Strength training for sailors

There are many paths to the goal of getting stronger for sailing, and I give a few examples below, but above all, follow these five principles and you will make great gains:

1Overload: You must gradually work the muscles harder to get stronger. Gradually add to your training – weight, number of repetitions, variety and/or number of sets. By gradually, I mean no more than 10% addition to your last session in terms of weights/reps – anymore and there’s greater risk of injury.

2Overhaul: Every four weeks or so
you should revamp your program to give the muscles completely new exercises and loads. Muscles like to
be challenged and stimulated in different ways.

3Specificity: Your strength gains are specific to the movements and speed of movement you do in training. If you need high arm speed and moderate strength to pull up a kite, then your gym training should reflect this movement speed and muscle groups used.

4Progression & periodisation: Sequence training so that you start with a period of building muscles, then move towards very sport-specific exercises, loads and movement speeds.
As an example, if you have, say, six months to develop your strength, begin with a build-up month of three sets of 12-15 reps, followed by two months of gradually heavier weights and fewer reps to get you really strong (eg three to four sets of 6-8 reps). Then turn towards endurance with a month of three sets of 15-25 followed with a month of circuit-style exercises (40s on, 20s off). Finish with a month of pure strength/endurance work – higher reps of very sailing-specific exercises (see below for examples).

5Recovery: Allow 48 hours between strength sessions. So, for general purpose strength gains, you wouldd train three times a week.

In addition, these are the two key things that are especially important when weight training for sailing:

1 Include exercises that improve posture, balance, joint stability, abdominals and back muscles. These ‘ab and back’ exercises are nice to do at the start of a session, rather than the end, so they don’t get left out and they will prime those muscles to work during the session.

2 Be prepared to modify and fine tune your training each day to allow for not feeling 100%, persistent windy weather (meaning harder on-water training) and a desire to add variety.


20 Key Strength Training Exercises

I recommend these exercises as fundamental parts of a sailors’ weight training. A few more will be needed to round out a session, especially abdominal/back/core exercises, but these are mainstays.

My Sailing Fitness and Training book
has information on how to put these
exercises together into a weight training session for sailing.


Hiking Sailors

1Bench pull Lie on a high bench with a barbell underneath. Pull the bar up to touch under the bench and then back to the ground. Excellent and safe isolation of the muscles of the arms, shoulders and back that pull ropes.

2Swiss Ball leg extensions Sit on a swiss ball, roughly in a hiking position, with your toes under something heavy. Straighten your legs at the knees, lifting your trunk. Lean back for a little more resistance. The way to do 60 reps is to do 15-20 in a row, followed by a 5-10s rest, then 15-20 more, etc. A safer and more specific alternative to a leg press.

3Chin-ups with towel Sling a towel over a chin up bar, grip it firmly and do chin-ups. Slightly harder than a normal chin-up, the towel will also help develop your grip strength.

4Swiss ball leg curls Lying on the ground with a Swiss ball under the heels, straighten your body, lifting your bottom up (shoulders and head remain on ground) and then draw the ball in towards your bottom by bending your knees. Leg curls work the opposite side of the body and provide balance in muscle group development.

5Back extension Bend over a swiss ball with feet anchored, face down. Slowly raise your trunk so that your body is flat, not above, and lower. A top choice of the many back exercises that sailors need to do to maintain back stability, strength and health.

6Supine bridge Laying on the floor with knees bent up. Lift your bottom so it’s inline with your shoulders and knees. Have two feet on the ground to start with, then progress to the same with one foot planted. Make sure your hips stay level.


Trapezing Sailors

1Chin-ups with towel As per hiking sailors.

2Upright row Standing, pull a barbell up to just below shoulder height, aiming to keep your elbows level. Your legs should be comfortably bent. Avoid swinging your trunk. Hands should be about shoulder width apart on the bar. The upright row works the muscles you would use when handling a sheet flat out on trapeze.

3Three-way shoulder work Lie flat and face down on a high bench with a couple of relatively light weights in each hand. Keeping the arms straight, swing them forward, like superman, then out to the side, like you’re trying to fly, then behind you, like you’re skiing. Your hands should reach bench height at the top of each rep. Great exercise for the large shoulder muscles that stabilise and move the arms.

4Skipping Good for developing
the calves to help you extend fully
on trapeze.

5Side bend Lay on the floor, on your side, leaning on an elbow, with your feet up on a Swiss Ball. You can use your left hand to balance while lifting your whole body off the floor. Raise and lower your hip area, so that your body does side bends up and down at the waist. A tough stability and abdominal exercise that will improve your core stability.



1Swiss ball squats Put a swiss ball inside the cage of a smith machine/squat rack. Hold onto the bars of the machine or a barbell which is racked in the machine and carefully step onto the ball. Take your time to stand fully upright. When ready, still with a light grip of the machine for balance, slowly and surely perform normal, unweighted, squats. It’s fairly gentle work for the quads and gluteus but challenging for your lower legs and feet to maintain balance. Eventually you won’t need anything to help balance.

2Body pulls Lie under a bar about 1m off the ground and put your feet on a Swiss ball. With hands wider than shoulder width on the bar, pull your chest up to touch the bar and lower until arms are straight. A simple, but specific exercise for the arms and back, also training balance through the use of the ball.

3Forearm plank Lay face down on a mat. Support your body by your elbows and toes. Hold that position, body as flat as possible, for 30s+, thinking ‘pull my belly button towards my spine’. Board sailors need lots of core stability and this one encourages a strong, stable position.

4Scapular retraction Set yourself up on a seated rowing machine. The action starts with you gripping the handles, arms straight, then squeeze the shoulder blades (scapular) together firmly while keeping the arms straight. Finish the repetition by letting the shoulders forward again. Excellent shoulder stability exercise that will help make your pumping more powerful.

5Split squat With a dumbbell in each hand, step forward about 50cm with one foot and regain your balance there. Carefully lower your weight straight down by bending at both knees and drive back up. Change legs. This exercises your balance a little more and requires uneven force from each leg, as often happens sailboarding.



1Push up on Swiss Ball Face down, arms straight, hands are spread wide as possible on the Swiss Ball, toes are on the ground and the body is straight. Ease your chest down towards the ball and then drive back up. Avoid bouncing your chest off the ball! A great chest and shoulder stability exercise.

2Bench pull
As per ‘Hikers’.

3Reverse back extension Using a back extension machine or similar, get on it the other way around, so that our legs can be raised (to horizontal) and lowered. A handy exercise to develop your neglected back and hammies.

4Bent leg raise Lay on the floor on your back with knees bent. Tighten your abdominals (draw your belly button towards your spine), then slowly lift one leg off the floor and hold 10sec. Breathe normally, maintain abdominal control and don’t allow your lower back to arch further. Rest, then change legs. A good, well controlled abdominal exercise.

5Three-way shoulder work As per 'Trapezers'.

By the way, the best results from strength training seem to come when a program is written out, combined with a firm resolve to stick to it! 

– Michael Blackburn

M.O.S.S Australia
M.O.S.S Australia
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