Whilst the action of rowing and equipment used remains fairly consistent throughout the world, there are many different types of competition. These include endurance races, time trials, stake racing, bumps racing, and the side-by-side format used in the Olympic games. The many different formats are a result of the long history of the sport, its development in different regions of the world, and specific local requirements and restrictions.
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Unlike most other non-combat sports, rowing has a special weight category called lightweight (Lwt for short). According to FISA, this weight category was introduced "to encourage more universality in the sport especially among nations with less statuesque people". The first lightweight events were held at the World Championships in 1974 for men and 1985 for women. Lightweight rowing was added to the Olympics in 1996.

In sweep or sweep-oar rowing, each rower has one oar, held with both hands. This is generally done in pairs, fours, and eights. In some regions of the world, each rower in a sweep boat is referred to either as port or starboard, depending on which side of the boat the rower's oar extends to. In other regions, the port side is referred to as stroke side, and the starboard side as bow side; this applies even if the stroke oarsman is rowing on bow side and/or the bow oarsman on stroke side.