Rowing is a demanding sport that requires a very high level of overall fitness from its participants. Whether the athlete rows alone as a single sculler, or as a part of an eight-person crew, an effective rowing stroke is a well-balanced combination of technique, power, and endurance.
The sometimes contradictory physical demands of strength and endurance result from the repetitive nature of the basic rowing stroke. The rower is positioned on a sliding seat, with the feet of the athlete affixed to the frame of the racing shell through straps. The slide back and forth by the rower is accomplished through the push generated on each stroke by the rower's legs, and a pull back to the starting position that results from the actions of the oars and the resistance of the stroke in the water. A much as 60% of the power generated in a rowing stroke is developed in the legs and core (trunk) of the body.
An ideal rower will be tall and powerful, so as to both obtain the best leverage on the oar as it extends through the rowing stroke. A typical male Olympic rower in the men's eight will be over 6 ft 3 in tall (1.8 m) and weigh over 230 lb (105 kg). Height usually will provide the rower with a more optimum strength-to-weight ratio; the lighter the boat crew, the faster the boat will go provided the amount of power remains constant. The speed of the boat is the product of the available power, less the resistance to the boat as it moves through the water; the heavier the craft, including its occupants, the generally greater the degree of resistance against the water.
While rowing may present to the uninitiated as a relatively simple contest of human muscle power versus water, the mechanics of the rowing stroke are highly technical, especially when considered as part of a larger rowing crew that must move with complete synchronicity. Sole training and group training must be coordinated to achieve this end. The specific parts of the rowing stroke can be exercised on the water; one example is the use of a bungee cord or similar device to slow the progress of the oar and make the effort of rowing more difficult. Many rowers use interval training principles while on the water to develop both strength as well as recovery.
Rowing exercises must be broadly based to achieve these various performance goals. The development of technical rowing skills will be done primarily upon the water. A solo sculler or a crew can practice such aspects of a competition as the start, changes in cadence, and general unified strokes. Crews will sometimes use a large indoor swimming pool as a simulator, with the boat tethered, as a practice facility. Rowers can also use a stationary training device known as an ergometric rowing machine to simulate the resistance encountered in the rowing motion; these machines have the advantage of having a variable resistance.
The training that is nonspecific to the rowing stroke must be specific to the enhancement of the balance of power and endurance. The amount of the total training volume that a rower should devote to weight training is the subject of debate. In some countries, the national rowing program directs its athletes to engage in a hard weight workout two times per week; in others, the weight training may constitute up to one-third of the total training volume. There is no question that strength training cannot be left to the natural consequences of rowing participation, if the athlete is to improve on the water.
The power aspect of the power/endurance continuum can be developed through a focused total-body weight training program, one that combines free weights, exercise machines, plyometrics exercises, and leg training exercises such as squats, which mimic the drive of the legs forward and backward during the rowing stroke.
Endurance training will focus on cardiovascular fitness, which includes the various aspects of the body's ability to both row at a high speed, which is a function of the rower's stroke rate, as well as the rower's recovery from high intensity effort. One important component for the rower is the ability to use oxygen at the highest possible level, the VO2max of the athlete. In addition to rowing, running, both over distances as well as through interval sprints, and cycling are cross training devices that will aid the rower in this respect.
As rowing places significant and often explosive stresses on a number of large muscle groups, often while the athlete is in a seated position, stretching and flexibility exercises are essential to the maintenance of balance throughout these muscle groups.