Weight Training Exercises for Rowing, Kayaking, and Canoeing

A rowing team in action
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Watercraft sports, such as rowing, canoeing, and kayaking, require a high level of technical skill, upper body, core strength, and endurance, depending on the distance of the race or competition. Training on the water is required for mastering basics and improving.

Once you achieve a certain level of skill and fitness, you can use weight training to help improve overall performance. You may need to include out-of-water aerobic conditioning as well.

Safety and Precautions

Weight training of the upper body can be useful for those who participate in water sports, but you must take care not to aggravate or initiate overuse injury to these body regions. Watercraft competitors are prone to shoulder and back injuries because of the repetitive nature and often extreme ranges of motion required.

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 an exercises, cease that exercise and consult a strength and conditioning coach, physical therapist or physician, depending on the severity.

If you are new to weight training, brush up on principles and practices first. Always warm up and cool down before and after a training session. Get a medical clearance for exercise at the start of the season.


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 shorter power and strength events will naturally differ from endurance events.

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 serves you well for strength development.

The next phase 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 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


These weight training exercises are useful for watercraft sports athletes. Choose from them to create your workouts.

Don't ignore other muscle groups. 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. Squats and deadlifts build strength and power in this region.

Tips for Weight Training Success

Adjust the weight so that the final few repetitions are taxing but don't cause you to "fail" completely. 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.

Don't work to failure, 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.

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 if you feel joint pain or discomfort.

By Paul Rogers
Paul Rogers is a personal trainer with experience in a wide range of sports, including track, triathlon, marathon, hockey, tennis, and baseball.