Basics of Strength Training for Rowing

Rowing Stronger RP COVERThis is the basis of the periodization system outlined in my e-book, Rowing Stronger: Strength Training to Maximize Rowing Performance. Rowing Stronger is published by Rowperfect UK and available now in their e-store. Click here for a free preview before you buy and check out what others who have read Rowing Stronger have to say about it. The goal of this article is to provide an introduction to periodization and how to strength train for rowing and enough information so that someone could take the free info provided and turn it into a program with the help of a trainer or coach. The e-book contains exact sets, reps, exercise recommendations, and information for masters, youths, and fall/6k-focused rowers.

Takeaways

1. Understand that periodization is necessary to adequately train all qualities necessary for success in rowing.

 2. Keep your rowing-specific training to the erg and on the water and use the weight-room for strength training and injury prevention.

 3. “Fatigue masks fitness,” so adjust your training volume to match each season’s focus so that you are at your fittest and fastest when it matters most.

Design: Lyndsey Nuckols

Behold, Periodization! [Design: Lyndsey Nuckols]

Periodization simply means organizing one’s training to prioritize certain qualities over others at different times of the year. The advantage of periodization, rather than “everything-at-once-ization,” is the ability to focus on developing specific qualities to build to a championship performance. Strength, endurance, power, technique, and balance are all important factors in a rowing program and it is impossible to train all to their full potential simultaneously. Periodization provides the answer for how to get the most out of each training variable and apply it to race season.

Here is how I periodize my spring 2k rowers’ training using the block periodization method to train and maintain qualities of strength, endurance, and power required for rowing.

“Main work” is used to train the primary objective of each training block. These exercises are usually squats, front squats, deadlifts, and/or overhead presses.

“Assistance work” is then performed after the main work. There are two important purposes to assistance work:

1. Build the main work lifts with close variations of the main lifts. This may include front squats, Romanian deadlifts, or dumbbell presses to build strength and size for rowing.

2. Injury prevention. Rowers who do not weight-train will develop imbalances. Common imbalances from sweep rowing include: quadriceps-dominance, gluteus muscle weakness, hip flexor tightness, thoracic kyphosis (rounded upper back), and internally rotated shoulders. These imbalances not only result in poor movement efficiency leading to slower times, but also a variety of chronic aches and pains, either short-term or lasting long after the athlete’s rowing career is over. We can avoid all of this by employing assistance work that is focused on the muscles that rowing fails to develop: the gluteus muscles, thoracic extensors, shoulder stabilizers and external rotators, and upper body pressing muscles.

It is essential that all exercises be performed with strict attention to proper form. There is no reason that you should get injured in the weight-room performing simple exercises with excellent form. Before following any program, get instruction from a qualified personal trainer or coach to make sure you stay healthy and get the most out of your program. I always tell my team that getting strong is a secondary goal to getting healthy. Being a “weight-room hero” doesn’t earn you any honors if you can’t row because you injured yourself lifting with poor form.

WATCH: Free Exercise Index

How to Periodize for the Spring 2k Rower

Remember, assistance work is consistently focused on one of the above two goals (build the lifts, injury prevention) throughout the year, so the intensities and rep ranges listed below are for the main work exercises only unless designated otherwise. While volume may decrease during the late-season taper, assistance work is always focused in the 40-65% intensity range (that is, percentage of your estimated 1-repetition max), for 10-20 reps, on the muscle groups listed above. Diligent attention to attaining muscular balance will go a long way in keeping your body injury-free and enjoying a long career in the sport!

Block #1. General Preparation (12-16 weeks before start of fall season)

Primary focus: Strength

Secondary focus: Muscle Size

Sport focus: Aerobic base

This period sees a lot of weight training in the 70-85% intensity range, approximately 3-6 sets of 6-12 reps per main work exercise. 2-4 weights workouts per week. Add to that 3-4 aerobic workouts per week of 60 minutes or less via whatever cross training method you like, including cycling, erging, sculling, and running. It’s also great to play another sport during this time as that is often an easier way to do “cardio” and still accomplish the goal of cross-training.

Block #2. Specific Preparation (8-10 weeks of fall head racing season)

Primary focus: Strength

Secondary focus: Size

Sport focus: Technique

I consider the fall season an extension of the off-season for the competitive 2k rower. On-water workouts during this time tend to be focused on the 6-10k range, so rowers continue to build their aerobic base while refining their sport technique in the boat. In the weight-room, we use this time to integrate new rowers and continue building the strength and size that will last use through the spring season. Drop to 2-3 weight-training workouts to accommodate for the increase in volume from on-water practice, but keep the workouts much the same as the General Prep phase otherwise, still focused on the 70-85% intensity range for 3-6 sets of 6-12 reps per main work exercise. We spend plenty of time in the Preparation blocks because they build the foundation to set up training for the rest of the year.

Block #3. Pre-Competitive (8-10 weeks of winter, before spring season)

Primary focus: Power

Secondary focus: Strength

Sport focus: Anaerobic base

During this block we focus on applying the strength and size developed in the weight-room to more anaerobic ergometer workouts and more 2k-style training. This is a great time to do some rowing-specific peak power work at higher intensities, whether on the water or on the erg. 3 weight-training workouts per week focusing on the 70-85% range, but using fewer reps to maximize speed and power output. Main work usually consists of 6-8 sets of 2-3 reps performed with maximum explosive intent. This is key–even though the intensity stays the same, the fewer number of reps and maximum explosive intent will help convert your strength gains to power production. This is also the last chance to really build strength before going into the maintenance cycles of the spring competitive season.

READ: Peak Power Training for Rowing

WATCH: What is “Full Explosive Intent”?

Block #4. Competitive I (First 5-6 weeks of spring season, until 2 weeks away from our first major regatta)

Primary focus: Health and Recovery

Secondary focus: Power

Sport Focus: Race Prep

During this time, everything in the weight-room is done with preserving the rowers’ energy for practice in mind. Weight-training workouts again drop to 2 per week, often using the one-heavy/one-light approach. Weight-training volume reduces further, 6-10 sets of 1-3 reps in the 70-85% rep range with full explosive intent. The whole focus is being practice-ready, so I avoid programming any fatigue-heavy training such as higher rep sets (6+ reps) on main work. I also prescribe more active recovery work during this time, such as foam rolling, stretching, and other exercises to help my athletes feel better for the next day. Do not stop weight training when your season begins. This is a mistake I commonly see with many athletes. If you stop training at the start of your competitive season, you are your strongest at the start of the season when it matters least and weakest at the end of your season when it matters most. Do not make this mistake—just learn to adjust your training volume to manage fatigue!

Block #5. Competitive II/Taper (Final 6-8 weeks of spring season, major regattas to conference/Nationals)

Primary focus: Health and Recovery

Secondary focus: Maintain strength through the taper

Sport Focus: Race Readiness

All of our focus is now shifted toward performance at regattas. Weight-training workouts are not fatigue-inducing and are geared entirely toward maintaining our gains from the previous 4 training blocks. During the final 6-8 weeks of the season, we will only do 3-4 workouts above 85% intensity, spaced out such that we maintain strength throughout the season while coming to each important regatta fresh and recovered. I suggest twice per week lifting, usually Monday/Wednesday to maximize their performance for a Saturday regatta. Aside from the 3-4 85% intensity workouts, other lifting sessions are comprised of no more than 8 explosive sets of 1-2 reps in the 60-75% intensity range. Because our rowers train through spring season, we arrive at conference/Nationals just as strong as when we started the season, with the added benefit of removing the fatigue from the rest of the season to peak for our final races. The taperingtaper strategy relies on the concept of Residual Training Effects as outlined in Block Periodization Vs. Traditional Training Theory by Issurin, which suggests that maximal strength can be maintained for 25-30 days. Using this concept, plan for one 85% weight-training session at least once every 3 weeks, planned at a time that does not conflict with a major regatta, and you will maintain your strength through the late spring season.

Immediate post-season (2-4 weeks after last spring race, conference or Nationals)

Mental AND physical rest, recovery, and rejuvenation. Stay active through whatever you enjoy, whether that is ultimate Frisbee, ping-pong, cycling, etc. No structured workouts during this time.

Remember, the purpose of strength training for rowers is to get better at rowing, not necessarily to get bigger biceps or have the strongest bench press in the gym on Bench Press Monday. Following powerlifting, bodybuilding, or non-rowing programs won’t get you to championship weekend, so use these principles above to get stronger and faster in your rowing training!

Will is the strength coach for Western Washington University, a men’s ACRA program. A former rower, Will has his BS degree in kinesiology and is an NSCA-Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, USA-Weightlifting L1 Sports Performance Coach, and US-Rowing Level 2 certified. Will’s e-book, “Rowing Stronger: Strength Training to Maximize Rowing Performance” is published by Rowperfect UK and available for purchase in their e-store as well as Amazon for Kindle. You can read a free preview of the book here.

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