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
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