Rowing has changed immensely in the last 40 years, with watershed points in training methods and performance standards due to equipment, access to the sport, sport science developments, and more. Modern rowing strength training needs to keep up with these changes to best serve rowers and continue pushing the performance level. I started writing in 2015 because I recognized that I offer a different perspective on strength training for rowing than what I saw first as a rower myself and later as a coach. In this article, I will outline some of my overarching key concepts to strength training that I’ve built around over the years. You can then read more on my website and beyond about specific ideas and methods that support these principles, linked at the end of this article.

Key Points: The ultimate goal of modern rowing strength training is to support a high rowing workload and transfer to improved rowing performance. We do not need to use strength training to attempt to simulate the rowing stroke movement, because rowers already achieve a high workload in the rowing stroke movement via year-round erging and rowing at high volumes. This is different since the 1980s, marked by the popularization of the Concept2 ergometer. The hatchet-shaped blade, also invented by Concept2, became the standard in the 1990s. This changed rowing technique, increased per-stroke loading, and emphasized the anaerobic system in racing with accelerated times. These two innovations represent watershed changes in rowing training, performance, and strength training methods. The modern rowing strength coach is now responsible for more general athletic qualities such as strength, coordination, muscle mass, power, and injury prevention. We work to increase rower force production so that the rowing race pace becomes a smaller percentage of the maximum force potential, improving endurance at submaximal intensities. Modern rowing strength training must be organized (periodized) around a commonly year-round, high-volume, high-load rowing training system. These key concepts shape our use of strength training methods from exercise-selection to loading scheme design.

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cover graphic barbell in squat rack with weights and title text modern rowing strength training

Strength Training is Transferable, NOT Identical

This is one of the most common misconceptions about strength training for rowing. Strength training exists to support, not simulate, rowing. “Strength and conditioning training is not the sport itself,” writes fellow rowing strength coach Alex Wolf in his 2020 book, “Strength and Conditioning for Rowing.” It’s a great line (and book!) that captures the essence of modern strength and conditioning training.

I don’t believe in using strength training to do “rowing simulation.” This approach wrongly assumes that such a thing is even possible with non-rowing movements, and ignores the realities and needs of modern rowing training and performance. We already have a “rowing simulator,” and it’s called the ergometer in its many variations (static, sliding, dynamic, etc.). The modern rower spends a lot of time rowing and erging. The last thing we need to do with our limited 2-3 hours per week of strength training time is more of the same thing we’re doing for 10-20 hours per week on the erg and in the boat.

Understanding this requires a short history lesson of rowing equipment and training methods. Rowing training, and therefore also rowing strength training, is different now than before the popular availability of rowing ergometers and the use of hatchet-shaped oar blades. These two pieces of technology, both created by the Concept2 company in the 1980s and early 1990s, marked a new era of rowing performance and training methods. Unfortunately, “old-school” strength training methods that hinder performance and increase risk of injury still persist from before this time.

Before the 2000s saw ergometer access in every boathouse, gym, and even many rower’s homes, rowers had more limited specific training time, especially during off-seasons. Pre-1990s rowers may have taken turns on a few available seats in a “rowing tank” or on early ergometers, but there wasn’t enough access for everyone to achieve significant training volume. Rowers mostly did cross-training and “strength-endurance” training via circuits and high-rep bodyweight, plyometric, or low-load exercises. Cross-training and full-body circuits allowed rowers to at least maintain general strength and conditioning while they could not row.

The change in oar technology as of the 1992 Olympics also changed the technique of rowing. Hatchet blades have a bigger surface area and are shaped differently than the prior spoon-shaped blades. The bigger surface area increases force. The broader bottom profile of the blade catches the water more quickly and reliably to increase early drive phase force. These changes together resulted in a more upright body position using more lower body strength and power, versus the longer pull of the spoon-shaped blade with more spinal flexion and extension.

Concept2 estimates that their 1991 “Big Blade” was 1-2% faster than the prior spoon-shaped blades, and they’ve continued innovating since. In addition to technique changes, a faster race also means a proportionately greater contribution from the anaerobic energy system. High-intensity starting sequences, mid-race power moves, and end-of-race sprints are more decisive over a shorter race duration, further increasing force demands on the rower.

how concept2 changed rowing training and modern rowing strength training. graphic of oar shapes from square to spoon to hatchet and picture of static ergometer.

Ergometers increased both year-round and short-term training volume. Hatchet blades increased per-stroke loading and created the modern rowing technique. Together they changed rowing training and performance, with all world best times in contested events set since 1992. When the sport training and performance changes, the strength training needs to change as well. The goal is transfer, not simulation. Strength training for the modern rower needs to support a high year-round training volume on ergs and on-water, as well as a technique that prioritizes lower body strength and power. The increased training volume and per-stroke load also increases overuse injuries. Strength training needs to protect rowers from common injuries, both reactively by avoiding overuse and proactively by building the rower up against injury.

This brings us to our major goals of modern rowing strength training.

Strength, Coordination, Muscle Mass, Power, and Injury Prevention

The strength coach is primarily responsible for general athletic qualities. The role of a strength coach is helping healthy athletes get stronger, more coordinated, more muscular, and more powerful in ways that have the potential to improve performance and reduce risk of injury for their sport. The athlete applies these general athletic qualities to specific sport training with help from the sport coach to turn the potential into improved sport performance. Medical professionals can help with proactive health interventions. Doctors and physical therapists are crucial when an athlete experiences illness or injury requiring diagnosis and rehab. Coaches support the athlete and medical professional until the athlete can return to sport training, at which point we manage the return-to-train phase. Role clarity is important to make sure that each professional is acting within the scope of our professional training and ability. This multidisciplinary sport staff is different than an earlier era of less-resourced training, when the coach and athlete might have had to do all of this by themselves.

modern rowing strength training role clarity graphic. how sport coach, strength coach, physical therapist, and athlete work together within their professional abilities, as well as support from dietitian, sport psych, athletic trainer, and/or medical doctor

General athletic qualities are distinct, though highly related to each other. Muscular strength is the ability to exert force against resistance or on an external object. Strength is dependent on coordination and muscle mass. An athlete must be coordinated through the motor pattern of exertion and have muscle fibers large enough to create a forceful contraction. Lack of coordination results in inefficient force application and diminished force expression. Low muscle size limits force delivery through lack of contractile tissue. Coordination can be general or specific. General coordination is more casually referred to as “athleticism.” Athleticism is the ability to perform a wide range of tasks, not just one or two specialized tasks. Specific coordination is usually referred to as “technique,” pertaining to a specific task or movement pattern. Power, also called rate of force development, is how quickly the athlete can produce force. Power depends on coordination for movement proficiency, strength to create sufficient force, muscle mass to deliver force, and specific training to increase how quickly this force is applied to the movement.

These general athletic qualities offer plenty for the strength coach and rower to work on, especially with just 2-3 hours per week typically allocated to a rower’s strength training. Many of these qualities develop together in athletes new to strength training. Just learning how to do basic bodyweight movements is important coordination training and beginning strength training. Adding just a bit of external load to these movements further improves coordination and strength. Trainees develop more strength and muscle mass once they can strain harder on individual reps and sets of exercises. Straining on a wider variety of exercises further improves coordination, strength, and muscle mass. Power develops inherently with coordination and strength while total force is the main limiting factor. Once the athlete can develop sufficient total force, usually after 3-6 months of basic strength training, power training exercises train specifically to improve rate of force development.

Experienced rowers may reach a point of diminishing returns from strength training. This is when increasing effort (energy, time, recovery) to achieve results in strength, general coordination, muscle mass, and/or power is no longer worth the marginal return in rowing performance. The myth that “The Kiwi Pair Doesn’t Lift” draws on this concept. By his own words, Eric Murray strength trained for years as a junior and college-aged rower (and rugby player). As elite-level small-boat rowers, Murray and Bond decided with their coach that pursuing very high total training volume (200+km/wk) was more beneficial to their performance than time spent doing conventional strength training. Training for the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, they reduced their strength training to plyometric exercises, minor resistance band exercises, and core training. This demonstrates individually adjusting training at the point of diminishing returns. Focus on the areas of greatest gain, while minimizing expense of areas with less gain.

Increasing performance and preventing injuries are actually highly related, not mutually exclusive or separate goals as they are often presented. “Availability is an ability,” as the saying goes. Does it matter how strong, fit, and fast you are if you’re too hurt to perform on race day? How can athletes develop strength, fitness, and speed if they are too hurt to train consistently, and with great effort? More athletes healthy and available to train and compete means better training, better performance, more competitive teams, and better morale for individual rowers, teams, coaches, and the sport overall.

As a strength coach, I approach injury prevention with strength training in three main ways.

#1. Reduce load on areas that are already overloaded

Overuse injury occurs when training load outpaces recovery and ability to adapt. Rowers already doing a lot of rowing and erging don’t need to do more general rowing motion training with strength training. Rowers are constantly training their legs, trunk, and back muscles with rowing and erging. Strength training that doubles down on these areas with yet more fatiguing leg, core or trunk, and back work makes it that much harder for rowers to recover from and adapt to training. The modern rower does not need squat jumps, “20-minute core circuits,” and bench pulls as key features of their strength training.

#2. Support muscular and skeletal structures vulnerable to injury

Increased volume from erging and increased load from hatchet blades increases stress and strain. The low back and ribcage in particular experience increased injuries due to transmitting stroke force between the legs and handle. Good technique in rowing and strength training is “good” because it promotes muscular power and reduces stress and strain on smaller, more vulnerable areas. In order to achieve good technique, rowers need adequate strength (coordination and muscle mass), cardiovascular fitness (aerobic endurance), and an appropriate training progression and total volume (adequate recovery for the training load).

Use strength training to develop strength that promotes good technique and muscle mass that protects vulnerable skeletal areas from stress and strain. Muscles are contractile and have high blood flow, bringing oxygen and other nutrients to them quickly and first in the physiological chain. Muscles recover faster than tendons, ligaments, and bones that have low blood flow and are downstream physiologically. Rowers who keep stroke force more on muscles and less on other structures experience better stroke power, faster recovery, and fewer injuries.

#3. Develop movements and muscles neglected by rowing and erging

A lack of training for the non-rowing muscles and movements is a common omission that I see in “old-school” rowing strength training. The modern rower spends a lot of time rowing and erging, and has usually done so from an earlier age often without other sports or physical education opportunities. Modern rowing strength training does more for general athleticism and filling gaps in physical development. We do this by targeting the movements and muscles that rowing neglects, including upper body pushing, complete hip extension, lateral and rotational hip movements, and shoulder external rotation.

We might improve short-term performance with “just do squat, deadlift, clean, bench pull, and core,” or other forms of strength training that solely target the general rowing motion and muscles. However, this does nothing to build neglected bodyparts and movements for long-term athletic development. Rowers who do minimalist strength training typically become physically inflexible and athletically rigid. This impairs performance and increases risk of injury compared to a rowers with a more holistic, generally athletic strength training approach.

modern rowing strength training to reduce injuries graphic. three points of a triangle with an eight-boat in the middle. #1 reduce overload. #2 support vulnerable areas. #3 develop neglected areas.

Force is the Ceiling, Endurance is the Floor

“Increase strength → decrease per-stroke effort → improve endurance.” This line comes from my friend and fellow rowing strength coach Blake Gourley, coach and author at his website. Like Alex’s quote from the first section, I appreciate this as a simple, concise way to state the goal performance effect of strength training for rowers.

I describe this in my book as strength training to increase the “force ceiling,” with aerobic training to improve the “endurance floor.” We increase our peak force capacity with strength training for strength, power, and muscle mass. This makes the same submaximal force a smaller percentage of our maximum force. We then use aerobic training to prolong the amount of time we can produce submaximal force, increasing endurance.

Rowing Canada strength coach Ed McNeely proposed in a 2009 article that a rower’s 2km pace should be no more than than 55% of their peak power as assessed by his 10-second test. He provides the example for a 6:00 2km: A 475W average pace would need a peak power score of at least 863W. The exact number doesn’t hold up universally, but the concept illustrates how a rower needs both total force and endurance to be successful in our power-endurance sport. Following McNeely’s calculation, a rower who attempts a 2km pace much above 55% of their peak power will experience the “fly-and-die” result. This describes when the intensity is too hard to sustain for the full distance. The too-intense pace triggers a cascade of fatiguing metabolites from too much anaerobic system contribution, painfully limiting output with each passing minute.

Don’t just try to solve pacing and intensity with more rowing training. Increasing the rower’s total force through strength training will increase peak force and make their goal pace a smaller percentage of their total force. Greater force potential means less effort required on each stroke at submaximal pace, which means an easier time enduring that force production for longer. This saves more energy for the sprint, when we can increase intensity and out-run the cascade of fatiguing metabolites to the finish line. This is the physiological rationale for “negative-split” race-pacing: Begin easier, focusing on low-fatigue aerobic system power, and save that hardest anaerobic power gear for the final sprint when we can take the fatigue and pain.

The “force ceiling, endurance floor” concept also eliminates the need for so-called strength-endurance training. The old-school approach would have the rower do high-rep sets of 20, 50, or even 100 squat jumps, leg presses, and bench pulls to prolong their submaximal strength output. If the rower doesn’t have high peak force, submaximal strength-endurance training is only prolonging poor force output. Spend that time instead improving peak force output. If the rower has a high peak force, but can’t sustain even 50% of that peak force for 2km, they can get their endurance training from more cardiovascular or aerobic endurance training. This means more sport training, not strength-endurance training with weights and exercises. Strength-endurance is a “dead zone” goal in modern rowing strength training.

Organize (Periodize) Rowing and Strength Training

Modern competitive rowers do rowing training year-round, on water when possible and on ergs when not. Gone are the old days of winter strength training and spring racing as the only features of the rower’s training year. Most rowers also race in the fall, and many do rowing programs or camps in the summer, too. Strength training needs to be year-round as well in order to gain and maintain strength, coordination, muscle mass, power, and stay healthy for all the rowing and erging training.

We make year-round training work through organizational systems referred to as periodization. Periodization just means organizing training so that we develop athletic qualities in a planned sequence, rather than haphazardly or all at once. Rowers know that they cannot perform to peak in a 500m, 1km, 2km, 6km, and 10km race all at the same time. The same applies for strength training and our pursuit of strength, coordination, muscle mass, power, and health. These qualities all interact, but training them to peak requires some sort of sequential organization.

Periodized strength training aligns the goals of strength training to complement and support the phase and goals of rowing training. Here is a short outline for the spring 2km rower, a common schedule for USA juniors and collegiate rowers.

  • Summer: General Preparation Phase (Off-Season 1)
    • Rowing emphasis on general aerobic endurance with more cross-training and long-and-low steady state training sessions
    • Strength training emphasis on general coordination, strength, and muscle mass with higher volume, higher variety strength training
  • Fall: Specific Preparation Phase (Off-Season 2)
    • Rowing emphasis on specific aerobic endurance with more rowing training and prep for longer duration head races
    • Strength training emphasis on general strength and muscle mass, gradually increasing intensity and decreasing volume to make room for the increased rowing training
  • Winter: Pre-Competitive Phase (Pre-Season)
    • Rowing emphasis on specific aerobic endurance and anaerobic power, with time on ergs or on-water preparing for spring 2km racing
    • Strength training emphasis on maximum strength, lifting the heaviest weights of the year, and power for faster rate of force development for sprint racing
  • Spring: Competitive Phase (In-Season)
    • Rowing emphasis on 2km racing performance
    • Strength training emphasis on maintaining strength, muscle mass, power, and reducing injuries to maximize athlete availability to train and race at full performance

Rowers tend to make one or two main periodization errors. One of the most common errors is not having a true off-season of reduced specific training intensity. Taking time away from 2k prep in the summer is essential to build a broad foundation of cardiovascular fitness, strength, and muscle mass. The other most common error is stopping strength training during the in-season phase. Rowers who strength train through the off-season and pre-season and then stop for the in-season phase are strongest at the start of the racing season when it matters least, and weakest at the end of the racing season when it matters most! Losing strength, power, and muscle mass over months while increasing rowing volume and intensity is a recipe for poor performance and injury. Modern rowing strength training is year-round to complement and support rowing training and performance goals.

Where to Find More Information

Those four ideas offer a lot to work on! You can read the rest of my work now knowing my foundational ideas about what is important for modern rowing strength training. In my book and on the rest of my website, I detail the specific strength training methods that I use in my strength training for rowers of all ages, types, and levels. You’ll find information about what exercises to use (and not use), periodization phase-by-phase details to align strength training and rowing, articles about specific rowing injuries and prevention approaches, and more. For example, combine this key concepts article with my methods-focused “Rowing Strength Training Priorities” article from February of 2023.

My “Article Index” page has links, keywords, and a one-sentence summary of everything on my website. I have also written some articles that I call “Complete Guides.” These are longer articles detailing everything that rowers and coaches need to know about squatting, deadlifting, upper body training, warming up, and plyometric exercises.

My book, “Rowing Stronger: Strength Training to Maximize Rowing Performance” is available in ebook (PDF) and print. This is my strength training programming guide for rowers, and puts a lot of things all in one place to guide your rowing strength training. I wrote the First Edition in 2015, the Second Edition in 2019, and a “Five-Year Update” in 2024 that is now included in the book and also available as a standalone purchase. If you’re an ACRA or US High-Performance Group coach or rower, my book is available free through the OneWorldRowing Association.

I write shorter posts every other week on Substack, with notes from my coaching, learning, and updates on new content and events. You can also follow my Youtube channel for exercise demonstrations, webinar and conference recordings, and occasional voiceover tutorial videos. I enjoy hearing from readers and I reply to all emails. My response time depends on level of detail required and other things going on outside of my inbox. This plus my in-person work and coaching keeps me plenty busy, so I don’t do much on social media or beyond.

Get Rowing Stronger!

“Rowing Stronger: Strength Training to Maximize Rowing Performance” is the comprehensive guide to strength training for rowing, from first practice of the off-season all the way to peak championship race performance, and for everyone from juniors to masters rowers. The second edition is available now in print and e-book.

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