Strength and condition like a rower

by Ben Warman

A 1500m running race will last ~3:30 – 5:00min. Picture a typical 1500m runner; slight, wiry and quick across the ground. Conversely, a 2km rowing race lasts between ~5:20 – 7:28min. Now picture a rower; tall, with a thick trunk and very well-developed leg and back muscles. Why the differences?

Although these are both endurance events of roughly similar duration, rowing has a unique strength demand. There is a need to overcome drag in the form of air and water resistance, and subsequently propel they must boat through the water. This means that whilst the rower still needs an excellent endurance base, they must spend significantly more time developing their strength than the runner. Additionally, a good rower must be able to coordinate their body into the positions of the perfect technical model. They then also have to be robust enough to deal with the high force and velocity loading that is characteristic of rowing training. It is therefore clear that strength and conditioning is important to rowers. These factors were all considered when planning the final training phase for the Senior Men’s 8+ in the lead up to Henley Royal Regatta. Here are 5 exercises that rowers follow…

1 – Clean High Pull

As the rower moves up the slide during the stroke, they must apply force through their feet. Whilst doing this they must maintain tension through their legs and trunk. Olympic lifting variations provide a great opportunity to challenge this skill. The movements of the 1st and 2nd pull are like that of the stroke. During the S&C sessions in the lead up to Henley, the first exercise the Senior Men’s 8+ did was an Olympic lifting variation, such as a Clean High Pull.

2 – Front Squats

Rowing is a whole-body, leg and hip driven activity. The rowers’ have therefore spent significant time perfecting their ability to squat heavy loads with excellent depth and technique. For example, the boys completed 5 sets of 5 reps of Front Squats on a 2 min rolling clock. This provided them with ~90s of rest between sets and represents 10 minutes of hard work.

Start Position

End Position

3 – Bench Pull

In addition to this, whilst most of the propulsion during the stroke comes from the lower-body, rowing also requires a contribution from the upper-body pulling muscles. The sessions also include an upper-body exercise such as a Bench Pull for another 5 sets of 5 reps.

Start PositionEnd Position

4 – Bulgarian Split Squats and Pull-Ups

The next section of the workouts involved a uni-lateral (one arm or one leg) and bi-lateral (both limbs) exercise, completed in a superset fashion. For example, 6 reps of Bulgarian Split Squats and Pull-Ups for 4 sets. These exercises act as accessory work to supplement the gains made through the aforementioned primary exercises, and to prevent any muscular imbalances occurring.

Split Squat and Pull Up position

5 – Core training

Finally, the rowers tackled a trunk training section, with a 25s:20s work:rest ratio. The exercises were chosen to ensure that the rowers’ trunks are strong in all planes of motion (i.e. both flexion/extension and rotation). Sesions often involved throwing and catching medicine balls to keep things interesting! This is important because during sweeping, a rower must flex and rotate their trunk to achieve a good catch position. This work was followed by 10min of drills to ensure that the rowers possessed the mobility to hit the positions of the technical model. We often targeted the hips and thoracic spine (mid back).

Russian Twist with med ball

Hopefully this blog has provided an insight into the training demands that a competitive rower faces, highlighting how rowers must develop anaerobic strength qualities through well organised S&C sessions, alongside a significant endurance training load.