Long-term athlete development (LTAD) describes the habitual development of general athletic qualities to improve health, fitness, sport performance, reduce risk of injury, and improve confidence and competence in the physical domain. Rowing LTAD begins with general LTAD and gradually progresses through stages of development to improve rowing performance over many years, not just weeks, months, and seasons.
Key Points: Rowing LTAD means building capacity for long-term improvement in rowing, as well as other athletic skills for well-rounded, holistic development. Rather than focusing on short-term performance improvement, an LTAD view can still improve performance, plus reduce risk of injury, increase engagement in sport training, and help athletes be physically active for life. LTAD practices look different at different chronological ages, stages of development, and for athletes with different motivations. I presented on strength training for rowing LTAD at a USRowing event, and you can watch the replay at the link below.
Table of Contents:
- Webinar: Rowing LTAD Strength Training
- Rowing LTAD Fundamentals
- Stage One: Youth <12 years old
- Stage Two: Youth 10-12 and Recreational Juniors 13-18
- Stage Three: Competitive Juniors 13-19
- Stage Four: High-Performance 17+
- Stage Five: Row/Fit for Life
- Additional Resources
Webinar: Rowing LTAD Strength Training
I am a contributing author on the USRowing “American Development Model” taskforce. Our goal is to adapt the general, all-sport USOPC model to a specific rowing LTAD model with practical advice and useful resources for rowers and coaches in the USA.
We presented the current model at a USRowing event in January of 2021. I led a panel discussion on the general model development, and then did an individual presentation on how strength training fits into the rowing LTAD goals and developmental approach. You can check out the new website here (currently in soft roll-out mode) and watch my presentation below. This article contains similar information to the webinar.
Rowing LTAD Fundamentals
While strength training is important to improve rowing performance, it is perhaps more important as a means of developing non-rowing performance. Developing athletic skills not directly trained by the sport itself is a major part of LTAD. Rowing training alone can only develop so many athletic qualities. The stroke is a complicated skill itself, but it is also a homogenous one compared to all sport skills. Unlike field sport athletes, rowers do the same general movement pattern essentially all of the time that we train for our sport. Rowing is a concentric-only movement that occurs mostly in the sagittal plane using flexion and extension movements. Strength training offers opportunities to train all of the different types of athletic and movement skills that the rowing stroke does not.
A great way to conceptualize all of these different skills is the Athletic Motor Skill Competencies (AMSC). This is a categorization system for eight major types of athletic motor skills, including:
- Lower body unilateral: movements using one leg at a time, such as single-leg hopping and jumping, skipping, jumping rope, etc.
- Lower body bilateral: movements using two legs at a time, such as double-leg jumping, squatting, and perhaps rowing or erging.
- Upper body pushing: bilaterally and/or unilaterally pushing an object with the hands in the horizontal and vertical direction, such as pushups and pressing overhead.
- Upper body pulling: bilaterally and/or unilaterally pulling an object with the hands in the horizontal and vertical direction, such as bodyweight rows, monkey bars, pull-ups, etc.
- Antirotation and core bracing: the ability to stabilize the torso, with and without movement at the extremities (ie. arms and legs).
- Jumping, landing, and rebounding mechanics: moving the body through space in a dynamic way. Begin with landing mechanics first, to teach how to land safely and effectively, and then progress to jumping and rebounding. Most youth jump training should be lower intensity (ie. height/distance of jump) and higher volume, focusing on exercises like skipping, bounding, and jumping rope before progressing to box jumps, depth jumps, tuck jumps, etc.
- Throwing, catching, and grasping: bilaterally and unilaterally manipulating another object in space with the hands, often requiring power development or stability in the legs, stability and transfer of power in the torso, and athletic sequencing and propulsive force in the arms and hands.
- Acceleration, deceleration, and re-acceleration: usually in the running context, this includes the ability to speed up, slow down, and speed up after slowing down, but this can also be broadened out to skills like skating, cycling, and jumping rope that involve manipulating different speeds of activity.
Broadly speaking, the AMSCs are the basis of physical education. These are the basic skills required to become a well-rounded, successful athlete. How many modern athletes in the USA actually develop these skills without having to do remedial training? Think about yourself or the athletes you coach. How would your training, coaching, or personal performance be different with this comprehensive development?
There are a variety of social problems negatively affecting LTAD in the modern athlete. One of the biggest is the defunding of physical education opportunities for young people. PE class used to be a way that most young people in the USA were at least exposed to these different skills. We can debate the effectiveness of the methods used to develop these skills, but it’s hard to make a case for broad development without exposure or built-in curricular opportunities to experience different forms of physical movement. At the same time, youth sports have become commodified and opportunities for children to engage in free play have been reduced or eliminated.
Even among youths who do play sports, most quit by age 11 and children from low-income homes quit six times as much as children from high-income homes. More children are sedentary now than ever before. As PE class has been reduced or eliminated, and as youth sport participation has become commodified, youth strength training has become more of a privilege of the affluent. Parents must be willing and able to afford to invest in private sector strength coaching or a structured gym experience for their young developing athlete, which is unfeasible financially and unrealistic practically for all but the most wealthy, informed, and motivated. Many young athletes do no strength training until high school, or even college, and rely on specialized participation in their sport for all of their athletic development.
This creates a challenging environment for LTAD. I believe that sport coaches have a moral responsibility with huge practical upside to incorporate LTAD fundamentals into their sport training. Recognize that the youth athletic participation opportunities that we (adult coaches born before the mid-1990s) enjoyed are unavailable, unaffordable, impractical, or at least unpopular for the modern young athlete. In their absence elsewhere, we should create those opportunities in our own coaching context as part of the sport experience. High school rowers and younger rowers should not just row, erg, and do repetitive land training designed to improve specific rowing performance. Row, maybe erg, and do diverse land training to improve AMSCs, and coaches and rowers will reap the rewards of LTAD.
The USRowing ADM is a non-linear model with overlap in chronological age between stages. Chronological age is only one indicator of stage-based development. We also need to look at developmental age, or the athlete’s physical and mental maturity, as well as training age, or amount of experience with a specific sport or type of training. We add to this with a consideration of the athlete’s motivation and access to rowing coaching and training. Even during the teenage years, not all rowers will want to or be able to participate in a competitive rowing program. These rowers can still be successful from a performance context in Stage 4 as a collegiate rower. These factors are specific to rowing given the sociocultural context of the sport, so our model and training needs to match this reality.
Stage One: Youth <12 years old
Children are not miniature adults. We need different training methods for the childhood level of physiological and psychological development, as well as general training experience.
AMSC development is the big idea for Stage 1 strength training. Rowing is not a sport of young teenage “phenoms” who compete at the top levels, the way we see with baseball, soccer, and other more mainstream sports. It takes a long time to develop the physical build, physiological capacity, technical ability, and racing experience to succeed at the highest levels of rowing. Early specialization in childhood, youth, or even teenage years is not necessary or even necessarily productive for top-level success in rowing. We want to use these first few stages to develop general athletic ability, cardiovascular fitness, muscular strength, and most importantly, a personal passion for physical fitness, activity, and sports.
Many youths under age 12 are not even thinking about or participating in Olympic-style rowing due to a lack of age-appropriate equipment. Child-sized boats exist, but are still scarce in boathouses for practical use. Children should not use adult-sized equipment due to the excessive loading from oars with too large surface area and boats that are too heavy, plus the technical challenges of using oar handles with too great diameter or sitting too high out of the water in an adult-sized boat. Erging is already the least fun part of rowing training with the greatest amount of injuries, and most ergometers are not adjustable for child-sized use. I do not think that children should be without a strong self-directed desire, and even then, it should be done for fun (such as it is) and not for performance or any notion of future rowing development, and certainly not in pursuit of or admiration for youth or teenage “world records.”
Whether you have rowing equipment or not, training for the under-12 child is mostly about inspiring a passion for physical recreation, safe use of waterways, and basic athletic movement and coordination. Strength training can fit into this as a part of physical recreation, not as specific training for sport performance. I’ve updated one of the first articles I wrote on this site, “Youth Strength Training,” with research, methods, and more information from my experience coaching young athletes.
Read More: Youth Strength Training
Stage Two: Youth 10-12 and Recreational Juniors 13-18
A Stage 2 rower could be a middle school rower (age 10-12) who intends to participate in competitive rowing in high school. Due to chronological and developmental age, this rower is not ready to train like a high school rower. The goal of Stage 2 for this rower is to maintain enjoyment of and enthusiasm for rowing, while preparing them to train and perform at the next level as an adolescent athlete.
A Stage 2 rower could also be a high school age rower who engages in rowing primarily for personal and social benefits, ie. a community or recreational rowing program. This could include a novice (first-year high schooler) or “junior varsity” type of athlete, who still wants to show up, row hard, and have fun, but doesn’t rate competitive performance as a high priority like they would in Stage 3. This rower may participate in the same seasonal rowing program and may still race at local events, but probably doesn’t care much about their 2km erg time, maintaining training volume through the off-season, or participating in off-season camp-style events and development programs.
By using different programs, different practice times, or different team boats for these different types of athletes, coaches can consider athlete motivation as a factor in appropriate training planning. A Stage 2 junior rower who is given the space to participate according to their own motivation can still decide later if they want to try to walk-on to a collegiate program or engage with more high-performance rowing later in life. Given the long development of a top-level competitive rower, there is no inherent need to focus on specialized performance in high school.
Strength training is an appropriate and healthy part of physical training and recreation for both of these types of Stage 2 rowers.
Early Stage 2: The middle school rower can use this time to improve athletic coordination via the AMSCs (particularly if not introduced as a young child) and learn basic strength training movements. For those who intend to move on to Stage 3 and competitive high school rowing, this serves the purpose of “learn to train,” a phrase from other long-term athlete development models, building a foundation for future training and performance. This kind of strength training can be a mix of AMSC-style activities and moderate conventional strength training. Middle schoolers should strength train with the goal of technical development, not maximal strength or muscle mass that they don’t have the hormonal power or physical structure for, with 5-8 bodyweight exercises or low-load free-weight exercises per training session in the range of 3-5 sets of 5-15 reps. High-rep sets of 15+ are likely to result in technical breakdown as attention fades, ingraining bad motor habits. Relying on machine-based exercises fails to develop full-body coordination and athletic ability that is the goal of this stage of development.
Late Stage 2: The high school rower who participates in rowing primarily for personal recreation and social benefits can learn strength training as a physical activity for life. Strength training offers an engaging and productive way to use land training time and off-seasons away from racing season. This strength training does not need to be “rowing-specific,” since specific performance isn’t a primary goal for these rowers, and can borrow strength training methods as athlete motivation and interest indicates from bodybuilding, powerlifting, Crossfit, Olympic weightlifting, and beyond. Engagement and consistency to keep athletes having fun and coming back are the primary goals of Stage 2.
Stage Three: Competitive Juniors 13-19
Stage 3 exists for the high school aged athlete who wishes to prioritize competitive rowing ability. High school rowers may move between Stage 2 and Stage 3 at any point as their motivation determines. Stage 2 is not a prerequisite for Stage 3, as many rowers begin rowing in a competitive high school program as their first experience in the sport.
This is the “train to train” stage, again borrowing a phrase from another long-term athlete development model. We are building capacity for future performance. Most high school rowers are not immediately prepared for competitive success in junior rowing, given the demands of physical build, physiological fitness, and technique individually and in team boats. Coaches need to gradually build-up junior rowers in training status, rowing ability, and exposure to increasingly challenging competitive situations.
Strength training in Stage 3 is still mostly about general athletic development, but begins to focus on specific rowing performance enhancement as rowers gain training experience. A junior rower who engaged in Stage 1 AMSC development and Stage 2 “learn to train” fundamentals may progress more quickly than a rower experiencing sports, rowing, and/or strength training for the first time.
I broadly categorize Stage 3 rowers in to three strength training categories: beginner, intermediate, and advanced. It’s important to note that this is for strength training, not for rowing. An athlete could be talented and skilled in rowing due to physical build, physiological fitness, and/or technical ability, but have no strength training experience or be deficient in physical strength, muscle mass, and/or athletic coordination. Coaches of Stage 3 rowers should be aware that the best rowers may not also be the best lifters, or have the best physical movement coordination outside of the boat and erg. Consider rowing ability separate from general physical coordination and strength train appropriately for the individual athlete.
Beginner Stage 3 rowers are mostly first-year and second-year high schoolers, in the early stages of puberty, and/or have little or no strength training experience. These rowers are more like middle school Stage 2 athletes and need a basic introduction to AMSCs and basic strength training exercises of the squat, hinge, push, and pull categories. Begin with bodyweight, low loads, and moderate strain, and then progress to the next phase.
Intermediate Stage 3 rowers have gone through the beginner phase and have at least three months of structured strength training experience. A younger intermediate athlete who is in early puberty or pre-puberty will use a slightly different strength training plan than an older intermediate athlete who is in late or post-puberty. Both of these intermediate athletes are competent at the basic fundamental strength training movements and can begin to increase strength training volume and intensity to train for physical development and specific rowing performance outcomes.
Advanced Stage 3 athletes have at least 12 months of structured strength training experience and are in late puberty or post-puberty. The major goal of strength training at this stage is building strength, power, and muscle mass to improve rowing performance and prepare for Stage 4 rowing and strength training. It is important to have both prerequisites of developmental age and training age, so that athletes are physically prepared for and gain more benefit from a greater level of strength training.
I’ve written a lot more about specific training methods for these three phases within Stage 3, so check that out on the USRowing ADM website.
Stage 3 is where we can see some of the biggest differences between male and female rowers. Females go through puberty earlier than males, approximately age 12-14 versus 13-16. Females typically reach peak height velocity by 12 and peak height by 15, while males typically reach peak height velocity at 14 and peak height by 18. This matters more in Stage 3 competitive rowing when we increase focus on training and preparing for performance. Females who learn to row in high school with a more fully developed physical build may achieve a more consistent technique than males who learn to row during puberty while their body is growing rapidly. However, the influence of the menstrual cycle can create inconsistent physical performance and disrupt training for females. Coaches should know basics of physical development and be prepared to discuss this maturely and productively with young athletes.
There is no inherent biological need for different strength training methods with male and female rowers. There may be sociocultural and individual factors. For example, female athletes are often not introduced to strength training and physical fitness as early as male athletes are, or in the same ways that male athletes are. This can create a cultural lag in physical development and require different training approaches during adolescence.
If all athletes develop AMSCs in Stage 1 and “learn to train” fundamentals in Stage 2, Stage 3 strength training can be essentially the same for both males and females. Anecdotally, female junior rowers most often have no strength training experience and need to begin with Stage 2 style strength training, and then be encouraged to develop more strain-style strength training in Stage 3. Male junior rowers often have at least an introduction to strength training, but need more development time and focus on exercise technique without high degrees of strain in Stage 3.
I do not believe in a point of diminishing returns from strength training for Stage 2 or Stage 3 junior rowers. Coaches and rowers often ask me variations on the question of “how strong is strong enough?” to achieve various performances in rowing. Asking this question from the perspective of junior rowing implies that junior rowing performance is the end goal or result for the athlete. Junior rowing is just Stage 3! If we determine that an athlete is “strong enough” in high school and stop or minimize strength training, what happens when they go to the next level? They may go from “strong enough” at one level to “too weak” at the next level. Now they have to catch up to the new standard of performance, instead of continuing to train with a focus on long-term development.
Stage Four: High-Performance 17+
Stage 4 strength training can begin in high school for the developmentally mature and highly experienced high school senior who intends to row in college. This rower may do recruitment events or development camps during the non-racing off-season. Stage 4 also includes collegiate rowers and high-performance post-collegiate rowers, such as those in U23 programs, resident high-performance centers, and Olympic-level training programs.
Strength training in Stage 4 is the most nuanced of all stages. The goal of strength training for the Stage 4 rowers is maximizing competitive ability and reducing risk of rowing injuries. Increasing muscle mass, strength, and power are important for competitive success in rowing, as is reducing injuries. Injuries negatively affect ability to perform and also cause interruption in training time and competition. Reducing injuries also improves whole-team competitiveness, as this results in more rowers pushing each other, more rowers available for seat selection, and more rowers gaining competitive experience.
The two main principles for consideration in Stage 4 are individualization and periodization.
Individualization is important because rowers have different backgrounds, different strengths and weaknesses, and different needs. These individual differences require different training methods to reach peak performance. Some rowers may need more focus on gaining muscle mass, others may need more maximal strength, others may need to improve power most of all, while others may be proficient from a strength training approach and only need a maintenance approach while pursuing specific goals in endurance and rowing. Rowing coaches need to be qualified and prepared to coach in all of these different circumstances, or hire a strength coach who is educated, certified, and knowledgeable to assist with development.
Periodization describes strategies to develop specific sport qualities while maintaining others. Stage 4 rowers are capable of training at significantly greater outputs than Stage 3 rowers. It is not possible to train all qualities to a peak simultaneously or maintain peak performance year-round. Periodization is necessary to manage specific development and maintenance over a full season, year, or quadrennial of training to peak the important qualities at the right time for best performance. I have written a lot about periodization on this website and in my book, and more in the Stage 4 strength training page on the ADM website.
Unlike Stages 2 and 3, Stage 4 is the point at which the “diminishing returns” concept may come into play. An advanced Stage 4 athlete and rower might be “strong enough,” however you choose to determine this, so we can individualize and periodize their training to focus on other more needed qualities to achieve peak performance. This does not necessarily mean eliminate strength training entirely. Even the Kiwi Pair of Murray and Bond, who became something of a meme for their rumored anti-strength training stance, still did bodyweight, plyometric, resistance band, and core work (and Murray himself says that strength training is essential for developing rowers and those rowing team boats). At the point of diminishing returns where more strength, power, and muscle mass is not worth the continued investment of training time, energy, and recovery, scale back strength training to a level appropriate for the individual to maintain. Such a rower might get all the strength training they need in via the warmup, or do a single weekly session, or only strength train in the off-season for maintenance and do none or very little during the in-season phase.
Coaches of Stage 4 rowers need to be particularly careful during return-to-train phases when athletes are returning to routine training following a phase of reduced training or time away from training. This includes returning from injury, illness, and vacation, as well as phases of significantly increased training, such as training camps. The return-to-train phase sees the greatest amount of injuries of any other training phase. Instead of max effort erg tests, “Hell Weeks,” and “trying to catch up,” immediately following a break, athletes need to be gradually progressed from a detrained state to their prior fully trained state, and then beyond. We cannot rush or force adaptation, and trying to do so often results in injuries like low back pain, rib stress injuries, and even major illness like sudden cardiac death, exertional rhabdomyolysis, and exertional heat illness. Stage 4 rowers are particularly vulnerable to return-to-train injuries to the high training loads and ability to push themselves extremely hard.
Stage Five: Row/Fit for Life
A main goal of the ADM and rowing LTAD in general is helping rowing and physical fitness become a lifelong pursuit for athletes. Unlike many other sports, rowing offers participatory and competitive team and individual opportunities for all ages. If desired, someone could begin rowing as a child and not stop until death.
Athletic participation in rowing via a masters program or erg racing is one of three main lifelong options for rowers to continue engaging with rowing. Rowers in the post-collegiate Stage 5 “Row for Life” stage could row with a masters team program, individually via single sculling, and/or erg, either competitively in the age-based competition system or as part of recreational personal fitness.
USRowing is developing an additional ADM for masters rowers, recognizing that the pathways, resources, and training methods for masters rowing are significantly different than junior rowing, and that one single model would not be sufficiently detailed for both populations. In the meantime, please browse the masters resources available on my website, participate in USRowing masters-focused events (like the “Masters Monday” track at the 2021 Virtual Convention), read additional masters sport resources such as the Coaching Masters Athletes website and their excellent book, “Coaching Masters Athletes,” and other resources for masters athletes and rowers.
Part of my goal as a strength coach is to teach a physical fitness activity for life. Young rowers can continue strength training anywhere that there is a gym or available equipment, whether they continue rowing or not. This is why specific enhancement of rowing performance is only part of the ADM model, mostly for Stage 3 and Stage 4, while the rest of the goals and stages focus on enjoyment of physical training. The “Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans” document by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that adults do “muscle-strengthening activities of moderate or greater intensity for all major muscle groups on two or more days a week,” in addition to moderate and vigorous aerobic exercise. This is obviously quite a broad recommendation, but the point is that strength training is a healthy part of physical fitness and personal recreation for life–if we teach and coach it that way!
Adults can also participate in rowing via the “mentor” option. This includes coaching, refereeing, assisting with program management or governance, and more. These are ways to continue to engage with rowing for life without necessarily sitting down and rowing. I started coaching in college, and it’s a great joy for me that former rowers who I coached are now contacting me for advice as they begin coaching as adults.
Additional Rowing LTAD Resources
There are very few specific rowing LTAD resources out there besides our USRowing ADM. That’s why we developed it! However, there are lots of good general LTAD resources that we used for information and inspiration throughout our development process. See the links below for additional LTAD reading and learning.
The National Strength and Conditioning Association has convened taskforces over the years including sport coaches, strength coaches, and medical professionals to create position statements summarizing the best available research and best practices on specific topics. These position statements are free to the public.
NSCA Coach is a quarterly digital magazine published by the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Unlike its other academic publications of the Strength and Conditioning Journal and the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, NSCA Coach is written in a conversational tone with an emphasis on coach experience and practical application. The articles are still researched, include citations, and reviewed by an editorial board before publishing. LTAD and youth strength training is a frequent topic in the journal. NSCA Coach is only available to NSCA members, so work with a certified coach in your network to gain access.
The IYCA is a private company dedicated to youth sport and strength and conditioning training practices for parents and coaches. Their free blog features a mix of big picture coaching discussion of youth training and LTAD fundamentals, as well as specific methods and coaching practices aimed at youth training.
Rowing Canada and British Rowing LTAD
Rowing Canada uses a 6-stage model and British Rowing uses a 4-stage model focused on junior and high-performance rowing. These documents are both different from the USRowing 5-stage ADM, although we’re all seeking the same answers of how to create the best athlete outcomes in competitiveness, lifelong sport participation, and life benefit outside of sport. Readers can take and incorporate different elements and resources from the different models for your own coaching or training context.