I’ve worked with many coaches and rowers of all ages, types, and levels who are ready to start strength training for rowing, but just don’t know exactly when to start, what to do, and how to progress from there. In this article, we’ll cut through the mass of information and get right to action with a simple system to start strength training for rowing, including free example beginner strength training sessions.
Key Points: When you’re ready to start strength training for rowing, the initial goals are introducing different and possibly new ways of moving the body, practicing the technique of basic strength training exercises, and beginning to build a foundation of coordination and muscular strength. Rowers starting strength training should avoid using high loads or high reps due to technique breakdown, instead focusing efforts on more moderate outputs in the 8-15-rep range with an emphasis on good technique and a controlled lifting tempo. The 30-30-for-30 circuit training system offers a simple way to achieve all of these goals in a 30-minute strength training session appropriate for rowers of all ages, types, and competitive levels starting or restarting strength training.
Table of Contents:
- Who should start strength training for rowing?
- Goals of beginning strength training
- Common mistakes of early strength training
- The 30-30-for-30 system
- Example strength training sessions
- When to start strength training for rowing
- Combining strength training and rowing
- Progressing to the next level
Who Should Start Strength Training for Rowing?
A common question is who or what kind of rowers should start strength training, and at what age or point in a rower’s career they should start strength training for rowing. I’m biased as a strength coach, of course, but my answer is that everyone should be strength training, and start as soon as possible!
Strength training offers benefits to all ages, types, and levels of rowers.
For young rowers, strength training is a way to grow physically, athletically, and socially outside of just rowing and erging. It’s a valuable form of engaging with one’s body and the skills of physical movement, and it offers a form of exercise that can be done anywhere anytime for the rest of life. Not all young rowers will continue rowing through high school, college, and adulthood, so having strength training experience (and hopefully enjoyment) offers a form of recreational exercise that they can continue to participate in no matter what. For young rowers who are interested in competitive rowing and stick with it to the next levels, building strength takes time, so the sooner you start the more benefit you’ll get later.
Competitive high school, collegiate, and post-collegiate rowers will likely care more about the benefits of strength training to rowing and erging performance. See my article, “Why Strength Matters in Rowing,” for the simple math on how increasing strength decreases per-stroke effort and increases endurance. If you want fast starts to stay with the pack, power moves to get ahead, and blazing sprints to stay ahead at the finish, this top-end stroke power all begins with the primary quality of strength. Masters rowers racing 1km will find even more performance benefit in the greater anaerobic qualities of the shorter race duration and the competitive advantage of staving off age-related decline versus their non-strength-training competitors.
Read More: Strength Training for Masters Rowers
Recreational rowers of any age will likely care more about the benefits of strength training in the rest of life beyond rowing. Rowing is great for aerobic fitness and enjoyment of the outdoors, waterways, and other rowers. Erging is one of the most efficient full-body cardiovascular workouts possible. Strength training offers a valuable dimension in a physical fitness and long-term health and wellness program to improve physical strength, muscle size, bone mineral density, psychological well-being, and quality of life in later adulthood by counteracting age-related physical changes.
Pick what motivates YOU and find a way to strength train for those benefits!
Goals of Beginning Strength Training
Coaches and rowers often say, “If we want to do strength training, we just do high-damper sets of 10 strokes on the erg or row eights by pairs.” This may improve your stroke peak power, but misses the mark as strength training for the main reason that it’s only strengthening the movement pattern and muscles that are already strong from rowing and erging. In addition to the specific benefits above, strength training offers an opportunity to train:
- Eccentric muscle actions: This is the lowering phase of an exercise where muscles are lengthening to absorb force. We don’t get this from the unloaded recovery phase when rowing, and it’s a crucial element for muscular development, bone mineral density, and many benefits outside of direct improvement to rowing performance.
- Multi-plane movement: We do a lot of sagittal plane flexion and extension when rowing and erging, but very little lateral and rotational movement. Even when we do get some rotational movement, it’s usually to one side only for the sweep rower.
- Single-limb coordination: Rowing is a bilateral sport, using both arms and legs at the same time in mostly the same way. Life and most other forms of athletic movement happen with alternating arms and legs.
- Full range-of-motion (ROM): Rowing works the legs through a large ROM, the hips through a moderate ROM, and the upper body through a fairly small ROM. We can develop all body parts with strength training through a greater active ROM for more comprehensive development.
Whatever your age and motivations, the main goals of starting strength training for rowing are learning these new and possibly different ways of moving the body, practicing the technique of basic strength training exercises, and beginning to build a foundation of coordination and muscular strength. Strength training has to start here first just to develop the initial skill set before the athlete can pursue more specific goals.
People new to strength training can make rapid improvements at first, often referred to as “newbie gains.” We can see benefits to athletic coordination in a very short amount of training time, even within a single session or in a matter of days with good instruction and attentive learning. This early stage learning is important to build movement patterns, simply learning at the cognitive and physical levels how to organize bodyparts to produce efficient and effective motion.
We can see improvements in strength (weight or reps) within the first month or two of beginning basic strength training. These changes begin with improved movement patterns, because it’s hard to increase force output when movement is highly variable. Achieving consistent movement with good technique alone will help increase weight and reps. These changes continue with improved nervous system coordination. This is how effectively the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) transmits the signal to create force to the peripheral nervous system (muscles), and how efficiently the muscles move the joints to produce force. These changes occur fairly quickly and without much necessary change in muscle size.
We can then see increased muscle size and changing body composition (muscle size and body fat) within about three months of beginning strength training. This assumes that the athlete is at or beyond puberty and is recovering enough by eating, sleeping, and hydrating to gain muscle or lose body fat. Increasing muscle size is a somewhat complicated product of muscular stress from training, the presence of muscle-growing hormones, and a balance of training and recovery. If the muscle stress is not high enough, if the athlete is not hormonally ready, and/or if the athlete is not recovering from training due to insufficient calories, rest, or water, or too high an amount of training, then they may not gain significant muscle size. The athlete can still increase strength by improving physical and nervous system coordination, up to a point. This is how children before puberty, athletes maintaining a light bodyweight through calorie restriction, and older masters athletes can still improve strength without necessarily increasing muscle size.
As you can see from this multiple-month progression, we are not really training for specific goals before the athlete has covered the basics of learning the movements, improving their physical and nervous system coordination, and beginning to build basic strength and muscle size.
Common Mistakes of Early Strength Training
Common mistakes of starting strength training include skipping too quickly past the technical practice and learning stage, pursuing sport-specific or exercise-specific goals too soon, focusing on progressing only one variable of strength training (such as weight or reps), and expecting performance results too early in the training process.
Young athletes before and during puberty need to focus most on athletic motor skill competencies (AMSCs), including basic coordination to move the lower body unilaterally and bilaterally, push and pull with the upper body, rotate and brace the torso, and mechanics of jumping, landing, rebounding, throwing, catching, grasping, accelerating, decelerating, and reaccelerating. These are all higher-order athletic skills that have some overlap with basic strength training, but go far beyond an overly simplified conventional strength training program.
All athletes during and after puberty need to focus on basic movement patterns before progressing to a strength training program that focuses on load, reps, and sport-specific training. In addition to the AMSCs above, this includes the broad movements of squat, hinge, push, pull, hip lateral and rotational movement, and core stability and coordination.
Instruction is a key component of learning these basic movements to make sure you’re starting off right. Most people can find a qualified strength coach or personal trainer to teach basic exercises from those fundamental movement categories. This instruction should be followed by a phase of 2-3 weeks for a faster learner or 2-3 months for a slower learner in a practice environment seeking to master these basic movements with lower fatigue, using no load (ie. bodyweight) or low loads (ie. dumbbell, kettlebell, resistance band). Once the basic movements are mastered, begin to focus on increasing load and/or reps in a conventional strength training program design.
The physical skills progression goes from coordination, then to strength, then to power and/or endurance. The athlete cannot begin training for strength (as measured by load of the exercise) before they are coordinated in the basic mechanics of the movement to begin increasing the load without sacrificing technique. Power and endurance develop concurrently with strength at the early stage of training, without need of additional specific training. Power is the measurement of how quickly the athlete can develop force, while endurance is the measurement of how long in duration the athlete can repeat force. Both of these require force as the first input, and that means training for strength (force) before speed (power) and duration (endurance). Also, most rowers get plenty of endurance training from rowing and erging and do not need to further increase this stimulus via strength-endurance training. Keep the strength in strength training!
Exercises must be scaled to the level of the athlete with these considerations in mind. For example, the kettlebell swing is a dynamic exercise that inherently prioritizes power. Trainees will struggle to do the exercise at all, let alone progress to higher weights (power) or higher reps (endurance), before they are coordinated in the general movement pattern of the hip hinge and sufficiently strong in the basic hinge movements and muscles.
Scaling applies to bodyweight exercises as well. I coached a young rower once in a high school strength training clinic who told me she wanted to learn how to do a pushup, because her coach, “always says that [her] pushup technique sucks.” She struggled through a half-pushup with her hands on the floor to demonstrate. However, when we elevated her hands to a box approximately waist-height, she could perform the pushup perfectly for full range of motion. She knew what to do, but simply wasn’t strong enough to do a pushup from the floor. The solution is more time practicing the basic movement mechanics in a lower fatigue environment, and then a strength-building progression of challenging sets in the 8-12-rep range while gradually reducing the height of the box. I also like to use “ladder pushups” progressing from pushups at the floor to a slightly elevated height followed by a more elevated height, to achieve a high enough total rep count to drive improvements in strength and muscle. See my video below for these demonstrations.
Many long-armed rowers are similarly unprepared to begin doing unassisted bodyweight chin-ups. Like with pushups, when we can only get 2-5 good reps per set on an exercise, we either need to do a lot of low-rep sets in order to build enough strength and practice in the movement pattern to improve, or scale the exercise to a simpler, lower load movement where we can get at least 6 reps per set to achieve a greater total training volume. Most rowers need to begin with bodyweight row variations, and then lowering-only chin-ups, band-assisted chin-ups, band or cable lat pulldowns, and/or the seated chin-up, to build the movement pattern and muscles before going to the most challenging variation of the bodyweight pulling exercise. See my video below for an explanation of this progression and demonstration of these exercises.
Rowers and coaches will often begin strength training with machines to avoid the early investment of instruction or having to scale basic exercises. Machines can be okay for building muscles, but largely fail to build movement coordination. Machines are usually single-joint exercises, like leg extension, biceps curl, and chest fly, or two-joint exercises like leg press or seated overhead press. Rowing is a highly coordinated, full-body, long range-of-motion sport, so a strength training approach that focuses on building muscular parts in isolation will fail to prepare the athlete to produce force in such a combined and challenging environment. Machines can be fine for a few, selective development situations, but most strength training needs to be more bodyweight or free-weight to train the elements of athletic coordination.
The goals and common mistakes apply equally as a youth or junior rower, masters rower, or collegiate or high-performance rower, whether you are starting strength training for rowing or restarting strength training. After a month or more time away from routine strength training, even experienced athletes need a gradual progression to get back into strength training. The movement patterns need to be retrained, nervous system coordination needs to be redeveloped, and any lost muscle size needs to be regained for the athlete to return to their prior strength training levels. See my “Rowing Return-to-Train Considerations” article for information on returning to rowing, erging, and strength training after time away.
The 30-30-for-30 System
The 30-30-for-30 system is 30 seconds on, 30 seconds off, for 30 minutes. You can do as many different exercises within that time frame as you want. I like for the exercise rotation to work out cleanly, so I tend to use 6 rounds of 5 exercises, 5 rounds of 6 exercises, or 3 rounds of 10 exercises.
I’ve used this system for years as a way to start strength training for rowing, during the gym/boathouse closure phase of the pandemic, and for rowers traveling away from their normal gym equipment or routine who still want to get in a simple strength training session. I learned this first from a 2018 article by strength coach Dan John and spoke about it in my “minimalist/at-home strength training” webinar for USRowing in April of 2020.
I have written before about why I don’t like conventional circuit training for rowing strength training and how we can make it better. The 30-30-for-30 system has many of these improvements built-in already.
First, the workload is limited to the 30-second “on” duration. We can’t generate THAT much fatigue in 30 seconds using good technique and tempo. Aim for 8-15 reps per 30 seconds on most exercises. The longer range-of-motion exercises like a squat will usually get fewer, while the smaller exercises like a band pullapart will usually get more.
Use a 2-to-1 lowering-to-lifting ratio or tempo. This develops the eccentric muscle actions that we want from strength training, and also limits the number of reps possible in 30 seconds. Controlled lowering tempo is a key skill to develop with strength training that does not exist in rowing due to the lack of force absorption on the unloaded recovery phase of the stroke. Rowers can only gain this skill and muscular stimulus through strength training, and I find that it requires consistent coaching for rowers of all levels.
Second, the 1-to-1 work-to-rest ratio increases intra-session recovery compared to circuits with a greater amount of work than rest. It takes a very strong and experienced trainee working at relatively low muscular outputs to keep technique crisp under the fatigue of a circuit session with long work durations. Athletes can achieve better technique on each rep with the limited work duration and the 1-1 work-rest ratio. This also keeps the effort solidly strength-based, not aerobic. If you want aerobic training, go do cardiovascular exercise like walking, running, cycling, erging, rowing, and more! Keep the strength in strength training.
Finally, limiting the entire session to 30 minutes, of which only 15 minutes is “on” time, keeps the workload manageable, recoverable, and repeatable. This training will build you up over weeks and months, not break you down with brutal efforts that can’t be sustained in the longer term. I still use a full-body warmup before the 30-30-for-30 strength training session, which increases the total session length to approximately 45 minutes.
Here are a few additional tips for implementation, before we get into the example sessions and details of when and how to combine 30-30-for-30 sessions with rowing training.
Use a timer to count and track the intervals. I like this free “SimpleTouch Software Tabata Pro Timer” (no affiliation). That link should go right to a 30-30-for-30 design, but here’s how to set it up just in case: use the “setup” button on the bottom left of the screen and set “work” to :30, “rest” to :30, “cycles” to 30, and leave “tabatas” at 1. It gives a 10-second countdown to start and 3-second audible counts for each interval.
Be ready to start the exercise exactly when the “on” interval begins. Preparing for the next exercise is included in the rest time, so that 30 seconds on means 30 seconds on!
Single-limb exercises typically get their own interval per limb: 30 seconds of one limb, rest 30 seconds, then do 30 seconds of the other limb. The walking lunge is an example of an exception to this.
I most often use conventional strength training exercises in this design, usually with bodyweight, dumbbell, kettlebell, or resistance band loading, and occasionally with barbell exercises as well. See the next section for example sessions.
A full-body session will be slightly more aerobically challenging if you alternate upper-body exercises with lower-body exercises, or slightly more muscularly challenging if you do exercises with bodypart overlap back-to-back. We can use overlap to our advantage. For example, a set of glute marching followed by a set of bodyweight or goblet squats is a good way to train heel contact and glute engagement for squatting.
A 3×10-exercise 30-30-for-30 session is usually more oriented to recovery due to the fewer total reps of each exercise. If recovery is the goal, I’ll often use more moving exercises like mini-band walks, animal crawls, and even dynamic stretches. This is a great way to do AMSC-focused strength training for young rowers beginning to explore athletic movement. However, you can make a 3×10-exercise session more muscularly challenging by combining unilateral exercises followed by bilateral exercises on the same muscle group. For example, a sequence of rear-foot-elevated split squat (left), rear-foot-elevated split squat (right), followed by bodyweight or goblet squat will make the bilateral squat significantly harder. Similarly, one-arm dumbbell row (left), one-arm dumbbell row (right), then bodyweight row.
A 5×6-exercise or 6×5-exercise 30-30-for-30 session is typically harder muscular work due to more total reps per exercise. This is a great way to get in a lot of high-quality reps in a fairly short amount of time without having to resort to very fatiguing or very low-load conventional circuit training. If you’re getting 8-15 reps per exercise, that’s 5-6 sets of 8-15 by the time you’re done the training session!
See the next section for example 30-30-for-30 strength training sessions.
Example Strength Training Sessions
True beginners to strength training should begin with 3×10-exercise 30-30-for-30 sessions that train a greater array of exercises for fewer total reps per exercise. This is helpful for practicing athletic movement and many different basic exercises, rather than just a few. It also helps build up athlete tolerance to fatigue. A 5×6-exercise or 6×5-exercise 30-30-for-30 session will likely be too many total reps for a true beginner and too fatiguing across the whole session.
Rowers returning to strength training and those with at least a few weeks of basic strength training or 3×10-exercise sessions can use more 5×6 and 6×5-exercise sessions. More total reps per exercise increases the total training effect and fatigue of the training session, so athletes need to be prepared for this. The beginner 30-30-for-30 sessions are all full-body to maximize practice opportunities in the major movements and distribute fatigue over all muscular areas.
More advanced athletes can use their better coordination to work harder on each set. I find that the volume of a more advanced athlete working hard on both squat and hinge lifts can outpace recovery in a single session and result in too much fatigue. The advanced 30-30-for-30 sessions have a lower body focus, either squat or hinge, plus upper body exercises.
Continue to use unilateral and bilateral exercises for trainees of all levels. Building unilateral coordination and strength is an important training goal for the beginner, and continues to be important for rowers of all levels who train in a bilateral environment when erging and rowing. This becomes a movement deficit quickly for rowers who do only bilateral strength training in addition to only bilateral sport training.
When to Start Strength Training for Rowing
The best time to start strength training for rowing is in the off-season, when rowers are not focused on performance results or achieving higher specific training workloads and tests or seat races in rowing and erging training. Beginning strength training will likely increase muscle soreness at first. Muscle soreness is really only the body saying, “hi, that was new!” Its presence is not an indicator of effectiveness, nor is lack of presence an indicator of ineffectiveness. It’s just a sensory response to a novel stimulus, which in rowing is typically the eccentric load (lowering phase) of strength training movements, as well as the use of different muscles than are typically used in the rowing stroke.
Muscle soreness tends to fade within a few weeks of beginning regular strength training, but this can still interfere with other forms of training in the 48-72 hours following a strength training session. This is a main reason why it’s best to start strength training for rowing in the off-season, when we have time to get this initial increased soreness out of the way without interfering with rigorous rowing and erging training or racing.
Read More: Muscle Soreness and Rowing
Another reason to start strength training for rowing in the off-season is the timeline of development from strength training, discussed earlier in this article. We need about three months to really see the benefits of strength training transfer to improved rowing performance. We spend the first few weeks or month of strength training building athletic coordination and practicing the basic exercises. We start to see increased strength (weight/reps) in the second month of strength training as the nervous system coordination improves, as well as athlete familiarity with strength training. We then see more increased strength in the third month of strength training, as well as changes in body composition (muscle size and body fat) if athletes are recovering from the training with enough nutrition, hydration, and rest. Starting strength training during the main training or racing season doesn’t leave enough time for all of these changes to fully occur and transfer to improved rowing performance.
If your only choice is to begin strength training in the pre-season or in-season, there will still be some transfer to improved performance by later in the season, and you will have laid the foundation for the next phase of training after racing season concludes. Especially for high school coaches who may only have contact with rowers during the pre-season and in-season, it is still better to begin late than to never strength train at all. Just lower your expectation of performance benefit a bit, use a lower strength training workload to accommodate the in-season level of rowing and erging training, and pay attention to scheduling strength training sessions with rowing and erging to minimize interference from one form of training to another. Read the next section for more about combining strength training and rowing.
Combining Strength Training and Rowing
The best way to combine strength training and erging, rowing, and other forms of aerobic training is to separate strength and aerobic training sessions by at least six hours. Combining strength and aerobic training in the same session or back-to-back with little rest means that there will be some fatigue overlap from one mode of training to the other. This fatigue overlap can increase risk of injury from training under fatigue, interfere with the development of good technique, and reduce adaptation to training.
Most rowers I coach strength train two days per week, year-round, using full-body strength training sessions. Some rowers may go up to three strength training sessions per week, either full-body or on an upper, lower, full training split. We can usually achieve two or three strength training sessions per week on off-days from rowing training. If you don’t have that many days off from rowing, erging, and other aerobic training, try to do one form of training in the morning and the other form in the afternoon or evening whenever possible. Rest, move around, eat, and hydrate to maximize recovery during the hours between training sessions. This will improve performance during each session and increase adaptation from training.
Read More: Scheduling Strength Training with Rowing
However, those beginning strength training with the 30-30-for-30 system may find it possible to combine strength and aerobic training in a single training session. Focusing on technique and low-load strength training in shorter training sessions will not develop as much fatigue as longer, more intense conventional strength training sessions. In this training environment, we do not need to worry quite as much about fatigue spillover or overlap between strength training and erging or rowing.
Do the strength training first and then the erging or rowing when you are combining the two modes of training in a single session. The erging and rowing will degrade less under fatigue than the strength training. Rowers could do a full-body warm-up, a 30-minute strength training session, and then 30-45 minutes of erging or rowing.
The erging or rowing should be limited in either duration or intensity to keep the fatigue manageable on this side of training as well. This is a good time for a short high-intensity interval session (just 9-12 minutes of total work time) or longer low-intensity technical erging and rowing (staying below approximately 80% of heart-rate maximum). I do not recommend combining strength training with hard erging and rowing that will incur greater fatigue or require athletes to focus on their split or watt performance, such as race prep training or middle-intensity (“anaerobic threshold”) work. Keep it short (duration) or keep it low (intensity).
Rowers may eventually be able to push the 30-30-for-30 sessions hard enough to generate significant fatigue that does spill over to subsequent erging or rowing. Coaches should observe rowers for signs that their erging or rowing technique is deteriorating due to fatigue, and adjust the training plan accordingly. This is a good time to either split the sessions up by at least six hours to allow for recovery, or adjust the training to make it work, or move to a different strength training system.
Progressing to the Next Level
The 30-30-for-30 system is a great way to start strength training for rowing with any level of rower. It can be a long-term programming approach for some as well. I have used this system with juniors and masters rowers beginning to strength train, sometimes for entire off-seasons, as well as college and high-performance rowers in the early off-season phase of training coming back from the rejuvenation phase.
It’s fine to use the 30-30-for-30 system as an introduction or reintroduction to strength training, and then move on to a more conventional sets-and-reps strength training program design when the coach and/or rower feels ready. Read my article, “The Basics of Strength Training for Rowing,” for how to set up a strength training program around the annual training of rowing.
Rowers can plateau after 1-3 months of 30-30 strength training. One reason for this is mental engagement and getting bored of the same system of training. We can avoid this plateau, or at least delay it, by varying the session designs and exercises as athlete ability, desires, and equipment access determines. There are hundreds of possible 30-30-for-30 sessions with creative combinations of full-body, lower-body, and upper-body strength training exercises and designs. Use unilateral and bilateral exercises, bodyweight, dumbbell, kettlebell, and barbell exercises, and different combinations of individual exercises to keep the training sessions engaging and challenging.
An inherent limitation of the 30-30-for-30 system is how much loading athletes can achieve within each 30-second “on” phase, as well as the amount of cumulative loading within the 30-minute total strength training time. These are beneficial limitations for those beginning strength training, but can become barriers to progress in the longer term. More experienced trainees will need more challenge and stimulus from individual exercises and training sessions to continue making progress.
If you can keep 30-30-for-30 sessions interesting and challenging for yourself or rowers’ goals and training needs, then these may not be limitations for you. I’ve coached junior rowers using this system for many months of varied AMSC-focused strength training, as well as masters rowers in more of a maintenance and recreational fitness strength training approach. It’s a great way to get in 30 minutes of diverse physical activity and basic strength training.