It is my philosophy that the weight-room is for building strength and health, not for high-rep light-weight “endurance” circuits or overly specific sports training. I recommend that rowers stick to the water, the erg, or the bicycle to develop endurance that will actually carry over to rowing, and leave the 20+ rep circuits out of their weight training program. I believe in using weights to train rowers to have strong legs, strong backs, and healthy, balanced bodies so that they can express their full potential on the water and enjoy a long career. Below are some staple exercises in my rowing programs that are especially beneficial for performance and injury prevention.
In Part 1, I recommended lower body exercises to make you a better rower, here are the upper body exercises!
This is one of the more rowing-specific exercises as it combines the deadlift and barbell row to mimic the stroke. Pull in to the same point on your torso where you finish the stroke and try to maintain a similar body angle. This emphasizes torso stabilization and back muscles to build
Note: Many athletes will need to be monitored to ensure they are performing the exercise explosively and not using too much weight. This can also be taxing on the grip, in which case wrist straps should be used.
The face pull works the external rotator muscles of the shoulder cuff and the postural muscles of the mid and upper-back. The external shoulder rotators are often overpowered by the internal rotators (lattisimus dorsi in particular), leading to hunchback posture and potential shoulder impingement or injury. This exercise can be done with bands, dumbbells, or cables. With all postural pulling exercises, maintaining control throughout the lift is essential. Use a 2-3 count down and a 1-2 second hold at the top.
Credit to legendary strength coach Dan John for this exercise. While the barbell chest supported row is already popular with rowers, using dumbbells allows for greater range of motion and more stabilizer muscles used. Strict rows in general, batwings in particular, emphasize the development of the fine and smaller mid and upper back muscles often neglected by the rowing stroke. Same as face pulls, try a 2-3 count down and a 1-2 second hold at the top.
What about this exercises to make me a Better Rower: The Overhead Press works the stabilizing muscles of the scapulae as well as the triceps muscles, one of the few muscle groups not used in a rowing stroke. Many rowers have weak triceps but strong biceps, an imbalance that can lead to pain and injury. The press also emphasizes the postural muscles of the lower trapezius, which draw the shoulder blade down to prevent upward scapular rotation and hunchback posture. The OHP is also a good teaching tool for torso bracing with the requirement of bracing the abs and glutes to stabilize the spine during the movement, which can help maintain posture when rowing.
Note: Many rowers may lack the thoracic (mid) spine mobility to perform the overhead press safely and correctly. While this makes the press a great indicator exercise of mobility restriction, it makes it hard to implement without instruction and coaching. Stretching and foam rolling of the latissimus dorsi, pectoralis muscles, and thoracic spine may alleviate the mobility restriction.
This exercise combines back strength with torso strength to maintain a reverse plank position through the movement. Many rowers will struggle at first with this exercise to not sag at the torso. Although many people think that rowing alone is enough to develop the back muscles, specific, controlled rowing exercises like this and the Batwing ensure that the large back muscles (latissimus dorsi and upper trapezius) aren’t overdeveloping at the expense of the finer postural muscles along the mid back and scapulae (rhomboids, lower and middle trapezius, teres minor, etc.).
Include some of these exercises in your training to take your rowing to the next level!