Why rowers better build up a high strength level

There is a lot to say about strength quality because it includes many things: Maximal strength, Strength endurance, explosive Strength, different contraction regimes, inter and intramuscular coordination, its effect on the different tissues of the musculoskeletal system. This quality has huge benefits but can also be dangerous.

In this article we will look at the maximal strength quality and explain why it is important for performance in Rowing. To get down a 2000m course in rowing we try to produce the most powerful strokes as we can as long as it takes to get to the line. The more powerful the rowing stroke, the faster you travel the 2000m. 
Power is the result of the product of force by speed. Everyone knows this formula P = F x V. So to develop power you have to develop strength.

What is strength?

In “La Bible de la préparation physique” Didier Reiss and Dr Pascal Prevost describe strength as follows:

“The ability of the muscle to generate (internal) tension following nerve stimulation that is expressed in relation to a body segment and/or an additional (external) load.” and “Things the muscles do in order to provide the the highest myotendinous tension possible. (this involves muscle contraction, the elasticity of the muscles structures and the neuroendocrine system) »

Hugo and Mathieu, CALyon, Monday, September 23, 2019, @Frank Leloire

As stipulated in the first definition, muscle contraction responds to a central command : the brain through the neuro muscular system. The receptors of this nerve control in the muscle are the Motion Units (MU). They are the ones who receive the signal and initiate the movement through contraction. These motion units are a lot and many of them are “sleeping” or “inactive”. The main purpose of maximal strength training is to wake up or activate these motion units. Improving maximum strength means improving the relationship between the brain and muscles, making the brain “push harder.” Side effects will be added such as :

– A Major Improvement in Functional core abilities
– Improved Explosiveness
– Improved Joint Stability
– Improve Maximal Aerobic Power over 4-8 min
– Overall Improvement in Aerobic Performance (Very Interesting for Rowing)
– Improved Coordination
– Improved Inter- and Intra-Muscle Coordination
– Increased Muscle Elasticity

In opposition to a popular belief, strength work does not necessarily increase muscle mass. Lightweights or people who don’t want to gain weight can also enjoy the benefits of maximal strength training. 

New Zealand National Rowing Team strength and conditioning coach Dr. Trent Lawton conducts some intern researches on strength with top level rowers. He sums it up in “Advanced Rowing” The first observation he made was the significant relationship between rowers with the highest maximum strength of the knee extenders and the fastest rowers during a 2000m on the water. “Our research found that rowers with superior legs strength (about 10%) perform better(faster) as a crew.”

We also learn that he has found a very strong relationship between the maximum strength level of his rowers on prone bench row and power clean on one hand, and their peak power on the ergometer on the other hand. A rower with a higher power peak will perform better over short distances (500m) and in the “key” moments of a 2000m. When I talk about key moments I talk about the departure, the powerful pieces and especially the finish. This can represent 20 to 30% of the 2000m.

We also know that when we perform better at the maximum of a quality, we will be able to develop greater levels of specific endurance, this is true for power as for strength. It is therefore in our best interest to develop maximum strength for competitive rower. In order, afterwards to develop greater power and strength endurance level. 

Hugo and Mathieu, CALyon, Monday, September 23, 2019, @Frank Leloire

How to develop maximum strength for rowers? 

The first thing concerns safety and health: Strength work is very demanding for both nervous and musculoskeletal systems. It is important, for these stimulation remain positive, to carry out the liftings movements safely and with a appropriate technique. Don’t venture alone on force development ! First, learn to perform movements properly in terms of technique and safety to avoid an accident and/or injury. To do so, call on a coach or anyone trained to supervise the practice of weight training. 

Strength is a fairly simple neuro-motor quality to work on as long as you have a well-equipped weight room. The golden rule to work the force is to respect the recovery time, it is really important. The nervous system is stressed very intensely when making maximum effort. So you have to let it recover well to be effective in each series. Loads must also be mobilized with maximum speed intent at each repetition. 

The most common method of strength development in rowing and the world of training is 6x6MR. This training is excellent for working maximum strength. 

MR: Maximum Repetitions (6MR means: the sustainable load during 6 repetitions but not 7). My 1MR is my absolute “max” to use a more popular expression. 

Hugo and Mathieu, CALyon, Monday, September 23, 2019, @Frank Leloire

How can you optimize your 6x6RM cycle?

When you train maximal strength you work mainly on your nervous system, which means that no matter what exercises you’ve done before, if you’ve done 6×6 you’ll be tired. For example if you start with the prone bench row then the bench press and finally squats. Don’t think “oh I left my legs to rest I’ll be all fresh to do good squats”. This is a mistake, your nervous system has been stressed since the beginning of the session and you will be as tired as if you had already used your legs. You have to keep that in mind in order to program strength training properly. 

For a 6x6RM training it is important to leave a recovery of at least 3 minutes and to do this exercise on three different lifts. I advise you to prioritize the exercises requiring the most range of motion and mobile joints. To use the example of the session of the previous paragraph do squat first because this exercise activates the whole body, it is a more demanding lift in terms of muscles activation, coordination and engagement of the deep muscles it is therefore more expensive at the nervous level. 

Maximal strength training can only last around than 1h15 / 1h20 per session, it is the longest possible duration for maximum nervous system effective stress. Often in rowing we program the training of the force before or after a row, in the same training. To me it is to be avoided, the weight training session is a training in its own and should be treated as such. The important thing is to preserve the nerve impulse for maximal strength work. 

From one strength training to the next you should keep at least 48/60 hours of minimum recovery and maximum a week. According to me, the ideal is to place 3 a week: Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The ideal is to repeat this for three to five weeks by prioritizing 5 to 9 main lifts. Also, it is important to schedule strength “reminder” sessions during cycles in which you do not work the maximal strength. Especially if this period lasts a long time (several months). The point is to keep as much progress as possible during the maximal strength cycle so as not to start all over again in the next cycle. 

There are two very important things to keep in mind during each session

1 – Always try to increase the load from one session to the next when you do the same lift. 

2- When you are under the barbell, always try to put as much speed as possible to have a maximal level of stimulation.

I will conclude by saying that a cousin of the 6x6RM is also very common in training is the 5x5RM that respects exactly the same principle of application by being a little more difficult. I invite you to try it but only once you are well confortable with the maximal strength training. If you would like to learn more about the subject I share with you the references I relied on to write this article. You’ll find my classics: Rowing Faster, Advanced Rowing and La Bible de la Préparation Physique.

If you want to go further in practice, I made you guys a more advanced program, with programming tips and explanations to avoid interferences. They are available in my “little guide to train strength – rowing”. Feel free to buy it, it’s a little boost much appreciated to help me afford the website. Finally, if you want an individual program, just for you, completely individualized, feel free to contact me. 

Thanks and see you soon around rowing courses.


1) Hickson RC – all “Potential for strength and endurance training to amplify endurance performance” J Appl Physiol 65: p2285-2290. 1988

2) Hoff J – all “Maximum strength training improves aerobic endurance performance” Scan J Med Sci Sports 12: p288-295. 2002

3) Larsson L – all “Morphological muscle characteristics in rowers” Canadian journal of applied sport science, 5, p239-244. 1980

4) Lawton T “Strength and conditioning” in Advanced Rowing p171-185. 2017 

5) McNeely Ed “Training for strength” in Rowing faster p163-172. 2011

6) Reiss D – Dr Prevost P “How to Develop Maximal Strength” in La Bible de la preparation physique Amphora Editions p 283-325. 2012

7) Secher N “Physiological and biomechanical aspect of rowing: implications for training” Sport Medicine 15 p280-283. 1993