This is the time of year (winter 2020/21) when a lot of masters rowers ask about strength training. Should they? Shouldn’t they? Should they lift heavy or light? Free weights or machines? And what about Crossfit? Rowing is a power endurance sport, listen to the top coaches and masters rowers on my podcast, and there is no debate on the effectiveness and necessity of strength training for rowing. Below are some reasons why I think you should consider incorporating strength training into your training program.

Photo WH Chambers

1. Strength Training Preserves Muscle Mass

For masters rowers over 40, the amount of muscle you’re carrying on your frame plays a big role in performance. As we get older we tend to be less active, and as a result we lose muscle mass. You may be more active than others in that you’re a rower, however, when you look at your overall lifestyle, are you more or less active now than you were in your twenties? You most likely sit more, do less manual labor, less lifting etc…

2. Strength Training Improves Cognitive Performance

It’s well established that exercise improves cognitive performance, and in recent years research has delved into how different types of exercise affect the brain. In a review in Frontiers in Medicine, Yael Netz explains that physical training (aerobic or strength training) and motor training (complex movements with lower metabolic cost, like Tai Chi and balance challenges) both improve neuroplasticity, which increases our ability to take in and retain new information. Improved physical fitness also improves oxygenation and blood flow to the brain.

It turns out intensity is a key factor when it comes to physical training activities improving cognitive performance, and movement complexity is key when it comes to motor training activities. Dual activities (activities with physical and motor components) are even more effective (and time efficient). Strength training often falls into this category because the movements can be complex and physically strenuous.

There is a lot of interest in strength training’s potential for reducing cognitive decline. Not only does strength training keep older adults more mobile, stable, and physically capable, the improved physical fitness from high (relative) intensity, complex movements has a positive impact on cognitive performance and executive function.

3. Resistance Training & Weight Training Enhance Coordination Required For Rowing

Whether you are doing bodyweight resistance exercises, lifting free weights, or using rubber tubing for resistance on the water, there are balance and coordination components to your movements. This develops and maintains neural pathways for proprioception and balance, and it develops small muscles that help your stability. Why is that important? When your balance and coordination are not well trained during middle age you end up lifting objects or moving your body in ways that place inappropriate stress on weaker muscles. This is part of the reason why masters returning to rowing after a break, can experience significant soreness or injury.

For the people who are already past middle age, falling and breaking a hip is a real concern, even for aerobically fit older athletes. Breaking a hip can take years off your life expectancy, mostly because it often hastens the decline in overall activity level. While a broken hip may not be an immediate concern for most of the rowers reading this blog, an established routine of resistance or strength training, can keep your balance and proprioception at a higher level for many years to come. The higher your overall fitness and coordination is in middle age, the more of that fitness and coordination you can retain as you get older, and the more you can enjoy our wonderful sport.

4. Strength Training Keeps You Durable & Resilient

Even if you see yourself as primarily a rower, I encourage you to expand your vision and aspire to be a well-rounded athlete. The advantage of being a well-rounded athlete, is that your activities away from rowing, like swimming, SUP, cycling, and weight-lifting, help you to be more effective on the water and rowing machine. In my experience, well-rounded athletes are more ‘durable’ and ‘resilient’. They are able to be more consistent in their training because they spend less time sidelined by rowing only soreness and injury caused by single sport training.

5. Strength Training Makes You Faster

Strength training will make you faster, both on the ergo and the water. Squats and deadlifts, for instance, use the same chain of muscles you use to connect and push on the foot stretcher. Hanging pull-ups, strengthen the connection through the arms, shoulders and back from the catch, and pelvic bridge, help you to strengthen the core to hold the correct posture and power from your legs as you drive through the stroke.

Strength training makes you a more well-rounded rower, increases the range of activities you can participate in, and increases your chances of training on a more consistent basis. This consistency means you can apply a greater training stimulus more frequently than you could otherwise. And that can definitely make you a faster masters rower.

Strength training will increase the amount of power you can produce. The more power you have available in a race, or training, you will will have more in reserve to tap into when you need it. A masters rower that can increase their maximum power output from 300 watts to 350 watts, can now sit on 300 watts through the race, at 85% of their new max, vs. 100% of Work At Redline (WAR)* if they had not developed their power and their max was still 300 watts. They also have an extra 50 watts to draw on, when they need to get off the line or do the final sprint.

There are a lot more topics to covered on the subject of strength and conditions in my conversation with James Goodwin from the Swiss Rowing Federation. Check out the interview on the Faster podcast.

*Work At Redline is a term coined by Prof Stephen Seiler (2020).