It’s hard to gain strength, gain muscle, lose body fat, and increase rowing or erging performance all at once. Even getting just two of those is great, and most rowers need to focus on just one at a time while maintaining the others. In this article, we’ll discuss changing body composition and rowing and how to make different goals work at different times of the year from a training and strength training perspective.
Table of Contents:
- Body Composition Challenges of Rowing Training
- Sports Nutrition Resources
- Gaining Muscle Mass for Rowing
- Losing Bodyfat for Rowing
- Final Notes
Body Composition Challenges of Rowing Training
The hard math of rowing is that it’s calorically intensive. I used to coach lacrosse, too, and we could spend hours of practice time making great progress with minimally physically intense activities like passing, shooting, or video strategy sessions. By contrast, even low-intensity rowing or erging is demanding when done at the volume typical of rowing training. There just isn’t a way around working hard for rowers, and we like it like that.
This does make things difficult when it comes to gaining muscle and losing body fat, both of which rely on a balance of calories-in (food) and calories-out (training, recovering, and otherwise existing), as well as high effort for productive training sessions to achieve a specific goal.
We’re going to focus on these two factors of calorie balance and training stimulus in this article, framing our action plan around three key questions:
- What kind of training stimulus do we need to send to start the process of changing body composition?
- How much recovery do we need from this training stimulus to achieve the change in body composition?
- How does the rowing training need to change when these training methods or nutritional strategies conflict with or don’t support immediate rowing performance?
If you’re rowing or erging to exercise or without necessarily trying to hit a specific 500m split, amount of meters per week, or time-per-distance performance, then you may not need to consider this information as much. Rowing and erging for moderate training volume (say, 20-80km per week) can be great ways to increase calorie burning and achieve body composition goals of gaining muscle mass and/or losing bodyfat. However, it doesn’t typically work the other way: Training and eating to gain muscle mass or lose bodyfat are not necessarily great ways to improve rowing performance. This is especially true when rowing training volume is over around 80km per week, and certainly up to and above the 150km-per-week range that collegiate and high-performance rowers often do, which requires specific nutritional fueling strategies for training sessions and recovery.
I maintain a firm line between erging and rowing for exercise and general health versus erging and rowing to achieve sport-specific goals and performances on a timeframe. It can be challenging to define and hold this line as there are more people rowing and erging than ever between recreational rowing programs, commercial gyms, rowing-branded fitness programs, Crossfit, and more. I’ll leave the health and wellness and general fitness and personal training domains to others, and focus on what I know about strength training and rowing training for competitive ergers and rowers of all ages, types, and levels. I consider you in the competitive category if you have specific erging and rowing goals on a specific timeframe, regardless of the exact where, when, or how. From here, we can talk about methods to achieve the sport performance goal within the timeframe.
Getting faster at rowing or erging, gaining muscle mass, and losing bodyfat are three separate, though potentially interrelated goals. We need to investigate them separately in discussions, training plans, and when actually training.
I don’t think body composition by itself has that great of an effect on rowing performance compared to specific trainable factors of strength, power, anaerobic fitness, and aerobic endurance. The “by itself” here is key. If we could only increase muscle size or decrease bodyfat without changing anything else about the athlete, how much would rowing performance improve due to that change alone and not any others? Perhaps a small amount, via a slight gain of leverage against the blade for the rower who added muscle mass, or via slight improvement in strength-to-weight ratio for the rower with less bodyfat.
The challenge in a power-endurance sport like rowing is that added muscle mass needs to be accompanied by increased aerobic and anaerobic fitness to move that increased mass. Lost bodyfat needs to be accompanied by maintained strength and fitness in order to not lose force output. And of course, any improvement in an isolated physical or physiological quality needs to be supported by physical and mental health, technique, racing experience or strategy, fit with teammates, and at least several, if not dozens, of other sport performance factors.
I recommend that rowers and coaches generally think more in terms of trainable factors than body composition. For example, increased muscle size is usually a result of increased muscle strength and power, plus improved nutrition to recover from hard training and build muscle mass. Decreased bodyfat may indicate improved aerobic endurance, nutrition, and/or health, as long as it is decreased to a still-healthy level. These trainable factors all support rowing performance, and my position is that these are the real areas of performance gain versus the pure change in body composition alone as measured by increased muscle mass or decreased bodyfat.
We’ll make a better rower by training to increase strength, power, anaerobic fitness, aerobic endurance, and technique, and by using nutrition to fuel for performance and recovery to achieve these goals. The size and shape of the body becomes more of a downstream outcome of achieving trainable factors, rather than an outcome goal of its own. For example, see this 2021 article, “How Our Female Rowers Ate More and Triumphed,” featuring a lot of athlete quotes about the benefits of fueling and training to gain. “Form follows function” is more my approach here, which aligns with my professional training and scope of practice as a strength coach, as well as my own opinions and biases about what makes a successful rower.
All that said, I understand that many rowers do not consider their rowing performance above all other factors. The decision to lose bodyfat or gain muscle mass can and should be a personal one, supported as best we can by good information and thoughtful reasoning. In the rest of this article, we’ll discuss how to align strength training and rowing training for the goals of gaining muscle mass or losing bodyfat.
Sports Nutrition Resources
One more piece of framing before we get down to the specifics. As a strength coach, I’ll address strength training and rowing factors for gaining muscle mass and losing bodyfat with the goal of becoming a better rower. I’m not a dietitian or nutritionist, so I won’t discuss nutritional specifics about what or how someone “should” be eating. If you don’t know what or how much to eat on a daily basis to achieve your goals, work with a professional dietitian or nutritionist who can help you. I’ll focus on the balance of trainable factors and how this aligns with nutrition from a fueling and recovery perspective, and leave the nutritional specifics to other more qualified people via the links below.
I’m fortunate to work with Megan Chacosky (MS, RD, CSSD) at Craftsbury, our sport dietitian and performance chef since 2022. She’s currently busy enough at Craftsbury and USOPC to not have much time for other professional activities. This is entirely understandable, as she not only writes nutrition plans and does body composition advising for the 40 athletes on our four high-performance sport teams, but also travels with the teams to help prepare meals during training trips and races, cooks part-time in the Center dining hall, does workshops for our summer sculling and running camps, contracts with other USOPC programs, and does all of it exceedingly well. For now, her online presence consists of her nutrition tips on the Craftsbury blog, including this recent post about relative energy deficiency in sports (RED-S for short).
Rowing physical therapist Dr. Lisa Lowe has also written some good plain-language materials on RED-S as well, and what happens when low energy availability from reduced nutritional intake meets high calorie output from demanding sport training.
I presented with USRowing’s Director of Sports Nutrition Liz Fusco in a 2021 webinar, discussing strength training and nutrition factors during return-to-train phases (with Q&A beyond this topic). Liz is great and has a lot more out there, too, including: “Eat Like a Champ” about general nutritional principles and practices, “Optimizing Health & Performance of Junior Lightweight Rowers” with more discussion of RED-S, and “Hydrate Like a Pro” about managing water, electrolytes, and more.
In other sport governing bodies, British Rowing produced a good general guide on nutrition for rowers with plain language and simple action plans. There’s also academic research for those interested in more reading and details, such as this free full text 2020 literature review, “Nutritional Strategies to Optimize Performance and Recovery in Rowing Athletes.” The authors analyzed 34 research articles about nutrition and rowing to present key themes regarding nutrition before training or competition, during training or competition, use of performance-enhancing supplements, nutrition and rehydration after training or competition, and lightweight-specific factors.
Gaining Muscle Mass for Rowing
It takes a lot of calories and the right kind of hard training to build an appreciable amount of muscle mass. This is especially true when we’re spreading the muscular gain out over a tall athlete with long limbs, as is common in rowing. Rowers and coaches often underestimate how much added mass it takes to make a visual or significant difference, especially with a taller athlete. A gain of 5-10 solid pounds is a major achievement, but distributed over a large-framed rower might not actually look like much or change much about oar leverage. Working with Megan to combine data from body composition assessments with data from the weightroom, erg training, and rowing has been very helpful for coaches and athletes alike to quantify change that may not otherwise be that obvious.
I find that the static erg responds most to muscle gain. It’s a lower skill activity than dynamic or on-water rowing, plus the solid footplate surface increases how much muscle mass the athlete can actually use to produce force. This effect often fades disappointingly in the more refined, sensitive performance environment of a small boat, as well as the more chaotic environment of a team boat. This is again where I see trainable factors of increased muscle force, power, fitness, and fueling that come along with gaining muscle mass having a far greater effect on performance than the gain in mass alone. Chasing “scale weight” can improve the erg, but not necessarily the on-water performance.
I find that rowers often go wrong with trying to gain muscle mass in a few main ways.
The first is appropriate goal-setting and training and eating for long enough to see results. Gaining five pounds of lean and maintained bodyweight in a month is amazing progress for most people. If you’re trying to gain 10, 15, or 20lbs of lean bodyweight, we need to spend at least 3-4 months focusing on this as a very high priority goal. Gaining quality muscle mass, which people often refer to as “lean mass” to indicate minimal combined gain of bodyfat, requires dedication, focus, and prioritizing in training and lifestyle. It can’t be done as an afterthought except by athletes most genetically gifted in gaining muscle mass.
This process also can’t be rushed, due to the relatively slow process of turning dietary protein into muscle (after puberty, at least, but even during depending on the genetics). Trying to gain more than 10 pounds of bodyweight in a month is likely to result in a significant amount of combined bodyfat gain. This means more time spent losing bodyfat while maintaining the gained muscle mass to come out equal. Some bodyfat gain is natural, healthy, and totally fine for performance. I find that gaining more than an even ratio (ie. one pound of fat gain with one pound of muscle gain) tends to have more of a negative effect on sport performance than the positive effect of adding muscle mass. Pick a pathway: More rapid gain of both muscle mass and bodyfat followed by a phase of maintaining muscle mass and losing bodyfat, or slower gain of muscle mass with minimal gain of bodyfat. The time tends to come out approximately equal in the end.
Giving the process enough time to work also means that the process needs to be sustainable for long enough to achieve the goal. I’ve seen many rowers try to do extreme training plans and make huge increases in calorie intake, only to burn out on this approach within a few weeks and revert to baseline training and eating. A more modest increase in training volume and food intake that the athlete can sustain for 2-3 months will yield better results and a healthier athlete versus extreme increases that can’t be sustained for more than a few weeks and/or result in adverse physical or mental health outcomes.
The second major error is trying to gain muscle mass while also maintaining the same rowing or erging training volume or trying to achieve specific erging or rowing goals. This is a problem in two directions. The first problem is that the amount of aerobic training required to get faster on the erg or water is usually too much to also be able to strength train hard enough to gain muscle mass. We need hard strength training at least twice a week, more often three times per week, and sometimes even four times per week, to send a strong muscular stimulus to gain strength and muscle mass. We can’t be too tired from the aerobic training or not have enough time to dedicate enough quality strength training. The second problem is recovery and being able to eat enough quality food to recover and improve from both the aerobic training and also the more intense strength training. Some rowers might be able to do it, especially around puberty when the growing body is primed for rapid growth, but most won’t and will end up missing one or both goals, overtraining, or sacrificing health for the easy calories of junk food.
The opposite error is reducing aerobic training too much, or even eliminating it entirely. “Go full bulk” is common internet advice, which might work if you’re a strength athlete or trying to create a stir on social media, but not for the ultimate goal of improving performance in a dominantly aerobic sport. You’ll gain strength and muscle over a 2-3-month “full bulk,” but it’ll take at least 1-2 months to regain the lost aerobic fitness (plus lose excess bodyfat), so this becomes a 4-6-month plan.
Instead, I recommend maintaining aerobic fitness with 3-5 sessions per week of mostly cross-training and some erging or rowing. 2-4 of the sessions should be longer (45-60 mins) and low intensity for base cardiovascular fitness, with 1 short (15-30 minute total) high intensity interval training session. Cardio doesn’t “kill your gains,” and can even be beneficial for gaining quality muscle mass, and rowers need to maintain aerobic fitness in order for gained muscle mass to support improved rowing performance. I prefer more cross-training than erging and rowing because erging and rowing are harder on the low back, and we want to be able to train the full body hard with mostly free-weight strength training exercises to send the “gain” stimulus.
Another error I often see in rowers trying to gain muscle mass is an overemphasis on the specific rowing muscles or movements. What I mean here is, “Just do lots of squats, deadlifts, bench pulls, and core!” or otherwise doing the same familiar rowing strength training. Change the strength training approach to match the change in goal. We need all of our muscles to grow, instead of just trying to gain it all on the lower body and back muscles.
That said, don’t go to the other extreme of crazy high volume strength training programs from internet bodybuilding websites. Here are a few strength training session guidelines:
- Start your session with a few power movements for lower reps (3-6) and higher intensity for a strength stimulus. Spend no more than 25% of your session here. Too much training with heavy full-body movements for low reps fatigues the athlete without sending a big enough signal to grow. Think about this phase more as strength maintenance, preserving peak force production without incurring too much fatigue.
- Spend the middle 50% of the session, and most of the effort, training several bodyparts with moderate reps (8-12) and high effort for muscle growth. Do 3-4 exercises per session for 3-5 sets of 8-12 reps with high or near-max effort, while still focusing on good technique, tempo control, and using full range-of-motion.
- Finish up with 25% of the session training a few isolation exercises for 2-4 sets of higher reps (12-20). Yes, I mean exercises like biceps curls and triceps extensions and other stuff we don’t prioritize in normal rowing training, as well as the usual shoulder, hip, and core exercises. Spread out the muscular stimulus over the whole body.
This relates to the final common error of holding the training the same and just eating more and expecting the increased calories alone to lead to gaining muscle mass. Unless the athlete has been underfueling, just increasing calories without increasing the signal to grow typically results in more bodyfat gain than muscle gain. The intense strength training sends the signal and drives the need for nutrition to support the recovery. Send the signal, provide the recovery, and give the adaptation enough time to happen. In the guidelines above, the change in strength training approach with the very hard effort middle 50% of the session drives most of the need for increased nutrition.
Losing Bodyfat for Rowing
Some bodyfat loss tends to occur naturally during phases of intense rowing and erging training. It’s common for rowers to end the in-season phase a little leaner than they started, as the volume and intensity of sport training rises and most available calories are going toward fueling performance and recovering from training. A competitive rower who experiences too much unintentional bodyfat loss may be experiencing a lack of recovery, too much stress (training or life), and generally insufficient nutrition to fuel performance and stay physically and mentally healthy.
I don’t recommend intentionally losing significant bodyfat while rowing or erging for competitive performance. The high calorie expenditure of rowing and hard training increases hunger and demand for calories to sustain performance. If we don’t provide those calories, performance and/or health suffers due to inadequate recovery from training. It’s very challenging to be so precise in finding the exact balance of eating enough calories to recover from training and improve performance without eating too much to stall fat loss. This approach would have to be closely advised by a medical professional and dietitian with the rower, rowing coach, and strength coach all involved.
This is our first common error of reducing calories to decrease bodyfat while also trying to maintain erging or rowing training volume to pursue specific sport performance goals. The solution is to reduce, but not eliminate, aerobic training for the same reasons as those trying to gain muscle. Aim to maintain aerobic fitness with a similar dose of 3-5 sessions per week: 2-4 longer and low intensity for base fitness, and 1 shorter and high intensity to maintain race pace fitness. This can be any balance of erging, rowing, and cross-training.
Another common error is avoiding strength training entirely. We want to maintain our other important qualities of strength and muscle mass while decreasing bodyfat, not just losing bodyweight as combined bodyfat and muscle mass. A professional body composition evaluation is very helpful here, not just going based on scale weight. We need strength training at maintenance level along with our maintenance aerobic training. Here we actually can continue strength training similarly to normal rowing strength training, along these general guidelines:
- Two or three 45-60-minute strength training sessions per week focusing on lower rep, higher weight compound exercises.
- Each session consists of 3-4 sets of 4-8 reps on one variation each of a squat, hip hinge, horizontal or vertical push, and horizontal or vertical pull exercise.
- Include 2-3 sets of approximately 10-20 reps on injury prevention exercises, one each for the shoulder, hip, and core, but generally don’t spend energy on other isolation exercises.
Unlike the increased intensity of strength training to gain muscle mass, when strength training to lose bodyfat we are only trying to send a “maintenance stimulus” with our strength training, avoiding overworking and creating an increased need for calories in recovery.
People trying to lose bodyfat often go for lighter weight, higher rep exercises with circuits or sets of 20+ reps to try to burn calories with strength training. That might work if that’s the only training we’re doing, but a competitive rower is also doing 3-5 sessions per week of erging, rowing, or aerobic cross-training. Light weight, high rep strength training will be tiring and will burn calories, but this is also increasing recovery needs and hunger, which is challenging for reduced calories. Light strength training also doesn’t stimulate the central nervous system for max strength maintenance, and it won’t do as much for maintaining muscle mass either. Keep the strength training workouts short, simple, and focused on higher outputs for lower volume to maintain max strength and muscle mass. Let the nutrition and aerobic training do the rest of the work on bodyfat loss.
Similar to gaining muscle mass, rowers trying to lose bodyfat need to give the process enough time to work. This also means that the process of bodyfat loss needs to be sustainable for long enough to see results. Large decreases in calorie intake, taking entire categories of familiar, comfortable, or enjoyable foods away, and other big, sudden changes in lifestyle or nutritional approaches tend to fail within a few weeks, if even that. This might result in a little immediate loss from the sudden change, but it’s quickly gained back due to not being sustainable for long enough to become real change or progress. A common response to this failure is to double-down on another attempt, trying the same approach or one even more extreme, rather than interpret the failure as indication that the goal was too much of a reach or the process was too aggressive. Psychologists Dr. Janet Polivy and Dr. Peter Herman termed this “false hope syndrome” in a 2000 article. They propose that this process can repeat itself essentially indefinitely as we go through the cycle of setting an unrealistic goal, embarking on an unreasonable approach, experiencing a small amount of short-term success, a stall or failure due the unrealistic aim or unsustainable methods, and then a misinterpretation of the failure and doubling-down for the next attempt. It’s not easy, but we can break this cycle with better goals, more sustainable methods with room for adjustment, and giving the process a longer amount of time to work.
One final tip for losing bodyfat is to maximize the benefits of “NEAT,” or non-exercise activity thermogenesis. In plain language, NEAT means moving the body more in ways that use calories, but aren’t particularly fatiguing. Examples of NEAT include taking the stairs instead of the elevator, intentionally parking further away from a destination, doing a walking meeting, light activity like lawn-mowing and gardening, or even just using a standing desk instead of sitting down. These little activities increase calorie use without noticeably increasing hunger or adding fatigue that takes away from actual training. It just tips the balance a little bit multiple times a day toward the calorie-burning side of the bodyfat loss equation.
I’ve proposed a model flip from conventional approaches to training and eating to gain muscle mass and lose bodyfat. I have found better success using this system, especially when considering the volume of sport training and rowing and erging performance demands in addition to the goals and methods of changing body composition by gaining muscle or losing bodyfat.
To gain muscle mass, people often do less training and eat more calories. This often results in a poor ratio of gained muscle mass to gained bodyfat, lower rate of muscle mass gain, and loss of aerobic fitness. I propose doing more strength training, while at least maintaining aerobic training, to send the growth stimulus and drive appetite, and eating more quality calories to support recovery and achieve the adaptation.
Do more strength training with greater effort to send a big growth stimulus and drive the need for increased nutrition. Then, eat more food to fuel the training and recovery from training. Maintain aerobic performance with maintenance erging, rowing, and cross-training, but don’t chase specific performance goals that would detract from the priority goal of gaining muscle mass. Trying to gain muscle mass through recovery with less training, lower effort, and more calories can work in the short term, but then often results in plateaus and ultimately more fat gain than muscle gain, as well as loss of aerobic fitness.
To lose bodyfat, people often do more training and eat fewer calories. The increased training drives an increased need for calories to recover from training. When we don’t provide those calories, we experience stagnant performance and health problems from overtraining (or under-recovering). Unfortunately, providing those calories to support increased training load means not actually losing much bodyfat! I propose doing less training, aiming to just maintain necessary qualities of sport performance, while eating less to achieve the bodyfat loss.
Do less training, at maintenance effort, to avoid driving a need for increased nutrition. Eat less food, focusing on fueling training sessions and then consuming fewer calories away from training sessions. Trying to lose bodyfat through training with more training, more effort, and fewer calories can work in the short term, but often results in plateaus, overtraining, and regaining any lost fat quickly once calories come back up.
Have different phases of the training year to focus on different goals, whether you’re trying to gain muscle mass or lose bodyfat. This fits with the periodization strategies you can read about on the rest of my website, and it increases the chance of giving the process of gain or loss enough time to work to avoid the cycle of false hope syndrome. In short, dedicate an actual off-season of 2-4 months of reduced, but not eliminated, aerobic and sport-specific training. Use this time to focus on gaining muscle or losing body fat, while maintaining general aerobic fitness without specific performance goals on the erg or water. Then, aim to maintain this new body composition while gradually returning to more rigorous rowing training and focusing on achieving specific performance goals. Focus on performance while maintaining something really worth maintaining, then do it again the next year to keep on making progress.