Can squatting help you row faster?

Can squatting truly make you row faster? This is a question that has intrigued novices and professionals alike in the world of rowing. The answer may surprise you, but it’s rooted in understanding the complex relationship between strength training and rowing performance.

As we delve into this fascinating topic, we’ll explore how squats, a fundamental exercise renowned for its total-body benefits, can potentially enhance your rowing speed. We’ll dissect the science behind this connection, illustrate real-life examples, and provide actionable advice to incorporate squats into your training regimen.

Whether you’re just dipping your oars in the water or you’re an experienced rower looking to shave seconds off your time, this article aims to provide insightful, practical, and accessible knowledge. So, are you ready to discover how squats might just be the secret weapon in your rowing training toolkit? Let’s embark on this educational journey together.


The History of the Barbell Squat

Training for strength is not a new occurrence. Exercise Historians have seen references to feats of strength and weight lifting competitions all the way back in 3600 BC. The military in the Chinese Chou dynasty (1122 – 249 BC) were made to pass specific tests of strength before they were allowed to be part of the army.

Whilst people have been training to build strength for thousands of years, the way is been done has evolved massively over that time. With materials constantly being upgraded and new, more effective pieces of equipment being created, strength training is now accessible for all people.

woman lifting barbell
Photo by Li Sun on

Where the Barbell Squat began

So do you know who invented the barbell? There is some debate online about this subject. The generally accepted story comes from the 11th century. At this time Indian wrestlers were using a tool called ‘Sumtolas’ which were wooden logs with holes in that they used for handles.

By the mid-1800s, dumbbells were widely available to be bought in most major cities. Barbells were not. French strongman Hippolyte Trait is said to be the first person to have barbells readily available in his gym. Albeit, they had spherical ends and he called them “Barres A Spheres De 6 Kilos”.

During the 1900s the barbell became more common across Europe. In the US, this same piece of equipment was still not considered important. Alan Calvert set out to change this preconception. In 1902 Alan Calvert set up the Milo Bar-bell Company in Philadelphia. With the ancient Greek God Milo as its inspiration this company would deliver the first commercial barbell set to the states.

Alan Calvert and his team also published a magazine to help build understanding and support for the sport of strength training. His magazine was simply named Strength. It helped to set of the rise in popularity of barbell training methods in the early 1900s.

The Progression of the Squat

During the 1900s people would not have known what a squat was. Back then it was simply called the ‘deep knee bend’. Instructors would focus on lifters pushing down through their toes with their heels together. Because of this unusual starting position, lifters would use a light weight. Many repetitions and sets would be completed. During these early days heavy lifting was not a common method. No safety racks had been invented so lifting up heavy weight onto your shoulders was near impossible.

The ‘deep knee bend’ was spoken about in the “First course in Body-Building and Muscle-Developing Exercises” issued by the Milo Bar-Bell Company in 1915:

“Still standing with the heels together, toes turned outward, bend the legs at the knees, and sink down into position…Rise up again and repeat several times. When you lower the body, the heels rise from the ground. Point the knees as far out to the sides as you can, as this helps to develop the muscles on the outside of the thighs. Moreover, the more you point the knees to the side, the easier it is to keep the body upright. At first you will not be able to go all the way down, but as the muscles become stronger and more elastic you will be able to almost sit on the heels…repeat 20 times. Every third day times more, till 40 times; then increase weight of the bell 5 pounds.”

First Course in Body-Building and Muscle-Developing Exercises. The Milo Bar-bell Company. 1915.

By WW1 Europeans were competently performing a movement that looked much more like our modern day barbell squat. The first reference we have to competitive lifting competitions comes in Germany in 1919 when a man called Carl Moerke beat Hermann Goerner. On this day Carl Moerke squatted 529lbs or 240kg.

When the war was done a man called Heinrich Steinborn came to the US in 1921. He is credited with bringing with him the training styles and form of Europe, over to the US.

Steinborn was given a key feature in the newly popular Strength magazine. Alan Calvert wrote about Steinborn’s strength and amazing physique gained through training. In this feature article Calvert wrote about a new exercise movement called the “squat”. He even put it in quotations because it was so obscure.

Now although the squat was gaining popularity and acceptance there still weren’t the accessories that we have today. There was a rather crude method that lifters had to use to get the barbell onto their backs. The majority of lifters would perform a clean motion to their shoulders and then push the bar over their heads and onto their traps. This massively limited weight.

Steinborn brought with him a new way of getting the weight onto his back. He would have the barbell load on the floor and pick up one end. He would then shimmy into a squat position with one end of the barbell still on the floor. Then he would lower himself and allow the weight and bar to even itself onto his shoulders in the bottom of the squat. Steinborn wowed many with technique and rumour has it that he was able to do this method with 530lbs.

Peary Rader performing the Steinborn style squat 

At this point weightlifters and average Joe lifters had accepted the benefits of the squat. It was here to stay.

Squatting for Rowers

So how does this apply to rowing. When we break down the rowing action we have the push and pull movements. We push hard with our legs to drive us backwards which starts the stroke. Then we pull with our arms and back.

The first and primary movement is the leg push. So this should help show us the value of the squat. The muscles worked in the barbell squat can be listed as:

  • Gluteus Maximus, Minimus, and Medius (buttocks)
  • Quadriceps (front of the thigh)
  • Hamstrings (back of the thigh)
  • Adductor (groin)
  • Hip flexors.
  • Calves.

If we are able to strengthen all of these muscles with one movement then that will help with our efficiency as well. Go to your gym twice a week and both times complete 5 sets of 10 reps on the squat. Repeat this training week for 6 weeks. I guarantee that after this period of training, you will come out of if vastly stronger, with a greater level power, muscular endurance and overall strength.

So, to answer the question. Yes. A bigger squat will help you to row faster. If you want to develop strength and power, check our workout below!