Updated: Dec 6, 2019
Proper coordination and sequencing of movements will result in efficient, powerful and sustainable rowing.
Technique is the most important aspect of becoming a powerful and efficient rower. Not only does it allow you to produce more power, but also helps prevent injuries that can occur with improper technique on the rowing machine.
For the purposes of this article, technique refers to the correct posture and coordination of different body segments. Alternative phrasing for this definition being “form and sequencing”.
The sequence of a stroke is the basis of good technique. The biggest misconception with rowing is that power comes from your arms, but in actuality, the majority of power comes from your legs. The beginning of the stroke is called the “catch”. The catch is followed by the “drive” and “finish” phases and the last phase of the stroke is the “recovery” phase. These four phases are sequential in nature but are executed as one fluid cyclical motion.
It should also be noted that the drive and recovery phases are normally seen as a 1:2 ratio; meaning that the time spent to “recover” on the way up the slide takes twice as long as driving the legs back during the power producing phase of the stroke. Creating this rhythm allows for the continuous flow of the stroke and gives you true recovery time. Additionally, on the water, it will reduce any forward jolting of the boat, which can set back the number of meters gained during the drive.
1. The Catch
2. The Drive
3. The Finish
4. The Recovery
Generally, the order of the rowing stroke is seen as legs, body, arms during the drive and then arms, body, legs during the recovery. This sequencing is very important. It coordinates the movement properly and generates optimal results.
There have been numerous “Biomechanical Analysis of Rowing” studies over the last 40 years and rowing experts agree that the proper sequence of motion - in order to maximize both stroke power and efficiency - is to start the row by driving the legs, extending the hips, then pulling with the arms last. The majority of the stroke power comes from the legs and the trunk. The greatest force exerted on the handle occurs in the first 40 percent of the row cycle. The power developed in the legs and the sequencing of the leg drive to the trunk extension are the most crucial aspects of rowing. Failure to properly sequence motions can compromise how the spine is loaded, which may result in some low-back discomfort over time. This brings up my next big point on the importance of proper technique - the injury prevention side of this topic.
As with any physical activities, various tweaks, tears, sprains and strains can occur. Most injuries result from improper technique, such as low back injuries, rib stress fractures, shoulder pain, patellofemoral pain, IT band syndrome, forearm and wrist injuries. When observing inexperienced rowers on the rowing machine, the most common mistakes are hyperflexion of the back during the catch (excessive rounding or hunched over – c-shaped back), too much or too little extension of the back during the finish (straight, tall spine is best), overall bad posture throughout (elevated shoulders, rounded back, not sitting tall on the sit bones etc.) and non-sequential movements (see 4 illustrative examples below). But the most common mistake of all is the lack of understanding of where the power should stem from.
Driving with your heels is one of the best pieces of advice all good rowing coaches give. You want to start at the catch by having a neutral or slightly flexed spine depending upon your natural mobility and/or shape of spine (spine should not be hyperflexed (hunched) or hyperextended (arched)). You should be hinged slightly forward from the hip. The chest and chin are up and the handle should be lightly held in the fingers (not clenched grip) parallel to the machine. As you start the stroke, you want to drive your heels down and make sure you use that as your driving force rather than throwing your body back as you pull, which could cause strain to your lower back.
As your legs are almost fully extended, you begin to extend your hips, and then follow that with pulling the handle towards your torso. Be sure to keep good posture throughout the drive by keeping your shoulders back and away from the ears and sitting upright by keeping your back straight/tall. As you finish the stroke, you want to be just past 90 degrees of hip extension and the handle to touch right under your chest when your elbows are fully flexed (drawn in). You want to make sure to keep your elbows close to your body as you pull the handle through as opposed to creating a “chicken wing” type effect with your elbows perpendicular to your body.
As you begin the recovery phase, first let your elbows extend - we call this “hands away”(keeping in mind that the handle stays parallel to the rower throughout this phase), followed by flexion at the hips (go from slight lay back to slight forward hinge body angle – often referred to as from 1pm (layback) to 11am (catch angle) and then flexion at the knees (allow the knees to bend) to return to the catch. In this way the body is “prepped” for the drive – the correct 11am forward hinge being set early in the recovery, tall spine with chin up. At the catch, one then just has to focus on driving with the heels, aiming to get the knees down quickly to execute the drive. Keeping the spine tall and neutral forces key muscles in the back to engage and evenly distributes the load forces generated during the drive throughout the entire spine. This duly protects the spine from injury.
The Effect of Fatique on Technique
Technique can escape from anyone if severe muscle fatigue begins to set in. Fatigued muscles definitely affect technique, no matter how skilled the rower. In the article “Rowing Injuries”*, it cited a study by Caldwell called “The effects of repetitive motion on lumbar flexion and erector spinae muscle activity in rowers,” noting that “…throughout a maximal rowing trial on an ergometer, lumbar flexion of the subjects increased from 75% to 90% of their maximum range of motion, most likely due to muscle fatigue.” In short, we try to compensate for muscular power degradation due to tiredness by moving the body more (momentum rather than correct form and available muscular power taking more of a role at that stage).
*Rumball, Jane S., et al. “Rowing injuries.” Sports medicine 35.6 (2005): 537-555.
Lower Back Pain Resiliency
Over 50% of Canadians today suffer from LBP (Lower Back Pain). This is mainly due to weak lower back and core muscles (particularly Transverse Abdominis – which is conspicuous by its absence in younger people) and poor posture – from reduced activity, sitting in the office, slouching on the sofa, standing in an unbalanced or stooped position and when performing bend-and-lift movements (most people bent over from the hip, rounding the back rather than squat down with a hip hinge and straight lumbar spine). A potential scenario of form / posture being compromised due to extreme fatigue (e.g. pushing 110% in a race scenario) may be lower back pain (typically in the mid lumbar spine area – L4, L5 vertebrae).
Either way, it is important to note that it is vital to listen to your body so you know when its limit has been met. It is better to keep correct form and ease off the pressure applied during the drive than to keep exerting great forces while exhibiting poor mechanics/form, which could lead to injury.
Having proper technique on the rower will not only be safer and ward off injury (by building stronger core and back muscles that are used in an appropriate range of motion), but you will also see your power output go up and your time go down! At Gravity, we’re constantly telling our athletes to follow the plan in training, which invariably means hitting times that are sustainable/consistent over say 3-4 intervals and over sucessive training phases that time becomes the new norm. We can then drop that time by say 5 seconds over a subsequent training phase. Essentially, we progress but only in good form.
Some common faults:
Fig 1. Fault - Early Arm Pull. Corrective - Keep arms straight until knees are down and body laid back
Fig 2. Fault - Early Hip Opening. Corrective - maintain catch angle (forward hinge) until knees almost down.
Fig 3. Fault - Extreme Layback. Corrective - use core to limit layback to 1pm position.
Fig 4. Fault - Over-reaching at the Catch. Corrective - controlled recovery, tall spine, chest up, chin up.
Fig 5. Comparison of knee, hip and elbow speeds of a rower with poor coordination and sequencing of movements (solid lines) to a rower with a good sequencing of movements (dashed lines).
Fig. 6. Stroke speed of a less experienced rower (Rower 1, in blue) and a more experienced rower (Rower 2, in red).