How to Improve Your Rowing Technique

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Rowing Video Demos

For the drive of the rowing stroke, mimic a horizontal power clean: drive with your legs through your heels, open your hips to full extension, and pull with your arms last.
See how Shane Farmer of CrossFit Rowing talks through the rowing stroke with Cody Burgener as his model at his home box,  CrossFit Invictus. He advises athletes to focus on three aspects of rowing:

  1. Drive: Engage your legs first, swing your back open, and pull your arms at the end into the finish position. He & Cody agree that as with power cleans, once the arms break, “the power ends!”
  2. Recovery: Because your legs are responsible for ~75% of the drive, they need 75% of the recovery, too. Be patient on the recovery and bend your knees last, after you have re-straightened your arms and leaned forward.
  3. Catch: This is the transition between the recovery back into the drive. Farmer advises thinking about the turnover “one inch” before the catch so your legs get ready to drive again.
In the simplest of terms, Jason Khalipa at CrossFit Santa Clara describes what good rowing should look like by comparing the rowing stroke to a sumo deadlift high pull and/or a power clean. He emphasizes a strong cadence (“hard drive…recover. hard drive…recover”) and thinking about moving in straight lines. In the drive, legs push back, hips open (while maintaining a straight back), arms finish; to recover, arms straighten, hips close, and knees bend last.

Avoiding Common Rowing Errors

Practice! From the finish position, try drilling arms-only rowing, then add in a hinge at the hips to practice body & arms rowing.
As with Olympic lifting, there are many different places within the rowing stroke that a technical error can occur — all of which lead to a loss or lessening of power and efficiency. Again, Concept2 Rowing provides a comprehensive list of fixable mistakes, sorted by body part:

Arms & hands

  • Over gripping the handle: Keep your wrists flat through the stroke with your hands comfortably wrapped around the handle.
  • Breaking arms at the catch: As Shane & Cody pointed out above, an early break means the power ends.
  • Chicken wing arms: Elbows should finish pointed straight back, not out to the sides, with shoulders in a relaxed (not hunched) position.

Back

Your back should maintain a strong upright position throughout both parts of the stroke.

  • Lunging at the catch: To avoid this, establish the lean (torso at 1 o’clock) early in  your recovery, before the knees bend, and maintain it until the drive begins again.
  • Over-reaching at the catch: Your hands do not need to reach out excessively toward the flywheel in the catch position, as this causes your back to round and pulls your shoulders forward.
  • Lifting with the back at the catch: Press through the drive with your legs, then lean back after your hips open. Lifting with your back also makes the chain pull back unevenly, and you want a smooth, horizontal pull.
  • Excessive layback: Your torso does not need to go past 11 o’clock in the finish position.

A drill to correct some of these errors? As the recovery begins, pause with your arms straight and torso at 1 o’clock, then finish the recovery. Repeat for several strokes to establish a good back position.

Legs

  • Bending knees too early on recovery: This forces you to lift the chain to avoid hitting your knees; keep the chain level throughout both the drive and the recovery.
  • Rushing the slide: Instead of going too fast toward the catch, remember to straighten the arms, close the hips, THEN bend the knees. Rushing the slide implies an incorrect de-loading order.
  • Over compressing: This can happen at the catch — don’t let your shins go past vertical.
  • Shooting the slide: This is the equivalent of driving your legs back without taking your body with you (like raising your hips before your shoulders in a deadlift).

Two suggestions for avoiding these errors:

  1. Count your cadence out loud on the drive and then the recovery; the latter should take longer.
  2. Practice a legs only row (no pull) in order to feel the load order of legs first before the hips open.

Tabata Tidbits: Getting “Down the Stream” Faster

Improve Your Fight Gone Bad score

The CrossFit Rowing Blog explains how he gets 20 points (or more) from rowing alone during Fight Gone Bad: To allow for the transition time of getting strapped into the rower, he moves from the push press early to get a full 60 seconds of rowing in (averaging 1500 calories or more) — which equates to 7 or 8 extra calories.

Training to Row Better

At livestrong.com, read how power cleans, squats, and back extensions all connect to developing greater strength as a rower.

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