Rowers and coaches want to know a few things about scheduling strength training with rowing. How do we make different types of training work together to maximize performance and long-term adaptation to training? How do we minimize interference between the two and reduce risk of injury? In this article, we’ll discuss scheduling strength training with rowing at the seasonal, weekly, and daily levels.
Key Points: At the annual or seasonal level, we will use a periodization system to focus on specific elements of training at different times in the training year. At the weekly level, we decide to combine or separate our high intensity stressors using a consolidated or distributed model. At the daily level, for rowers who train twice in a single day, can we separate the sessions by at least six hours? If not, use strategies to minimize interference and fatigue spillover between types of training. If you prefer audio/video, I presented on this topic at the 2020 USRowing Convention, and you can watch the 15-minute clip with similar information to this article at the link below.
Table of Contents:
- Why Scheduling Matters
- Seasonal Periodization
- Weekly Scheduling
- Multiple Sessions in One Day
- USRowing Presentation Replay
Why Scheduling Matters
“How to fit in all the training” is always the question for rowers and coaches. At the junior and masters levels, session scheduling is often challenging due to external variables of outside life and non-sport responsibilities. Many junior or masters rowers would train more if they could, but they can’t due to these other variables, so scheduling the time that is available to train becomes a critical factor. Collegiate and elite rowers tend to have more time available to train, but are also training with higher volumes due to their higher training status. Scheduling sessions is a critical factor for these rowers to be able to get the most benefit from their efforts and achieve absolute peak performance.
Strength training and rowing or erging are more challenging to combine with each other than training for other sports with more diverse athletic demands. Field sports, for instance, can schedule intense strength training with low intensity skill training or even fully sedentary team strategy “film room” sessions. This option is not as available to rowers, because even our “low intensity” skill training is just more variations of full-body rowing and erging. Even against other endurance sports, rowers have a more fixed gearing than cyclists and handle heavier loads than runners or skiiers due to managing the external resistance of water. Counter-intuitively, “low intensity” long-and-low rowing or erging actually results in higher per-stroke load and often more fatigue on the rower, due to the slower movement of the boat or erg flywheel and therefore greater momentum to overcome with each stroke.
Rowing lacks a contact element (except in extreme circumstances), so most injuries in rowing are chronic or overuse injuries related to training volume, per-stroke load, progression of volume or load, and/or technique. Nearly all injuries occur during training, as very few rowers experience acute injury during racing. Repeat injuries are a major problem. History of injury is a predictor of future injury for at least low back pain and rib stress injuries in rowers. In other words, once you have one injury, you’re more likely to have another in the future. How rowers and coaches manage the training schedule has an effect on risk of injury, which has an effect on the first incidence of injury, which has an effect on total injury rates and repeat injuries.
Strength training is generally positive for building rowers’ bodies to improve performance and reduce risk of injury, but it can also be an injury risk when managed poorly or implemented inappropriately for the athlete or with the rest of the training plan. Strength training causes exercise-induced muscle damage more than forms of aerobic training like rowing and erging that don’t have an eccentric (resisted lowering) phase. Exercise-induced muscle damage can cause muscular soreness and temporary declines in performance and muscular power. We strength train, and then we’re sore and have reduced force capacity for 24-72 hours, and then we recover and gain strength and muscle. How we strength train, how we recover, and what we do in our other training all has a direct effect on performance-related adaptation to training and risk of injury.
Seasonal Scheduling: Periodization
When we’re talking about seasonal scheduling of strength training with rowing, we’re really talking about periodization. What specific qualities do we focus on when in the big picture of training?
I’ve written a lot about periodization on RowingStronger.com, and it’s the main focus of my book as well. Start with “The Basics of Strength Training for Rowing” and go from there.
The big idea of periodization is that there are too many important physical qualities in rowing to be able to train them all at the same time. To achieve peak performance in a 2km race, rowers need:
- Excellent technique, both individually and fitting with teammates in the boat
- Movement quality, both to support rowing technique and to reduce injury risk on-land
- Aerobic fitness (a 2km is between 77-88% aerobic)
- Anaerobic fitness (the remaining 12-23% is still decisive)
- The skill of racing (practicing race pace, duration, and pressure)
- Strength (total force development)
- Power (rate of force development)
- Muscle mass of the rowing and non-rowing muscles
We have time to train all of these qualities over the year of rowing training, but we cannot cram them all into a single season and expect to achieve peak performance. Doing so will either result in overtraining, due to too much training to achieve all these different goals, or poor performance, due to training going in too many different directions to achieve even a single goal.
Periodization describes the general strategy of sequencing training to develop all of these different qualities. There are different ways to periodize, but they all seek the same goal of selectively developing certain qualities, then maintaining those qualities while selectively developing others, to build to a peak performance.
For example, here is a standard periodization outline for a standard junior or collegiate 2km rower in the USA:
- Summer: General Off-Season
- Focus: Muscle mass, general aerobic fitness (ie. more cross-training)
- Maintain: Maximal strength/power and high-intensity anaerobic fitness
- Fall: Specific Off-Season
- Focus: Strength, specific aerobic fitness (ie. more rowing/erging of longer durations, often including head races)
- Maintain: Muscle mass
- Winter: Pre-Season
- Focus: Power, more anaerobic fitness (ie. specific 2km race prep)
- Maintain: Muscle mass, maximal strength, aerobic fitness
- Spring: In-Season
- Focus: Race performance
- Maintain: Strength, power, muscle mass, movement quality
The concepts are similar, but the dates are different for the USA masters rower who focuses on the 1km distance in summer racing. See “Periodization for Masters Rowers” for the adjustments.
You may not use all four phases in your periodization plan. Rowers should at least have two phases. The two-phase plan is an off-season for general physical development when not doing rigorous rowing training, and an in-season for general physical maintenance while preparing to race and racing. Rowers who only strength train in the off-season are strongest at the start of the season when it matters least, and weakest at the end of the season when it matters most!
The three-phase model is also good. Here we have a single off-season phase for general development, then a pre-season transition phase for specific development, then an in-season phase for peak performance.
The four-phase model fits rowers who focus on rowing year-round, splitting the off-season into two phases with one for general development and one for more specific development. You could divide this further, if the additional detail helps add clarity to your training program.
The key point of seasonal periodization is having a plan to focus on developing a few specific qualities over a few months of training, then a plan to maintain those qualities while focusing on developing others over the next few months of training, gradually building everything to a peak performance. This provides an adequate amount of time to develop each quality without overtraining or going in too many different directions and missing the benefit of training.
Weekly Scheduling Strategies
At the weekly level of scheduling strength training with rowing, the critical question is whether to consolidate or distribute training stressors.
Consolidated training means scheduling strength training with high intensity erging or rowing, and then using low intensity erging or rowing days as rest days from strength training. We keep the high stress training together on a single day, and then use the low stress days for recovery, to balance the stress levels over the whole week.
Distributed training means splitting up high and low intensity training. For example, strength training would occur on a low intensity or off day from rowing and erging, and then high intensity erging or rowing would occur on an off day from strength training. This balances stress levels over each day of training.
See an example below of these two main types of scheduling.
There is no research yet indicating greater efficacy of consolidated or distributed training models. Either way can work depending on your schedule, preferences, and style of training.
In my experience, consolidated models tend to work better with younger rowers who can recover more quickly between sessions, and who are used to training multiple times in a single day. We will discuss daily scheduling for combined sessions more in the next section. Masters rowers often lack the time or recovery to be able to train twice in one day, and tend to use the distributed model. Rowers may be able to get more out of a week of training using the consolidated model, but more out of each individual training session with the distributed model.
Same-Day Scheduling Strength Training with Rowing
When you’re training both in the same day, should you do strength training first and then rowing, or rowing first and then strength training?
This is a part of training life for most collegiate and high-performance rowers, as well as many masters rowers, working to fit higher volumes of training into a single week with greater control over their training schedule. We have two main considerations in this answer.
The biggest consideration is injury risk from fatigue from one type of training affecting the next type of training. Unlike many other sports, rowing and erging are unavoidably full-body activities. Strength training then calls on the same muscle groups from rowing and erging, so we have to be careful about fatigue from one kind of training spilling over to the next kind of training.
Injuries to the spine, ribs, and shoulders are common overuse injuries in rowers who generate too much fatigue on the same areas of the body without adequate recovery. Low back pain is the most common rowing injury, resulting in the highest frequency of missed training sessions, and the agonizingly slow recovery process of rib stress injuries results in the most total missed training days. As a strength coach, I want to do everything that I can to reduce risk of these injuries.
The second consideration is the concurrent training interference effect. This describes the phenomenon by which training for both muscular strength and aerobic endurance can conflict with each other, resulting in less adaptation than if we just trained either strength or endurance. When people talk about “cardio kills your gains” or “strength training makes you slow,” they are talking about the interference effect.
Training for strength and training for endurance close together can send a conflicting physiological signal, which can result in diminished adaptation from training. However, rowing is neither a pure power sport nor a pure endurance sport, so we have to figure out a way to train for both muscular strength and power and aerobic fitness and endurance. Also, please note the “can” words in that first sentence. Much of the current research on the interference effect is more theoretical than practical. There are plenty of examples demonstrating that concurrent training can still significantly improve both strength and endurance performance, just maybe not totally maximally compared to purely focusing on one type of training.
Ideal World Double Sessions
In the ideal world, we simply separate aerobic training and strength training apart from each other by at least eight hours. Use the time in-between sessions to rest, hydrate, eat, and move around, and there should be minimal interference between the two types of training.
There is no clear difference in effectiveness between doing strength training in the morning and rowing training in the evening, or rowing training in the morning and strength training in the evening. Pick the one that fits your schedule and preferences better. If you can make either way work equally well, then there might be some benefit to “sleeping on the priority” to maximize recovery from the main goal. For example, a rower focused on muscle gain in the off-season would do aerobic training in the morning, and then strength training in the evening. This daily schedule has the rower spend the most amount of hours and the highest quality time (ie. sleep) recovering from strength training without another subsequent training stimulus.
On combined training days in general, keep the strength training lower volume with most sets in the rep range of 3-12. Using compound, multi-joint exercises in the 12+ rep range starts to present a similar physiological stimulus to something like high intensity erging and rowing. The similar physiological stimulus is more likely to cause training interference than keeping the two types of training more clearly differentiated. Focus on strength and power in strength training (<12 reps per set), and leave the longer duration efforts (30+ seconds) to the rowing and erging training.
Avoid strength training to technical or muscular failure. This is extra stress and strain on the muscular and skeletal structures, compared to strength training around RPE7-9 in the “challenging, but manageable” sweet spot. Training to failure is not necessary for gaining strength and muscle mass, and it can increase risk of injury and fatigue spillover when combined with rowing and erging.
Double Session Compromises
The ideal world isn’t always achievable, and sometimes rowers cannot separate sessions by eight hours. In these circumstances, we can use some specific training strategies to reduce fatigue spillover and minimize potential interference between training types.
First, strength train two or three times per week during the off-season, and then reduce to just once or twice per week during the in-season or race prep phase. If you are doing year-round strength training, you can build up enough progress and momentum in the off-season to carry you through a phase of reduced strength training during the in-season. One harder session and one easier session, or two moderate sessions, during in-season training is adequate to at least maintain your improvement from the off-season. Attempting to strength train more than two or three times per week will not leave enough room in the training program for the increased rowing training and performance focus.
When you have to do strength training and rowing or erging close together, strength train first and then do your rowing, erging, or other aerobic training. The prior strength training will negatively affect the subsequent rowing or erging less than prior erging or rowing will affect subsequent strength training.
If you are doing a distributed model with high and low intensity training separated, you will be combining strength training with a low intensity aerobic training session. Use heart rate or blood lactate for the subsequent aerobic training, rather than split or watts. Low-intensity training based on physiological indicators is more responsive to prior fatigue, rather than training based on performance indicators like split or watts. You could also use low-intensity cross-training here to still work the aerobic system while reducing load on the spine and ribs, such as stationary cycling, jogging, or fast walking.
If you are doing a consolidated model with high and low intensity training combined, you will be combining strength training with a high intensity interval session. We tend to use split and watts here, because heart rate or blood lactate isn’t as good of a guide when the output durations are under 30 seconds. Lower your output expectations slightly for at least the first several combined sessions, due to prior fatigue from strength training potentially affecting results. Keep high intensity training truly high on combined days. This means work durations under 30 seconds, work-to-rest intervals of at least 1:1 if not 1:2 or 1:3, effort and stroke rate high during work intervals, and total session time under 30 minutes. This will help minimize fatigue spillover and physiological interference.
If you absolutely have to do erging or rowing before strength training in a combined session, then you will likely need to reduce both the volume and the intensity of the subsequent strength training due to prior fatigue. How much you need to adjust will depend on the details of the prior erging or rowing session. Low intensity aerobic training can still fatigue the legs, trunk, and back muscles from maintaining the rowing posture for long durations. High intensity training fatigues these same muscles more from achieving high outputs over repeated intervals. Cognitive fatigue from pushing hard, focusing on technique, and sticking to split targets will also affect subsequent mental focus and physical output. Rowers will struggle to perform full-body exercises like squat and deadlift variations with good technique due to prior fatigue, and technique will degrade more rapidly under high loads (85%1RM+) or high reps (12+).
My approach during such times of absolute necessity has been one of very moderate strength training, with main work exercises between 3-5 sets of 4-8 only somewhat challenging reps (RPE6-7), and assistance work exercises between 2-4 sets of 8-12 reps, and total session time under 45 minutes. Rowers should self-select weights to use for each set based on how fatigued hey are from prior training. A rigid progression or percentage-based strength training program is unlikely to be successful due to the variable fatigue levels from prior erging and rowing.
USRowing Presentation Replay
I co-presented at the 2020 USRowing Convention with Blake Gourley and Joe DeLeo on strength training for rowing. I did my section on the main three scheduling considerations of the seasonal, weekly, and daily level. Watch it at the link below [16:30].