I am no seller of magic pills. Nor am I an expounder of lies. Thus, I will not tell you that what you are about to read will fix everything about your rowing stroke. It won’t, I can’t fix everything but I just might be able to change everything. Intrigued? You should be.
Rowing, or I should say, erging (the somewhat technical term for rowing on ergometers) is in the midst of a renaissance thanks to CrossFit. Suddenly the sport of tall, athletic kids with no hand-eye coordination has found a home under the umbrella of general physical preparedness. As it should! But, while rowers (we’re going full CrossFit from here on out and calling ergs rowers…) are in every box in the country, how we approach those dreaded machines isn’t quite as uniform.
Where should we set our damper?
Should our heels come up at the catch?
At what stroke rating should we row?
Technical questions abound. Questions I will address in future articles, but today I’m going global. Today I’m going spiritual and emotion and a hint of intangible. The piece that will change everything, the piece that needs to be established perhaps before we go any further is this:
Seriously. I have told more humans to do less on this machine than I can count. But let me explain. When people get on a rower they want to make it feel hard. They want to be validated that they are in fact doing work. They want to feel load behind that handle as quickly as possible.
Those desires are all admirable, but it’s how we go about them that need to change because making it feel hard isn't the point. In fact, making it feel hard is messing up your world. Most frequently athletes get on the rower and they initiate their stroke in one of two ways in order to make that business feel hard:
These are both faults. What both of these faults do is they make us feel connected while undermining our ability to generate and translate power from our legs to the handle, which is the ultimate goal of the rowing stroke.
Fault 1: Early Arm Bend.
By bending our arms at the catch (the front of the stroke) we immediately feel connected to the handle because it yanks right back at us. But, we’ve broken our line of power before we’ve given our stroke a chance to generate any. Same rules apply in the Olympic lifts: when your arms bend, your power ends. It’s why we wait until after our hips have fully extended to pull ourselves underneath the bar. The moment you bend your arms you disconnect that clean line of energy and your lift will not be as powerful. Same thing with your rowing stroke. If you bend your arms at the catch your stoke will not generate the same power than if you wait until your legs extend.
Patience. Patience young grasshopper. Your arms should stay straight, you should hang on that handle like you would a barbell until your legs extend. Then, and only then do you bend your arms.
But remember: do less. Do less, yes, means being patient in bending your arms, but it also means don’t yank that handle into your body by pulling like a mad human when your legs extend. Do less. Let the resistance on the chain get lighter. That’s fine. That’s good. It should get lighter throughout the progression of the stroke.
Think again about the Olympic lifts: once your hips open you aren’t trying to pull the bar up higher with your arms. Your arms don’t really add anything power-wise to the lift. Their job is to translate power to the bar and then to pull yourself underneath that bar. Same thing with your rowing stroke. They don’t really add anything, just translate.
Here’s a little ocular hint to see if you are doing too much work with your arms at the end of the stroke: is your chain smooth when coming away from your body at the finish (the end of your stroke)? If it exits your finish flat, you’re probably just fine, but if it whips around: do less.
Fault 2: Opening Your Back at the Catch.
By opening up your back, by swinging your shoulders behind your hips before your legs have extended, you’re hijacking potential power from your legs, just like bending your arms early. You’re also putting your back in a decidedly not good position, as all the power or your stroke gets concentrated into your low back (if your back hurts when you row this is probably why.)
We open our back early for similar reasons as the early arm bend: because it makes our stroke feel hard. It puts all this pressure in the back (which feels like work) and we’re moving a little faster than we would with a clean leg drive, so we feel connected sooner. It all feels hard. And hard has been translated to mean good work. False. We want to do smart work, not hard work.
We yank, we pull, and we get exhausted. Both of these strokes look and feel effortful. Rowing is most definitely effortful. But here’s the thing, have you ever actually seen rowing? It looks easy. It looks smooth. You know that a crew is kicking ass when you wonder if they’re even working. Yes, yes they are, but they’re moving so soothingly, so flawlessness that it doesn’t look like work. It looks like grace.
If I were to give you one global hint on how to make your rowing better it would be: don’t make it look like work.
Are you working: absolutely, but your application of power is different. You are giving your legs a fighting chance by locking down your belly, keeping your arms straight, and slowly, deliberately, and then quickly extending your legs. The angle of your shoulders and hips shouldn’t change as you extend your legs. Your arms shouldn't bend. All translation of power should be concentrated in those legs until they’re finished extending. Just like a clean. Just like a snatch.
Make it look easy.
Do less to do way, way more.
Drill Time: Catch to Finish Progression Drill
This drill will help with bending your arms and opening your back early in your stroke.
1) 10 Legs only Rowing Strokes
Start at the catch (make sure your shoulders are in front of your hips here - essentially lean forward.)
Extend just your legs, maintaining the angle between your shoulders and hips. You back should not open and your arms shouldn’t bend.
2) 10 Legs and Back Rowing Stokes
Start at the catch and now extend your legs and then open your back. Your arms still shouldn’t bend.
3) 10 Full Strokes
Now Take 10 full strokes, making sure that you move through all the above steps.
This is a guest post from Maddie Berky. Maddie was a NCAA Champion rower and now coaches rowing and CrossFit at CrossFit Verve in Denver, CO. She is also a writer and holistic nutritionist, specializing in all things food, sex, and worthiness. For more Maddie, check out MadWellness.com or ElevationRowing.com. You can also follow her on Instagram or Facebook -Mad Wellness or Elevation Rowing.
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