How to build strength in your legs for rowing

The legs are the foundation of a strong stroke in rowing. You set your feet and then explode into action with the legs initiating the movement. So how can we build up strength and power to help our rowing? Dan, our sports science nerd, has a look at the best exercises you can do to build up strength and power in your legs.

The Science behind Strength Training

When you want to build strength and power the type of training that you will do will vary greatly from when you want to build muscular endurance. With endurance training, you need to make sure that you are pushing your muscles past their maximum endurance level to see change. Strength training focuses on pushing you past your limit in terms of the weight that you are lifting.

The SAID Principle

SAID stands for Specific Adaption to Imposed Demand. It is the principle that backs up what I was just writing. Fundamentally it means that when you put your body under some sort of exercise and duress, your body will start to make some adaptions to get better at handling that stress. This adaption does not just happen in one area, there are innumerable separate mechanisms that start to adapt as we push ourselves past our usual exercise limits. To put it simply, your body will always try and improve at the exercise you are practising.


Adaptation is Specific

Let’s think about an example. If you play a sport that imposes a lot of mechanical stress on your bones, then this will start the physiological process that results in your bones becoming thicker and harder in the areas of stress. If you could look at the bones in your foot, the bone that is in your heel is going to be very hard and thick. If you are a badminton player who has a dominant side, then the bones in that arm are going to be denser and larger than your weaker side. Jiu-Jitsu fighters can create shins and elbows that feel like steel, through repeated training of stressful movements. Over time the same thing will happen with ligaments and tendons. They will thicken and strengthen as they feel more mechanical stress.

The SAIS principle also covers more complex adaptions, for example learning new motor skills. Whenever you practice physical activities your brain will be going through physical changes to its structure. If you spend hours practising playing the saxophone, then the part of your brain that controls your motor skills will grow larger. The neurons that fire every time you use your fingers will find faster and more efficient lines of communication between themselves and other areas of the brain. This leads to what we call muscle memory.

How to build a stronger back for rowing

Leg Workout for Strength and Power

Now with any workout, we are going to break it done into sets and reps. A rep is a single movement that you will complete of one specific exercise. You pick the barbell off the floor, you put it down again that is one rep. A set is when you group these repetitions. For example, you may do 6 reps of the deadlift. This would be one set. The majority of the time you will be grouping these sets to make sure you are creating enough stimuli to force your muscles to grow.

Typically for a strength-building workout, we will be working in the lower rep ranges, but with more sets. Whereas in a normal bodybuilding workout or a workout designed to increase endurance, your will work with reps from 8-15, to build strength we will be doing 3-6 reps.

During a strength workout, you will also be taking longer rest periods between sets. This is to ensure that you have as much energy as possible to lift those heavier weights each set. This workout is purely to push your body past what it has previously experienced when it comes to lifting weight.

When we choose the weight to use we will be choosing a weight that we can do about 6 reps with. This will usually be about 70% of your 1 rep max.

Exercise 1: Barbell Squat

The king of all exercises. We are starting with the barbell squat to make sure that we have the most energy to use on the most complex movement. With this exercise set your feet just slightly further than shoulder-width apart. Point your toes out slightly, normally I say at 10 and 2. Imagine that you are going to be pushing the floor away from you. Set the bar on your back on top of your Trapezius muscles (we call this a high-bar squat and is appropriate for most lifters). When you lower yourself down you want to go slowly, then power yourself out of the hole when you reach a 90-degree angle between your femur and calf.

Warm-up: 2 x 10 ( 2 sets of 10 reps)

Working sets: 5 x 6 ( 5 sets of 6 reps)

Exercise 2: Stiff Leg Deadlifts

This exercise differs from the traditional deadlift in that you do not bend your legs when you perform the movement. There will be some slight flexion in the knee when you set up the lift, but when you are moving the weight up and down your knees should not move. This movement will help to strengthen your posterior chain, meaning your hamstrings, gluteus Maximus and lower back muscles. These muscles all help to stabilise your body as your move, so are crucial when out on the water.

Warm-up: 2 x 10 ( 2 sets of 10 reps)

Working sets: 5 x 6 ( 5 sets of 6 reps)

Exercise 3: Leg Press/Hack Squat

For exercise 3 you can use either of these two machines. Both will require you to push in a similar way to the barbell squat but in a more controlled environment. Set your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width again and explode into each push. Remember to lower the weight slowly for each rep.

Warm-up: 2 x 10 ( 2 sets of 10 reps)

Working sets: 5 x 6 ( 5 sets of 6 reps)

Exercise 4: Squat Jumps

The last exercise is here to push your legs beyond their limits. Jump as high as you can for these 3 sets and then you are done.

Working sets: 3 x 15 ( 3 sets of 15 reps)

This workout is one you can complete just once a week to allow time for your muscles to grow.