Lightweight rowing (abbreviated Lwt or Lt) is a category of rowing where limits are placed on the maximum body weight of competitors. One might think the rationale would be that heavier people have a disadvantage but the actual rationale is that larger, taller people have a significant physical advantage and tend to dominate the sport. A lightweight category gives average sized individuals the ability to compete against their peers, but rowers who are tall and thin generally have an advantage over those who are shorter but broader. According to the International Rowing Federation (FISA), this weight category was introduced "to encourage more universality in the sport especially among nations with less statuesque people".
Although lightweight rowing is the counterpart to heavyweight rowing, it is a fairly different sport, relying much more on ideal body composition and technique than raw strength.
At international level for crew boats the limits are:
- Men: Crew average 70 kg (154.3 lb / 11 st 0.3 lb) - no rower over 72.5 kg (159.8 lb / 11 st 5.8 lb)
- Women: Crew average 57 kg (125.6 lb / 8 st 13 lb) - no rower over 59 kg (130.0 lb / 9 st 4 lb)
For single sculls the limits are 72.5 kg and 59 kg for men and women respectively.
The first lightweight events were added to the World Championships in 1974 for men and 1985 for women. Lightweight rowing was added to the Olympics in 1996 but this came under threat in 2002 when the Programme Commission of the IOC recommended that, outside combat sports and weightlifting, there should not be weight category events. The executive board overturned this recommendation and lightweight rowing continues at the Olympics.
There are two Olympic-class lightweight events: men's double sculls and women's double sculls. The world championships include lightweights' events for all classes of crew, and in Olympic years a reduced world championship regatta includes all events that are not represented at the Olympics. Up until 2016 the men's lightweight four was an event offered at the Olympics until FISA controversially removed the event to offer the women's open coxless fours increased equality between the genders. Although separate from the IOC the argument still stands on the events offered like (rhythmic gymnastics and synchronised swimming) both independent female events.
Top lightweight crew teams can go faster than heavyweight teams. For example, at the 2010 Head of the Charles Regatta, the winner of the lightweight eights men's race (Princeton University) would have placed fifth in the Championship Eights men's race, ahead of Deutscher Ruder Verband (a U-23 German team), Cornell University, University of Wisconsin and Brown University. At the 2012 Head of the Charles Regatta, the winning time in the lightweight eights men's race of 14:35.71 (Harvard) was faster than the winning time in the Championship Eights men's race (14:37.27, University of Washington). At the 2013 Princeton Chase Regatta, the lightweight team from Yale University rowed the fastest time of the day, posting a score faster than any heavyweight crew at the regatta, including those from Princeton University, Northeastern University, and the University of California-Berkeley. However head racing, as at the Head of the Charles and Princeton Chase, is not an ideal format to compare the relative speed of lightweight and heavyweight crews. Factors such as a winding course, a coxswain's steering skill, and boat traffic while attempting to pass slower boats, can significantly impact finishing times as does the overall format of racing against the clock instead of each other. Sprint racing, which is side-by-side on a straight, 2000m course is a better format for gauging relative speed of lightweight and heavyweight crews. On the Concept2 ergometer, for every single age group from 17-18 up through 95-99, the men's heavyweight world record is significantly faster than the lightweight men's world record.. In the List of world records in rowing on the water for each type of boat, the heavyweight record is significantly faster than the lightweight world record.
While the very fastest lightweight crews will be faster than many mid- and lower-level heavyweight crews, as a general rule the fastest lightweight crews will not be faster than the fastest heavyweight crews.
In the United Kingdom, lightweight rowing is less prevalent than in the US. At university rowing level, lightweight categories are offered at BUCS events, such as the BUCS Regatta, alongside openweight categories. In addition, both the men's and women's lightweight boat races are contended between the universities of Oxford and Cambridge as part of the Henley Boat Races. In club rowing, regattas less often offer lightweight events. An exception is the Henley Women's Regatta where there are numerous lightweight categories. At the Henley Royal Regatta lightweight rowers are expected to compete in openweight categories.
At the collegiate level, many larger American Division I schools can field between one and three lightweight boats for both men and women. In recent years the practice of juniors training down to a weight has been questioned, as low BMI has been linked to health and growth problems in adolescents.
In both lightweight men's and lightweight women's collegiate rowing, competition at the school-funded 'Varsity' level is small but fiercely competitive; the de facto national championship for both disciplines is the Intercollegiate Rowing Association Championship held each year on Mercer Lake in New Jersey on the weekend after Memorial Day. However, several club rowing programs (e.g., California Lightweight Crew), which receive minimal or no school funding, consistently field lightweight crews that compete for Division III equivalent titles at the Dad Vail Regatta on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, and, most recently, at the American Collegiate Rowing Association Championships.
In the US collegiate category, the following limits apply as of spring 2011:
- Freshman men: no rower over 160 lb.
- Varsity men: no rower over 160 lb.
- Varsity women: no rower over 130 lb.
In the Junior category, the following limits apply as of spring 2013:
- Men: no rower over 150 lb.
- Women: no rower over 130 lb.
- Guerin, Andrew; Foster, Margot. "Australian Rowing at the World Senior Championships". Rowingmuseum. Retrieved 10 December 2016.
- "Rules of Racing". British Rowing. Retrieved 30 November 2016.
- Lusky A, Barell V, et al. (1996). "Relationship between Morbidity and Extreme Values of Body Mass Index in Adolescents". International Journal of Epidemiology. 25 (4): 829–34. doi:10.1093/ije/25.4.829. PMID 8921463.
- Kanade AN, Joshi SB, Rao S (1999). "Undernutrition and adolescent growth among rural Indian boys". Indian Paediatrics. 36 (2): 145–56. PMID 10713808.
- Fight In The Dog — Coverage of US women's collegiate lightweight rowing