How Do Our Muscles Use Power Safely During Rowing?

It is an age-old question with rowing, should I develop more power or more endurance? There are multiple aspects to this conversation, so let us break them down for you.

Rowing requires a significant amount of both power and endurance to get you across the finish line of any race. It does not matter what distance of your race you choose to do, you will need all of your energy systems firing. The two central energy systems you will use will be aerobic and anaerobic. Fundamentally, your aerobic energy system usually deals with the longer distance exercise and anaerobic the shorter distance (it is more complicated than that).

The science of power and endurance

It can be difficult to create a workout programme that will stretch both your power and endurance abilities. We usually recommend that you focus on one aspect of your ability to improve at a time, otherwise, it can slow your progress. The type of training that will help you build power is not the same exercises and rep schemes that will improve your endurance. So mixing them together is not ideal. It can be done, but usually this only works with beginners.

We want to be able to accelerate quickly into our strokes, but also maintain it for as long as possible. So how do we do that?

Whenever we start a movement we have to use power and force to get it started. It is the same with rowing. One way to look at power is that it comes from the eccentric lengthening of a muscle. This is the part of a movement that comes just before the concentric shortening. It is the part of the movement where energy transitions from the loaded stage, to the explosive stage. Think of it as loading a gun and clocking it. Then it is ready to fire.


Now part of any movement is also the deceleration of the muscle. This would be the part where the arm slows down when throwing a ball or a rower slows down as they reset for the next stroke. A person’s ability to efficiently and safely decelerate will allow them to repeat this movement over and over without injury. If a person cannot control their deceleration then eventually their body will start to break down.

How many times have you seen someone get injured when going 100% in an exercise? That is because their body is not able to help them decelerate their movement. This leads to over-stretching of the muscles or joints, and this leads to failure and injury.

Our body’s composition is set up so that we can perform powerful movements. If you were to cut open your gluteus maximus you would find that the muscle gibers move in a very specific direction. They move outwards towards the femur.

This is where rowers get the majority of their power from during the startup phase of your stroke. To decelerate the movement the rest of the rear muscles and hamstrings come together to control the slowdown. Making sure that we have the muscular development to safely perform these movements is of paramount importance.

If I was speaking to a relatively new rower who wanted to develop into a racer. I would want to go through an evaluation of their current physique. We know that rowers are not bodybuilders, but to be able to survive through a variety of race distances your must needs to have a certain amount of muscle mass to protect itself.

If we want to look past just the muscular structure we can look at the skeletal layout as well and how that helps our power and endurance. One particular area we can look at is the shoulder. In there we have the subscapularis, supraspinatus, infraspinatus and the teres minor muscles. Each doing its part to stabilise the shoulder and help it release its power safely.

Just looking at the location of these muscles will explain to you how much the body prioritises safe deceleration. There is one anterior muscle, at the front of the body and 3 posterior, in the back. These three muscles work to slow down your arm when throwing a ball and allow it to safely reset.

When exercising there are some movements that seem to be prioritised when we need rehabilitation. To help stabilise our hips, we may do glute bridges, or to strengthen our shoulder cuffs we may do face pulls. If these exercises are so good for our muscles in a rehab setting then why can’t we use these more regularly in our training. These exercises are a double-edged sword. They will also work to help prevent injury as well as help your body recover from injury.

Rowing Practice, Burra Voe by Des Blenkinsopp is licensed under CC-BY-SA 2.0

When starting out as a rower, exercises that promote stabilisation in your muscles and joints should be part of your normal workouts. When the rower is able to show good deceleration through their strikes then they can move on to more power-promoting exercises.

As with any coach or trainer, it is their job to ensure that your training plan builds in these safety features to your body before pushing you 100%. Any coach worth their salt will start with evaluating your current musculature with a specific assessment of any imbalances. These imbalances can lead to you favouring sure sides of your body during strokes. When you are doing 1000s of strokes each week this can lead to a lot of extra stress on one side of your body.

Our body deals with power in a very specific way. It will always ensure that it can safely perform a movement before allowing you to do it. We need to ensure as athletes, that we give ourselves the best possible chance of being able to repeat that movement over and over again. I don’t know about you but I want to be still rowing when I’m in my 60s and retired. To make that dream a reality I need to look after my body now and make sure that I am training for longevity as well.