Rugby is an 80 minute game. Unless you’re a front rower whose position is now guaranteed to be covered by a substitute (sorry props) you’ll probably be playing all 80 of those minutes. The physical demands on your body for a full game of rugby are more intense than Soccer, American football or even Rugby League. Conditioning is critical.

If you’re not in top cardio shape, you’re going to break down physically and mentally by the end of the game. There are dozens of ways to do cardio training for rugby. Today, we’re going to look at why Rowing is the best cardio exercise you can do as a rugby player and then show you how to get started.

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Why should you row?

Amateur Cardio Considerations

The main issue we have with asking amateur rugby players to run laps, or turn up for regular sprint sessions at the track is injury prevention. Traditional cardio exercises are critical training methods for professional rugby players but they’re also high-risk exercises for amateurs. As amateur rugby players, we need to be smart about the training we do. Just because Sonny Bill does sprint sessions, doesn’t mean you should!

Amateurs don’t have an army of support staff waiting to give us rub downs. We don’t have a nutrition coach or a team chef. We most likely wouldn’t have the time to see a free physio even if one was available to us. So if you’re looking for training tools to become an elite rugby player, this blog isn’t really going to help you. However, if you’re an amateur rugby player, perhaps just getting started in your career, read on as this is the perfect resource for you to get fit for the rugby season without tearing a hamstring.

Full Body Cardio Exercise

Rowing is one of the best full body exercises you’ll ever come across. Throughout the push portion of your stroke you’ll need to engage multiple muscle groups including your spinal column, lower back, abdominals and traps. And that’s just your upper half. There really aren’t very many full body cardio exercises. Swimming is the most obvious but the list tails off pretty quickly. Rowing’s primary advantage over swimming is obviously that you won’t need to de-robe or buy a Speedo.

There’s also a muscle density question. Rugby players by and large are not very… how do I say this… buoyant? Both sports are highly technical, but achieving an acceptable rowing stroke is much less daunting than trying to swim like a dolphin. What I’m saying is, if you have the body of an amateur rugby player you can pickup Rowing much faster than Swimming.

Low Impact on Joints

My friend Ryan is constantly telling me not to play 7s in the summer. His reasoning is sound. The combination of hard Texas fields with a high paced game and aging knees is a recipe for disaster. In short, we can only put so many miles on our joints. Running laps and doing sprints is not just tough on the hamstrings, it also puts undue stress on hips, knees, ankles and lower backs. For amateur players hoping to extend their careers (that should be all of us), we need a way to get the same cardio benefit without the physical toll.

Rowing is the answer to cardio training that doesn’t burden your joints. Its a zero impact exercise. You’re sitting down the entire time. Your body weight isn’t being jolted through your knees 90 times a minute. The low impact on your joints means you’ll prevent injury and add games to your playing career.

You should row for the same reason you should ride the bike or swim, because running sucks and there’s a better way to get the same benefit. Once you've mastered the rowing program below, feel free to move on to more challenging stuff like our cardio training for flankers workout.

Focus on Core Strength

Core strength is a critical component of functional strength in rugby games. You need it to reach for lineout balls, to absorb non-direct scrum pressure, to maul, to place the ball correctly after a tackle and most importantly, for balance. Rowing will give you a massive edge in core strength that doesn’t come easily through other exercises. You’re probably reading “core” here and thinking “fuck yeah, Abs!” but in reality, I’m talking about your whole midsection and in particular your lower back.

Riding the exercise bike is the most common non-running cardio exercise I see amateur rugby players doing. As a low-impact exercise that really hits your legs, its certainly not the worst thing you can be doing. The problem I have with the bike is that its highly specific to your lower body without working on your core. One of the huge advantages of rowing is that your core and lower back are constantly engaged under medium intensity. You won’t get this from sitting on a bike which I suspect is why so few ruggers do it.

Technique When Tired

As you get above 55 minutes in a game of rugby, the physical exhaustion you’re feeling begins to really impact your cognitive performance. This is the downfall of most amateur rugby players. We can catch and pass when we’re fresh but once the legs stop working we struggle to reach for the passes at our feet and we start missing easy tackles. Rowing is an excellent way to train your brain to perform when your body is becoming fatigued. Because the rowing stroke is technical, but replicable, you need to just keep doing the same thing over and over again. This gets hard as you get tired, especially if you’re following the interval program below.

I usually notice my stroke starting to fall apart after about 60 seconds of a sprint. Luckily, this an excellent way to train your brain to takeover from your body. As fatigue hits you, you’ll need to breathe deeply, flood your body with nitric oxide and re-focus on maintaining your technique. The longer you can keep it together, the better your concentration under stress. This is exactly the kind of brain training you need for rugby games. If you head gets fuzzy, consider adding a cognitive enhancer to your pre-workout diet regime.

Interval Training

Don’t think for a second that because I’m endorsing it, rowing is easy. Rowing is an absolute bitch. I jumped on the ergo to do a session last month and after 45 seconds I had to stop because my chest was about to explode all over 24hr fitness. And interval training? Its even more brutal. Interval training is all about extending your maximum output range and anaerobic threshold while minimizing the time you need to recover. Intervals on the Ergo will kick your ass, but there’s no better cardio training for rugby season.

Rowing For Real

Throughout this article, we’re going to focus on using an Ergo in the gym, but you could easily apply the same training principles to either flat water or surf boat rowing. Rowing surf boats is a popular way for rugby players to stay fit through the long Australian summer. If you’re close to a beach in Australia, can I suggest finding a local surf club that will keep you away from the bow seat. If waves aren’t your thing, (or if you live in the US) checkout the find a rowing club feature on the US Rowing website. Be warned though, rowing real boats usually means waking up before the crack of dawn. If you’re not an early riser, stick with the ergo in the gym or you’ll be letting down the other guys in the crew when you hit the snooze button.

HOW TO ROW

Getting Started

We’ve all been that person on the ergo at the gym. We feel and probably look ridiculous. It’s Monday afternoon and all the bikes and ellipticals are taken. We don’t want to run because we’re self-conscious of ‘jiggling’ and so we find ourselves at the rower, trembling and scanning for another option. So you’ve sat yourself down. Now what? The best thing I can say is, don’t try and copy anyone you’ve seen before. They’re almost all doing it wrong.

Rowing is a full body exercise, which means you need to engage multiple muscle groups during both the push and the recovery. Please note, in rowing and in the programs described below ‘Recovery’ is different from ‘Rest’. If we break down the basic rowing technique into sections, the Recovery is all the time spent not at work. In other words, the time you spend sliding back towards the little display unit in front of you.

Basic Technique

The sections of the rowing stroke are as follows: Catch, Pull, Finish and Recovery. The Recovery is actually broken down even further into a process, but we’ll get to that later. For now let’s start at the beginning of the stroke and work through chronologically.

The Catch

This is the very start of the stroke. You’re as close to the display as you can get, the oar is wayyyyy back in the water, your head is up and you’re ready to start the pull. Positioning your body correctly at the catch is incredibly important in real rowing. This is the moment your oar dips into the water and any technical fault will be exacerbated at this point. The Catch on an Ergo is less critical because there’s little (although not zero) chance you’ll fall out of the boat if you mess up.

At the catch your hands should be as far forward as possible as if you were trying to literally touch the display in front of you. The trick is to get forward without your knees pushing apart. Maintain alignment in your legs so that your push will be powerful. Don’t sacrifice push position for distance forward. As your hamstrings and lower back become more flexible, you’ll be able to get further forward and increase your stroke length in the process.

The Pull

Think of the pull as the first half of the stroke where your legs are doing the vast majority of the work. At the catch you’ve engaged your quads and your back to begin the stroke. As you straighten your legs, there’s an inclination to start using your hands. Try not to do this. Your hands will be useful in the next step when we get to The Finish, but for now, you want your arms straight, your lower back engaged and your quads driving. During the pull, your upper body will remain at about 11:00 O’Clock. Your upper body should remain forward or neutral through most of the Pull. Don’t start laying back too early or you’ll lose the power in your legs.

The Finish

In this article, we’re focusing on a long stroke as per surf boat rowing. This stroke requires several changes in the position of your upper body relative to your legs. We will try to go from a forward position at the catch, to a neutral position through the pull and then we complete the stroke at a slight laying position for the finish. This is the same as in flat water rowing, except that we will be working with a greater range of motion both forward at the catch and back at the finish. If someone comes over to you in the gym and tells you you’re doing it wrong, just politely explain that they don’t know what they’re talking about and continue beating up on their split times.

The Finish for our stroke requires us to lay back at the end of the stroke. This may feel awkward at first but there is method to the madness. By laying back, you’re extending your stroke length, accelerating the boat through the water and then staying forward in the boat to let it run. This requires us to actively engage our entire core. We finish the stroke with our hands up and into our chest, try to hit yourself in the nipples while laying back at about a 30 degree angle.

The Recovery

This is where things get tricky for most amateurs who haven’t been shown how to row correctly. They can Pull fine, but their clumsy recovery puts them in a bad position for the next Catch. Your recovery goes in 3 stages. Say them with me here: Hands, Body, Knees.

  • Step 1, Hands. If you’ve finished your stroke correctly, your body should be back slightly and your hands should be up and into your chest. At this point, you need to get the oar out of the water and back to the start as quickly as possible without losing boat speed. The way to do this is release your hands quickly without a change in your body or leg position. Literally smack yourself in the chest and push your hands back out as if they were bouncing off a rubber wall. Once you’ve released your hands, you’ll need to actively engage your core to bring your body up.
  • Step 2, Body. With STRAIGHT legs, pull your torso up past horizontal and almost into your original Catch position. Again, this will feel awkward at first but there is a reason for doing it in this way. We want the oar to be well past our knees before we ‘break’ them. In real rowing, if you break your knees too early, they’ll hit your hands, the oar will go in the water and you might end up ‘Crabbing’ (losing the oar over your head because of the boat speed). On the Ergo, breaking your knees too early will again mean that they hit your hands and cause the cable to bounce.
  • Step 3, Knees. Now that you’ve extended your hands beyond your knees, you can start to move forward on your seat. As your knees break, keep them in alignment, don’t let them ‘fall out’ to the sides and away from your strong narrow squat position. This step shouldn’t be fast. You’re not racing down the seat to get into the Catch position. The fast part of the recovery should already have been completed by your hands and body. As your knees break, this is the time to relax, exhale and prepare to tense your body for the Catch.

Leg Drive

One of the biggest pitfalls for amateur rowers is that they hear ‘Rowing is a full body exercise’ and start to think this means both your upper and lower body take an equal share of the workload. This is not accurate. While your upper body is engaged through the Catch and Pull, your legs are doing the lions share of the work to accelerate the boat through the water. Your traps and upper back will be finishing the stroke and at the end of a session your lats might even be wrecked. But this is misleading. Focusing on Leg Drive is a sure,

Stroke Length

In surf boats, we row long. Before the catch we come as far forward as possible, reaching until our whole bodies are coiled like a spring. Before the recovery we lay as far back as possible with our hands up and into our chests, backs almost flat. This technique is different to flat water rowing which has a shorter stroke length at both ends. The shorter stroke used in the olympics allows for a higher stroke rate with less recovery time. I suggest that rugby players should try to use a long stroke like surf boat rowing for a few reasons; the range of motion is good for your flexibility, reaching forward during recovery and laying back before it will stretch your hamstrings and activate your core, this forces your abdominals and lower back to help your larger muscle groups. Long strokes will hurt the first time but you’ll see rapid improvements in functional core strength as a result.

Stroke Rate

Most rowers take too many strokes because each individual stroke is too short. As you make your stroke longer by laying back and coming all the way forward, your stroke rate should naturally decrease as a result. But don’t confuse Stroke Rate with Boat Speed. Its not only possible, but preferable to try and maintain your Boat Speed (measured in time / 500m) while reducing your Stroke Rate (measured in Strokes / min). In the programs below you’ll see a range of Stroke Rates outlined. If you’ve tried rowing before reading this article and ultimately didn’t enjoy it, I would guess that this is because your Stroke Rate was too high and your Stroke Length was too low.

Taking longer strokes while maintaining your Boat Speed will require a more powerful Pull. That’s your goal in rowing. Make your Pull as strong and long as possible. That’s why we Catch early, Finish back and Pull up high and Leg Drive to the max. Put it altogether and you have a powerful stroke that drives your boat through the water.

Recovery Speed

We’ve talked about Recovery Technique, now let’s very quickly cover Recovery Speed. If you’ve broken down the steps correctly, you should find that your recovery feels quite slow but is actually quite fast. Why does it feels slow? Because only Step #3 in the process (remember; Hands, Body, Knees) involves moving on the Ergo seat. If your stroke is long, it will feel like your recovery takes a long time to get going because most of it is your Hands and Body. This is normal, try to maintain that feeling. If you find your recovery starts to FEEL faster, this is probably because your stroke is getting shorter. At all times your recovery should be fluid and smooth. Don’t jerk up to your sitting position or race down the seat to the Catch. Staying calm and controlled with your movements and breathing will make your next stroke better.

Watch The Cable

Before you sit down on an ergo, I suggest creepily observing someone else on it from a distance. Don’t film them or anything, that’d be too weird. But keep a careful eye on the cable of the ergo.The easiest way to tell a newbie from a seasoned rower is to watch for up and down movement in the cable. Whether your stroke is long or short, if its working, the cable shouldn’t bounce vertically at all. You’d be remiss for thinking this is all a function of your hands. It seems obvious that this would be the case since you’re holding onto a handle connected to the cable. But in fact, this is a function of recovering too fast with the legs before the hands have had time to release.

You’ll usually see and hear a bouncing cable from someone who hasn’t been shown how to recover through their stroke correctly, but its also a function of fatigue for seasoned rowers. As we get tired, we want to get to that next stroke faster and avoid all that difficult core work during the start of the recovery. This results in us forgetting to recover our hands before our legs. The knees come up too quickly and your hands need to rise in turn to get over them. When you’re fresh, keeping a horizontal cable is easy. When you get tired, your tendency will be to start bouncing it. Stop cheating. Slow your stroke down. Focus on recovering fully with your hands first and you’ll straighten out that cable in turn.

BEGINNERS ROWING PROGRAM – 20 min

The beginners rowing program should focus on technique above all else. If you’re looking for high-intensity intervals, checkout the Advanced program below as that’s likely more your speed. Beginners should start with 2 x 20 min sessions per week for 4 weeks. The program below does not increase in length through the 4 weeks. Instead, we try to achieve gains by altering the critical variable in rowing Stroke Rate.

Week 1 – Day 1 & 2

2 min warm up (26 rpm)
5 min pace boat (24 rpm)
1 min rest
5 min pace boat (24 rpm)
1 min rest
5 min pace boat (24 rpm)
1 min cool down (26 rpm)

Week 2 – Day 1 & 2

2 min warm up (26 rpm)
5 min pace boat (23 rpm)
1 min rest
5 min pace boat (23 rpm)
1 min rest
5 min pace boat (23 rpm)
1 min cool down (26 rpm)

Week 3 – Day 1 & 2

2 min warm up (26 rpm)
5 min pace boat (22 rpm)
1 min rest
5 min pace boat (22 rpm)
1 min rest
5 min pace boat (22 rpm)
1 min cool down (26 rpm)

Week 4 – Day 1 & 2

2 min warm up (26 rpm)
5 min pace boat (21 rpm)
1 min rest
5 min pace boat (21 rpm)
1 min rest
5 min pace boat (21 rpm)
1 min cool down (26 rpm)

Don’t Get Faster

Notice in the program above that we haven’t mentioned Rowing Speed at all. That’s because our program doesn’t focus on making you row faster. Increasing your Speed is not the goal here. Instead, we’re simply trying to maintain it. The Speed at which you’ll be rowing is measured as Time Vs 500m. That is, at your current speed, how long will it take you to travel 500m? For beginners, you’ll probably start out with a warm up speed of around 2:30 – 2 minutes and 30 seconds to travel 500m. The better you get, the lower your time per 500m will drop.

When performing our Beginners Program, we suggest trying to maintain your speed. Don’t get faster. Don’t get slower. Pick a speed that works for you. If 2:30 is your warm up speed, try to do your intervals at 2:10 say. This will be different for everyone and its not something we can readily anticipate. But remember, whatever speed you pick, you’re going to maintain this for the whole month so try to pick something challenging. Note* your speed will likely increase naturally through the month as you get better, don’t stress about that, just adjust your expectations.

Reps Per Minute (Stroke Rate)

Here’s where things get interesting. Since you’re not trying to row faster, the only variable we can tweak for gains is your Reps Per Minute, known in rowing as Stroke Rate. Stoke Rate is a common metric used in rowing and features prominently on the Concept 2 which is the machine you’ll find in most gyms. For amateur rowers, an increasing stroke rate is actually a warning sign. As RPM goes up, your technique is likely going to shit and your stroke is shortening. Those are bad things.

The Beginners program above is designed to make you a more efficient athlete by challenging you to increase the power of each individual stroke you take. DO NOT TAKE MORE STROKES IN ORDER TO MAINTAIN YOUR SPEED. Instead, focus on maximizing the power of each stroke and maintaining this through each 5 minutes of effort. Efficiency is the name of the game here. Keep your stroke long. Keep your recovery long. Breathe in deeply during recovery and blow out powerfully as you pull.

ADVANCED ROWING PROGRAM – 40 min

The advanced program is all about intervals. How fast can you sprint 250m – 500m? Then, how soon can you do it again? 500m Rowing Sprints are a lot like 400m Running Sprints. They burn and you’ll hate them. They also take some building up to so we actually want to start of with 250m Sprints for the first few weeks. This program assumes that you’ve got some basic rowing under your belt. Perhaps you’ve completed the Beginners Program, of you’ve

Week 1 – Day 1 & 2

2 min warm up]
6 x 250m Sprint
2:00 rest / sprint
2 min cool down

Week 2 – Day 1 & 2

2 min warm up
7 x 250m Sprint
1:45 rest / sprint
2 min cool down

Week 3 – Day 1 & 2

2 min warm up
8 x 250m Sprint
1:30 rest / sprint
2 min cool down

Week 4 – Day 1 & 2

2 min warm up
1 x 500m Sprint
3:00 rest / sprint
5 x 250m Sprint
1:30 rest / sprint
2 min cool down

Week 5 – Day 1 & 2

2 min warm up
2 x 500m Sprint
2:45 rest / sprint
6 x 250m Sprint
1:15 rest / sprint
2 min cool down

Week 6 – Day 1 & 2

2 min warm up
3 x 500m Sprint
2:30 rest / sprint
5 x 250m Sprint
1:15 rest / sprint
2 min cool down

Week 7 – Day 1 & 2

2 min warm up
4 x 500m Sprint
2:15 rest / sprint
4 x 250m Sprint
1:00 rest / sprint
2 min cool down

Week 8 – Day 1 & 2

2 min warm up
5 x 500m Sprint
2:00 rest / sprint
3 x 250m Sprint
1:00 rest / sprint
2 min cool down

STILL don’t get faster

There will be a temptation when you start the advanced program, or perhaps when you get about 1/2 way through it, to start speeding up your stroke and really pushing hard at the start of your sprints. Don’t do this. 5 x 500m might not sound like much, but when you consider the total output and ratio of work to rest its plenty, please trust me. Again, the challenge is not to get your stroke rate up to 28 or 30 RPM, it will be to keep it down towards 21 or 22 while still maintaining the same speed through each sprint. We’re trying to maximize the power of each stroke, not cram in 100 shitty strokes and call it a day.

Remember your legs

Whenever I find myself getting fatigued and losing rhythm, I try to focus on breathing and driving hardest with my legs. Perhaps because rowing requires us to do something with our hands people fall into the trap of doing everything with their hands. Your legs are what make this exercise humm. Yes, you need to be pulling high into your chest. Yes, you need to be recovering quickly with your torso. But nothing beats a powerful push from your quads. As we get tired we forget this and shorten our stroke by not extending our legs fully. As you fatigue, remember to give it everything with your legs. This will allow for the acceleration through the stroke and will get your hands moving automatically.

Questions, Comments & Feedback

We would love to hear from you. If you’ve started your cardio training for rugby season already, please feel free to get in touch with us and let us know how its working out. Also, do your knees, ankles and back feel better? You’re welcome.