We’re keeping it simple this winter and focusing on what I’ve culled down to the most effective 10 strength training exercises for rowing. These exercises are a mix of rowing performance exercises, included to increase strength in muscles used heavily in the stroke to drop time off splits, as well as exercises for injury prevention and overall muscular balance and health. Check out the playlist with video demonstrations and coaching cues here and then read on for explanations.
#1: Front Squat
This may be the single best lift for rowing performance. Stand with your feet just outside shoulder width, hold the bar in the clean grip or the cross grip, keep your elbows high to prevent the bar from slipping down your arms, sit straight down until your thighs are parallel to the ground, then explosively lift straight back up to the start position.
Rowing Benefits: Holding the bar on your shoulders instead of your back, like in a back squat, emphasizes a more upright torso that requires more core strength, more upper back strength, and more quadriceps strength, all muscles that you need to hit those low splits. The bottom position of a front squat is also a similar position to the rowing catch, making the strength built in the front squat more likely to carryover to rowing than the back squat.
Injury Prevention: Tall athletes, common in rowing, tend to find it easier to hit parallel depth with the front squat than the back squat. The more upright torso of the front squat also puts less shear force on the lower back than the back squat, reducing some injury risk from a commonly injured area.
#2: Romanian Deadlift (RDL)
This simple version of the deadlift emphasizes all of the good parts of the deadlift without the difficulty of the start position. The RDL starts at the top of the deadlift. From this top position, keep your torso braced and a slight bend in your knees as you hip hinge, pushing your hips backwards until your hamstrings reach their flexibility limit, then reverse direction, snapping your hips forward to the bar in one explosive motion.
Rowing Benefits: The RDL is a great lift both for strength as well as flexibility. Each rep is a deep stretch of the hamstrings as the entire back works to stabilize the weight and control the descent. The RDL’s hip hinge is similar to the motion of moving out of the bow during the recovery. In my experience, athletes who struggle with the RDL also struggle with maintaining an upright posture as they move out of bow. This gives them more chance to practice this movement while building up a rock solid posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes, and back).
Injury Prevention: The deadlift is a short man’s lift due to its fixed height from the ground and taller lifters tend to struggle to get into a safe and effective starting position. This can result in some nasty deadlift form where rowers are most vulnerable to injury, the lower back. The RDL eliminates this risk. Lower back pain can often result from imbalanced anterior hip (quadriceps muscles) and posterior hip (glute muscles), so building up that backside is a key to staying healthy.
#3: Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat (RFESS)
Using strength training exercises to work one limb at a time is a highly effective way to offset muscular imbalances. In the RFESS, we’re working on getting both legs to contribute to the stroke as well as getting a great stretch on the back leg, so it’s both an excellent exercise for performance as well as injury prevention. The front leg does all the work in this lift with the back leg just resting. If you notice that one leg is significantly harder to do than the other, make sure to perform your reps with your weaker leg FIRST and then only match that number of reps and weight with your strong leg. Your weaker leg will catch up to your stronger leg soon and then you can push both equally.
Rowing Benefits: Tired of having one leg muscly and strong and the other leg looking more like a toothpick? The RFESS will make sure you’re building up both legs equally and is a highly effective quadriceps-blaster.
Injury Prevention: In addition to improving performance through better hip mobility at the catch, flexible hip flexors can help reduce low back pain and injury risk. The body likes balance, so balanced quadriceps and hip muscles also help reduce long-term injury risk. This exercise also doesn’t require a lot of load, so it’ll blast the quadriceps while sparing the back.
#4: Overhead Press
A barbell or dumbbells can be used for this exercise. The overhead press is one of the harder presses to master but offers some major benefits over bench pressing, and not just for going up-and-over-heads.
Rowing Benefits: The upper back is the foundation of your catch and connection to the water. Weak arms, weak shoulders, and a weak upper back makes it harder to apply all that power from the legs to the oar.
Injury Prevention: More scapular (shoulder) muscles are used that tend to be neglected in rowing. Athletes with poor overhead pressing will often exhibit rowing hunchback, and working those mid-back muscles in the overhead press can help restore a more upright posture.
#5: Batwing Row
We’re out of the main work exercises now and onto the assistance work. The batwing row is NOT a bench pull and offers some major benefits over the bench pull. Dumbbells require greater stabilization and allow for a longer range-of-motion (ROM) than a barbell. This means we can use less load for more muscular activity, which decreases injury risk. The greater ROM also encourages athletes to really target the goal muscles in this exercise, rather than just slamming the weight from end-to-end.
Rowing Benefits: The batwing row provides a great squeeze at the finish and using dumbbells builds up better arm and grip strength for a more effective stroke.
Injury Prevention: The batwing row hits the main mid-back postural muscles that rowers are always missing. Developing the middle trapezius, rhomboids, and posterior deltoids will contribute greatly to better posture and less risk of shoulder impingement or injury.
#6: YWT Raise
This is another humbling exercise for the mid-back. I usually teach this with just bodyweight at first and then maybe adding 2.5-10lbs per hand as the athlete progresses. Don’t worry about the weight, just focus on using the right muscles at each phase.
Rowing Benefits: Like the OHP and batwing row, the YWT raise contributes to building a strong upper back to build that rock solid connection from torso power to the oar.
Injury Prevention: The YWT raise targets muscles never used in rowing and uses very low load to do so. Like the batwing row, these muscles will improve posture both in and out of the boat and reduce risk of shoulder impingement and injury.
#7: Inverted Bodyweight Row
Any time we can work torso stability into another exercise and force athletes to transmit force from their feet to their hands through their torso, I’m all in. The inverted BW row, or Australian Pushup as my guys like to call them, offers several great advantages. You can get a great back workout in without loading, important for rowers with often overloaded backs. If the athletes let their torso muscles disengage, they’ll sag and won’t be able to complete the lift. Also, it can be done almost anywhere using a barbell, Smith machine, gymnastics rings, or even a tree branch.
Rowing Benefit: This lift builds up the muscles of the lats and arms and that plus the torso stability combines for a strong finish to your stroke.
Injury Prevention: As you can tell from this list, I’m big on reducing load whenever possible. This lift lets us really work the athlete’s arms and back without adding a bunch of weight for more systemic stress.
You could probably write this one by now. A low-load exercise that targets the back, shoulder, and arm muscles while forcing the lifter to maintain a tight torso. My one complaint with the pull-up is that it can be hard to do correctly, but easy to do incorrectly. This leads to athletes thinking they can do a bunch of reps and then having to re-learn a more difficult form. The real key here is torso tightness and pulling straight up to the bar. The pull-up should look almost like a reverse overhead press, not a crazy swinging loose torso row. If you find it too challenging at first, you can use a band for assistance or focus on doing negatives–jump yourself up to the top position, hold it as long as you can, and then slowly descend maintaining correct positioning.
Rowing Benefits: Builds strong lats and arms for great posture and a powerful finish.
Injury Prevention: Done correctly, the pull-up is a great lift to build up the mid-back muscles as well as the powerful lats for better shoulder balance.
My rule-of-thumb is that an athlete should be able to do 30 pushups with great form before needing to add weight with a bench press variation. Even when the athlete can do 30 pushups, you could also just make the pushups harder by using gymnastics rings or adding load with chains or a sandbag. The pushup is a great exercise that more people should really reap the benefit from before turning to added-load lifts like the bench press.
Rowing Benefits: For rowing, the pushup is mostly about not “going T-Rex mode” aka huge legs and tiny arms looking silly at the start line. Build some muscle and fill out that uni!
Injury Prevention: The pushup is a great simple lift to build muscular balance between the pulling muscles and the pushing muscles. In a pulling sport like rowing, this is very important for keeping the shoulders healthy.
No rowing list would be complete without core exercises, but I couldn’t pick just one for the list. The core exercises I like are anti-rotation, like the Pallof press, or anti-flexion like the plank and plank variations. There are a lot of cool creative plank variations you can do to change up a simple exercise. Check out the last video in the playlist for the torsion plank as an example. I think in general rowers need less motion in their core exercises, not more, so emphasizing these stability exercises from different angles will be more effective than doing a lot of crunches or sit-ups that aren’t similar to the rowing movement at all.