The Right Way to Add Rowing to Your Training Regime

Build your strength, power, and endurance on the rower with these simple steps.

Everyone should row. And everyone can row. This is a fact my boat club’s champions beautifully demonstrate. The members of Molesey Boat Club stretch from 14 to 84, and their fastest rowers stand top of Olympic podiums. Not everyone is tall and, I assure you, not all can row a sub-6 minute 2k. But we all share a passion for the sport and the movement.

From Olympian to Games athlete and back again: everyone should row. [Photo credit: Adrian Stone]

Rowing uses almost every muscle in the body, burns more calories a minute than any other gym-based movement and, when you train it correctly, can develop strength, power, and endurance all at once. In my opinion, no training regime for any sport is complete without it.

But finding great speed and mastering the movement requires correct and deliberate practice. Better practice leads to greater improvements, which lead to a deeper obsession with the movement, and so the cycle continues. One of the biggest challenges is knowing how to use rowing to make your training most effective.

Here are a few steps to successfully introduce rowing into your training regime.

1. Invest in a Proper Coach

Rowing looks easy when you observe an expert, but don’t assume the journey to get there has been straightforward. The key to going fast in rowing is mastering the basics. The rowing stroke should be predominantly leg-driven and rhythmical.

If your arms are sorer than your legs after a workout, invest in a coach that knows what they’re doing. If you feel like you’re moving around a lot but not going anywhere fast, ditto.

2. Break Up High Volume with Varied Movement

Pavel Tsatsouline famously states that “to press a lot, you must press a lot.” He means to be good at strict press, you must train it frequently with volume.

The same applies to rowing. Rowing requires volume, and the mileage can get boring and monotonous. A great way to break up the boredom is to combine your mileage with low-skilled movements that can function as active recovery.

For example:

  • 10 x 500m with 30 air squats in between, not for time, and focusing on perfect squat form.

This is a great way to keep moving between rowing intervals, give your mind a rest from the rowing movement, and allow your heart rate to gradually come back down as you focus on just moving well.

A word of warning: Do not fall in to the trap of embarking on an ambitious volume-based programme for a few weeks, then failing due to boredom.

3. Control Your Intensity

In any rowing workout, it’s useful to predict roughly what the intensity will feel like. The safest strategy is to always to start steady and leave a bit in the tank to sprint towards the end. You can always add in effort, but you can’t take it back.

An objective way to ensure you don’t overcook it is to look at two numbers: your rate and speed.

Rate is simply how many strokes you’re taking in a minute. This number should almost never be under 18 spm (strokes per minute) or over 32 spm, unless you are doing serious volume or sprinting.

In a workout with multiple movements, you should have an idea of what rate gives you the most efficient return of speed. If you don’t, seek out a rowing training programme to help you find this.

Speed is usually displayed as time per 500m, otherwise known as your split. The faster you go, the lower your split. You should have a ballpark idea of what speed you’re capable of producing as a max effort for 1, 3, 5, 10 and 20mins. You can then use these numbers to scale appropriately for workouts of similar duration with other movements.

For instance, if your 5min max-effort split is 1:50/500m, do not start a 20min AMRAP of rowing, burpees, and wallballs at a 1:30 split. Yes, this is obvious, but when the adrenaline flows, our animal instincts take over and it’s important to think correctly under pressure.

4. Challenge the Movement

CrossFit, fitness racing, and WODs prescribe rowing in a number of different contexts. It’s important to understand how including other movements will affect your rowing technique. I always say most athletes won’t win a workout with their rowing abilities, but they can certainly lose one. If your rowing tekkers goes out the window after a set of heavy deadlifts, you’ll be left for dust.

It’s therefore important to have sufficient volume under your belt so your technique is robust enough to deal with intense movements being thrown in. It’s also vital you know how these movements affect your rowing stroke, so pull them into your training repertoire from time to time.

For example:

5 x 2min rounds with 3min rest between:

  • 15 Deadlifts at 100/70kg (M/F), Max meters rowing*
  • 15 Box jumps at 30”/24”, Max meters rowing*
  • 15 Chest-to-bar pullups, Max meters rowing*
  • 15 Handstand Push-Ups, Max meters rowing*
  • 15 Toes-to-bar, Max meters rowing*.

*rate capped at 32 spm.

5. Enjoy the Process

Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither will ninja rowing. Fall in love with the improvement in your movement, the greater understanding of your numbers, and the progression in your rowing journey. I tell my athletes they have between now and the rest of their lives to become the best they can be at rowing, so enjoy the journey and don’t chase the early numbers.

But start the process now.

Want to dominate your next erg workout? Take your rowing to the next level:

4 Principles to Master the Rowing Machine