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upper body training for rowing

Upper Body Training for Rowing: The Complete Guide

Upper body training for rowing often gets minimized because of the notion that the lower body produces the majority of force in the rowing stroke. While this is true, all of that lower body power has to go through the upper body, shoulders, arms, and hands, in order to get to the handle! Rowers also need to train the upper body to reduce risk of injury. Low back pain and rib stress injuries are two of the most common rowing injuries costing the most amount of missed training time, and rowing research notes poor upper body strength as a risk factor for both injuries. In this Complete Guide article, we’ll cover upper body training for rowing performance and reduced risk of injury, including relevant rowing research, specific strength training methods for in-season and off-season training, and upper body exercises I do and don’t use.

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rowing workouts

How to Track Your Rowing Workouts

It’s common advice in strength training to keep a training log, but I find there’s often minimal instruction as to the how and why of data collection, how to also track your rowing workouts, and then how to actually use the data to inform your training. Tracking your rowing workouts and strength training offers numerous potential benefits. Knowing exactly what weights, sets, reps, meters, minutes, and intensity you did in previous rowing workouts improves session efficiency and can be motivating as you see the small gains add up over weeks, months, seasons, and years of training. I love the feeling of filling up pages and notebooks, and have my last 10 years or so of training that I can look back on. I can also look back on all that data to try to figure out trends and what has worked and not worked in my own training. For self-coached or solo rowers, your training log might be your best, or only, workout partner keeping you accountable for putting one session after the next. For masters rowers, the training log can provide all of this, as well as valuable clues to determine what training you respond best to, and what training might put you over the edge in recovery ability.

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strength standards for rowing

Testing 1-Rep Maxes and Strength Standards for Rowing

I don’t use 1-rep maxes or strength standards for rowing training. There are lots of ways that strength coaches and rowing coaches can evaluate the efficacy of a rowing training program. What does it tell me about a rower’s ability if they squat 225lbs for one rep? Pretty much just that the rower can squat 225lbs for one rep. Without the context of this lift, it means very little. Strength standards have also always seemed to lack context, even when they are designed around other rep max ranges. Strength is a skill, and rowing is a skill, and I’m not sure that one is predictive of the other. However, we still need some way to evaluate the efficacy of our training program, right?

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low back pain rib stress injuries rowers

The Research on Low Back Pain and Rib Stress Injuries in Rowing

Low back pain and rib stress injuries are two of the most common and costliest rowing injuries. Low back pain (LBP) affects 32-53% of rowers and is the leading cause of missed training sessions. Rib stress injuries (RSI) affect fewer rowers, more like 10%, but as a bone injury, the recovery time is much longer. A typical recovery window is 3-8 weeks of rest, rehab, and gradually returning to rowing. It is critical to understand and reduce risk factors for these injuries, because previous injury is one of the biggest risk factors for future injury. Once you get one, it’s more likely to get another, so we have to start with reducing risk, then preventing the first injury, then reducing injury rates overall.

Warning: This article is long, at nearly 6,000 words, and heavily sourced with the most up-to-date research on low back pain and rib stress injuries in rowers. I originally wrote this as a final paper in my graduate school biomechanics class, and adapted it to blog format with the goal of creating a comprehensive, accessible resource for rowers, rowing coaches, and strength coaches of rowers.

My goal with this article is to provide specific education for the rowing coach, strength coach, and rower detailing the mechanism of injury, risk factors, and rowing and strength training strategies to reduce LBP and RSI in rowers. You can use the links below to jump straight to a section as well.

  1. Limitations of Research
  2. Injury Mechanism: LBP
  3. Injury Mechanism: RSI
  4. Risk Factors: LBP & RSI
  5. How Coaches Can Reduce Rowing Injuries
  6. How Strength Coaches Can Reduce Rowing Injuries
  7. How Rowers Can Reduce Rowing Injuries
  8. Wrapping Up

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mental skills rowing

3 Steps to Coaching Mental Skills for Rowing

By Madison Keaty, MS

Note from Will: This article is a guest post from Madison Keaty, assistant coach at Gonzaga University women’s rowing. Madison rowed for Gonzaga University before attending Ithaca College to study sport psychology. We met at the Joy of Sculling Conference in February and had a great time talking about how to get more resources on coaching mental skills for rowing into the hands of rowers and coaches. In this article, Madison provides some excellent and accessible advice for incorporating mental skills training for rowing into a daily practice plan.

Is mental toughness necessary to row?

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rowing neutral spine

The Neutral Spine Rowing Drill

The neutral spine rowing drill is one of my favorite drills to teach the hip hinge and shoulder muscle control on the erg and ingrain good movement patterns. This drill is not as simple as “just pop your hands behind your head,” though, and requires a bit more analysis and troubleshooting to get the most out of it. Done correctly and analyzed thoroughly, the neutral spine drill provides a great learning opportunity for the athlete to dial in physical positioning and great feedback for the coach or self-coached rower on potential problem areas in stroke technique, strength, and mobility.

The Neutral Spine Rowing Drill

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fall rowing strength

Fall Rowing Strength Training

The Specific Preparation Block of fall rowing strength training can often get left behind in the overall hustle and bustle of fall rowing season. It’s an exciting time in the collegiate or junior rowing programs. Athletes return from summer break, enthusiasm for a new year high. New novice rowers join the program ranks. Coaches rush around like forest creatures using every last bit of daylight to make final preparations for the changing seasons, squeezing in extra meters to get athletes up to speed. Coxswains sweat out the twists and turns of upcoming head races. It is vital to have a solid plan for fall rowing strength training amid all the busyness so that athletes get the most out of the work they put in during the summer General Prep Block, and are ready to build their foundation for the upcoming year of training.

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Why Strength Matters in Rowing

The short-and-sweet answer to why strength matters in rowing was concisely tweeted out by my friend and fellow rowing strength coach Blake Gourley few months ago. Increasing strength decreases the amount of effort required per stroke, which increases endurance at submaximal intensities. I dubbed this “Twitter-coaching at its finest” in the conversation, however, I know many are interested in the full answer. Here’s about 1200 words (and no emojis) more on how we get to this beautifully concise answer.

The Research on Why Strength Matters in Rowing

In “Strength and Power Goals for Competitive Rowers” (2005), authors McNeely, Sandler, and Bamel make a few relevant observations from earlier rowing literature.

“Muscular endurance, strength, and boat speed are closely related. Rowers maintain an average of 686-882 Newtons (N) or the 210-240 strokes that make up a 2,000m race. It has been found that to maintain this level of muscular endurance a rower works at approximately 40% of peak rowing strength for the duration of the race.” From Ishiko, T. (1969). Application of telemetry to sport activities. Biomechanics, 1, 138-146.

“Research with Danish Olympic, national, and club-level heavyweight rowers of similar stature and age found that, in isometric rowing simulation, Olympic rowers generated 204 kilograms of force (kgf) on average. National-level rowers generated 183kgf and club rowers generated 162kgf. Using other non-specific rowing tests–isometric arm pull, back extension, trunk flexion, and leg extension–on the same groups of athletes, it was found that the higher the competition level of the rower, the greater the strength in all tests.” From Secher, N. (1983). Isometric rowing strength experience and inexperienced oarsmen. Medicine and Science in Sports, 7(4), 280-283.

The “isometric rowing simulation,” is basically sitting at half slide pulling on a handle that won’t move, but does record how much force you are pulling against it. It’s a cool metric for research purposes because it’s more specific to rowing than something like a leg press (non-specific and every machine is a little different) or a deadlift (non-specific and very high individual variability).

The sources for both of these claims are admittedly old, and it would be great to see some current research update these findings. However, the exact numbers aren’t particularly important to the understanding of the concept of why increasing strength decreases per-stroke effort and therefore increases endurance.

The Math on Why Strength Matters in Rowing

McNeely et al. claim that rowers operate at about 40% of their peak rowing strength during a 2k test or race. The average range of this 40% is 686-882 Newtons (N), which converts to 69-89 kilograms of force (kgf), which represents their endurance over 2,000 meters. Although an issue of the Rowing Biomechanics Newsletter gives us a bit of insight, there’s no direct calculation for converting isometric (static) rowing force to actual (dynamic) rowing force, but let’s use these numbers by way of explanation for why strength matters in rowing.

If you, like a Danish Olympic rower, can generate 204 max isometric kilograms of force, 40% of that is 81kgf per stroke, so you’re rowing your 2k at about 81kgf per stroke.

If you, like a Danish national-level rower, can generate 183 max isometric kgf, your 40% is 73kgf per stroke. You’re rowing your 2k with about 8kgf less than an Olympic-level rower.

If you, like a Danish club-level rower, can generate 162 max max isometric kgf, your 40% is 64kgf per stroke. You’re about 17kgf behind the Olympic-level rower.

If your peak force is 204, your 40% is higher than if your peak force is 162 (81kgf vs. 64kgf).

Ed McNeely provides another mathematical example of this in his “Peak Power: The Limiting Factor to Rowing Performance” article.

“Peak power, the highest wattage you are capable of pulling, limits your race ability by setting a power ceiling for your performance. For instance if you wanted to row a 6:00 2K you would need to pull approximately 475 watts for the entire piece. If the max watts you can pull is only 500, it is going to be very difficult to hold the 475 watt pace for very long. In fact if your target pace is more than 55% of your peak power you are going to have a very difficult time holding that pace. If your peak power is higher you will be able to work at a lower percentage of your peak power and still hit your target pace. This will make the race feel a little easier and give you a performance buffer if you need to make a hard sprint in the final 500.”

At this point, people often say, “Well, I pull 100% on every stroke, so how does increasing my strength increase my endurance?”

You do not pull 100% on every stroke in a race. A 2,000-meter race is between 77 and 88% aerobic. Energy system use is determined by intensity AND duration of the activity. Powerlifters can exert absolute maximal force into a 1-rep max squat, bench, or deadlift lift because they are doing one repetition lasting under ten seconds, using energy almost exclusively from the ATP-PC system. THEY are exerting 100% against the external load of the barbell because the duration is very short. The absolute maximum intensity of the rowing stroke is limited by two things. First and foremost is the duration of the race. If this were not a factor, your 10-stroke peak power would be the same as your 2km average power. Second is the resistance of the blade and the water. Rowers cannot exert their absolute maximum strength against the resistance of the water beyond the initial starting strokes. The surface area of the blade, the momentum of the system, and the density of the water all reduce the absolute maximum force that the rower can apply.

Increasing peak force can increase the amount of force the rower can exert on the blade. This is helpful during those few strokes that ARE close to maximal intensity, such as starting strokes and “power-10” strokes.

In all other rowing circumstances, increasing peak force decreases the amount of effort required to move the system. Increasing your peak rowing strength decreases the amount of effort required for submaximal rowing. Rowing at a lesser intensity increases the duration that you can hold that intensity. This is how increasing strength decreases per-stroke effort and improves endurance.

How to Improve Strength for Rowing

In addition to strength, there are many important factors that influence performance such as technique, aerobic system efficiency, VO2 max, and more that one article alone could never address. However, now you understand why strength matters in rowing, and why it is worth training on its own in addition to rowing training for all the other variables. If you hold technique and fitness constant, increasing strength decreases effort per stroke, which increases endurance. Ready to start increasing your strength? Check out my article “The Basics of Strength Training for Rowing” for how to set up an annual periodized strength training for rowing program to improve rowing performance and reduce risk of injury. There are lots of ways to strength train out there, but very few of them are sport-specific for rowing. Bodybuilding programs, powerlifting training, or programs written for sports other than rowing just won’t get the job done for improving rowing performance and reducing risk of injury.

Last updated July 2020

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.

Rowing Warmup: The Complete Guide

The warmup is an important time to set you up for the best rowing, erging, or strength training session with the lowest risk of injury. You can do a solid full-body rowing warmup in 10 minutes, or 15 minutes if you include the light aerobic time. In this article, we’ll cover my go-to rowing warmup movement sequences so you can start making this a part of your training right away.

Key Points: The rowing warmup prepares the body to generate and transmit force from good positions in rowing, erging, or strength training. Rowing is a long range-of-motion sport requiring performance from challenging physical positions  at high outputs, for long durations, and under high fatigue. To make this harder, rowers are often rolling out of bed 30 minutes before an early morning practice or sitting down all day at work or school before an afternoon or evening practice. Use these movement sequences for 10 minutes of physical preparation to get more out of your training with less risk of injury.

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transitioning from sport

Athlete Transitioning from Sport

Often lost in the excitement of the final races, championship qualifiers, and preparing for the culmination of another season is the realization that, for the hundreds of thousands of athletes graduating from high school or college and not continuing sport, this is it. While transitioning from sport for rowers means sleeping in, no more erg tests, and a life beyond spandex, many will struggle to adjust to a life that does not revolve around athletics and athletic performance. Sports have special cultures and forge strong bonds between teammates, and many will not find the close relationships that existed between teammates in work, school, or future life. Coaches and athletes must be prepared to handle this transition for the long-term success of our athletes and sport.

Sport unites us around a common goal and shared effort. Beyond the medals and trophies, this is one thing that makes sport so valuable in a person’s life. When retired athletes look back on their career and what they enjoyed, it’s usually much more about the lifelong relationships and personal accomplishments than the stat lines, number of games won, or trophies earned. These deep bonds between teammates who share the memories, work ethic, intrinsic motivation, and dedication are hard to match later in life.

This is also what makes sport so hard to leave, and why retirement from competitive, organized sport can be so difficult on so many people. Everyone who has ever picked up a pair of cleats, glove, ball, or an oar, has had or will have to retire someday. For some, transitioning from sport is a choice made voluntarily when the athlete feels they have reached a personally satisfactory level of accomplishment in their career, or chooses to pursue other goals. For others, that moment comes too soon. Involuntary transition can be caused by injury, aging or graduating out of competitive sport opportunities, relocating away from their team or sport, or not making the tryout cut for further competition. Regardless of the reasons, every single athlete at some point has to deal with the sense of loss that comes from leaving sport behind. There is a lot that we can do as coaches and athletes to improve the smoothness of transitioning from sport, and continue to have a beneficial effect on our athletes’ lives even after they’ve left our program.

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