Rowing is a sport for all levels. The basic technique is easy to learn, and easy to get you started. Rowing as a sport is gentle on the joints and therefore suitable for all shapes and sizes. A great sport to get started with exercising.

rowing strokes per minute

Rowing strokes per minute as intensity indicator


Rowing strokes per minute or SPMs play a central role in how our Rojabo rowing training programs are set up, tied together with intensities and efficiency. On the rowing machine, as well as on water, the strokes per minute are the central tool for setting the intensity to any workout.

But why at all an intensity indicator?

If the goal is to keep up general fitness and ‘just’ exercise then it’s not so important. But when there is interest to improve and be faster, then it’s good to find a plan that works. Knowing what resources you have to work with to start with, what to improve, a plan for what to do, and a proven idea on how to get where you want to be, can save you from disappointment.

The risks are:

  • Training too hard can result in overtraining,
  • Not training enough, that you don’t get into the required shape,
  • Waste time training wrong qualities.

So what is the right way? The truth is that many ways bring great results. We say, let the results (all the medals achieved) speak for themselves.

For rowing, we believe using strokes per minute as an indicator for intensity is the right way. In this article, we will go through what we have found to work for us and why we stand by our ideas.

In rowing, strokes per minute are the most important Intensity Indicator

Our training programs are divided into five categories, A, B, C, D, and E, and they are described below.


rowing strokes per minute for workout categories


The category indicates the type of rowing training you will be performing and the strokes per minute set the stage for the intensities.

However, the strokes per minute alone will not define the intensity of the workout. The key tool for Rojabo Rowing training programs is the Power Guide, the rower’s individual guide to how much they need to push at different strokes per minute for the given duration or distance.


The Rojabo Power Guide tells you what you need to push at different stroke rates

That said, we get many questions regarding what heart rate you should keep for different workout categories. For our workout categories, we do not define thresholds for % of max heart rate. Read along and we will tell you why.

Instead, we use the Power Guide

The Power Guide tells each rower what they need to push at different stroke rates.

This way the rower keeps the intended ‘natural’ pressure for the given interval, not letting the heart rate restrict the pressure, the rate they push.

Let’s dig into the comparison of using heart rate vs. strokes per minute as intensity indicators.

Example 1, when using heart rate as an intensity indicator

The chart below shows what happens to rowers’ watts when they regulate their pressure to keep to a certain heart rate threshold.

To start with, there are many factors that daily can affect a person’s heart rate such as sleep, nutrition, mood, stress, an argument with a friend or person at work, the position of the moon, and other factors etc. Some of them which we don’t have any control over and can have an effect on what happens with a rowers heart rate.

As an example, we use the workout is 8 x 2′ @SPM 28 /1’ rest, a category B workout but as there are many starts, also a bit of category A from the Anaerobic starts for each interval.

After a warm-up, the rower starts the workout. Depending on the rower’s fitness level, it in can take anywhere from X to Y strokes to reach the intended heart rate intensity and settle at a steady flow. In the next piece, the acceleration does not need to be that aggressive as the heart rate is already up as the rest is only 1 minute.

As the rower progresses through the workout, they get more and more tired, meaning they reach the top of the heart rate threshold quicker. In order to keep the heart rate at the intended level, the rower needs to reduce the pressure, push fewer watts in the last pieces to be able to successfully complete the workout. The blue pillars show how average watts decrease throughout the workout.


Heart rate as intensity indicator

In our mind, each workout needs to be efficient and prepare rowers eventually for a race-like situation, where you keep a steady speed and maybe sprint a bit at the end. You do not reduce pressure at the end of a race, and therefore we don’t practice that kind of behavior, even during our training. A team training together in a boat, following their heart rates, would need to reduce the pressure, making the boat go slower towards the end of the workout. Practicing that kind of behavior doesn’t make sense in our minds.

Example 2, when using strokes per minute as intensity indicator

In the Rojabo approach, we set the work per stroke (rowing watts and pace) as fixed for the strokes per minute given in the workout for each interval or distance. The rower can reach the target pressure and wattage in just a few strokes, start working to keep the speed constant. Let the heart rate slowly rise as it naturally would being lower at the start of the piece and raising when becoming tired, just like in a race. See graph in example 2.


Rowing strokes per minute as intensity indicator

In our findings, rowers with a competitive drive feel that this is a more natural way to complete a workout, work to maintain the pressure. Often on the erg, teams row side by side and it is just natural to help each other keep the assigned pace.

If the Power Efficiency Test for the Power Guide is completed correctly, then this takes care of keeping the intensity level of the workout as intended for each athlete.

It is more natural to practice keeping a constant pace than reducing it

Regarding heart rate monitors, we think it is a fantastic tool to learn how your body reacts to different stimulations. How your body reacts, recovers, and for paying attention to sufficient restitution to avoid overtraining. We try to teach our rowers to be critical, feel what they are doing, and learn to analyze what works for them. The path to success is not a linear equation, unfortunately.

Both for indoor rowing on a machine and on-water rowing

Using the strokes per minute to define intensity applies for both rowing on the indoor rowing machine as on water, you should not practice slipping the pressure towards the end of the race but instead practice maintaining the pressure constant with is assigned with the strokes per minute given in the Power Guide. We realize that it is not possible to measure accurate pressure rowing in a team boat, here our advice is to keep the pressure so it feels natural and firm while there is flow and power in the boat.

Beginner to rowing

The fantastic thing about being new to rowing is the rapid improvement you get to experience. Learning how to keep a steady control over your pressure when raising the strokes per minute you row in. All the small things you learn make a big difference in your rowing speed. Do enjoy this time.

For beginners getting used to rowing, having a Power Guide to follow makes it a lot easier to focus on what matters, rowing efficiently. You have two simple fixed parameters that you can fairly easily control. The strokes per minute and your watts. Trying to learn how to control the rowing power to fit a heart rate threshold can end up a tricky roller coaster workout, where you first push way too much and then need to reduce the pressure making the rowing speed fluctuate.

Row with constant speed and good flow

No matter if you are new to rowing or with years of experience, aiming for racing or just maintaining general fitness, learning to keep a steady pressure throughout the workout is the most efficient way to row and the most optimal way to train.

Rowing watts

Rowing watts – the more accurate power of rowing


Rowing machine and watts, there can be mixed feelings using watts as units to measure your rowing capacity or power on the ergometer. In rowing, the average pace per 500 meters is the most commonly used unit to measure how fast you row. It makes sense, especially for rowers who race the regular distances and can relate to the units. How long will it take for them to row 500 meters?

On rowing machines today, there are three ways to measure capacity, power, or what you “burn” on the ergometer. The average pace for 500 meters, calories burnt, and last what we use are for our rowing training programs are watts. We will not discuss the calories option because it is not relevant for measuring speed or power in our case. At Rojabo we choose to measure rowing power in watts as it gives a more precise measurement of what you can pull on an ergometer and it is a more accurate basis for our calculations.

When a +/- 1-second fluctuation gives a difference of 11,2 seconds – is that precise enough?

What do we mean as more precise? We use an example to help clarify what we mean. When rowing on the ergometer with settings showing the average pace per 500 meters, the monitor shows the rower the actual speed only down to seconds, not tenths of seconds. So if the rower is aiming to keep a pace of 1.51 allowing a fluctuation of +/-1 sec, this means keeping the speed anywhere between 1.50 and 1.52. If the monitor could show the tenths of seconds, the actual speed can be anywhere from 1.50,1 to 1.52,9. In rowing watts that translates to 262.2 – 243.2. Now a fluctuation of 2 seconds does not sound like much but in watts, it translates to 19 watts on a rowing machine.

To demonstrate what 19 rowing watts can mean in a 2K race, here are some numbers. Rowing 2K at a pace of 1.52,9 gives a time of 7.31,6. Rowing it at a pace of 1.50.1 gives a time of 7.20,4.

This gives a difference of 11,2 seconds, a good three boat length on water.

Learn to feel what you are doing

One aim for our rowing training programs is to teach rowers at all levels to be better at optimizing their pressure at different stroke rates, by following what is given in the Power Guide. When you are able to keep a steady and constant pressure, you row more economically.

Many generic workout providers leave out requirements for the power, how much you need to push. It make sense as it is very personal for every person. But knowing what you need to push is actually one of the most important factors if you want to complete the workout as it is intended. Let’s say that our Power Guide advises a rower a steady-state rowing workout in SPM 22 at a pace of 1.59 or watts 203, it can be just a bit tempting to put just a bit more pressure into each stroke, but this can change the nature of the workout from being a steady-state endurance workout to be a workout training aerobic capacity. Now if this is consequently done for all workouts, then the rower will lack the endurance workouts needed to build a base for a stronger physical capacity.

This is irrelevant for most who train to get their heart pumping and get some exercise, but this is important for a rower training with a purpose to get selected on a team or win a race, this can be the key to making it or breaking it in on the final meters of the race. So using watts on a rowing machine gives a more accurate picture of actual pressure fluctuation. In the start, it can be annoying to look at the watts fluctuating on the monitor, but in the long run, it will help learn to be more stable with the pressure and be better at getting a feeling of what you are doing.

Rowing on the water with good technique, when varying your pressure, you should feel it in the flow of the boat. In a team boat, especially a double, if the pressure of one rower varies a lot, the partner will be able to feel this and it can disturb the flow of the boat.

If we use the light bulb example, you must have seen what happens when a light bulb is not getting enough constant electricity to power it up, it starts flickering. Well, the same happens with the speed of your boat if you can’t keep it constant. And every small, slight change in speed requires more energy to get the pace up and less energy if you can maintain it steady.

Good watts for rowing

So using watts is good. Using watts for rowing can help rowers become very accurate in controlling their pressure, how much they push on each stroke for a given workout. One of our key findings, when we were developing the method behind our Rojabo rowing training programs, was to crack the code in how to get athletes to feel what they are doing. This is not really something you can tell them, they need to understand the purpose of the workout, feel the difference between what the different types of workouts have on them, and how the different types of workouts when completed is intended to make them feel. The easy part is to do the work, 20min in SPM 24, but when we introduced the Power Guide with the intended pressures in rowing watts, we had a totally different precision tool to discuss the intended intensity of the workout with our athletes. 20min in SPM 24 with a pressure of 225 watts and no getting tempted by the stronger guy sitting next to you.

What Watts should you aim for?

Rojabo generates a detailed Power guide for each rower expressed in rowing watts (target watts) as well as average pace (target split). The Power Guide is your guide for how to complete the workouts, at what pressure to row at different SPM.


The Rojabo Power Guide tells you what you need to push at different stroke rates

We make every stroke count, do them properly.

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