Peak power may be a limiting factor for many rowers, not aerobic fitness or muscular endurance.
With the right exercises, proper form, and full explosive intent, weight-training is a highly effective way to develop power applicable to rowing.
In a 2009 article, renowned strength coach and Rowing Faster contributor Ed McNeely posited that aerobic fitness becomes less of a limiting factor and more of a baseline standard for rowers as rowing’s competition level increases and talent pool widens. In the world of competitive sports, the game-within-the-game is how to gain a lawful edge over your opponents in training or competing. According to McNeely, excellent aerobic fitness has lost that edge and is now just a baseline requirement for competitiveness in the sport. McNeely cites several studies that support his claim that, “outside of technique, the one physical factor that is emerging as being the best predictor of rowing performance is peak power.”
I agree with McNeely and want to provide some suggestions for improving your peak power for rowing. While these suggestions are certainly not meant to replace aerobic system training or rowing training, implementing some weight-room power work into your training can help get you that edge.
Background information: Power is defined for these purposes as force times velocity, so the rate at which one can produce force. The graph at right shows how the force curve changes based on load. At the upper left of the graph, we have maximal strength. Very high force, very high load, relatively low velocity. At the bottom right, we have maximal speed. Very low force, very low load, and very high velocity. Think of these as the difference between a max squat and a vertical jump. For power training, one wants to be somewhere in the middle of this, with research suggesting peak power for a multi-joint movement in the 55-70% intensity range.
First, if you are not currently weight-training at all, START. If your maximum force potential is low, it doesn’t matter how fast you can move a load if the load isn’t heavy enough. Increase your strength and power will increase naturally along with it for the first year or so of training. I provide some guidance for strength training for rowing in this article, with much more detail available in my e-book, “Rowing Stronger: Strength Training to Maximize Rowing Performance.”
If you are already following a weight-training program, make a few small changes to increase power.
Full Explosive Intent
With any squat, deadlift, or press exercise, lift the weight as explosively as possible while maintaining control and proper form. If you count all of the reps you already do as part of your program, warm-ups and work sets, really blasting each rep with full acceleration can cumulatively add up to a lot of basic power work with no added exercises. This is what I refer to as “full explosive intent” and here’s the difference.
Specific Workouts for Power
Incorporate some specific workouts for power development. Generally, weights in the 55-70% range will be the power sweet spot, where the load is great enough and the velocity is high enough to produce peak power. These exercises must be done for low repetitions! Many rowers train in that range, but perform 20-50 rep sets. This is NOT developing power because you can’t possibly sustain full explosive intent for that may reps. Heavier than 70% and the speed starts to drop off, lighter than 55% and the force isn’t enough. If you are following the block periodization system, you already have a power training block in your pre-competitive block, so adjust your exercises and percentages to reflect that. I recommend 7-12 sets of 1-3 reps at 55-70%, again, with full explosive intent on each rep.
Include some exercises in your program specifically for rowing power. While I don’t like to make weight-training sessions overly specific, there are a few exercises that I think are very beneficial for improving rowing power.
#1. Front squat or back squat
Use whichever is more comfortable, performed as close to parallel depth as possible. Correctly performed, the squat is the single best way to increase leg strength and power. I also like the front squat for its emphasis on the postural muscles of the upper back.
#2. High pull
Rowing is not a triple extension sport (think a vertical jump, full extension of the hips, knees, and ankles), so I believe that the full Olympic lifts of the clean and snatch, highly technical lifts designed to train triple extension, have limited utility for rowers. However, there is still a benefit to rowers achieving full extension in their training, both to learn power transfer from lower body to upper body as well as to develop balanced musculature. The high pull is the simplest version of the Olympic lifts, the easiest to learn and perform, and has the lowest injury potential if a lift is failed. I often program the high pull right before the deadlift as it is a similar movement and will prime the rowers for explosive pulls.
#3. Pendlay Row
I modify this a bit from the original Pendlay row designed for Olympic lifters, with the recommendation to complete the lift at a similar body angle to where one would finish a stroke, pulling the barbell in to the same place on the torso as the oar at the finish. The strict barbell row should be mastered before attempting this variation.
While many rowers already do deadlift, I believe many perform it incorrectly given the goal of becoming faster rowers. Rowers should use a smoother, more explosive deadlift with emphasis on leg drive, and stay away from form breakdown, rather than the slow, heavy, grinding style at or beyond form breakdown frequently seen in weightrooms. I rarely program rowers to use over 90% in the deadlift and often implement the Deficit Deadlift with rowers who have the mobility to do so. Remember, you’re training to be a better rower, not a powerlifter or bodybuilder!
In addition to weight-training, power work can also be done using the ergometer or rowing a large boat by pairs and fours. McNeely provides some great ideas in his article, Peak Power: The Limiting Factor for Rowing Performance and expands further on in his chapter of Rowing Faster, 2nd Ed.