Weight Training Exercises for Rowing, Kayaking and Canoeing

Get Fit For Water Sports

A rowing team in action.
A rowing team in action. Nick Wilson/Getty Images

Watercraft sports, such as rowing, canoeing, and kayaking, require a high level of technical skill, upper-body and core strength, and even endurance depending on the distance of the race or competition.

Ultimately, training on the water is required for mastering basics and improving. Once a certain level of skill and fitness has been achieved, weight training in a gym or elsewhere may be useful to help improve overall performance.

Naturally, you may need to include out-of-water aerobic conditioning as well.

Injury Warning

Watercraft competitors are prone to shoulder and back injuries because of the repetitive nature and often extreme ranges of motion required. Weight training of the upper body can be useful, but you must take care not too aggravate or initiate overuse injury to these body regions. At the same time, judicious use of strength training can help protect against such injury. It's a matter of fine tuning. At any sign of pain in the joint, during or after exercises such as presses, pull-ups or rows, cease that exercise and consult a strength and conditioning coach, or a physical therapist or physician, depending on the severity.

About the Rowing and Kayaking Program

The best programs are always specific to an individual's current fitness, goals, and access to resources and coaches. A personal trainer or coach can always provide a more specific and targeted program.

In addition, training for the shorter power and strength events will naturally differ from endurance events.

If you are new to weight training, brush up on principles and practices with the beginner resources.

Always warm up and cool down before and after a training session. A medical clearance for exercise is also always a good idea at the start of the season.

Strength and Muscle Program

Starting out you will build strength and muscle. The emphasis is on lifting moderately heavy weights in order to train the nervous system in conjunction with the muscle fibers to move bigger loads. Hypertrophy, which is building muscle size, does not necessarily imply strength, although in this foundation phase some muscle building will also serve you well for strength development.

Strength will be the foundation for the next phase, which is power development. Power is the ability to move the heaviest loads in the shortest time. Power is essentially a product of strength and speed. For rowing, it could mean a better start or more efficient sprint to the finish line. During competition season, lighten loads a little and execute the lifts faster to emphasize power development.

Time of year: All year round
Duration: 12 weeks, break for 2 weeks, continue with lighter loads and faster execution during competition season.
Days per week: 2-3, with at least one day between sessions
Reps: 8-10
Sets: 2-4
Rest in between sets: 1-2 minutes

Exercises

Below is a list of links to various weight training exercises useful for watercraft sports:

Points to Note

  • Adjust the weight so that the final few repetitions are taxing but don't cause you to "fail" completely.
  • Although the upper body -- the arms, back and shoulders -- is where the action is expressed in watercraft sports, the posterior chain of the hips, gluteals (butt) and upper legs and the abdominals are of equal importance in the execution of power. The squats and deadlifts build strength and power in this region.
  • Don't work to failure for the upper body exercises such as the dumbbell press, woodchops and lat pulldown, and do hold good form. Keep the forearms in a vertical plane with the upper arms not extending excessively below parallel at the bottom of the movement. It's important to protect the vulnerable shoulder joint when training for sports where the shoulder gets a lot of specific "out of gym" work -- in this case on the water.
  • If you are unable to recover from a session with only one rest day in between, re-schedule this program to two sessions each week rather than three.
  • You may be sore after these sessions. Muscle soreness or delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is normal; joint pain is not. Be sure to monitor your arm and shoulder reactions. Back off when joint pain or discomfort is felt.

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