Indoor Rowing Workouts That Boost Your Vo2 Max

Boosting your VO2 max for rowing on the erg is absolutely essential if you want to score big in a 2k test. Good 2k erg times depend heavily on having a good VO2 max because during a 2k erg test, you are working near your VO2 max. Sometimes even above.

Imagine being able to boost that VO2 max. How much of a difference would it make to your erg scores?

Let’s have a look.

VO2 max is a measure of your ability to use oxygen. The greater your ability to use oxygen during a 2k erg test, the harder you can pull. While a lot of studies by sports scientists say that it is largely fixed by genetics, they still say that it can be increased with training.

How you can boost it – starting today.

You need to aim to train at an intensity greater than 85% of your VO2 max (92% of your Max heart rate). This training requires a good level of mental toughness and you… must be prepared to suffer to make gains.

Session #1.

  • 30 seconds hard, 30 seconds medium
  • Row at or slightly faster than your 2k pace for 30 seconds.
  • Then for the 30 seconds medium try to pull 75% of the distance you rowed in the work phase.
  • So for example say you rowed a hard 150 meters for 30 seconds holding 1:40. You should aim to row around 112 meters in the medium which is in this example is around 2:14
  • Repeat until you fade or drop more that 2 seconds below your target 2k power.

Session #2

  • 1 minute hard, 1 minute medium.

This is similar to the 30 seconds workout except you change the work and rest times up to 1 minute.

Session # 3

Classic 5 x 3 minutes hard, 3 minutes light.

  • 3 minutes rowing slightly below slower than your 2k pace (remember the goal is to be in a zone above 85% of your VO2 max – which is roughly 92% of max heart rate)
  • The 3 minute recovery is different to the other rowing intervals. This time you should only float and keep moving – you should only attempt to keep active and row light.

It makes sense to begin with the shorter VO2 max rowing intervals and progress to the longer 3 minute ergs. Also, when you begin on the classic 5 x 3 you should start with 3 x 3 minutes. Then over a few weeks change to to 4 x 3 before graduating to the hardcore to 5 x 3 minutes. This will help you develop naturally and prevent an erg meltdown in your workouts.

The classic (5×3 minute) Vo2 Max workout should be used mainly in the early racing season and towards the end of the season. For example you could do a block of heavy VO2 max training 2 times per week for 3 – 4 weeks before your first big race. You would then continue your normal rowing training sessions and reintroduce a short block of VO2 max training 2 – 3 weeks before the most important race of your season.

But you should consider that one of the above sessions may suit you more than the others. You might find that you get better, faster results with say the 1 minute rowing intervals.

Ensure you play around with it and try discover what is right for you. Think also about what session you need and what areas you need to work on. Obviously the shorter intervals require more power but less long endurance and mental demands.


It’s easy to forget that good erg and rowing technique is as important as physical training.

The 30 seconds hard intervals will require you to spend a few strokes getting the fan moving to 2k power. Which is a much greater percentage than you spend getting the fan moving during the 3 minute intervals. Plus if you did 12 x 1 minute intervals, you would have had to move the fan hard (from the start) 12 times (as opposed to 5 times for the classic intervals).

Have this in mind when you are selecting what workout to do. But the bottom line according to the sports scientists is that the classic session still gives the most gains.

Good erg times come with consistent and patient training. Boosting your rowing VO2 max on the erg is a great controllable way to make your goals possible. But be warned, just like the race winning rowing workouts this type of training is extreme to say the least.



  1. Hi – here’s the dilemma for me. I’ve just got tested with the Bruce test for total VO2, and even without getting to the very end, my doc switched me off at 13 minutes, which gives me a VO2 of 53. (I’m 42yo, female, 61-61.4Kg). In theory, my erg score should be 7’30”, but I the fastest I’ve ever pulled is 8’14” (!). Is this just strength I am missing, or what else come into play? I guess technique is one, but I am not completely bad (or so I am told). So what’s the best training to get to that time? Thx.

  2. Hi Anna,

    It could be a few things:

    Your power per stroke (can be fixed using low rate, high power pieces)

    Your Power Application (read my article

    The Machine could be wrong…

    Please persevere (in finding your problem (if any) and aiming for your score) I was once told I had the VO2 of a Fish … but still, years of hard training later, I managed to go well sub 6:20.

  3. How many times per day and per week should these be done?
    My son is in the middle of winter training. Is there harm in doing each session once a day 6 days a week?

    If only one session can be, which I recommended?

  4. hi- i have a bit of difficulty in understanding the schedule.. how do i spread this throughout the season?? like which VO2 max session should i do in the beginning and what should i do close to an important race??

  5. Excuse me may I ask how many sessions a day and how many days a week would help me to reach the maximum effectiveness? I am an experienced rower.

    • Brandy Mulligan

      March 6, 2013 at 10:39 pm


      If you are experienced I would say you should do as many sessions as possible given a) your time constraints (work, school etc) 6) your goals c)your recovery rate and strategy; d)how effectively you are training.

      Most good club rowers do 7-10 sessions per week. Beginners do 2-5 and In between probably do 6 or so sessions a week.

      Please don’t focus on number of sessions per week to indicate success or progress. Think about how well you train each rowing session and whether you are making progress.

      Always introduce extra sessions one by one. Try one extra for a few weeks to measure if there is a difference. Once you adapt, add another in. The aim is to progress without getting too tired, over-trained or injured or just plain bored with rowing.

      The best rowers can judge this for themselves. So go for it, I hope you achieve your goals!


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