The Minimum Rowing Strength Training Plan

Some rowers find themselves without the time, equipment, ability, or desire to make dedicated strength training a regular part of their rowing training program, due to external circumstances or personal choices by the coach or rower. Sometimes this can be a temporary situation, as in during a time of very heavy rowing training, travel, or increased time demands outside of rowing. The minimum rowing strength training plan often focuses on the performance work and discards the supporting work and training to reduce injury risk. In this article, I hope to convince you that it should be the other way around. Your performance work can be better replicated by rowing and erging than the assistance work for the non-rowing muscles and movements, and it is here that you will find the greater benefit to overall performance and reducing risk of injury.

The common minimum rowing strength training program tends to involve a lot of muscular endurance work in the off-season or pre-season, usually focusing only on the muscles that produce stroke motion, and then only rowing during the racing season. The result of this is rowers strengthening the muscles that are already strong from rowing, which misses development of muscles neglected by rowing training and increases risk of overuse injuries and muscular imbalances. The lack of an in-season approach means that these rowers are strongest at the start of the season when it matters least, and weakest at the end of racing season when it matters most. Instead, coaches and rowers seeking the bare minimum rowing strength training should strength train for the goal of reducing risk of common rowing injuries by building movements and muscles that rowing alone neglects. I call this “rowing mitigation work,” and it’s the most important part of rowing strength training, and the easiest to implement in a rowing training program.

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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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upper body training for rowing

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resistance band rowing strength

Resistance Band Rowing Strength Training

Resistance bands are a versatile tool to have in your strength training for rowing toolbox. Resistance bands are fairly inexpensive compared to other strength training equipment, require little storage space, are portable, and are adaptable for use with a wide range of athletes. If you train out of a boathouse or a home gym, resistance bands can simulate dozens of exercises that you might need dumbbells or a cable machine for otherwise. Rowers can learn to how to maintain tension at different ranges and directions of motion, making resistance bands an effective strength training tool to provide a different stimulus than traditional free weight exercises alone. We’ll do resistance band rowing specific exercises, as well as exercises to develop non-rowing movements and muscles. Programmed and instructed thoughtfully, resistance bands can add another layer of challenge, flexibility, and stimulus to your rowing strength training.

resistance band rowing strength training graphic bands and text

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strength training circuits for rowing

Strength Training Circuits for Rowing

Strength training circuits for rowing can have a place in a training program, but they’re often overused or used for the wrong reasons. We can improve training with an understanding of when, how, and for what kind of rower we should use circuit training, clearer goals for circuit training, and methods beyond simply working stroke muscles in fatiguing conditions. In this article, I’ll suggest solutions to common problems in circuit training design and provide guidelines and examples of how I use strength training circuits for rowing under different goals and conditions.

strength training circuits for rowing

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Why I Hate the Bench Pull for Rowing

I hate the bench pull for rowing strength training. I can see a justification for most other exercises, but the bench pull is one of the few exercises I’ll do everything I can to avoid using in my strength training for rowers. This is a controversial opinion in rowing, especially among more “old school” coaches and rowers who remember the lift with mythical status of the 1970s, 80s, and early 90s. I’ll use this article to state my case for why the bench pull should be left behind in the modern era of rowing, what exercises I use instead of the bench pull, as well as how to modify the bench pull to be a more effective, safer exercise for those who must bench pull.

Key Points: Bench pull rowing enthusiasts usually tout the exercise’s specificity to the rowing stroke, but I see it as anything but specific. Rowers rowing on the water or on ergs do not lie facedown on a solid object and pull with their arms in a straight line against a static object. Rowers execute a refined movement to place the blade in the water (a dynamic target), initiate force with the lower body, transfer it through a torso in the hinge position, and complete the stroke in a dynamic, smooth motion with the upper body muscles. My biggest problem with the bench pull is the direct pressure on the ribcage as a known risk factor for the common and costly rib stress injury. Rowers should use other horizontal pull exercises like bodyweight rows, single-arm rows, and a few more variations rather than take on such risk for such little benefit as the bench pull for rowing performance.

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10 best exercises for rowing cover image, barbell and text

The 10 Best Strength Training Exercises for Rowing

This is what I would do if I could only do 10 exercises for rowing strength training. In reality, I use more variations of our basic exercises of the squat, hinge, push, and pull movements, plus exercises for the core, shoulder, and hip muscles. However, these 10 exercises are a great starting point for strength training for rowing. In this article, we’ll go through each one with how it improves rowing performance, reduces risk of common rowing injuries, and how I use it in my rowing strength training programs.

Here’s a brief overview on my rowing strength training philosophy to set up these exercises. Rowers need strength training for the muscles that contribute to rowing performance to increase force output in the rowing movement. Rowers also need strength training for the non-rowing muscles that are underdeveloped by the rowing stroke to improve muscle balance and reduce risk of injury. We do some form of strength training year-round in my coaching with rowers of all ages, types, and levels. We build strength, power, and muscle mass during “off-seasons” or times of decreased rowing training and racing. We then train to maintain strength, power, and muscle mass when we focus on rowing performance during “in-season” or race prep training.

We’ll stick to the exercise details in this article, but I’ve written a lot about how to combine the exercises in a strength training program elsewhere on my website. Start with “The Basics of Strength Training for Rowing” and read on from there.

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