I am very often asked about weight training and its effectiveness for improving indoor rowing times. To answer this correctly, in my opinion, I need to know more about the individual asking the question as it is rarely a one size fits all scenario. It is a really grey area as there have been very fast rowers who have never lifted a weight and there have been very fast rowers who include plenty in their training schedule, and many combinations in between.
There are generally 2 categories of people asking the question. The first are those who have a very limited exposure to weight training in their life and they have started to plateau with their rowing times. They want to know if becoming stronger will give them a further boost in improving their times. The second type are those who have a longer history with weight training and want to know if they are doing too many weights sessions or the wrong type which are potentially getting in the way of progression.
I personally fit into the second category, where for the most part of my adult life I have probably lifted weights 5 times per week – with varying goals. For me to incorporate those levels into my rowing schedule was too much and never allowed me to be fresh enough to progress my rowing. So I slowly lowered the frequency and have settled on 2 sessions per week. I briefly flirted with 3 again, but it was clear to me that upset the training harmony so 2 it was. One of my sessions is more strength based – higher weight, lower reps and longer rest. The other session is more conditioning based – lower weight, higher reps and less rest. I always train with compound movements and both sessions will utilise my whole body including pushing movements that are not necessarily used in rowing, but give your body an overall balance. This system has allowed me to keep the vast majority of my strength, stay in decent shape whilst not impacting my rowing negatively. This feels perfect for me at this stage.
Those who fit in to category 1 would almost certainly benefit from being stronger. However this isn’t an overnight process and needs guidance and structure to achieve, choosing the correct exercises best suited to those muscles used in rowing is very important although with no previous experience this may be preceded with a period of conditioning so your body adapts. Then ideally training would be periodised so that strength was a priority at set times and rowing was very much secondary. Clearly rowing is still a good idea, but excelling on the rower at these times will be unlikely. These gains are best achieved in the off season then the frequency and volume of weight training would decrease as rowing performance becomes more of a priority. Hopefully at this point the increases in strength can be felt resulting in further gains on the rowing machine.
To summarise, and in simple terms, the longer your history and experience with strength training, the less the need for them to help improve your rowing times and potentially they may hinder your progress. Conversely if weights are a new thing then, if done correctly, they may really help you progress. In either category, I am speaking in general terms and it would also need to be considered the distance the individual was training for. Raw strength for a 500m is more relevant than that for a marathon. However, as with most things, it comes down to priorities and consistency is the best approach.
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