Using Sleds for Rowing Strength Training

By Alex Walters, USRowing Level 3

Note from Will: “Using Sleds for Rowing Strength Training” is a guest article by Alex Walters, coach of the Gem City Crew juniors program. Alex and I have corresponded for a few years now via my email list. He wrote me earlier this year to tell me about the kind of strength training he was doing with his junior program. He felt inspired, motivated, and informed by my resources to make strength training a part of the team’s development, but lacked the funding for equipment, the space to store and use that equipment, and the ability to instruct a conventional strength training program or hire a strength training professional to do so. Enter the sleds. Alex described these warhorses of plywood to me and showed me some pictures of the movements he used in their training. I loved it and asked if he’d like to share this with the broader rowing world, and this article is the result of his efforts. I think it’s a great example of a coach figuring out how to work with what they’ve got and being willing to start with SOMETHING and improve from there. I hope you enjoy this creative approach to strength training for rowing.

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rowing return to train

Rowing Return-to-Train Considerations

The return-to-train phase is any time of resuming rigorous training following more than a week away or significantly reduced due to injury, illness, vacation, or anything else. We can think about returning to train in the general sense, such as resuming any training activities after time away, or the rowing return-to-train phase specifically of resuming rowing and erging following time away from sport-specific training. Athletes and coaches often just want to get back to their prior level of training and performance as quickly as possible. The better way to think of the return-to-train phase is how to use this time to set yourself up to go beyond your prior level.

Key Points: I wrote this article in May of 2020 during the most extreme example of a return-to-train phase, following a multi-week forced shutdown or restriction due to Covid-19 boathouse and gym closures. However, the rowing return-to-train phase includes any time of resuming rigorous training following more than a week or so away. Coaches and rowers can learn from the extreme example of Covid closures and apply it to common rowing return-to-train scenarios of beginning a new season, transitioning to rowing after a long phase of only erging, returning from vacation, rebuilding after an injury or illness, and more to reduce injury risks during this vulnerable time and improve athlete outcomes. Be aware of these phases in your training calendar, know the risks of trying to do too much too quickly, and use the strategies in this article to gradually reintroduce athletes to full training and beyond.

Prefer audio/video? I’ve presented on rowing return-to-train considerations twice to USRowing, with replays available at the links below. One webinar is from May 2020 for a general audience immediately following the Covid-19 closures, and another from April 2021 co-presenting with nutritionist Liz Fusco for a masters-specific audience.

Table of Contents:

  1. Rowing Research Review
  2. Planning the Return-to-Train Phase
  3. Return-to-Train Best Practices
  4. Wrapping Up
  5. My USRowing Return-to-Train Webinars

rowing return to train

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Is 2,000-meter Rowing Aerobic or Anaerobic?

Is 2,000-meter rowing aerobic or anaerobic? Modern research puts an all-out 2,000-meter row or erg between 77-88% aerobic and 12-23% anaerobic. However, this simple answer isn’t the end of the story. In this article, we’ll cover some of the research behind the aerobic and anaerobic breakdown, then we’ll discuss what this actually means at a physiological level, how energy system use is determined, and why this matters for rowing performance. There are key takeaways from this research to get the most out of each energy system and mode of training, between erging, rowing, cross-training, and strength training.

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in-season rowing strength training

In-Season Rowing Strength Training

I have found that rowers go wrong in one of two ways during in-season rowing strength training. Some rowers train hard in the off-season doing cross-training, strength training, improving rep-maxes, and putting on muscle mass, but when racing season starts, suddenly that’s all in the past. Rowers who stop strength training when their racing season begins are strongest for the early regattas when it matters the least, and weakest for the final regattas when it matters most! Other rowers increase strength training when the season starts, believing that they need to do more work and more reps to drive performance adaptation for rowing.

In my experience, there’s a better way to maintain your hard off-season work so you arrive at the championship podium at least as strong, muscular, and mobile as you were for the first race of the season. An in-season rowing strength training program makes use of lower fatigue baseline strength and power maintenance sessions, specific high intensity sessions planned ahead around the training and racing schedule, and muscular recovery sessions to improve mobility and reduce risk of injury through a hard racing season.

Table of Contents

in-season rowing strength training

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interference effect in rowing

Concurrent Training Interference Effect in Rowing

The interference effect is the phenomenon by which adaptation to concurrent strength training and endurance training is diminished compared to separately training only strength or endurance. This is important for sports like rowing, which requires both great power and great endurance. Rowers must train both strength and endurance, so the challenge of the interference effect in rowing is how to maximize adaptation to, and minimize conflict between, the different forms of training that must necessarily occur concurrently. In this article, we’ll dig into the research on the interference effect in rowing, and discuss practical takeaways for rowers and coaches seeking better training and better performance.

I want to be up front that this gets into a level of detailed training program design that may not be an important factor for you, your rowing program, or the rowers you coach. Master the basics first. Do basic strength training, improve aerobic and anaerobic fitness via multiple means, develop great technique on the water, and of course, make rowing a positive part of your life or the lives of the athletes you coach, and this will yield the greatest results in rowing and beyond. If you have the basics down, if the athletes you coach are sufficiently advanced, and if you have the ability to structure your training program and organize your sessions, research on the interference effect offers us takeaways that might yield small performance improvements that add up in the big picture.

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5 Keys to Strength Training for Rowing

The literature review is a form of scientific writing designed to provide breadth of knowledge about a subject. They’re great for the “big picture” of a subject compared to the depth and specificity of an original research article. One handy literature review I found during my “Research Methods in Sport Coaching” class last year was a review of 89 original research studies aiming to identify key factors in organization of sport and strength training for rowing, canoeing, and kayaking. I’ve taken their research and added my own experience and advice to develop the five keys to strength training for rowing. Master these five principles and you’ll be well on your way for short and long-term success in rowing.

Now, we know that rowing, canoeing, and kayaking certainly have their differences, but the similarities in muscles used, style of training, and distance of racing makes it practical to lump them together to study broad patterns in training and performance. Physiologically, if not technically, these sports are similar and are training similarly.

The authors were specifically interested in the interference effect and what research-supported strategies exist to minimize it. The basic idea of the interference effect is this that strength training and endurance training develop opposite physiological qualities, and at a certain point, the training of one begins to interfere with the performance and/or training of the other.

Rowing, canoeing, and kayaking are classified as power-endurance sports. As the name implies, power-endurance sports rely heavily on both muscular power and aerobic endurance to produce high power over a prolonged amount of time compared to pure power sports like throwing, short sprints, and powerlifting. The puzzle of rowing training is how to maximize adaptations to both power and endurance training while minimizing the interference effect between the two.

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Strength Training for Masters Rowers: Periodization

Steady state, intervals, peak power, base endurance, base strength, max strength, technique, mental skills, mobility, nutrition, oh and of course, traveling and racing…There are a lot of skills required in rowing and a lot of athletic qualities required to be a great rower, but how is anyone other than a professional full-time athlete supposed to find the time to train all of those qualities? Strength training for masters rowers is a delicate balance of providing the right kind of training stimulus at the right time without taking time away from rowing or going overboard into overtraining.

The answer is periodization: an annual approach to programming in which focus is strategically shifted between developing certain qualities while maintaining others to gradually build to peak performance. Periodization for masters rowers is especially crucial. Perhaps in your early days of rowing you could do volume until you fell off the erg, get up and do intervals the next day, and hammer the weights in between sessions, but as recovery from training becomes more limited, strategic planning of workouts becomes more important. Here is an annual periodized plan for strength training for masters rowers to produce peak performance.

I’ve written a guide to each block of training in “The Basics of Strength Training for Rowing,” so the rest of this article will draw from that, informing the masters rower what adjustments I make when applying the concept of block periodization to the masters rower competitive schedule. I recommend reading “Basics” first to learn which exercises to use and what each block is all about, and then read this article for the adaptations to the masters training and schedule. 

Prefer audio/video? I discuss strength training for masters rowers and periodization systems in detail in webinars for USRowing, December 2021’s “Strength Training Difference-Makers for Masters Rowers,” and April 2022’s “Fundamentals of Strength Training for Masters.”

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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.

fall rowing strength

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deload week for rowing

A Better Deload Week for Rowing

My strength training for rowing programs include a deload week for rowing every 4-12 weeks. Being natural pain-addicts and work-a-holics, most rowers resist this. Hey, I get it. I love lifting. Sometimes I have trouble falling asleep the night before a workout I’m really excited about. My dad bought me a used bench and concrete weight set when I was 12 and I’ve been lifting in some way ever since. I still take a deload every 6-10 weeks. I don’t always feel like I need the rest at the time, but I always feel better starting the next block of the program after the deload. Previously, when I’ve tried the “rest when you’re dead” method, I’ve always found myself burned out, injured, or my performance stagnant after about 12-14 weeks.

This doesn’t make for sexy hashtags, but if it’s a simple matter of taking a half-step back during the deload week in order to take three steps forward during the following training block and train with better energy, less risk of injury, and renewed focus, then those 5-8 weeks of reduced training load are well worth it over a 52-week annual training plan.

In this article, we’ll cover the importance of the deload week for rowing training from both a strength and rowing training approach. I’ll lay out four different options for training to achieve the goal of rest and recovery to build for more effective future training with better performance and less risk of injury.deload week for rowing

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Staying Summer Fit for Rowing

It’s summer time and many of us are thinking of time away from the boathouse, ergometer, and spin bike. Often, this is out of our control, such as in the case of the high school student who has a summer job that conflicts with open gym or boathouse times. Sometimes this is in our control, such as a planned vacation or conscious choice to move rowing to the back-burner for a few weeks or months and focus on other activities. The competitive athlete will never want to give up an edge to their competition, so while there is no true replacement for time in the boat or on the erg, here is how to stay summer fit for rowing so you maintain as much strength and fitness as possible to make smooth the transition back to specific training.

A Rowperfect reader asked, “I’m unable to row for the next month and I can only really use the erg (and for that matter, weights) a few times a week. Other than that, what are good methods for keeping rowing fit?

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