Exercises to become a stronger rower


Rowperfect recently received the following question from a reader: “I’m a new rower and I compete in school regattas. I was wondering what exercises I could do to become a stronger rower?”  Emma Shaw is one of our guest bloggers and has written this answer

Here are a few suggestions for developing the kinds of strength needed for successful rowing:

Weight Training

A great way to complement your work in the boat and on the erg is through weight training. You can focus on a few motions and exercises that complement the rowing stroke and will help you build power for lowering your scores and the time it takes your boat to cross the line.  For a complete strength training program read Will Ruth’s book, Rowing Stronger.

Exercise #1: Deadlift

This may be the best single weights exercise for rowing as it mimics the motion of the slide. You begin with your knees bent and your chest upright, drive your legs to lift the weight off the ground, swinging your back slightly as you extend, and setting your arms and shoulders back as you finish. is a link to a video that breaks down the motion. It gives you a front and side view so you can see how the motion resembles the rowing stroke and ensure you are using the right techniques once you try it yourself.

Exercise #2: Back Squat

The back squat is another excellent exercise for increasing leg strength, which will help make your drive more powerful. It requires some of the same body preparation as the deadlift, such as a tight upper back and upright chest. You can view another video for the proper squat form.

Exercise #3: Body Row

Completing a body row makes use of some of the same muscles you use toward the back end of the stroke and will help develop these and keep you upright and powerful in the boat. provides an example of a good form, and gives you an idea of how to make the motion more challenging as you get stronger.

Exercise #4: Pull Up

Perhaps one of the more dreaded exercises doesn’t have to be! Pull-ups simply involve pulling yourself so that your chin is above what you are holding onto with your

palms facing away from you. It engages your back muscles as well as your arms, which translates to strong and consistent finishes in the boat. If you have never done a pull-up, you can start by grabbing a bench or stool, holding onto a pull-up bar, jumping up so that your head is above the bar, and lowering yourself as slowly as possible. This is called a pull up negative and will build the same muscles required to lift yourself above the bar. Try this if you have not yet progressed to a full pull up and gradually ease yourself from jumping up above the bar to engaging your back and arms to lift yourself above it.

For all of these exercises, you can start with a few sets of repetitions, or reps. Several reps make one set. If you do “three sets of three,” you are doing three of the exercise in a row before taking a standard amount of time to rest – say one minute – and then repeating this process two more times.

Beginner weightlifters can start using the bar itself for weight as they get comfortable with the motion, and can add weight as they get stronger. A benefit to getting started is that you may be able to rapidly increase the amount of weight at the outset before ‘plateauing.’ A great way to continue increasing strength is to grab your friends and make them your lifting partners so you all push each other to get stronger.

If you are looking for further focuses on boosting stroke power through sample drills and workouts here is a great e-book from the Faster Masters series.

Erg Training

There’s no getting around it; part of what makes a strong rower is time spent on the erg. You may already have an erg training plan from your coaches, in which case you may not want to add workouts to your regimen. However, you can make new goals for yourself to improve for each piece or workout. Try keeping an erg log if you do not already, record your meters and splits after your sessions and then set goals to improve upon these the next time you try that workout. Even a 0.1 improvement is significant and will give you the mindset of making yourself better every time you are at practice.

If you do not have a regimen and want one, it helps to mix up the type of workouts you complete. Five hundred meter pieces will improve your speed and lung capacity, and 5000-meter pieces will push your endurance, strength, and concentration. Include long and short distance pieces in your training plan for the best mix of aerobic and anaerobic capacities.  Buy a new or second hand RP3 Indoor Rower – the best for training rowers how to row well.

Mental Training

  • Mental toughness is not always training that you can log, but it is exercised every time you attempt a workout. Some training sessions require more resolve than others, and you can improve your ability to focus on the task at hand and perform your best in how you approach them. Giving yourself goals is a great way to channel your energy into performance rather than succumbing to anxieties about how the workout will go. For long workouts, goal splits help maintain focus when it would be easy to go through the motions without applying good technique or power. Check in with yourself and ask what motivates you and come back to those thoughts when a piece is especially tough or you’re feeling more fatigued than usual. Every time you complete a workout – even if you have not set a personal record – you have improved yourself by sticking with the training plan and ensuring that you stayed motivated for the next session. Your teammates and coaches will appreciate your drive and you will have more confidence on race day knowing how much training you have put in, even when it didn’t feel good or required all your mental energy to stay focused.

There are lots of other forms of training that make a good rower – technique sessions, team building, cross training, good nutrition, and rest. We are here to help with anything else you may need, but we hope these three ideas give you an extra boost for the coming season.

The Mind’s Eye is a great book if you are looking for further intel on mental training. And also listen to Kirsten Barnes Rowing Psychology expert on RowingChat podcast.

Good luck and happy rowing!
Emma Shaw

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This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Albert Knop

    Dear Emma,
    In the paragraph “Erg training” you state: “There’s no getting around it; part of what makes a strong rower is time spent on the erg.” Do you mean that erg training can replace training in the boat? In my opinion training on the water involves more aspects and is therefore has more value then erg training. Although this is a rowperfect site, most clubs run stationary ergs which do not give the right feedback for technical improvement. That is apart from the fact that many rowers tend to change their movement when rowing on the erg (eg finishing on throat level, no vertical catch movement, no vertical movement at the finish etc). My aim is to row on water as much as possible (mostly single sculls) and use the erg only when the circumstance do not allow me to row (high winds, frost, fog and high currents on our training river)

    1. Emma Shaw

      Dear Albert,

      Thank you so much for taking the time to read my suggestions and offer your comments. I very much appreciate your thoughts and am eager to reply.

      In answer to your main question, if I meant that erg training can replace training in the boat, my answer is no – unless your goal is only to become a good erger. That certainly is the goal for some, and that is both admirable and challenging. However, for those of us seeking to translate other forms of training and exercise to rowing on the water, I think the erg is an essential ingredient for improvement, but not a substitute for time on the water.

      You seem to agree and make useful points about the limitations of erg training to creating effectiveness on the water. Many coaches and programs do not translate erg training to technique in the boat, and often rightly so as they are different motions. Still, I do think there is potential to use the ergs to improve technique and power application on the water in a few ways:

      First, for novices in particular, the erg provides a stable platform to get used to the rowing motion more generally before adding in factors of balance and bladework. I think this is a great starting point to put the basic stroke in rowers’ muscle memory before having to learn how to set the boat. It makes rowing on the water feel more familiar in the early stages of learning for true novices.

      Moving on from beginner rowers, the erg offers more advanced opportunities to explain length and ratio shifts in a controlled environment that can then be translated to the water. For example, it can be useful to have rowers take a few strokes on the erg, gradually shifting the speed of their ‘bodies over’ position and leg movement up the slide. Having the coach be able to look at one individual rower as he or she does this, have the rower look in a mirror to note changes, listen to the different sounds of the fan or belt, or even erg next to his or her rower can be incredibly useful for making improvements. I have found in a lot of cases that technical tutorials on the erg can create positive changes for the next water session by giving crew members a chance to implement new aspects of the stroke during their time on the water.

      Finally, for more experienced rowers, the erg offers the closest approximation to rowing on the water and learning how to apply pressure using this motion. In my own experience, our program here in St Andrews has added a great deal of erg training to our regimen this year. Not only have our erg scores improved in terms of raw power, but we saw some of our best results on the water at races this past fall. Crews that I have spoken to with more robust erg programs in addition to their water training seem to perform better, even if the time spent indoors serves mostly as mental training. Minutes logged on the machine can ingrain lessons from the water and prepare rowers for the gruelling workouts faced in practice and against other crews.

      Rowing on the water is the best training for rowing, without a doubt, but the erg is an effective tool for rowers of all experience levels to improve technique and power. Clubs and coaches may have to pay special attention to how the technical lessons on the water are translating to indoor workouts and vice versa, but technical aspects of the stroke can indeed be practiced on the machine. As for building power, ergs are the most useful substitute for developing strength on the water when we cannot actually outdoors.

      I hope this clarifies my point and offers some ideas on how ergs can make up part of a training plan. With that being said, your aim of rowing on the water as much is possible will certainly help you improve and keep you happy. In fact, it sounds ideal – I hope we can all get out there as much as possible this season. If there are any suggestions any of us can provide for your time off the water, please do comment. Otherwise, I hope you stay outdoors and enjoy every minute of your rowing.

      All the best,
      Emma Shaw

    2. Kaela Krieger

      I agree with this statement. Not just do people dislike stationary Erg training but it is not an accurate representation of what it is like to row in a boat. Thank you for this comment because as I was reading I had the same thought.

  2. El

    I think your article is very useful. I am a beginner “erger”. I started a couple of months ago. I have been keeping a journal. I have set a goal for myself to row 2K meters in 10 minutes. I started at 13 I am now at 12:04. I just started to read about weight training.
    I have done weight training, but; I want to add the specific moves to my repertoire. Maybe I will translate the erg training to water sometime in the future. Again thanks for very informative article.

  3. Swift Trim

    Every weekend i used to go to see this site, as i wish for enjoyment, as this this web page conations truly good
    funny material too.

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