Rowers on the erg have a comparatively narrow handle and a much more straight forward shoulder reach with no rotational component. Sweep rowers have a great amount of torso and shoulder rotation, but only in one direction toward their rigger. From the hips down, these movements are all quite similar. Looking at the rowers from the side, we might not think there’s a great difference. The view from the front shows a different picture, with very different actions at the shoulder and ribcage. These different dynamics create very different strength and movement needs for the front end (ie. early drive phase) of the stroke.

strength training for sculling comparison

There are myriad variables involved in calculating the weight or force of a stroke. Rowing biomechanics experts generally agree that the per-stroke load for scullers is greater than that of sweep rowers. The sculler is using two oars versus the sweep rower’s one. The surface area of a sculling blade is smaller, but two sculling blades are still a greater surface area than one sweep blade. This increases the force demands on the rower. The single is also slower than the eight. At the time of writing, the men’s single scull world record is 6:30 and the women’s is 7:07, compared to 5:18 for a men’s eight and 5:54 for a women’s eight. The slower boat has less momentum, increasing the force demands of the single sculler on each stroke.

The only data that I was able to find on this is a vague chart in Dr. Valery Kleshnev’s December 2001 issue of “Rowing Biomechanics” (duplicated in the 2006 “Rowing Biomechanics” document on page 14). Dr. Kleshnev states that the average maximal force for male scullers is 766N (76.6kg) versus 671N (67.1kg) for male sweep rowers, and 547N (54.7kg) for female scullers versus 479N (47.9kg) for female sweep rowers. This data is vague because there are no collection methods indicated, it is self-published, we know nothing about the participants, and all scullers and all sweep rowers are collected together, despite the fact that differences almost certainly exist between single sculls and quadruple sculls and pairs and eights.

The variables at play are extremely complex, including rigging, rowing conditions, techniques, and individual athlete differences that can alter the per-stroke loading further. In general, scullers are moving greater per-stroke loads than sweep rowers due to the greater combined surface area of the blades. This also affects technique. The single sculler typically produces a more gradual force curve than the eight rower due to the increased force demands in the early drive phase. I’ve observed many times that rowers who are used to rowing eights will get into a single scull and attempt to apply the same high pressure at the catch, and struggle until they learn to apply force more gradually. I’ve also observed athletes go from the single into the quad or double scull and feel like they lack connection at the catch because the force curve from their single sculling technique is now too slow for the faster moving boat of the double or quad. It is perhaps more important that the single sculler can produce greater force throughout the stroke, while the eight rower needs more rapid power application in the early drive with lower total force, and those rowing two or four-person boats falling somewhere in the middle of those extremes.

Key Performance Features

Key physiological performance features for scullers depends on the boat category and race distance of the athlete. Energy system use is related to intensity and duration of activity. Scullers racing less distance will achieve greater intensities for shorter durations than scullers racing more distance. Rowing researchers indicate that a 2km race is approximately 77-88% aerobic and 12-23% anaerobic. Variation exists due to different race durations. The researchers who found 77% aerobic and 23% anaerobic studied 16 elite male rowers with an average 2km erg time of 6:06. The researchers who found 88% aerobic and 12% anaerobic studied 16 competitive female rowers with an average 2km erg time of 7:30. Rowers who race 2km faster will achieve higher intensity and a shorter duration and greater anaerobic system contribution, while slower rowers achieve a longer duration and greater aerobic system contribution.

There is no research on the 1km distance, but Ed McNeely suggests in “Rowing Faster, 2nd Ed.” (“Rowing Physiology,” 2011) that a 1km race may be up to 50-60% anaerobic. We would expect variation within this number due to different boat categories and masters rowers of different ages. For example, the men’s AA class (21-27-years old) quad at 2019 Masters Nationals completed the 1km course in 3:07. The mens’ K+ class (85+ years old) single won it in 4:53. The PR1 class adaptive 1km erg record is 5:30 for the women’s 70-79 age group. Even though the distance is the same, the AA quads will be significantly more anaerobic, while the K+ single will be much more aerobic, and the PR1 70-79 year old rower more aerobic still. Consider duration of race more than distance in meters for energy system needs.

There is no research on longer racing distances, but the same logic applies regarding duration of race. Distance or head races of more than 2km will be almost entirely aerobic due to the inverse relationship of duration and intensity.

Injury Risks: Is Sculling Healthier?

It seems a commonly held opinion that sculling is healthier than sweep rowing, but research on sculling injuries specifically is limited and what of it there is is inconclusive across age demographics. A few relevant highlights are as follows:

  • Researchers studying Team Australia elite rowers found more rib stress injuries in sweep rowers in the 2013-2015 years of study (11.5% vs. 6%), but more in scullers in the 2016 year of study (8% vs. 2%). (Harris, Trease, Wilkie, & Drew, 2020)
  • Masters rowers over age 60 who sculled experienced more low back injuries than those who did sweep rowing. (Smoljanović et al., 2018)
  • Inconclusive in a study of 398 junior rowers. (Smoljanović et al., 2009)
  • Switching between sweep and scull is a risk for rib stress injury, but not one specific type of rowing. (Evans & Redgrave, 2016)

The issue of injury differences between sculling and sweeping or erging is largely absent from “Rowing Injuries” (2012) and “Rowing Injuries: An Updated Review” (2016). The authors of the former state that, “the majority of rowing injuries are overuse injuries due to an abrupt change in training volume, alterations in technique, or the type of boat rowed.” The main takeaway here is that rowing injuries are still about management of training volume, load, and progression more than they are due to one specific training modality.

Individual Athlete Needs

We also evaluate individual factors in a needs analysis. Everyone can scull from youth to elite to masters with overlap between categories, but each of these major domains requires specific training practices and adjustments based on age, stage of development, prior training experience, personal injury history, and other factors beyond the pure needs of the sport. People come to sculling from all different athletic backgrounds. Sculling tends to be more available for youth (ie. U14) rowers than sweep rowing, but sweeping is more common in the USA for junior (ie. U19) and collegiate programs. Elite rowers (ie. U23 or senior) may scull or sweep in all categories and sizes of boats. Sculling is generally more available than sweep rowing for adaptive rowers, with six sculling events versus just three sweep events at the FISA World Championships. Masters athletes may again sweep or scull, depending on their interests and availability in rowing programs. Many masters have come back to rowing to scull after sweep rowing in their junior or collegiate days, while others come to the sport with a background in other endurance sports, or power sports, or no sporting background at all. There is a particularly strong group of masters rowers in the US of women over age 60 who didn’t have athletic opportunities in the pre-Title IX era (1972) and are just now discovering an athletic identity through rowing. An even more recent phenomenon is Crossfit athletes crossing over who learned rowing via the erg and want to try the on-water experience. Each of these athlete populations requires analysis and a specific approach in strength training.

Truly great scullers will have excellent strength, fitness, and event-specific technique, taking into account their own personal strengths and weaknesses and demands of racing. The top performers in any sport typically have just the right combination of genetic factors, training, technique, and experience in the sport. I believe that many people can be GOOD scullers by maximizing just one of those major qualities and achieving adequacy on the other. Choose your own adventure. Do you prefer the path of the technician? Become a master of the art of sculling (and the dark art of rigging) while achieving adequate strength and fitness. Or, do you prefer the path of the physiologist? Pursue excellent strength and fitness for the demands of your racing event while achieving adequate technique (and a simple rigging setup).

What If You Don’t Race?

Plenty of rowers scull for pure enjoyment of rowing and to get out on the water with little or no interest in formal racing. This is especially so in the 2020 “Year of the Single Sculler” due to pandemic restrictions on team boats and physical proximity. Strength training still offers benefits for these rowers. Our major goals are developing strength and muscle and improving movement quality to achieve goal technique, reduce injury risk, and maximize longevity in the sport.

Strength training can be more flexible for those with less competitive goals. We give up flexibility for specificity when we focus on sport performance at a specific date and under specific parameters. A recreational sculler whose primary interest is enjoyment of the sport and physical health can do a more variable or flexible rowing and strength training program without such rigorous demands of scheduled training to elicit specific adaptations for a performance goal.

Recreational scullers can choose which elements of strength training they do and don’t wish to incorporate based on any number of personal reasons. Goal-setting and clarity is still important for these athletes. A common pitfall of recreational athletes is trying to maximize performance on everything simultaneously from deadlift one-rep maximum, fat loss, biceps girth, and sculling technique. These goals can be conflicting or contradictory and lead to burn-out or increased risk of injury when the athlete simply does too much or too much different training with insufficient planning and recovery.

Key elements of a recreational strength training for sculling program are mostly covered in my “Minimum Rowing Strength Training” article. Add to this with exercises and goals that speak to you from this article or other sources. A full-body land warmup before rowing, erging, and strength training sessions is a must. Include some sort of lower body exercise, both bilateral and unilateral, to gain or at least maintain leg power in the stroke. Hinge movements are helpful for stroke technique, connection of leg power to handle, and building a strong trunk. These need not be trained particularly heavy to gain the benefits. A horizontal pushing motion will build shoulder stability and improve muscular balance between the upper body pulling muscles used in rowing and the neglected pushing muscles. Full range-of-motion horizontal and vertical pulls are useful to work the upper body pulling muscles through a complete movement, instead of the slightly abbreviated stroke technique. Specific shoulder movements like the YWT raise, band or cable pullapart, and band or cable facepull develop the postural muscles of the mid-back. Include but don’t overdo core exercises. “The core” includes both the anterior and posterior trunk muscles, not just the beloved rectus abdominis “six-pack” muscle, and these muscles mostly exist in rowing to transfer force from the lower body (footplate) to the upper body (handle). Training only “the core” only trains one very small part of the body and rowing stroke, especially if training only the anterior abdominal muscles. Remember that the trunk muscles are also trained through full-body movements like the squat and hinge exercises.

Read More: The Minimum Rowing Strength Training Plan

Strength Training for Sculling Exercises

With a solid understanding of the sport-specific performance features, injury risks, and differences of sculling versus erging and sweep rowing, we can now talk about specific adjustments to strength training.

I make few adjustments in lower body exercise selection for scullers, because the actions below the rib cage are largely the same for sweep rowers, scullers, and ergers. My exercise selection for the upper body may look similar, but the cues I use and how I present the exercises have some sculling-specific attributes. Below is a playlist of some of my go-to exercises for each major movement category and an exercise bank table. Check out my Craftsbury strength training for sculling webinar to hear more about my specific rationale and cues for each exercise.

Strength Training for Sculling Exercise Playlist

Pulling Movements Pushing Movements Squatting Movements Hinging Movements Other Movements
Shoulder Coordination Movements Pushup or Elevated Pushup Goblet Squat Hip Hinge Movement Core: Seated Rockback
YWT Raise Ladder Pushups Front Squat Romanian Deadlift Core: Side Plank with Row
Band/Cable Pullapart Alternating Dumbbell Press Variations Reverse Lunge Kettlebell Swing One-Arm Farmer’s Walk
Band/Cable Facepull ½-Kneeling Overhead Press 3-Way Single-Leg Squat Elevated Deadlift One-Arm Rack Carry
½-Kneeling Row One-Arm Push Press Rear-Foot-Elevated Split Squat Barbell Deadlift One-Arm Waiter’s Walk
Seated Alternating Row Lateral Step-Up Hex/Trap Bar Deadlift One-Up-One-Down Walk
One-Arm Dumbbell Row Front Step-Up Band Walk Variations
Band/Cable Lat Pulldown

Here’s an additional exercise modification to the standard barbell “landmine” row. I’ve used this as a tangible cue to teach “pressure into the pin,” or maintaining outboard contact between oar collar and oarlock during the final phase of the drive (propulsive stroke phase). It requires a ~$10 investment at your local hardware store for the 2-inch-to-1-inch reducer and 6-8-inch length of 1-inch pipe. The video below has instructions for assembly as well as exercise execution.

Strength Training for Sculling Programming: Sprint or Distance?

While the exercises are quite similar, more of my adjustments come in with programming with scullers depending on the athlete’s age and competitive priorities. Below are a few key considerations depending on the competitive priorities of the athlete.

Sprint 1km/2km Race Considerations

One-kilometer and two-kilometer races are considered sprint races by rowing standards even though they take between three and nine minutes to complete, depending on athlete age, ability, and boat class. This is an important consideration for strength coaches who would usually consider a “sprint” to be completed in under 90 seconds of glycolytic energy system performance. Remember from our needs analysis that the sprint rower will achieve greater anaerobic energy system contribution with shorter racing durations. Research indicates that 2km rowers are between 77-88% aerobic depending on the exact duration of racing, while 1km rowers may be more like 50-60% anaerobic.

Power a very important training factor for masters rowers for several reasons. First, the 1km racing distance is significantly more anaerobic than a 2km race due to the shorter duration and greater intensity. Second, rowers racing a 1km spend proportionately greater time in the start and sprint phases than those racing 2km. The ability to get off the line quickly and the ability to increase intensity near the finish is even more critical in a 1km race. Third, aging naturally leads to losses in strength and power. Masters rowers are racing in a more power-dependent environment while also losing power with each year of aging.

Strength training plays a crucial role in improving power for rowing and maintaining strength and power with aging. Anecdotally, I’ve found that masters rowers with an endurance background or no sporting background can achieve better performances with the addition of strength training, even late in life. Strength training adaptations for muscular size (hypertrophy) are primarily hormone driven and therefore less available later in life. However, the neuromuscular system is an important element of strength training adaptation, and this can be accessed at any point in one’s life and training experience. I focus more on hypertrophy with younger scullers (ie. junior/U19 and collegiate/U23) to maximize hormone-driven adaptations while they are available, and more on neuromuscular adaptations with masters rowers. The former is an approach of generally higher volume and lower intensity (ie. percentage of one-rep maximum) while the latter is generally lower volume and higher intensity.

Read More: Strength Training for Masters Rowers

Tapering and peaking has a greater performance effect on shorter duration performances with greater dependence on the muscular and neuromuscular system. We often say “fatigue masks fitness.” It is important that we remove the fatigue stimulus before racing so that full fitness can be displayed, especially with higher intensity sprint races with greater muscular emphasis.

Read More: In-Season Rowing Strength Training

Distance Race (3km+) Considerations

Power is less important for scullers who focus on distance races. However, the longer race distance typically means increased volume of rowing training. Masters rowers who train for lengthy races with similarly lengthy training sessions need to be extra careful of their strength training volume. No amount of sets and reps in a gym can simulate training for a 6km race (600 strokes…600 reps? Don’t do it.). Distance-racing scullers should consider that their endurance work is coming from erging and on-water training even more than those racing shorter durations. Focus on low volume strength and power training in the gym for stroke muscles, as well as using strength training time to train movements and muscles that rowing and erging neglects.

Scullers racing longer distances will get less performance benefit from the tapering and peaking cycles of sprint racers, due to the decreased importance of peak power. My tapering and peaking strategies for distance racers, such as those peaking for Head of the Charles, is to simply decrease volume two weeks away from the race, then decrease intensity during the first session of the week of the race, and eliminate the second session of the week of the race. This achieves the goal of increasing recovery ability by decreasing training stimulus, allowing the athlete to express their full fitness on race day.

Strength Training for Coastal Rowers

Coastal rowing is a rapidly growing competitive pursuit and requires some interesting adjustments in training and strength training. Coastal rowers compete with heavier boats. The minimum single weight is a whopping 77lbs, with doubles checking in at 132lbs and quads at 330lbs plus a coxswain. At the World Rowing Coastal Championships, rowers race in 4km and 6km races, including slalom or buoyed turns and starting and finishing the race on land (ie. out of the boat). Other coastal races exist of widely varying distances and competitive styles. Among the shortest are “beach sprints,” consisting of a 50-meter beach run to get into the boat, 250 meters out to a buoy, a sharp turn or slalom course, 250 meters back, and then a 50-meter run to to the finish line. Some coastal rowing races are significantly longer, such as the “Seventy48” race in which rowers race 70 miles in under 48 hours. My friend Greg Spooner of “RowPhysio” won this race in a double in 2019 in a staggering 10 hours and 49 minutes of continuous rowing.

All of these variables affect the training and strength training for coastal rowers versus other sprint or distance rowers. The weight of the boat is a huge factor, with coastal single rowers hauling around at least 47 more pounds per stroke than their Olympic counterparts (FISA minimums are 30lbs for an Olympic single scull but 77lbs for a coastal single scull!). Strength is comparatively more important for coastal rowers, especially for those racing short distances. For those racing long distances, training volume is even more important to manage. A coastal rower who I was coaching for the Seventy48 race had a standard weekend training session of four hours of continuous rowing or erging! There was zero room in our strength training program for anything other than what was strictly necessary for performance and reduced risk of injury. Our strength training was very low volume: one main work exercise for 2-4 sets of 3-6 reps, followed by 2-3 assistance exercises for 2-4 sets of 6-15 reps, concluding with a few sets of low intensity core work and lateral and rotational lower body movements. We were careful to plan recovery time between strength training and very lengthy continuous sessions.

Wrap Up and Strength Training for Sculling Webinar

Key points of strength training for sculling include an understanding of the specific training and competitive performance needs of the athlete, a similar strength training system for lower body where the movements are similar between sculling, erging, and sweep rowing, and a sculling-specific strength training approach for the upper body where the sculling motion differs greatly. Strength training for sculling exists to improve power production of stroke-relevant muscles (ie. lower body, back, and biceps muscles) and develop muscles and movements that sculling-only neglects, including upper body pushing, lateral, rotational, and shoulder external rotation exercises. Strength coaches of rowers should consider that scullers already do a great amount of muscular and aerobic endurance work in on-water or erg training, and focus strength training on strength, power, muscular development, and movement quality as appropriate for the individual athlete and their needs. Identifying individual differences is particularly important, as scullers can come from different athletic backgrounds ranging from former rower, endurance sport, power sport, or no sport at all. Scullers may perform in vastly different competitive tasks ranging from sprint 1km races to great distance events, with variation within this due to duration of race and specific energy system demands.

I presented on strength training for sculling to the Craftsbury Sculling Center Weekly Webinars on August 12, 2020. This was the seventh in their webinar series, with replays available of all webinars on Craftsbury’s website and on their Youtube channel. Subscribe or follow for more updates, and remember, if you like the webinars, the in-person camps are even better! Come see us in 2021 (fingers crossed) and beyond.


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