“This article will attempt to give a description of the generally accepted components of rowing
technique and then spend some time focusing on the most common errors and how they can be
overcome. The last part of the article will offer some tips on how to improve your ergo scores.
Rowing is an excellent metcon activity, employing vast amounts of muscle mass and moving it
through a wide range of motion. In addition, the movement requires coordination, balance, rhythm
and synchronisation in order to be effective and efficient.
It is arguably one of the toughest sports to compete in, with word class athletes being capable of
sustaining a 480 watt power output (or .64 horsepower) for a six minute effort. To put that in
perspective, during a Fran workout, someone like Chris Spealer will produce around 380 watts
(or .50 horsepower) for just over two minutes. This ‘all-out’ power effort is combined with a co
ordinated, highly technical and finessed stroke technique that serves to make professional
rowing an extremely taxing event.
The fundamentals of the rowing stroke are relatively simple to grasp, but true mastery requires
hours of practice and refinement. Rowing technique is critical to producing successful results on
the ergometer. Generally speaking, it is not an exercise that can just be ‘muscled’ through with
just grunt work and this is especially true of any distance greater than about 500 meters. This is
because rowing inefficiency (that is, rowing with poor technique) begins to compound as
distance and effort extends beyond the capacity of the short term energy systems (ATP PC and
glycogen). Your 500m capacity is very often a poor predictor of your 2000m capacity.
Background and Basics of Rowing
When done properly, rowing is a fluid movement with no distinct beginning or end points.
However, for the sake of learning and understanding all the nuances of the rowing stroke and
recovery, it helps to break the stroke up into a number of segments that will be analysed
There are a number of very good resources on the web that give an in depth discussion of how
the rowing stroke is executed. Rather than repeat that here verbatim, I will refer you to three
links in particular:
The first link gives a basic breakdown of the stroke with the four fundamental segments of the
stroke, the catch, the drive, the finish and the recovery (leading back into the
catch for a repeat of the cycle). There is also a small animation that helps to clarify the
meaning of the descriptions.
The second link identifies the major muscle groups that should be used during each segment of
the rowing stroke. I have found it useful to try and remain conscious of which muscles I am using
during each component of the stroke to ensure that I am rowing as efficiently as possible,
especially once I become fatigued. As a rule of thumb, you want to principally be using your large
muscle groups as force generators, with the smaller muscle groups providing a supporting role in
maintaining the momentum and force generated by the larger muscles.
The third link is a video demonstration of a progression to a full rowing stroke that joins ea
ch of the segments discussed in the first link. Its useful in tying everything together. Rowing is
definitely something that is easier to understand when demonstrated as opposed to just reading
a description and trying to imagine what your body is supposed to be doing.
Important Aspects to Focus On
While almost all aspects of the rowing stroke can be improved and endlessly tweaked, there are a
number of key aspects that will assist in improving your efficiency and results. I’ll list the
characteristics I consider most important to get right below.
Getting this position right is tremendously important. This is how you set yourself up for each
stroke. You need to ensure you have a proper platform from which you can deliver power efficiently
to the flywheel of the ergo. Your shins should be vertical, chest resting on thighs, arms straight
and your bodyweight on the balls of your toes.
Be relaxed in this position it should feel relatively comfortable. In saying this, be c
areful not to slouch or collapse in this front position. You are going to be executing an explosive
movement from this position, so approach it like you would any weightlifting or jumping exercise.
Setting yourself up properly at the catch gives you the best chance for success in the execution of
the drive. So get it right.
The first part of the drive is all legs. No arms or back. Your back angle should remain essentially
constant and unchanged for the first one quarter to one third of your leg drive. Most
importantly, it should be explosive. Think about accelerating the handle towards your body.
Driving with the legs ensures that the greatest quantum of work is done with your largest muscle
groups quadriceps and glutes.
As the legs approach the horizontal position, there will be a point where it will feel natural to
open the back angle. This typically occurs when the legs are two thirds towards the horizontal.
The arms remain straight. This portion of the stroke is very powerful. The legs continue to drive
and the back opens. You should feel like you are ‘hanging’ off the handle. Said another way, you
are using the increasing momentum of your bodyweight to effectively lever the handle towards
you at an ever increasing velocity. After this point in the stroke, your ability to generate power
on the handle diminishes rapidly. Make sure you milk this part of the stroke for all it is worth.
You should only open your back just slightly beyond the vertical. Once you reach this position,
you can engage the arms. Ensure that you have a stable body position to which you can draw the
handle. This means keeping pressure through your feet on the foot stretcher, primarily through
your toes. This allows you to complete what is known as ‘drawing tall’ or finishing in a strong,
solid upright position with the handle aiming to finish just below your pectorals. Your arms
should draw flat, with no bend in the wrists. Elbows draw past your shoulders. Make sure your
shoulders are down and slightly back.
Remember this: Your arms represent the weakest link in the entire stroke. They are the least
capable of producing meaningful power on the handle and will be the first to fail if you
continually engage them early. Use them LAST, ALWAYS. They simply maintain the momentum
of the handle coming into your chest; you have virtually no hope of using them to generate
additional power throughout the stroke on a consistent basis. Legs, then back, then arms.
Wash, rinse, repeat.
You should feel strong at the finish. Your legs will be flat, back slightly inclined, arms drawn flat
to chest, shoulders down and relaxed. The handle should be sitting just below your pectorals in
the vicinity of the solar plexus. Maintain pressure on the foot stretchers through your toes. This
stabilises your position and sets you up nicely for the stroke reversal that is about to come (‘the
recovery’). Try not to thump the handle into your chest. You can attempt to execute a ‘tap down’,
which is a short lowering of the handle at the very end of the stroke, just prior to the reversal,
that assists in shunting the built up momentum generated throughout the stroke. This part is not
essential, but becomes increasingly useful as your stroke rate increases.
Believe it or not, this portion of the stroke is an opportunity to rest. Contrary to what you might
think, it is not a race to get back to the catch as quickly as possible. Elite rowers will spend more
than 60% of their time in ‘recovery’ over a 2000m race. Here’s the proof: At a stroke rate of 34
spm (strokes per minute), a world class rower will execute the drive and finish of a stroke in just
.6 seconds, leaving roughly 1.1 seconds before the next stroke is due. That is rest time. Use it.
The recovery is the reverse of all the movements that have gone before it. During the drive it
went: legs, back then arms. In the recovery its reversed: arms away, back follows and finally
your legs compress. This process should be slow and controlled. You don’t want to be racing
back into the catch position. The more ‘reverse’ momentum you generate during the recovery,
the greater the load on your quadriceps and glutes when you engage for the drive again at the
catch. Try and be slow. If you’re working anywhere near as hard as you should be during the
drive, you’ll be thankful for the break here.