What are the key elements in a good rowing strength training program? In this article, we’ll cover five priorities for each major area of exercise selection, strength training performance, and annual training program design. These priorities are where we see the greatest benefits in rowing strength training and changes that we make when I work with coaches and rowers of all ages, types, and levels.
Key Points: In exercise selection, all rowers should be doing some form of squat, hinge, upper body pull, upper body push, and specific minor exercises for the hip, shoulder, and core. These exercises train for specific performance elements of rowing, and also fill gaps in physical development from only rowing and erging. When strength training, rowers should use good technique, tempo control of the lowering and lifting phases of each rep and exercise, as much range of motion as they can effectively control (with a few exceptions), and achieve the appropriate strain targets for each set and exercise. Only after these four factors is the load (weight) of the exercise important for progression. The rowing strength training program design factors that I’ve found most important are knowing when and how to individualize training, having an off-season building phase for general physical development, planning a transition phase to prepare for in-season training, a maintenance plan for the in-season or race prep, and making time to rejuvenate following the final race.
Table of Contents:
- Priorities for exercise selection
- Priorities for strength training performance
- Priorities for program design
- Program priority summary
Five Priorities for Exercise Selection
Rowing is a full-body sport, using nearly all muscular areas of the body (the whole “86% thing” is a misquote though). Strength training needs to improve the coordination, strength, and power for the bodyparts involved in the rowing motion to improve rowing technique and performance.
We also need to strength train for the movements and areas of the body that the rowing stroke neglects to train. Rowing is a repetitive motion sport, and rowers who only row and erg and strength train for the rowing performance muscles are likely to develop movement and muscular imbalances. Strength training offers opportunities to train the “anti-rowing” movements and muscles to develop the other parts of the body as well. I also refer to this as “filling the gaps” in physical development from only rowing and erging.
Eccentric muscle action is one of the biggest physical gaps that strength training fills for rowers who only row and erg. Briefly, muscles have three main ways of acting to produce force. See the graphic at right for a simple single-joint example of a biceps curl. In a concentric action, muscles shorten to produce force. In an isometric action, muscles produce force without changing length. In an eccentric action, muscles lengthen while producing force, usually resisting gravity or force. There is very little eccentric muscle action in the rowing stroke. At almost every point in the rowing stroke, rowers’ muscles are either shortening to produce force (concentric) or static to transfer force (isometric). The recovery phase is unloaded, so muscles are not lengthening to resist force.
The one area where significant eccentric actions do occur is in the late drive phase when the abdominal muscles are acting eccentrically to slow the torso swing into the release and then concentrically reverse momentum into the recovery. Ironically, rowers almost always train the abdominal muscles with isometric exercises like planks and concentric exercises like crunches! There are small eccentric actions for the lower leg muscles at the front end of the stroke, where rowers are again working to slow momentum from the recovery and reverse it into the catch and drive. Because the recovery phase is unloaded, these forces are very small.
Every rep of almost every strength training exercise offers an opportunity to train eccentric muscle actions. This is important because eccentric actions generate the greatest amount of muscular force and can increase gains in muscle strength and size. Strength training without attention to the eccentric phase misses these benefits, and then rowers miss them again due to the minimal role of eccentric action in the rowing stroke.
One downside is that the higher force from eccentric muscle actions is likely one of the reasons for muscle soreness. The good news is that muscle soreness doesn’t have much of an effect on rowing performance, and the gains from focusing on the eccentric actions are worth the discomfort. I’ve found that rowers benefit enough from just learning how to control the lowering phase to get more out of each set of strength training and fill this gap in physical development. I have not found a need for additional eccentric-only strength training methods, and I wouldn’t expect great investment in eccentric strength training to transfer to concentric-only rowing and erging. It’s a case of “just enough” with controlling the lowering phase.
This is why rowers cannot replicate strength training benefits by using high-load rowing and erging instead of bodyweight or free-weight strength training. High-load rowing and erging, such as the use of high drag or damper settings and low rate training on the erg or cans, bungees, boat weights, or rowing team boats by pairs, are specific forms of erging and rowing training. Even though greater forces are required, greater force is only one element of strength training. We’re still missing major benefits from bodyweight and free-weight strength training: eccentric muscle actions, multi-plane movements, larger range-of-motion, and single-limb movements as well as double-limb movements.
Rowing strength training programs should include exercises for the major movement categories of the squat, hinge, push, and pull, as well as minor movements for hips, shoulders, and core. We’ll now go into each of those specifically for greater detail of which exercises we’ll use in a rowing strength training program. These exercises are not in order of importance, because they should all be present in a rowing strength training program for complete physical development.
Squats train the rowing-specific quality of knee extension strength to improve leg power in the early drive phase. Increasing leg strength and lower body power is essential for good technique and improving performance in the modern era of rowing. Static ergometers and hatchet blades increase per-stroke loading and require a more upright torso posture than the pre-1990s era of rowing that involved more cross-training and the use of spoon (macon) blades. I’ve found that building leg strength with squat variations has the greatest effect on improving rowing performance of any of the major movement categories.
The eccentric loading of squats also fills that major gap in physical development from only rowing and erging. Rowers often struggle to maintain balanced foot pressure between the forefoot (ball of the foot) and hindfoot (heel) when squatting, tending to shift forward onto the forefoot and even let the heel come off the ground. This is more similar to the rowing stroke, but we want balanced foot pressure when squatting to best engage the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes together. Forefoot shift emphasizes the quadriceps at the expense of the hamstrings, glutes, and knee health.
We use both single-leg and double-leg squat variations to train multiple elements of leg strength, power, and muscular coordination. Rowers can progress in double-leg squats from bodyweight to goblet squats to front squats. I find front squats better than back squats for rowers to facilitate a more upright torso position and narrower foot stance for more similarity to rowing, reduce shear force on the lower back, and increase range-of-motion. Rowers can progress in single-leg squats from the standing-in-place lunge to the reverse lunge to the rear-foot-elevated split squat (RFESS). I prefer to load single-leg squats with a dumbbell or kettlebell held in the goblet position, progressing to a barbell if additional loading is necessary, versus holding weights at the sides that tends to result in bending forward under fatigue.
Read More: Complete Guide to Squatting for Rowing
Hinge exercises include deadlift variations, kettlebell swings, and Olympic lifts. These are in order of challenge and utility for me and how I approach rowing strength training program priorities. Rowers need to master the bodyweight hip hinge motion first, then the simplest deadlift variation of the Romanian deadlift (RDL), then the barbell or hex bar deadlift from the floor or an elevated position.
Some rowers I coach use kettlebell swings to train dynamic hip hinge power for rapid power in the rowing stroke. I typically do not use Olympic lift variations with rowers, due to the complexity of the exercises, the potential for injury when “catching” Olympic lifts, and the lack of transfer to rowing as one of the few sports that does not involve triple extension of the ankles, knees, and hips.
Hinge exercises build the hamstrings, glutes, and back muscles that are crucial for rowing performance, and do so in a sagittal plane flexion and extension movement generally similar to rowing. Rowers typically see good carryover to rowing and erging performance from improving hip hinge exercise technique and strength. Rowers who cannot hip hinge on the erg or in the boat achieve stroke length on the recovery and power on the drive through the spine and shoulders instead of the hips and lower body. This is less effective for performance and increases risk of back and rib injury. I see some of the greatest benefits from hinge exercises focusing on smooth, controlled movement in rowers who struggle with the hip hinge in the more challenging and potentially chaotic environment of the erg or boat.
Like the squat, the eccentric loading of hip hinges on the lowering phase of each rep fills that physical gap and improves movement coordination for rowers. Hip hinge exercises also fill the gap of training full hip extension ROM. Rowers only reach partial hip extension when rowing due to the seated position on the erg or in the boat, and training full hip extension helps with muscular development of the hamstrings, glutes, and back muscles, as well as reducing tight hip flexors from constantly being in a shortened position when rowing.
Unlike squats, I don’t find single-leg hip hinges to be that useful. Hip airplanes and single-leg RDLs can be useful as a balance and coordination exercise, more like what we’d find in my “other” category ahead for minor exercises of the hip, shoulder, and core. The problem is that the high balance and coordination components limit the amount of loading that we can use on these exercises, so we can rarely strain hard enough to send a worthwhile muscular stimulus.
Read More: Complete Guide to Deadlifting for Rowing
Upper Body Pull Exercises
The pull category includes both horizontal and vertical pulling exercises. These exercises train the latissimus dorsi (lats) and trapezius (traps) muscles of the back, as well as the arm, rear shoulder, and shoulder blade muscles. These muscles are performance muscles for rowing and erging, transferring lower body power and imparting their own. There are two main additional reasons that both horizontal and vertical pushes are important elements of a rowing strength training program.
The first reason is sport-specific to train scapulohumeral rhythm. This is a fancy word describing how the arm bone and shoulder blades move together to produce efficient movement. The shoulder blades should stay stable in rowing while the arm bone moves forwards on the recovery and backwards on the drive. Rowers with inefficient scapulohumeral rhythm often move the shoulder blade before the arm bone, resulting in inconsistent handle heights, poor positions at different points of the stroke cycle, and inefficient power transfer from the lower body to the handle. Every rep of a pulling exercise is an opportunity to improve the rower’s ability and strength to keep the shoulder blade stable and connected to the torso while the arm bone moves the weight through space.
The second reason is to train anti-rowing abilities and fill gaps in physical development from only rowing and erging. Like in the squat and hinge, rowing and erging also fails to develop eccentric muscle actions and full ROM in the upper body pulling muscles. The eccentric loading of upper body pulling exercises helps rowers focus on keeping the shoulder in a stable position for maximal pulling power and building up strength in the back, shoulders, and arms from this position. I find this makes a huge difference in erging and rowing performance.
The bodyweight row is my favorite double-arm upper body pulling exercise, and I use several variations to keep the exercise challenging and engaging for rowers of all ages, types, and levels. The chin-up is a double-arm upper body pulling exercise that is often too challenging for long-limbed rowers in the unaltered, bodyweight variation. I find benefit from training modified variations like the “seated” chin-up, band-assisted chin-up, and slow-lowering chin-up, as well as the band or cable lat pulldown. We also train single-arm horizontal pulling exercises with dumbbell rows and landmine rows. Single-arm rows help develop both left and right sides of the body evenly. I don’t find much benefit in single-arm vertical pulling exercises, and I don’t use shrugging exercises with rowers to deliberately emphasize the upper trapezius muscles.
Upper Body Push Exercises
The push category includes both horizontal and vertical pushing exercises. The chest, shoulders, and triceps muscles contribute to both forms of push exercises, but horizontal pushes emphasize chest muscle contribution while vertical pushes emphasis shoulder muscle contribution. Even though these are the least-used muscles in rowing, both horizontal and vertical pushes are still important elements of a rowing strength training program for two main reasons.
The first reason is generalizing the skill of scapulohumeral rhythm from upper body pulling exercises. The shoulders move the same way in horizontal pushing as pulling and vertical pushing as pulling, just with opposite force directions. Pulling motions build strength for the general rowing movement, but I’ve found that pushing motions have a great effect on making the shoulder movement really stable in all directions. Body parts don’t separate out perfectly into movement patterns anyway. The chest, anterior shoulder, and triceps muscles still contribute to shoulder joint stability and upper body power in pulling motions and when rowing and erging.
Injury prevention is the second reason. In addition to supporting the shoulder joint, the upper body pushing muscles also protect the ribcage from the stress and strain of chronic loading via rowing and erging. I find that rowers with rib stress injury history and risk factors benefit from building up the upper body muscles so that the muscles, not the bones, absorb and distribute the load from the stroke. Stronger rowers keep more stroke force on muscles, so less goes onto the bones. Muscles have higher blood flow and recover faster than bones, so this is good for performance and for reducing risk of common chronic rowing injuries.
It doesn’t take much to train rowers’ upper body pushing strength to at least a minimum baseline. Pushup variations are a great starting point that any rower can do with none or very minimal equipment. Elevate the hand height at first to make the pushup easier so rowers can achieve 3-5 sets of 8-12 reps. Gradually decrease the hand height to keep the exercise challenging in this rep range. Increase the challenge of the pushup with a weighted vest, resistance band, tempos, and/or creative set-and-rep schemes.
I find that rowers go wrong with the pushup in one of two ways. Stronger rowers only do easier sets or very high reps (20+) with no tempo control and fail to get enough intensity out of the exercise. Weaker rowers put pressure on themselves to train from the floor only and use poor technique to do so, or can only do a few reps and fail to get enough volume out of the exercise to actually gain strength and muscle.
The pushup is a great exercise for rowers’ shoulder control and rib injury prevention because it trains the muscles of the chest, shoulders, and triceps around a mobile shoulder joint. In a loaded bench press exercise where the lifter lies on their back, the shoulder blades are pinned together and pushed against the bench. For one, this increases load on the posterior rib cage and can aggravate rib injuries. For another, this misses the benefit of shoulder blade movement from a pushup with appropriate load, good technique, full range of motion, and tempo control (more about these later).
I use other variations of double-arm and single-arm upper body pushing exercises with rowers who need more challenge or variety in their strength training. This includes dumbbell bench press variations, as well as overhead press exercises like the half-kneeling overhead press with a dumbbell or landmine, single-arm dumbbell standing press or push press, and occasionally double-arm barbell overhead presses. Like upper body pulling exercises, using single-arm exercises as well as double-arm exercises help develop both left and right sides of the body evenly. I often use alternating dumbbell presses to train single-arm strength and shoulder stability.
Minor Hip, Shoulder, and Core Exercises
My rowing strength training programs always include minor or isolation exercises for these three areas of the body that require additional attention beyond the bigger compound movements of the squat, hinge, push, and pull. The hips, shoulders, and core contribute to these bigger movements, but don’t move through a full range-of-motion in all the different ways that the individual areas can.
The hips can flex forward, extend backward, abduct to move the leg away from the body, adduct to bring the leg toward the body, and externally and internally rotate. When rowing, however, the hips mostly just flex forwards to the front end of the stroke on the recovery and extend backwards to the back end of the stroke on the drive. Strength training offers opportunities to train lateral frontal plane movements and rotational transverse plane movements, as well as movements like the Nordic hamstring curl and glute-ham raise that offer eccentric hip and hamstring loading that we cannot achieve through rowing and erging. The Nordic hamstring curl and glute-ham raises are not quite hip hinge exercises, but are intense for the hamstring and glute muscles and I often use them like a hip hinge exercise in a training program.
Similarly, the shoulders can elevate upwards, depress downwards, protract forwards, retract backwards, abduct to move the arm away from the body, adduct to bring the arm toward the body, and externally and internally rotate. When rowing, the shoulders mostly just protract forwards to the front end of the stroke on the recovery and retract backwards to the back end of the stroke on the drive. Strength training offers opportunities to train lateral frontal plane movements and rotational transverse plane movements. Like the hips, the shoulders don’t get to full retraction ROM in the rowing stroke due to the speed of the release motion, so strength training also offers opportunities to train to full shoulder retraction as well.
Core training is popular in rowing, but rowers and coaches need to go beyond static exercises like plank holds and spinal flexion exercises like abdominal situps and crunch variations to train the core in a manner more specific to rowing. Rowing has the unique demand of a stable spine and a mobile hip from a seated position. Plank variations train a stable hip and stable spine, so this misses an element of rowing’s complexity. Crunch variations train a mobile hip and mobile spine, so this risks ingraining bad movement patterns of a mobile spine. Better core training exercises for rowers include movement at the extremities (hands and feet) around a stable spine, as well as the seated rockback exercise that directly trains the mobile hip, stable spine demands of rowing.
Read More: Core Training for Rowing
Five Priorities for Strength Training Performance
We’ve covered the exercises that rowers should be doing in their rowing strength training programs, so now let’s discuss how to do these exercises in greater detail. Unlike the exercises, these performance priorities are in order of importance.
#1: Good Technique
Whatever the exercise is, the rower needs to be able to perform it proficiently and maintain good technique under strain in order for the strength training to transfer to improved rowing performance. Bad technique doesn’t transfer to improved sport performance. Rowers who add load or reps to poor technique and dysfunctional movement are getting worse, not better.
Rowers can often correct technical errors with mental attention and/or reducing the load of the exercise. I find that rowers often take a similar mindset to erging when under strain and attempting to go hard, just zoning out and trying to complete the movement rather than focusing on performing the movement well. Instruct, cue, and focus. Sometimes, rowers also just use too much load to be able to perform the exercise well. Reduce the load of the exercise and see if technical performance improves, then train at that manageable load until the rower can increase load while maintaining good technique.
Use a simpler variation of the exercise if instruction and reducing the load doesn’t improve technique. Exercises are just tools to elicit physical change. The best exercise for you is the one that you can do well. There is nothing empirically better or morally superior about one exercise versus another, especially if the rower can’t do both with good technique.
For example, use a dumbbell or kettlebell goblet squat instead of a barbell front squat. Elevate the hands for a pushup instead of going from the floor. Raise the handle height on a bodyweight row. Do a Romanian deadlift or elevated deadlift instead of a barbell deadlift from the floor. Use a half-kneeling overhead press for more lower body stability, instead of a standing overhead press. Then, progress from there in load and challenge while maintaining good technique. If the athlete cannot master the technique of even the simplest exercise after instruction and ample practice opportunities in a low load environment due to some physical restriction, refer to a physical therapist for diagnosis.
#2: Lowering and Lifting Tempo
Use a 2-to-1 lowering-to-lifting ratio as the default setting on all exercises, unless noted otherwise. For example, kettlebell swings and Olympic lifts are dynamic exercises that do not use a controlled lowering phase.
Tempo control can be challenging on both the lowering and lifting phases of the movement, as well as the point of reversal between lowering and lifting. Rowers often struggle with lowering the weight under control and tend to “drop” to the bottom position of many exercises. I think this is probably because it is genuinely hard, and also because rowing lacks an equivalent eccentric phase of controlling or absorbing force while lowering. It’s undertrained from the sport, and then undertrained again by lack of awareness in the gym. Rowers also may struggle to accelerate the load on the lifting phase. This is related to the speed of the lowering phase: more down force from a “drop” lowering phase means more challenge at the point of reversal and less strength left for the lifting phase. I think a secondary reason is that rowers tend to not be “explosive” athletes the way we see with other sports more dependent on sprint and power who naturally accelerate better.
The good news is that these are all trainable qualities through strength training offering numerous benefits. Controlling the lowering phase is how we harness the power of eccentric muscle actions for greater gains in strength and muscle size and filling this gap from rowing and erging training. Controlling the lowering phase also results in a more consistent lifting phase, and therefore better exercise technique thanks to improved attention and control. Rowers who dive-bomb or flop to the bottom position of squats, hinges, and upper body pushes and pulls have to absorb and reverse all of that downward momentum into the lifting phase, making it slower. This also increases stress and strain on the joints that to absorb all of that falling force. Controlling the lowering phase often helps rowers who have previously been unable to do an exercise without pain.
Making 2-to-1 tempo the default in normal training also increases effectiveness from from power training when rowers are working to accelerate the lifting phase even more in the pre-season training phase. We want to train the general force production skills with strength training to first produce a high amount of force (strength, which also relates to muscle size and coordination) and then to produce that force very quickly.
How quickly? Researchers in this 2020 study analyzed oarlock power data for 47 2km races of international-level rowers in the men’s and women’s single and pair events, and found that peak force and time to achieve peak force were critical factors in boat speed. Specifically, the time to peak force was 0.43s in the men’s single, 0.39s in the women’s single, and 0.36s in the men’s and women’s pairs. That’s not as fast as true sprint and power sports, but it’s still pretty quick and faster than I think most rowers would guess, and we’d expect it to be even faster in faster moving team boats like eights and quads. The researchers conclude that, “Rower force development should be prioritized as a key component of power output and boat velocity.”
It’s much easier to train force development qualities through strength training in addition to rowing and erging than through rowing and erging only. In the gym, we can train the general force production skills with heavier, slower strength training exercises in the off-season, and then transition in the pre-season to more jumping and throwing plyometric exercises, accelerated tempo training on basic strength training exercises, and exercises like the kettlebell swing that inherently prioritize rate of force development.
Rowers need to master the 2:1 base tempo with good lowering control to make the most improvement in the off-season, and then in order to do the “2:X” (for explosive) tempo in the pre-season and in-season. Training with “reverse ratio” of faster lowering phases than lifting phases doesn’t prepare rowers for this change, and training with “grinding reps” of heavy, slow lifting phase speed in the pre-season and in-season just isn’t effective for improving rowing performance.
#3: Range of Motion (ROM)
Rowing is a long-ROM sport with deep angles of joint flexion from ankles to shoulders. Rowers should train with as much ROM as they can effectively control with good technique in most exercises to improve coordination, strength, and power through large ROMs. Adding load and reducing ROM is unlikely to improve rowing performance.
There are a few exceptions.
I prefer squatting to parallel thighs to the floor or just below, rather than “butt to ankles.” Most rowers can’t get much below parallel thigh position with good technique and tempo control, and will either round at the low back and hips or dive-bomb to the bottom position to get deeper. A just-below-parallel thigh position gets us the best of both worlds in a deep knee flexion movement, with good technique and tempo control, and still able to increase the load of the exercise to keep it challenging.
Rowers often descend too far in the Romanian deadlift (RDL) exercise, continuing towards the floor by bending the torso forwards instead of stopping once the hips have moved backwards as far as the hamstrings allow. The bottom position of each rower’s RDL will look different based on their limb lengths and mobility. Someone with longer arms or shorter legs will look like they have a deeper RDL than someone with shorter arms or longer legs. As a very general guideline, most rowers should aim for a bottom position of the bar around the middle or bottom of the kneecap. Increase load from that ROM to keep the exercise challenging.
One of the reasons I like the hex bar deadlift is for the more upright torso position that reduces low back shear force and increases lower body contribution to the movement. I generally prefer higher handles on hex bar deadlift than lower handles, especially for rowers over about 5’10” in height. I’ve found this better than using lower handles for longer ROM but having to bend forward more at the torso and put more of the load on the back.
#4: Appropriate Amount of Strain
Making physical change requires a high level of effort, but not always a maximal one. Most strength training should be in the Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) range of 7-8 out of 10. I commonly describe this as “challenging but manageable” or “difficult but doable.” It’s the point at which the rower has no doubt about their ability to control technique, tempo, and ROM, and achieve all of the reps while still giving solid effort. RPE7-8 leaves 2-3 reps left in reserve at the end of each set.
Pushing to RPE9-10, near-max or max effort and leaving 0-1 reps left in reserve, is helpful for anchoring the rest of the RPE scale, and for select opportunities to give very high effort in a single set. However, it is not necessary, not necessarily helpful, and often counterproductive to take every set to max or near-max effort. The rower mindset of locking on to an output target and doing whatever is necessary to hold that level of output often causes struggle with this change in approach for strength training.
I’m often reminding rowers that the RPE scale is all based around the phrase, “with good technique.” RPE10 is the point at which no more reps are possible with good technique, NOT “by any movement means necessary.” This is training to technical failure, not to all-out muscular failure. Most rowers will sacrifice technique, tempo, or ROM before they are willing to terminate an exercise or reduce the load. Coaches need to know this tendency and communicate and plan accordingly. Clearly defining and using the terms technical failure versus muscular failure has been helpful for me in my coaching.
Rowers more often overwork than underwork, but it’s still possible for a rower to not push hard enough to achieve the target RPE and send a stimulus to create physical change. These rowers usually don’t feel comfortable with the technique of major exercises, or they may have injury concerns about the exercise. I find it more helpful to push the RPE on simpler exercises with minimal load and very little stress on the lower back, a common area of injury concern for rowers. For example, rowers can learn how to push hard with good technique, tempo control, and ROM on bodyweight rows, pushups, and rear-foot-elevated split squats. There are very few injury risks with these exercises and it’s easy to find the point of technical failure in a safe environment. Work to gradually generalize this skill of pushing hard to other exercises involving more complexity, loading, and risk, such as front squats and deadlifts.
#5: Load of the Exercise
The final priority is the load of the exercise. Load or external resistance used in an exercise is only important when the rower attends to the above four priorities first. The rower is getting worse, not better, if they add load and sacrifice technique, tempo, ROM, or push to inappropriate levels of strain. We know the rower has gotten stronger if they increase the load of the exercise while holding technique, tempo, ROM, and RPE consistent. Load is still important after these factors, because it represents progression. We need continual challenge to achieve continual improvement, so I always encourage rowers to record their weights and reps and try to “beat the notebook” while still attending to the above four priorities.
Rowing isn’t a strength sport, so load by itself is not important for the rower independent of the quality of the movement. The point of strength training is to improve athletic qualities that carryover to improved rowing performance, not to be good at strength training. I don’t test one-rep maxes (1RM) or believe in the utility of strength standards for rowers for this reason.
Five Priorities for Program Design
We’ve covered the categories of exercises and specific recommendations, as well as priorities for how rowers should do the exercises during a strength training session. I’ve written many articles on this website about how these factors come together in an annual rowing strength training program. Start here with “The Basics of Strength Training for Rowing” and read on through my block-by-block programming series for more details about each phase of training.
Here are five specific priorities for rowing strength training program design.
Know When Individualization Is Necessary
What do YOU need to do to improve your performance?
Most athletes at the beginner level will improve similarly from the same general training. Training is simple at the beginner stage. Strength training has to start with introducing the movements, developing good technique on basic exercises, and building up strength through those movements before we can pursue more specific goals of maximal strength, power, muscle size, and other sport-specific methods. Erging and rowing has to start with the basic handle control techniques and movement sequencing, learning to control stroke rhythm and deliver consistent power, and building up training volume.
Read More: How to Start Strength Training for Rowing
Even at the intermediate levels when athletes have a year or more of training experience, the same training program will usually yield similar results across athletes. There are many popular strength training and rowing or erging training programs that deliver similar results across athlete populations for this reason. We can make fairly broad program recommendations with success because intermediate rowers are still receiving similar benefit from doing similar amounts of strength training for general strength, power, and muscle mass, and erging or rowing for aerobic endurance, anaerobic fitness, race prep readiness, etc. Training is more challenging and slightly more complex than at the beginner level, but true individualization is not yet necessary for most intermediate athletes.
The mark of the advanced or experienced athlete to me is when the kind of training they did as intermediate athletes stops working. This often results in long performance plateaus as athletes try to continue doing familiar training and expecting it to deliver familiar results. It usually doesn’t work, because the the same type of training, volume, and intensity that the rower improved from as an intermediate athlete is no longer sufficient to deliver improvement as an advanced or experienced athlete.
Advanced athletes will reach points of diminishing returns for different types or areas of training on different timelines based on their individual physiology and training experience. Evaluations like the Jensen model can help identify stronger or weaker areas in fitness or rowing performance. Advanced athletes may need more or less strength training, or more emphasis a specific physical area or specific type of strength training than another. Stock programs tend to not work for advanced athletes because they will likely be relatively overtraining on one area and relatively undertraining on another.
This is where training becomes complex, because all training has opportunity cost. Doing one kind of training means that we don’t have that time, energy, and recovery to do another type of training. The challenge for the advanced athlete is knowing in which training areas they are further away from the point of diminishing returns, and how and when to invest more effort in those areas while moving other forms of training for which they are at point of diminishing returns to maintenance levels. Coaching is often helpful at this point to identify individual strengths and weaknesses and implement a plan to selectively develop some qualities in appropriate type, volume, and intensity while maintaining other qualities in appropriate type, volume, and intensity.
Off-Season Training Phase
The full-body, intense, high volume nature of rowing training makes it hard to train around, and harder even than other endurance sports with lower per-contact (stroke, strike, or stride) loading. This presents a problem for physical development. The two most common injuries in rowing are low back pain and rib stress injuries due to chronic overload of the torso, as the connection point between lower body force generation and upper body force transfer on every single stroke. Rowers usually cannot train hard enough on both strength training and also rowing or erging training to make significant progress in both at the same time.
This necessitates an off-season phase in which the athlete can reduce rowing and erging training to increase strength training and focus on broader physical development. It takes more time to build strength and muscle mass than other physical qualities, so this phase should last at least two months and can be up to six months to make significant progress. The rower should do more, but not necessarily entirely, aerobic cross-training during the off-season phase, such as running, cycling, or swimming. This training is easier to recover from than long meters on the erg or in the boat and leaves more room to push strength training hard enough to make significant progress.
Some rowers will benefit from increasing strength training frequency to three or even four weekly sessions during this time, and doing very little erging or rowing other than one or two sessions per week to maintain familiarity and specific fitness. I recommend one high-intensity interval session per week throughout the off-season, whether it’s in a cross-training mode or on the erg or water, to help maintain the high-output fitness levels. Other rowers will do better with two weekly strength training sessions, leaving room for an additional higher intensity erging, rowing, or cross-training session and more aerobic training time. This is an individualization question based on points of diminishing return.
The key to the off-season phase is reducing the impact of erging and rowing to increase the impact of strength training, while maintaining and even improving general aerobic fitness through more cross-training. The rower must accept some loss of specific performance on the erg or water during this time. The off-season is not the time to test performance with additional erg tests. It’s the time to build the rower up to achieve greater levels of performance later in the racing season when it matters.
Pre-Season Transition Phase
The pre-season transition phase occurs between the off-season phase and the change in training to race preparation for a single race or the in-season phase for multiple races. Gradually reduce strength training and cross-training while increasing erging and rowing over a period of 4-6 weeks. I typically increase the strength training intensity and decrease the volume during this phase to train for more maximal strength and peak power, after spending most of the off-season training with higher volume and lower intensity to build the rower up. We usually reduce strength training to two sessions per week during this phase to keep the intensity higher, the volume lower, and the training recoverable as the athlete increases erging and/or rowing into the in-season phase.
We also start strength training for peak power during the pre-season phase. If the rower has mastered the “2:1 tempo” (see #2 in the priorities section of this article), then we should be ready for “2:X tempo.” We do 4-6 sets of 2-3 reps with a weight that we’d ordinarily use for sets of 6-8 reps. We train each of the 2-3 reps per set with full explosive intent, controlling the lowering phase and then working to rapidly accelerate the lifting phase. Do a normal 2:1 tempo strength-focused session on one day per week, then a 2:X tempo peak power session on the other day. This reduces the load on the rower and also helps train for rate of force development as we head into the sprint race preparation phase.
Read More: Rowing Peak Power Training
Make this transition over at least a month, instead of a sudden shift, to improve training outcomes and reduces risk of injury. Be aware that injury risk is higher (highest) during training camps with increased volume and when making sudden equipment changes, such as switching from erging to rowing or vice versa. Plan to reduce volume or load during these times to avoid an injury derailing a season before it has even started.
Read More: Rowing Return-to-Train Considerations
Plan to Maintain During Race Prep or In-Season
Rowers must continue strength training in a reduced format during race prep or in-season racing. Rowers who stop strength training when the season begins are their strongest at the start of the season when it matters least, and weakest at the end of the season when it matters most! It takes less effort to maintain than it does to gain, so we can scale strength training back without eliminating it entirely and still at least keep the rower as strong, powerful, muscular, and healthy as when they started the season. Some rowers can even make small gains during the racing season if their recovery (nutrition, hydration, sleep, and low stress levels) supports it.
Read More: In-Season Rowing Strength Training
I’m happy if rowers just maintain in the gym while getting faster on the erg and on the water. That means we achieved where it counts (the sport performance) by making progress in the off-season and not losing any of that progress during the in-season. This rower can then start the next off-season block ahead of where they started last year’s off-season block. This is how rowers can make progress from one year to the next, instead of spending all year just trying to get back to their prior year’s training level or performance standard.
Try to strength train twice per week during race prep or in-season training. Both sessions can be similar and moderate, or one session can be heavier and harder to maintain maximal strength and power and the other session can be lighter to maintain muscle mass and reduce risk of injury. Reduce to one strength training session on weeks that involve travel or end in racing, include seat selection or intense tests, or are just extra challenging in volume or intensity. We can usually maintain with at least 15 quality strength training sessions over a 10-week race prep or in-season racing phase.
Rejuvenation Phase after the Final Race
Physical and mental rest is an essential part of training and making long-term improvement over multiple seasons and years. Take two or three weeks off of all structured training after the final race concludes. This time helps process the results of racing and the year of training, and avoids carrying over stress, fatigue, and aches or injuries from one year of training to the next.
Continue recreational physical activity as personally enjoyable. This is a great time to resume some hobbies or activities that fell off during the intensity of the final few or several months of training and racing. Try something new for a few weeks if something seems fun. Strength train if you enjoy strength training, without worrying about following a set routine or hitting certain levels of performance. I avoid writing structured strength training programs for at least a month after a rower concludes racing.
The goal of the rejuvenation phase is for the athlete to feel rested, ready, and hopefully eager to begin the off-season phase and the next year of training. Review the prior year of training, identify areas for improvement in the next year, set some new goals, and then start training again.
Is the final race of the season also the final race of your competitive rowing career? Let’s talk about “athlete transitioning,” or retiring from a main form of competitive sport.
Summary of Rowing Strength Training Program Priorities
I’d be a happy strength coach if every rowing strength training program included exercises for the squat, hinge, upper body pull and push, and hip, shoulder, and core muscles. Strength training should both enhance rowing performance and also fill gaps in general physical and athletic development. Too many programs just focus on the rowing muscles and movements and neglect the other areas of development that help rowers stay strong, fit, and healthy.
All rowers can get more out of their strength training by focusing on good technique, tempo control, range-of-motion, and achieving an appropriate amount of strain relative to technical failure before progressing load or weight of the exercise. The load alone doesn’t matter independent of the movement quality.
All rowing strength training programs should include individualization when necessary, as well as at least a three-phase programming model of off-season building phase, pre-season transition phase, and in-season maintenance phase, plus time to rejuvenate following the final races. This is how rowers can improve from subsequent seasons and years of training and see the carryover from strength training to rowing performance.