If you want to maximise your rowing performance and bring down those split times, you’re going to need to be complementing your rowing specific work with a plentiful amount of strength training. This guide covers the major benefits of strength training for rowers, the essential exercises you’ll want to include, and how to think about structuring your strength training to make it as effective as possible.
- What Are the Benefits of Strength Training for Rowers
- Better Force Transference / More Efficient Strokes
- The Best Strength Exercises for Rowers
- What About Those Fancy Strength Exercises I’ve Seen On YouTube?
- How to Structure Your Strength Training For Rowing
- What about the Progression of Rowing Strength Training?
- Want a Rowing Strength & Conditioning Programme Custom Built For Your Needs?
Let’s get started, shall we?
What Are the Benefits of Strength Training for Rowers
Greater Force Production
Stronger muscles are able to exert more force, and exerting more force means more powerful strokes that move the boat faster.
The same perceived difficulty for you, but a faster boat, sounds like a win.
Improved Strength Endurance
Here’s a quick thought experiment for you. If you’re incredibly weak and a performing a single stroke leaves you feeling incredibly tired, how many good quality strokes do you think you’ll be able to perform in a minute? 10? Maybe 15 at a push.
On the other hand, If you’re incredibly strong and performing a single stroke feels like moving the oar through thin air, how many high-quality strokes do you think you’ll be able to perform in a minute? 35? Maybe even 40+
That is a HUGE difference, and it exists because the higher your top-end strength, the more strength endurance you automatically possess.
Better Force Transference / More Efficient Strokes
If you had to run a sprint as fast as possible, would you run on a firm surface or on jelly? Unless you’re a lunatic you’d run on something firm right?
That’s because when something is firm it better transfers force, and the exact same logic applies to your body, especially your core. If your hips, back and torso are weak and flop around all over the place with every stroke, you’re losing power and working way harder than you need to.
By improving your core stability and rigidity you can more efficiently transfer force (Shinkle et al. 2012) specifically from your legs, hips and back through to the water, resulting in a faster (and more stable) boat.
The Best Strength Exercises for Rowers
Fundamentally, strength training for rowers can be broken down into 5 categories, which we’ll address individually.
- Leg Strength
- Hip Hinge Strength
- Back/Pulling Strength
- Core Strength
- Injury Prevention
Squats are going to be your friend here. I’m talking exercises such as back squats, front squats and close variations such as pause squats. There’s no need to get particularly fancy. 3 to 5 sets of 3-5 reps will more than suffice.
Exercises such as Romanian deadlifts (RDL’s) and Snatch Grip Romanian Deadlifts are two of my absolute favourites. They allow you to load and strengthen your lower back, glutes and hamstrings simultaneously. I use these a little more sparingly as they can be quite fatiguing. Typically 2-3 sets of 4-6 reps is about right.
Your legs and hip hinge might be the primary method of producing force, but your lats and ‘pulling’ back muscles are also important contributors. Exercises like bent-over rows, prone rows and dumbbell rows are all great additions to a programme. Personally, I tend to recommend 2-4 sets of 6-12 reps.
The best way to build a strong, rigid core is to combine a selection of different exercises that train different core functions. For example, you could include planks, side planks and paloff holds as they train anti-extension, anti-lateral flexion and anti-rotation respectively. Don’t just do the same type of exercise every week and expect a well-rounded core.
All things considered, rowing is a pretty low injury sport. It’s non-contact, there are no changes of direction and it’s very low impact on your joints, so it avoids three major injury mechanisms.
What we do see, however, are overuse injuries and inflammations in the lower back, wrists, rib cage, knees and shoulder joint. Fundamentally, these injuries are best avoided, or allowed to recover, through the appropriate management of your total rowing training volumes.
With that said, exercises like banded face pulls, banded pull aparts and YTW’s can help to strengthen the upper back and rear delts, potentially reducing the likelihood of shoulder issues.
And stretching exercises like cat-camel, sofa stretch and IT band rolling can help to reduce muscular tightness that contributes to overuse injuries in the back, knee and IT band respectively.
What About Those Fancy Strength Exercises I’ve Seen On YouTube?
Honestly, forget about them and remember this one simple fact.
You are not a strength athlete, you are a rower.
Even if you’re an experienced rower, chances are you’re a beginner or early-intermediate in the gym. You don’t need extra complexity in order to make progress, and in most cases, it will actually hinder it.
Warm-up properly, perform a few basic exercises with good form, then leave the gym and relax.
How to Structure Your Strength Training For Rowing
You know how in the above section I mentioned that you just need to keep things simple. The exact same rule applies to structuring your strength training. Don’t feel the need to overcomplicate things. Just follow these three simple rules and you’ll be good to go…
1) Timing: Time your strength training sessions so that they are as far apart from your rowing as possible. Ideally on separate days, or at the very least a good few hours apart.
2) Sessions: Stick to 2 or 3 strength training sessions per week. Any more than that and you’ll just start hampering your recovery from training.
3) Exercise Number: Do 1 leg, 1 hip-hinge, 1 pull, 2 core and 2-3 stretching type exercises every strength session. No more and no less. So a sample session might look like…
Back Squat 3×5, RDL 2×6, Dumbell Row 3×10 each side, Plank 2 sets, Side Plank 2 sets, Cat Camel 2×15, Stretch Quads 2 min, Roll IT bands 2 min.
That’s it, done. You should be in and out of the gym in under an hour.
What about the Progression of Rowing Strength Training?
I’m gonna sound like a broken record, but once again, just keep things simple. As a beginner you can progress every session, so do that. Every time you come into the gym just add a little bit more weight (1-2kg) Keep doing that until you can’t progress anymore.
After that, you can change the exercises you’re using, or just aim to progress every other session, alternating between a slightly lighter day and a slightly heavier one.
Yes, this simple approach won’t work forever, but you’ll be amazed how far it will take you.
Want a Rowing Strength & Conditioning Programme Custom Built For Your Needs?
Learning all about SRA and training concepts is great, but if putting it all together into a programme yourself seems like a bit of a hassle, then I’ve got you covered.
I’ve put together a custom programme writing option, where you can ask me to build you a training programme from scratch, specifically for your needs.
I’ll also combine this with a monthly check-in so that you can review progress, ask questions and provide feedback. You can learn more about custom programming here.
That’s it for today, follow the advice in this guide and I can damn near guarantee that you’ll improve your rowing times.
And as always, if you’re looking for a strength and conditioning coach to help you with your sports performance, you can book a free, no-obligation call in my diary right here.
’til Next Time
MSc Strength & Conditioning
British Weightlifting Tutor/Educator
Delivered Strength and Conditioning support to Leeds University Performance Rowing Programme.
Shinkle et al. (2012) Effect of Core Strength on the Measure of Power in the Extremities, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: Volume 26 – Issue 2 – p 373-380