Why train like a rower?

Rowing is a non-weight bearing, low-impact sport that exercises all the major muscle groups. Rowing can be used to increase cardiovascular fitness as well as build strength and power. Whether you are an elite rower or just an avid fitness fan looking to reach your peak of fitness, applying the way rowers train is definitely the way to go. There are many types of training methods used to optimise a rower’s performance in races. These methods include water training in boats, training on the rowing machine (known as an ergometer or ‘erg”) as well as strength training. Therefore, training for a rowing regatta requires the exercise of the aerobic and anaerobic systems. Elite rowers have extremely chiseled bodies with extreme fitness endurance thanks to the many hours spent in the gym, on the erg, and in a boat. Even though elite rowers do not usually have a high strength output, they are able to operate for long periods of time above 85% of their max. A lot of technique is required for rowing; using the correct technique ensures effective results and minimizes the risk of injury. It is important to utilize the correct technique whether it is on a boat or an erg.

The rowing stroke as a full-body workout

During a rowing stroke, on the water or on the erg, every major muscle group is utilised. There are 4 phases in a rowing stroke during which the same muscle group and some additional ones are used each time. These phases are the catch, drive, finish, and recovery.

The catch is the beginning of the stroke. Here your knees are bent and compressed, shins are vertical, arms straight and the body has a slight lean forward. The muscles used at the catch are the triceps, deltoids, traps, calves, hamstrings, abs and lower back. After this, comes the drive. Here you push off the footboard with your legs, your back follows with a swing and it ends with your arms following through up to your chest. Here the muscles recruited include the deltoids, traps, upper and middle back, lats, biceps, forearms, glutes, hamstrings, quads, calves and abs. This movement is followed by the finish. Here your spine is straight with a slight lean backward, the legs are straight and your arms are pulled up to your chest. The recovery is the exact reverse order of the first 3 movements. The arms extend forward, your hips pivot slightly forward and you start to bend your knees until you are back in the catch position. The muscles used here are the traps, hamstrings, calves, delts, triceps, forearms and abs.

The rowing stroke can be seen as a combination of strength and power movements done repeatedly over a long period of time, such as a deadlift movement which makes up the most important part of the stroke.

Water training

There are various boat classes in rowing, ranging from single scull to 8 people rowing together. There are different seasons: sprint season and boat race season. Sprint season is usually a 1000m to 2000m race whilst boat race is a 6km race for men and roughly 5km race for women. Outside of school level rowing, boat race is only performed in a boat with 8 people and a cox (this is a member of the crew who either sits in the stern or the bow, depending on the type of boat, and is responsible for steering the boat, and directing the rhythm and motivation of the rowers). Training for sprinting season requires doing a lot of short pieces on the water and the erg. The most common pieces used are 10x250m sprints, 2000m trails at max RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion). Boat race season requires similar training but with more endurance pieces such as 5000m trails.


Ergometer rowing machines are used to simulate the rowing action performed on the water and is commonly used as a means to measure a rower’s fitness levels. ‘erg’ is one of the best modes of cardiovascular exercise. There are two main ways to train on a rowing machine, either steady-state pieces or short pieces which act as High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT).

Strength training

When it comes to strength training for rowing the work is often divided into seasons, this being off-season, pre-season and in-season. Optimal results come from utilizing specific strength training in each season. Movements throughout training for rowing do not change, apart from the reps and weight load. Rowing utilises mostly compound movements, isolation work is rarely used.

In off-season training, the focus should be on strength and power, such as a focus on movements like squats and deadlifts as well as posterior chain work. The posterior chain includes your calves, hamstrings, glutes and lower back. Plyometric movements are also utilised to train the explosive movements needed in rowing such as the clean and jerk and box jumps. Power training is similar to strength training except with a slight decrease in weight and a sharp increase in velocity during the concentric phase of each movement.

Pre-season training has more of a focus on power and strength work such as box jumps, clean and jerk, squats, deadlifts, and barbell rows. In-season training has a focus on strength endurance and power endurance. This involves similar movements used in off-season and pre-season but with an increase in the volume of sets and repetitions.


Cross-training is also utilized for rowing, particularly in the off-season and pre-season; the standards are doing a 10km run or 25km on a watt bike.

So, why train like a rower?

The sport of rowing is extremely strenuous; it requires a lot of hard work and an especially high level of mental motivation. Adapting the rowing training styles into your weekly workout plan will ensure results whether it is for weight loss, fat loss, strength endurance or power endurance. Your body, being at an elite level of fitness, will make up for the calloused and blistered hands that await you.

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