Jan 29, 2015
Strong Strokes

The women rowers at The Ohio State University train each part of the rowing stroke in the weightroom. This past spring, their strong strokes resulted in an NCAA Championship.

By Kim Dally-Badgeley

Kim Dally-Badgeley, CSCS, USAW, HKC, is a Strength and Conditioning Coach at The Ohio State University, where she works with the women’s rowing, cheerleading, synchronized swimming, golf, and dance teams. She has spent 16 years at Ohio State and can be reached at: [email protected].

When The Ohio State University started a women’s rowing program in 1997, it had no boathouse or ergometers–just a very small fleet of boats. However, fast-forward 15 years and the program boasts a state of the art boathouse with the best equipment, three Big Ten Championships, six top-five NCAA Division I finishes, and a national championship this year in the varsity four.

Our program has come a long way in those 15 years, and so has the way that we train our rowers for competition. It was once widely accepted that circuit training was the only way to prepare for rowing, but a shift toward Olympic lifts has occurred. A lot of strength coaches–and rowing coaches–have realized that a greater emphasis needs to be put on producing a more athletic rower. In this article, I share how we’ve been able to do that here at OSU.


When designing a training program for rowers, thought must be put into exercise selection so that those chosen lead to strengthening the muscles used during the rowing motion. This motion can be broken down into four parts, and we train each one in the weightroom: The catch (when the rower places the oar in the water), drive (when the rower pushes the oar through the water), finish (when the rower pulls the oar out of the water), and recovery (when the rower returns to the catch position). Here is how we train each one:

Catch: The body is at full compression during the catch phase. The quadriceps and glutes are loaded and ready to extend and contract. In the weightroom, we use power cleans from blocks to best imitate this motion. We also use squats because they are an effective way to train the quads and hamstrings.

Drive: During the drive phase, the rower pushes off the foot plate and extends her body from the catch position. Again, she is using her quads and glutes to open up her torso. The latismus dorsi connects the legs to the upper body and the deltoids are activated as the oars are pulled back. We use lat pull-downs, the dumbbell military press, and frontal, lateral, and rear deltoid raises to train these muscles.

Finish: When finishing, the rower’s latismus dorsi are still activated, along with her triceps and core muscles. Under no circumstances are her shoulders engaged at this time. Associated strengthening exercises we use include triceps push-downs, triceps extensions, hypers, good mornings, and upper body step-ups.

Recovery: In the recovery phase, the rower returns to the catch position using her hamstrings, abdominals, and hip flexors to slide back. These muscles can be trained with lunges, leg curls, full sit-ups, and variations of crunches (toe-ups and v-ups).


Most collegiate rowing programs have two distinct groups: the novices and the varsity athletes. The novice program is mostly made up of rowers who are either entirely new to the sport or have very little experience, while the veteran rowers make up the varsity program.

The varsity team starts strength training three days per week immediately upon returning to campus in September. Preliminary testing is done in the standing long jump, pull-ups, seated flexibility, one-rep max bench press, and a predicted max squat test.

Results from the bench and squat tests are matched with corresponding percentages to determine how much weight athletes will lift on the squat and bench press in the upcoming cycle. The long jump is used to measure an athlete’s explosiveness. Pull-ups determine the athlete’s back strength, and we use seated flexibility to measure the athlete’s hamstring and low back flexibility.

Building strength and flexibility are the goals during this time. Due to their foot placement in the boat, rowers tend to have a narrow stance, which is not conducive to proper lifting technique. We pay close attention to where the athletes are supported on their feet during all exercises and correct as needed. We also make sure that athletes start their high pulls from the mid-shin. This makes the movement more sport specific because it mimics the catch position when rowing. (See “Varsity: Fall Program” for a sample week.)

During this period, many of the rowers realize big gains–especially if they haven’t kept up with their prescribed summer workouts due to summer competitions, internships or jobs, or lack of adequate strength training facilities. At the end of the fall phase, the athletes are retested in each area to get a precise look at how they have progressed.

Before the winter training phase begins, the varsity rowers spend their holiday break rowing in Florida. Because there is only one week during which they are not rowing almost around the clock, we don’t prescribe them a holiday training program.

During the winter phase, the focus continues to be building strength and increasing flexibility. Complex exercises are added to increase explosiveness and stabilization exercises are done on both of the two lifting days. As preseason rowing volume increases, we want to make sure to strengthen the core and stabilizing muscles to prevent any issues in the rib area. (See “Varsity: Winter Program” for a sample week.) Max testing is performed a third time at the end of the winter cycle to determine the athletes’ in-season lifting loads.

The focus of in-season lifting during the spring is to maintain the strength that has been acquired, with attention being paid to workout intensity. Athletes are more likely to come to workouts mentally and physically depleted now, so we recognize when an athlete’s workout may need to be adjusted in order to prevent injury. We also encourage our athletes to have snacks with them at all times since post-workout protein consumption is paramount to muscle recovery.

During the season, the entire second workout of the week is devoted to strengthening the core and stabilizing muscles. This workout continues all the way through to NCAA Championship week. (See “Varsity: Spring Program” for a sample week.)


We are committed to developing our novice program into a group of high-level rowers so that they have a seamless transition into the varsity program when the time comes. During the first academic quarter, a lot of time is spent teaching the novice rowers how to row and helping them learn the basic lifts (like the Olympic lifts) that we use.

After the quarter is over, the novice rowers are sent home with a basic program to complete over the holiday break. The goal is to continue building a good strength base through two workouts per week. All workouts assigned over the break are basic because most of the rowers do not have access to a gym with platforms and power racks. Instead, we focus on dumbbell exercises. (See “Novices: Holiday Program” for a sample week.)

Upon the novice team’s return to campus in January, the rowers embark on a 10-week program that includes lifting in the weightroom once per week and a bodyweight circuit with the team’s head coach once per week. A second day in the weightroom each week would be preferable, but due to time constraints, it is not possible, so the head coach has designed a general bodyweight circuit that includes pushups, crunches, squat jumps, and bench pulls to build general strength.

In the weightroom, our focus continues to be technique development, but we also add a second focus of explosiveness with the addition of complexes between sets of the major exercises. To be most effective, complexes are completed immediately after each set. (See “Novices: Winter Program” for a sample workout.)

At the end of the 10-week cycle, the novice team does a one-rep max test on the bench press and a predicted max test on squats to give us a baseline for the spring program. We limit novice rowers to these two tests because they are not only new to the sport, they’re usually new to lifting. We take more time to develop their lifting technique and strength base instead of worrying about testing them. Because we use percentages of an athlete’s max to determine how much weight they will lift, it is imperative that we still get numbers for the bench press and squat tests for the novice rowers.

The point of emphasis during the season is maintaining the strength gained during the preseason while keeping the once-per-week lifting session relatively short. Our novices should have mastered the bench press by now, so we add kettlebells to further work their core stabilizers during the lift.

We pay special attention to the strengthening of the low back, wrists, and forearms as these are common injury areas for rowers, especially beginners. The novices complete hypers, reverse hypers, wrist rollers, reverse bicep curls, rice grabs, and other exercises to strengthen these smaller muscle groups. Athletes tend to rush through these exercises or skip them all together, so we make sure to stress their importance. (See “Novices: Spring Program” for a sample workout.)


The coxswain is the athlete who sits in the bow of the boat. She steers and coaches the rowers through a race. Though a coxswain’s job isn’t as physically challenging as that of the rowers, we feel it is important for them to be strong and fit. Giving them a workout is also a way for them to earn respect from the rowers.

And they must be prepared for the unexpected. At last year’s Big Ten Championship, our varsity four was way ahead of the field, and one of our rowers “caught a crab” (caught the oar in the water so that it acted as a brake) and was literally flipped out of the boat. Fortunately, the coxswain was sitting right in front of the rower’s seat. She was strong enough to hold the oar out of the water so the team could finish the race. The boat ended up finishing third. Without that finish, we would not have won the Big Ten Championship.

Our coxswains do their lifting workout in circuit fashion. An athlete completes one set of each exercise, with a sprint lap or one-minute bike in between each, and does the whole circuit twice. Weights are kept light because we want the coxswains to increase their strength, but not bulk up with added bodyweight. (See “Coxswain Sample Program” for a sample week.)


Overall, I think what makes our rowing program so successful is the constant communication between the strength and conditioning coach, rowing coaches, and the athletic trainer. For example, before a new lifting cycle begins, I e-mail the workout to the rowing coaches and the athletic trainer. This gives the coaches an opportunity to make any additions or deletions to the program and ask me any questions about it.

It also allows the athletic trainer to make necessary revisions in an athlete’s rehab program based on what is being covered in the weightroom. The athletic trainer can then make informed decisions when recommending adjustments in an athlete’s lifting program due to injury.

The rowing coaches, athletic trainer, and myself also meet weekly to discuss the current training plans and any modifications that might need to take place. The team’s training is truly a group effort and the investment that everyone makes in the athletes’ workouts is returned to us tenfold in the unwavering commitment and work ethic displayed by our rowers.

Sidebar Chart Key

Cycle = Sets and reps are changed (cycled) every two weeks. Pushups+ = Pushups with an arm lift at the top of the movement. B = Burn. The athlete performs the exercise to failure. PB = Physio ball. SB = Straight bar.

Sidebar: Varsity: Fall Program

This off-season program runs from mid-September to mid-December.

Monday Abs: crunches 2 x 50/reverse crunches 2 x 40 High pulls 3 x cycle Squats 3 x cycle Bentover rows 2 x 10 Step-ups 2 x 12 Dumbbell Romanian deadlifts 2 x 10 Hypers 2 x 12 Wrist rollers x 2 Plate grips 2 x 1 minute

Wednesday Abs: Hand-toe crunches 2 x 50 Landmines 2 x 15 Box jumps 3 x cycle Bench presses 3 x cycle Pushups+ 2 x 10 Bench pulls 3 x cycle Zottman curls 2 x 10 B Lying triceps extensions 2 x 10 B Reverse hypers 2 x 12

Friday Abs: toe-ups 2 x 40/plyo sit-ups (left, middle, right) 2 x 30 Dumbbell high pulls 3 x cycle Squats (variation) 3 x cycle Supine pull-ups 2 x 10 B Incline presses 3 x cycle Upper body step-ups 2 x 10 SB Romanian deadlifts 2 x 10 Bench pulls 3 x cycle Calf raise series

Sidebar: Varsity: Winter Program

This preseason program runs from January to mid-March.

Monday Abs: crunches 2 x 50/hanging knee-ups 2 x 20 Power cleans 4 x cycle/box jumps 3 x 5 Squats 4 x cycle/hurdle jumps 3 x 5 Trap bar deadlifts 3 x 10 Pull-ups B Bench presses 4 x cycle/clap pushups 3 x 5 Dumbbell shoulder presses 1 x 12 Bentover rows 1 x 10

Friday Abs: Special 40s x 2/pole touches 2 x 30 High pulls 4 x cycle /standing long jump 3 x 5 Lunges 4 x cycle /split squat jumps 3 x 5 Trap bar deadlifts 3 x 10 Lat pull-downs 1 x 12 Incline presses 4 x cycle/med ball chest passes x 5 Good mornings 1 x 10 Straight-leg Bosu squats 1 x 10 Stability Exercises: Kneeling supermans 2 x 20 Forward ball rolls 2 x 15 Three-way stability x 1 minute Bridges 1 x 30

Sidebar: Varsity: Spring Program

This in-season program runs from mid-March through May.

Monday Abs: PB jackknife 2 x 30/plyo sit-ups 2 x 30 Power cleans 3 x cycle Squats 3 x cycle SB bentover rows 2 x 10 Kettlebell bench presses 3 x cycle SB shoulder routine 2 x 8, 10, 12 SB Romanian deadlifts 2 x 10 Dumbbell Romanian deadlifts 2 x 12 Wrist rollers x2

Wednesday Abs: Toe-ups 2 x 30/V-ups 2 x 30 Dumbbell high pulls 3 x cycle Bosu squats 3 x cycle Pull-ups 2 x 10 PB dumbbell bench presses 2 x 10 Upper body step-ups 2 x 10 Pushups+ 2 x 10 Dips 2 x 12 Good mornings 2 x 12

Sidebar: Novices: Holiday Program

The holiday break program runs through the month of December.

Day one Abs: 250 choice/25 superman Dumbbell power cleans 3 x cycle Dumbbell squats 3 x cycle Dumbbell bentover rows 2 x 10 Dumbbell bench presses 3 x cycle Dumbbell shoulder routine 2 x 10 Dumbbell Romanian deadlifts 2 x 10 Zottman curls 2 x 10 B

Day two Abs: 250 choice/25 superman Dumbbell squats/jump combo 3 x cycle Dumbbell squats variation 3 x cycle Med ball reach arounds 2 x 10 B Dumbbell incline presses 3 x cycle Med ball overhead passes 2 x 10 B Dumbbell walking lunges 2 x 10 Reverse bicep curls 2 x 10

Sidebar: Novices: Winter Program

The preseason program runs from January through mid-March.

Abs: PB crunches 2 x 50/PB twist crunches 2 x 25/PB toe-ups 2 x 30 Dumbbell cleans 3 x 5/box jumps 3 x 5 Squats 3 x cycle/hurdle jumps 3 x 5 SB bentover rows 2 x 10 Bench presses 3 x cycle/clap pushups 3 x 5 Dumbbell shoulder presses 2 x 10 Med ball full twists (partner) 2 x 15 Negative pull-ups 2 x B Zottman curls 2 x 10 B SB wrist curls 2 x 10

Sidebar: Novices: Spring Program

The in-season program runs from the end of March through May.

Abs: Crunches 2 x 50/plyo sit-ups (s/s) 2 x 40 Dumbbell cleans 3 x cycle Squats 3 x cycle Dumbbell bentover rows 2 x 10 Kettlebell bench presses 3 x cycle SB shoulder routine 2 x 8, 10, 12 SB Romanian deadlifts 3 x 10 Bench pulls x 1 minute Reverse bicep curls 2 x 10 B Reverse hypers 2 x 12

Sidebar: Coxswain Sample Program

Day one Abs: Crunches x 50/toe-ups x 30 Reverse crunches x 40 Dumbbell jumps x 12 Dumbbell squats x 12 Lat pull-downs x 12 Bench presses x 12 Dumbbell military presses x 12 Dumbbell lunges x 12 Dumbbell Romanian deadlifts x 12 Zottman curls x 12 Dips x 12

Day two Abs: Twist crunches x 40/hand-toe crunches x 40 Plyo sit-ups (side to side) x 30 Dumbbell squats/jump combo x 12 Dumbbell step-ups x 12 Dumbbell bentover rows x 12 Dumbbell incline presses x 12 Dumbbell shoulder combo x 12 Dumbbell split squats x 12 Leg curls x 12 SB bicep curls x 12 Triceps kickbacks x 12

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