If I were only able to do ten strength exercises to improve my rowing scores, this is what I would do. In reality, I employ for myself and my clients a number of variations for the squat, hinge (i.e. deadlift), plush and pull movements. Additionally, there are exercises for the core, shoulder and hip muscles which I’m a fan of. However, the following ten exercises are a superb starting place for strength training which will improve your scores and should also reduce the risk of common rowing injuries.
It’s important for rowers to train muscle strength, which can contribute to rowing performance, by increasing force output in the rowing movement. Rowers also need to consider “non-rowing” muscles, ensuring that they are not underdeveloped in order to improve muscle balance and reduce the long-term risk of injury. Over the coming articles, I will show you which exercises are my favourite for each key muscle group and goal. I’ll also give some guidance on how you reduce the risk of injury.
Rowers should do some form of strength training throughout the entire year, regardless of age, type or ability level. This may vary throughout the season, depending on the kinds of races you are competing in, but the need to build strength, power and muscle mass is a constant. Rowers should be training for raw strength, power and mass during “off-season”, moving over to maintenance of strength and mass while focusing on power, performance and output during “in-season”.
1 – The Front Squat
The front squat is quite possibly the best individual lift for improving rowing performance. You need to stand with your feet just outside shoulder width, hold the bar in the clear or cross grip, maintain a high elbow position to stop the bar slipping down your arms and sit directly down until your thighs are parallel to the ground. Finish the movement by lifting explosively straight up to the starting position.
Rowing Performance: Gripping the bar on your shoulders, as opposed to your back, better emphasises a more upright torso, which engages additional core strength, along with more upper back and quadricep engagement; all primary muscles involved in the rowing movement. The more narrow stance of the front squat, combined with the more forward knee angle of the front squat (when compared with the back squat) is very similar to the front end of the rowing movement (i.e. the catch) and has a far superior degree of carry over.
Reducing injuries: Long-limbed, tall rowers also find it easier to hit parallel depth with the front squat than the back squat. Many rowers are around 6’6” tall and this lift is often favoured by them for these exact reasons. The more upright torso of the front squat reduces the shear force on the lower back (again, when compared with the back squat) reducing some injury risk from a commonly injured area. Building leg strength for the front-end of the rowing stroke also helps reduce torso strain when rowing, which can reduce common rowing injuries of low back pain and rib stress injuries.
2 – The Romanian Deadlift (RDL)
The RDL is perhaps the simplest variation of the deadlift and emphasises all the good parts of the traditional deadlift, without the unnecessary challenge of the start position. The RDL movement begins at the top of the deadlift. From this upright starting position, keep your torso braced with a slight bend in your knees. Hip hinge, focusing on pushing your hips and glutes backwards until your hamstrings reach their flexibility limit. From there, reverse directions, driving your hips forward to the bar in one explosive movement. This can be done with a dumbbell, barbell, kettlebell or resistance band.
Rowing performance: The RSL is a superb lift for both mobility and strength. Each rep combines a deep stretch of the hamstrings at the same time that the hips, back and shoulders are worked to stabilise the weight and control the descent. The glutes are also targeted by initiating the movement and bringing the hips to the bar. Rowers who struggle with the hip hinge movement and RDL may also struggle with keeping an upright posture in the rowing stroke whilst on the water or the erg. This is often a result from a lack of coordination in the hip, trunk and shoulder strength. The Romanian Deadlift offers practice opportunities for this stroke movement whilst building a solid posterior chain for power on the drive.
Reducing injuries: The deadlift has traditionally been the remit of the shorter man, due to its fixed height with taller lifters tending to struggle getting into a safe and effective starting position. Even the tallest rowers can benefit from the excellent hip hinge technique of the RDL. Lower back pain can result from unbalanced anterior hip and posterior hip, so building up the posterior chain is a key to staying healthy.
3 – Hex Bar/Trap Deadlift
Once you’ve mastered exercise #2, the RDL, you can look to train harder and heavier and through a longer range of motion by using a hex bar. Hex bars are also referred to as trap bars and many prefer this variation to a traditional straight bar because it’s a simpler overall movement, with a greater proportion of upright torso position, less stress on the spine, is easier on the grip and much more accessible for taller rowers. If you don’t have a hex bar – don’t worry! Deadlift from the floor is fine, as long as you have your technique down and don’t overload the lower back.
Rowing performance: The hex/trap bar deadlift builds foundational strength, but generates force right from the foot with the lower body, transferring it through a rigid, stable core, via the shoulders to an implement held in the hands. This exercise is the heaviest load that a rower will handle in training, so ability to perform in the hex bar deadlift means that the rower has the basic strength and whole-body coordination in place to work on the refined technique and faster power application of the rowing stroke.
Reducing injuries: The hex/trap bar is a double purpose exercise. Training the movement helps reduce the risk of a number of rowing injuries by building a strong, powerful lower body, hip hinge movement and mind/body connection between the upper and lower body. The hex bar itself also reduces the stress and strain on the lower back, when compared with the traditional deadlift from the floor, thereby reducing risk of injury from strength training.
When athletes get injured in the weight room, it is such a waste! Training is supposed to reduce the risk of injury from sport and we should be performing exercises which don’t threaten our ability to row (or perform whichever sport we’re into).
4 – Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat
Using strength training exercises to train one limb at a time is a great way to address muscular imbalances. With Rear Foot Elevated Split Squats (RFESS) you’re going to be working on getting both of your legs to contribute to the stroke equally well. You’ll also be getting a great stretch on the back leg – another double win, similar to the trap/hex bar – improving performance/out and reducing injury risk. Your front leg does all of the hard work in this lift, whilst the back leg rests. If you find that one leg is stronger than the other, ensure that you perform your workouts with your weaker leg first, and only then match that number of sets and reps with the strong leg. Your weaker leg should catch up with your stronger leg, then you can train both equally.
Rowing performance: Sweep rowers will often find that they develop one leg more than the other, due to the rotational factor in the rowing stroke and uneven pressure through the footplate. The RFESS ensures that you’re building strength, equally, in both legs, helping to develop your quadriceps and glutes. The stretch in the back leg hip flexor is also useful for improving hip mobility and getting yourself into a deeper or more stable position at the catch portion of the rowing stroke.
Reducing injuries: Balancing your left and right knees, whilst increasing hip flexor muscle mobility can help reduce lower back pain and your injury ris. The RFESS exercise also doesn’t need much weight at all to be effective (sometimes no more than bodyweight), which means we can train leg muscles hard, without having to load much on the spine and other skeletal structures.
5 – Batwing Row
The bench pull is the go-to strength exercise for rowers. The Batwing Row is not that. Whereas the bench pull involves using a barbell, the Batwing Row utilises dumbbells and has some major advantages. As with many dumbbell vs barbell exercises, dumbbells require greater stabilisation and allow for a longer range of motion. The result of this is that we can use less load, for the same amount of muscular activity, which reduces the overall stress and injury risk (especially on the rib cage area which is a weak point for many rowers). The greater ROM also encourages athletes to really target specific muscle groups, as opposed to just smashing down weight on the floor (a la bench pull!). You should start light with Batwing Rows (around 20 – 40lbs) to ensure that you’re doing it correctly.
Rowing performance: The Batwing Row trains the mid-back, shoulders and arm muscles which are utilised at the release of each rowing stroke. Using dumbbells (or kettlebells) helps to build up better arm and grip strength than a restricted-ROM, fixed position barbell bench pull.
Reducing injuries: The batwing row hits the main mid-back postural muscles that rowers are always missing, helping to stabilize the shoulder for better stroke power and reduced risk of injury. Developing the middle trapezius, rhomboids, and posterior deltoid muscles will contribute to better posture and less risk of shoulder injury.
6 – YWT Raise
This is another superb exercise for training the mid-back and rear delts. Don’t be fooled though, it’s more challenging than it looks! When I coach this movement, I start with just bodyweight at first, then potentially adding anywhere between 2.5 – 10lbs per hand, depending on athlete progress. The weight is not important though and it’s about focusing on the primary muscle groups engaged at each milestone of the lift. The whole purpose of the YWT raise is ingraining the “shoulders-back-and-down” position. Rowers will often try and shrug their shoulders, in order to engage the big & powerful upper traps. The trapezius is one musclem, but with three different fibre alignments across the upper, middle and lower section, each responsible for different movements. The upper traps are by far the strongest and will naturally develop the most, unless you are doing other exercises which focus on the middle and lower trap fibres. The YWT raise is the best exercise to feel those different parts of the trap.
Rowing performance: Developing coordination and strength via this exercise will help you build a strong upper back, thereby creating a solid connection from the lower body to the torso and shoulders and eventually into the rowing handle/oar. Rowers who are proficient in this movement will have enhanced shoulder coordination, thereby getting more out of all upper body pulling movements.
Reducing injuries: The YWT raise focuses on muscles which are often underdeveloped from the rowing stroke and has the added benefit of using a very low load (i.e. weight) in doing so. Just like with the Batwing Row, these muscles will improve rowers’ posture by in and out of the boat (or on and off the rowing machine) and reduce risk of shoulder impingement and injury.
7 – Bodyweight Row
The bodyweight row offers a range of advantages for rowers. These rows work the major muscle groups in the mid and upper back, without the need of an external load and whilst minimising stress on the lower back. The bodyweight row forces rowers to keep the torso muscles tight through the movement, as sagging away from the bar will not allow the completion of the lift. The inverted row, as it is sometimes called, can also be done in a number of settings, including on a power rack, TRX, gymnastics rings or even with a towel (which has the added benefit of training your grip!). We can increase or decrease the difficulty of the exercise by lowering or raising the height of the handle, allowing for higher or lower reps per set.
Rowing performance: Strong connection on the drive and powerful release as a result of a more developed back is what rowers can expect from committing to this exercise. The bodyweight row is also great for training the shoulder/body connection and works great in tandem with the YWT row.
Reducing injuries: Being able to create an effective stimulus, without adding unnecessarily large loads should be the goal of any athlete (outside of powerlifting and weightlifting!). The bodyweight row allows us to train the back, shoulders and arms without adding a lot of external weight, which creates systemic stress and loads the spine and rib cage.
8 – One-arm Overhead Press (OAOP)
OAOP variations from a half-kneeling or standing position, using either a kettlebell or dumbbell will make it easier to complete this exercise well with good form. I don’t tend to recommend the two-armed overhead press to rowers, due to a tendency to lose spinal stability and end up in poor positions. It should also be noted that barbells are no required, as long as we have access to sufficiently heavy dumbbells/kettlebells which are challenging to the athlete being trained. Using the one-handed approach, we can achieve a better quality of movement and reduce left/right imbalances which can occur, especially in sweep rowing.
We begin with a half-kneeling position for less experienced athletes, eventually progressing to the standing one-arm press and one-arm push press, and then maybe double-dumbbell press and push press or barbell press and barbell push press with more advanced lifters who need the greater challenge and higher load.
Rowing performance: The upper back and shoulders and foundational for the rowing stroke and connection to the water. All of the force that we generate in the lower body and trunk has to go up through our shoulders and down through our arms into the oar/handle. The overhead press and its variations are a great way to train for a strong shoulder platform and develop “sit up straight!” ability for rowing.
Reducing Injuries: In addition to improving force transfer from lower body to upper body and handle or oar, the overhead press also improves shoulder coordination and helps to balance all of the pulling movements that rowers do while rowing and erging. The shoulder is a four-way joint with lots of ROM, so we need to train it for its many functions for long-term health and stability.
9 – Pushup/Press-up
It can be easy to underestimate the simple pushup. The goal for any rower should be able to perform 20 pushups with good form and control, before adding any kind of external load with a dumbbell or barbell plate. Good form means a braced torso, strong, stable shoulder blades with the chin, chest and pelvis all touching the ground simultaneously at the bottom portion of each tep. We should be performing pushups with a controlled tempo and locking out at the top of each tep.
We can make the pushup harder or easier to challenge the athlete appropriately. Elevate the hands to make the pushup easier so the athlete can build strength with higher reps, and then gradually decrease the elevation to keep increasing the challenge. Or, work it the other way with “ladder pushups,” going from harder to easier. Make it harder by adding a weighted vest or resistance bands, or using gymnastics rings or a TRX to challenge shoulder stability. We can also use cluster sets to increase density and challenge from this simple exercise. Get the most out of the pushup before adding external load.
Rowing performance: Like the overhead press, the pushup contributes to rowing performance by improving shoulder coordination, but in the horizontal pushing movement instead of a vertical pushing movement. Rowers who are good at pushups, as well as overhead presses and upper body pulling movements, typically have more stable shoulders for better handle control and stroke technique. This is a crucial fundamental movement pattern to get down for smooth stroke recovery and efficient power transfer from the shoulder to the handle.
Reducing Injuries: The pushup is a great simple lift to build muscular balance between the upper body pulling muscles and the pushing muscles. In a pulling sport like rowing, this is very important for keeping the shoulders healthy.
10 – The Seated Rockback (Core)
I like to use a variety of core exercises in my strength training for rowers, but if I had to pick just one, it would be the seated rockback. This exercise only requires a bench, box, or stability ball to sit on. For rowers and coaches who appreciate feet-out rowing or erging, this exercise is the core training equivalent. The key point is that the rower must keep pressure down through the foot at all times during the exercise. I will commonly use a PVC pipe or wooden dowel to lightly push on the athlete’s feet to make sure they are maintaining a good connection.
This prevents the athlete from “cheating” and using the hip flexor muscles to achieve the sit-up motion, instead of focusing on the abdominal muscles and good control of the torso like we want in rowing. We start out by just training this for movement control, with around 10 reps per set while the athlete really focuses on good control, finding the right ROM, and maintaining downward pressure with the feet. As the rower improves proficiency, we can increase the reps or duration of the exercise, as well as the challenge by moving the hand placement from in front (easiest) to behind the head (harder), holding them overhead (harder), and even holding a light dowel, weight, or medicine ball overhead (hardest). I owe a big thank-you to rowing researchers Dr. Fiona Wilson and Kellie Wilkie for their work on the World Rowing Low Back Pain taskforce and introducing me to this exercise.
Rowing Performance: The torso is the main line of connection between the lower body power and the oar or erg handle. Rowers must have strong torsos, both the anterior abdominal muscles and the posterior trunk extensor muscles, to sit upright in the stroke and effectively transfer force from the footplate to the blade and control the torso movement around the back-end of the stroke.
Reducing Injuries: Weak torso muscles means that the force from stroke pressure has to go somewhere, most often to the skeletal structures of the spine and rib cage, increasing stress and strain and risk of injury. Low back pain and rib stress injuries are the most common and costliest rowing injuries, and improving overall core strength can help reduce risk, while also increasing performance. Rowers with weak posterior torso muscles tend to slump at the front-end or “shoot the slide” in the early drive, while rowers with weak anterior torso muscles tend to slump at the back-end at the release.