Why Strength Matters in Rowing

The short-and-sweet answer to why strength matters in rowing was concisely tweeted out by my good friend and Strength Coach Roundtable co-host Blake Gourley few months ago, that increasing strength decreases the amount of effort required per stroke, which increases endurance. I dubbed this “Twitter-coaching at its finest” in the conversation, however, I know many are interested in the full answer. Here’s about 5,500 characters (and no emojis) more on how we get to this beautifully concise answer.

We have to go to the research and do a bit of maths.

In “Strength and Power Goals for Competitive Rowers” (2005), authors Ed McNeely, David Sandler, and Steve Bamel outline their proposed strength and power standards for male and female rowers in the different categories of sport from lightweight to heavyweight and junior, U23, club, national, and Olympic levels. Personally, I think the standards are a little low, which I credit to how the sport has grown and progressed in the 12 years since this article was published. The data was collected over the previous 10 years, so we’re looking at standards based on rowers from 1994-2004, so some “performance inflation” is natural to occur.

The standards aren’t the only point of the article though and the introduction and explanation on the relevance of strength in rowing is highly valuable. Here are a few particularly relevant quotes.

“Muscular endurance, strength, and boat speed are closely related. Rowers maintain an average of 686-882 Newtons (N) or the 210-240 strokes that make up a 2,000m race. It has been found that to maintain this level of muscular endurance a rower works at approximately 40% of peak rowing strength for the duration of the race.” From Ishiko, T. (1969). Application of telemetry to sport activities. Biomechanics, 1, 138-146.

“Research with Danish Olympic, national, and club-level heavyweight rowers of similar stature and age found that, in isometric rowing simulation, Olympic rowers generated 204 kilograms of force (kgf) on average. National-level rowers generated 183kgf and club rowers generated 162kgf. Using other non-specific rowing tests–isometric arm pull, back extension, trunk flexion, and leg extension–on the same groups of athletes, it was found that the higher the competition level of the rower, the greater the strength in all tests.” From Secher, N. (1983). Isometric rowing strength experience and inexperienced oarsmen. Medicine and Science in Sports, 7(4), 280-283.

The “isometric rowing simulation,” is basically sitting at half slide pulling on a handle that won’t move, but does record how much force you are pulling against it. It’s a cool metric for research purposes because it’s more specific to rowing than something like a leg press (non-specific and every machine is a little different) or a deadlift (non-specific and very high individual variability).

The sources for both of these claims are admittedly old, and it would be great to see some current research update these findings. However, the exact numbers aren’t particularly important to the understanding of the concept of why increasing strength decreases per-stroke effort and therefore increases endurance.

This is where some math comes in.

McNeely et al. claim that rowers operate at about 40% of their peak rowing strength during a 2k test or race. The average range of this 40% is 686-882 Newtons (N), which converts to 69-89 kilograms of force (kgf), which represents their endurance over 2,000 meters. Although an issue of the Rowing Biomechanics Newsletter gives us a bit of insight, there’s no direct calculation for converting isometric (static) rowing force to actual (dynamic) rowing force, but let’s use these numbers by way of explanation.

If you, like a Danish Olympic rower, can generate 204 max isometric kilograms of force, 40% of that is 81kgf per stroke, so you’re rowing your 2k at about 81kgf per stroke.

If you, like a Danish national-level rower, can generate 183 max isometric kgf, your 40% is 73kgf per stroke. You’re rowing your 2k with about 8kgf less than an Olympic-level rower.

If you, like a Danish club-level rower, can generate 162 max max isometric kgf, your 40% is 64kgf per stroke. You’re about 17kgf behind the Olympic-level rower.

If your peak force is 204, your 40% is higher than if your peak force is 162 (81kgf vs. 64kgf).

If you’re an Olympic rower rowing with rowers capable of producing similar force, you’re certainly applying maximum effort for all 2,000 meters, so together you all produce more force per stroke and row faster by producing 81kgf per stroke instead of 64kgf per stroke. Strength has helped make you a faster rower because you can apply more force per stroke.

However, if you are stronger than the rowers you are matched up with, then you may produce less force per stroke in order to match up with your teammates. Because you’re producing less force, instead of operating at the 40% level, now you’re operating at the 30% level. Maintaining 30% of your peak rowing strength requires less effort than maintaining 40% of your peak rowing strength, therefore, increasing strength increases endurance. Strength has helped increase your endurance by decreasing the relative effort of each stroke.

On board with increasing your strength? I outline my system for doing this in my article, “The Basics of Strength Training for Rowing” and in my e-book, “Rowing Stronger: Strength Training to Maximize Rowing Performance.” In addition to strength, there are many important factors that influence performance such as technique, aerobic system efficiency, VO2 max, and more that one article alone could never address. However, now you understand the value of strength among all of the other variables–increasing strength decreases effort per stroke, which increases endurance.

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