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How to build rowing strength

By Volker Nolte

Over the past 40 years strength training has become a critical part of a rower’s preparation. Strength training for rowing has evolved from strength-endurance circuits using homemade equipment and body-weight exercises into a science that incorporates training methods originally developed in weightlifting, powerlifting, and track and field. Rowing presents unique challenges in designing a strength program: No other sport requires such high levels of both strength and aerobic fitness for a championship performance. As boat speed increases and race duration decreases, generic strength-training programs from the pages of your favorite fitness magazine won’t be enough to take your performance to the next level. A rowing-specific strength program is the only answer.

Strength Demands of Rowing

There are several ways to determine the strength demands of a sport. One method is biomechanical analysis of the forces generated on the footstretchers, oar lock, or at the blade, which reveals how much force a rower develops with each stroke. Elite rowers generate their highest forces on the first stroke of a race. These forces have been found to reach 1352 Newtons or 135 kilograms for men and 1019 Newtons or 102 kilograms for women (Hartmann et al. 1993). In 1975, research on the East German national team indicated that rowers need to be able to generate forces of at least 133 kilograms for international competition (Secher 1975). With increases in boat speed and changes in oar technology since then, today’s rowers undoubtedly must be able to generate even higher forces.

A second method for determining strength demands is examining elite competitors. Rowers who win medals at the Olympics or world championships are usually the strongest athletes in the sport. This isn’t always true because technical efficiency and aerobic fitness also play a large role, but it is a good starting point. In order to study maximal force generation at various points in the rowing stroke, Secher (1975) developed an isometric apparatus that could be adjusted to individual rowing positions. A study using Dutch Olympic, national, and club rowers found that on average international rowers generated 204 kilograms of force, national rowers generated 183 kilograms of force, and club rowers generated 162 kilograms of force. The study also included general strength tests, such as isometric arm pull, back extension, trunk flexion, and leg extension. It found that regardless of the test, the higher the competition level of the rower, the greater the strength.

Strength and Body Weight

Strength is either absolute or relative. Absolute strength is the maximum weight that a person can lift in one repetition. Because they carry more muscle mass, larger individuals tend to have higher absolute strength than smaller individuals. Relative strength, on the other hand, is the maximum amount of weight that a person can lift relative to body weight. Relative strength is more important to a rower than absolute strength because the amount of weight in a boat affects the drag through water. An increase in absolute strength is of no benefit if the weight gain offsets the strength gain by increasing resistance through water. When rowers increase relative strength, on the other hand, they find it easier to accelerate the boat because they’ve increased strength without increasing drag. Because relative strength is more important to rowers than absolute strength, the strength goals in this chapter are expressed as percentages of body weight.

This is an excerpt from Rowing Faster.

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