Perhaps in the future, athletes will lift only with variable-resistance devices that perfectly adjust the amount of tension for the set and rep range and training goals. The first attempts at this technology are out there now, but their expense and specialization means that nearly all athletes are lifting with barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, and other fixed-load free weights. This presents a challenge when selecting the best weight for each exercise, set, and rep. Coaches often spend a lot of time just advising athletes to increase or decrease weight, or terminate a set early based on an optimistic weight selection, taking time away from building relationships, coaching the movements, and doing all of the other things we could be doing. The two main methods of selecting training weights are percentage of one-rep max (1RM) and rate of perceived exertion (RPE). Math versus feel, which one wins?
Overall, I prefer using RPE for rowing training. It largely removes the requirement to do rep-max testing to dial in training weights, offers greater flexibility within each training session to adjust around fatigue from rowing training, and trades a lot of time spent doing math with time spent communicating and educating. However, RPE isn’t perfect, and we should be aware of the limitations, as well as the situations in which a percentage-based system may offer greater utility. In this article, I’ll break down some of the research on strength training with these two major methods, identify pros and cons of each, and provide some takeaways for how you can use RPE or percent 1RM to guide your strength training for rowing.
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.
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.
Hamstring flexibility for rowers seems to always rank high in concerns for both coaches and rowers. “My hamstrings are tight” is offered as an explanation for everything from low back pain, poor stroke technique, restricted reach on the recovery, and more. However, perhaps we’ve been chasing the wrong culprit with our seemingly endless hamstring stretches. When writing my low back pain and rib stress injury research review article, I kept coming across references to “Koutedakis, 1997,” in regard to the muscular imbalance of quadriceps and hamstrings in rowers and resulting low back pain.
“Knee Flexion to Extension Peak Torque Ratios and Low-Back Injuries in Highly Active Individuals” was an intriguing study as described in other research, despite the bland name, as the authors reportedly did a 6-8-month study of female rowers with a history of low back pain, assigned a hamstring strengthening intervention, and found a decrease in days missed from practice for low back pain. I got the article through interlibrary loan, dug in, and it turned out to be even more interesting than I hoped.
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.
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.
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.
“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).
“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.
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.