How To Build Strength With A Row Machine

Strength & Conditioning

We all want to build strength and become powerful. While your traditional lifts are great, don’t sleep on rowing. At its core rowing is a power endurance training.

In this article Joe talks about how implementing rowing into your workouts can help you get stronger.

Joe DeLeo

Joe DeLeo

Joe DeLeo is a full time Strength & Conditioning Coach at Lawrence Memorial Hospital Performance & Wellness Center in Lawrence, Kansas. He coaches inside a sports performance and physical therapy clinic at Rock Chalk Park. He works with athletes returning directly from sports rehabilitation as well as athletes focused on performance in the sports of baseball, basketball, golf, soccer, swimming, track & field, and volleyball.

In October of 2018, Joe was named the Head Strength & Conditioning Coach for the Portuguese Rowing Federation

// Build Strength By Rowing

Strength is a differentiating factor in all athletics and training.

Whether you’re preparing football, rugby, or basketball players, wrestlers, fighters, or just looking to build muscle, it’s unlikely any of you would ever say, “No, I don’t think I need to be stronger.”

From a physiology perspective, I could offer you a horrendously over complicated explanation of what power is, but for simplicity’s sake, let’s say that it is a rapid expression of force.

To appropriately train strength and power, we have to understand the three energy systems in the human body.

They are aerobic, glycolytic, and creatine phosphagen.

The most power potential resides in the creatine phosphagen system, as it allows for us to quickly use energy within our muscles to move ourselves and external objects (think a bat, club, or ball) quickly.

This system is utilized for explosive, high-velocity activities such as sprinting, leaping, throwing, and punching.

Athletes who put this system into play include long jumpers, shot putters, boxers, and baseball pitchers, though virtually every sport requires some kind of power.

How To Get Stronger?

There are various ways in which you can train to be more powerful, including Olympic lifting, plyometrics, and kettlebell swings and snatches.

Another option to mix things up a bit is rowing, which is by its very nature a power endurance sport.

The Olympic distance is 2000 meters (1 and a ¼ miles), which is much longer than the previously mentioned sports.

However, it can still help develop the creatine phosphagen energy system if programmed appropriately. 

The available energy in this system only lasts for about 10 seconds and then drops off. A typical work to rest ratio for sets is 1:5-6.

So, you’d perform 10 seconds of fast, hard work, followed by 50 to 60 seconds of rest. 

Here are 5 tips to appropriately structure your strength training session when on the rowing machine/erg.

5 Tips Getting Stronger With Rowing Workouts

Tip 1 – Warm Up Proper

Make sure to do a thorough warm up. You want to be sweating before you begin the first work set.

Tip 2 – Set The Time

Set the monitor for time – 15 to 20 minutes to begin with is a good starting point.

Tip 3 – Lowest Split Time

At the top of each minute, go flat out for 10 seconds. You can choose the stroke rate (number of strokes per minute) that best allows you to produce power throughout each set.

Your goal is to get the lowest split time (typically the time it’d take them to row 500 meters if you continued at the current power output) or highest watts.

Tip 4 – Reverse Splitting

As you progress through these intervals, aim to drop the split time and/or increase watts – aka reverse splitting.

Or at the very least, maintain your output (even splitting).

Tip 5 – When To Stop

If your output deteriorates and you can no longer hit or get within a certain margin of error of your lowest split/highest watts (for example, within three seconds or 10 watts of your output in your fastest set), then terminate the session.

Going any further will only yield rapidly diminishing returns.

Tip 6 – 10 Minute Cooldown

Complete the session with a 10 to 15-minute cooldown at a low heart rate to start the recovery process. Your stroke rate should be lower now.

Say you were at 36 or 40 SPM during your work intervals. This should decrease to between 20 to 24 during your cooldown.

Tip 7 – Nasal Breathing

Try nasal-only breathing as fast as possible after completing your work set, as this will help cycle down from a highly sympathetic state into a parasympathetic one.

Once you are finished with the cooldown, do some mobility work that targets the major muscles you just used, such as the lats, glutes, hamstrings, and calves.

This will further hasten the transition from fight or flight into rest and digest mode.

Now Go Out And Get Strong

It is very important when doing this type of power session that you do NOT shortchange the rest.

It may feel like you are not doing much work, particularly if you are used to higher volume sessions.

That’s fine!

The focus and intention of this kind of session isn’t to accumulate a ton of work, but rather to develop peak power.

So exercise discipline and adhere to the work to rest ratios. This kind of workout allows you to also utilize your aerobic system to aid recovery during the rest periods.

This type of power-focused, creatine phosphagen system-developing session can be done once a week.

As you get closer to an event/race, you can transition to doing longer intervals instead, with the goal being to train their glycolytic system.

If you can express power on the erg, you will be able to lateralize this into your sport, and rowing sessions provide a welcome break from weights-centric workouts you are used to doing.



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