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Design a rowing-specific program

By Volker Nolte

A year-long strength program has four phases: symmetry and hypertrophy, maximum strength, power, and power endurance. Each phase builds on the physical abilities developed in the previous phase, so be sure to do them in order.

Symmetry and Hypertrophy Phase

Strength training during the first part of the year corrects muscle imbalances that develop as a result of training and racing. Athletes that only row one side can develop strength imbalances between the right and left sides of the body in the low back and legs, which can lead to chronic back pain. While scullers don’t have this worry, they are still susceptible to strength differences between the quadriceps and hamstrings, which can lead to chronic back pain and acute low-back injuries.

Hypertrophy is an increase in muscle size, necessary for increasing maximum strength and power. Hypertrophy training comes early in the year when the volume of aerobic training is still relatively low, because when aerobic volume increases beyond four to six hours per week it becomes impossible for the rower to gain muscle mass.

Many lightweights worry that they will increase in size and have trouble making weight later in the year. However, the high volume of aerobic training prevents rowers from developing much muscle. The amount of muscle mass a rower gains through a short cycle of hypertrophy training is usually no more than one or two kilograms. If rowers don’t slightly increase muscle mass, they will find it very difficult to maximize power later in the year.

Duration The symmetry and hypertrophy phase lasts 8 to 12 weeks and consists of two or three training cycles of 4 to 6 weeks. Younger athletes and masters returning to rowing after several years off should use three cycles of 4 weeks. Seasoned athletes who have been strength training regularly for at least two years can cut this phase to two 4-week cycles. A cycle consists of 3 weeks of increasingly harder work followed by a recovery week of reduced training volume and intensity.

Intensity Intensity refers to the percentage of maximum weight that you use during the training session. You can calculate the intensity for each exercise using the procedure on page 90. Throughout the training phase and across each training cycle intensity gradually increases.

You will find strength differences between the right and left side of the body in some of the exercises in this phase. To correct strength imbalance use the same weight on both sides. This means using a lower percentage of max on the strong side, but it is the only way the weaker side can catch up.

The first cycle, which emphasizes symmetry, uses low intensities, 60 to 70 percent 1RM. In the subsequent cycles, where hypertrophy is the goal, intensity varies from 70 to 80 percent 1RM.

Volume Volume refers to the total number of repetitions for each muscle group or exercise. You calculate volume by multiplying the number of repetitions by the number of sets. For instance, if the program calls for three sets of 10 repetitions the volume is 3 X 10, or 30 repetitions. During this phase volume varies from 30 to 40 repetitions per muscle group. If you do 4 X 10 squat repetitions, you perform a total of 40 repetitions for the quadriceps muscles and do not need to do leg extensions, leg presses, or any other exercise for the quadriceps. Doing more exercises and increasing volume do not increase strength, they only increase recovery time and risk of overtraining.

Exercises A core group of exercises are part of the rowing program year-round. Phase-specific exercises supplement the core exercises. Table 8.2 lists the core and supplemental lifts for the symmetry and hypertrophy phase. These exercises will be familiar to most rowers, but if you need a refresher on proper technique please see the books Explosive Lifting for Sports by Harvey Newton (Human Kinetics) and Strength Training for Young Athletes, Second Edition, by Kraemer and Fleck (Human Kinetics) for detailed instruction.

You’ll do the same core exercises each week but you can change the supplemental exercises from week to week. During the symmetry cycle emphasize dumbbell work and exercises that work the legs independently, like step-ups and split squats.

Speed Speed of movement is one of the most important yet neglected variables in strength programs for rowing. Rowers must train for both force and velocity in order to optimize power performance. Strength adaptations are specific to training speed; in other words, training at high velocities increases strength at high velocities and training at low velocities increases strength at low velocities. Rowers need a combination of high- and low-velocity strength.

Rowers possess large percentages of slow twitch fibers that must be trained to produce as much force as possible. Training at a lower velocity allows slow twitch fibers to work, so training velocity during the symmetry and hypertrophy phase is low, 18 to 22 repetitions per minute.


This is an excerpt from Rowing Faster.

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