Rowing is a love-hate relationship. But the one thing that separates those that dominate rowing in their WOD compared to those that dread jumping on the erg, is technique. If you enjoy rowing it’s probably because at some point you had a coach who actually took the time to critique and improve your movement on the erg. Rowing doesn’t hurt your body and you feel like you are able to fluidly apply your technique to reap the benefits of your session. If you hate rowing then you probably hate it for the exact opposite reason – your form sucks and you don’t know why. Alas, we’ve got our best tips and tricks for you to learn and apply the next time you step into the box so you can improve your rowing technique in 5 simple steps.
How To Improve Rowing Technique Step 1: Push Through Your Heels
Similar to any other leg-focused movement in the box, if you want to improve your rowing then you’re going to need to activate the major muscles in your legs. Keep your heels down and evenly distribute weight throughout the whole foot. When you begin the drive away from the flywheel, push down into your heel and the ball of your foot, all while keeping your back firm and upright, transferring leg power to the handle.
The push from the heels to the full extension of the legs is where the root of your power is going to come from; the arms essentially are just along for the ride. You’re going to have to dip into your ankle mobility, keep your feet planted firmly throughout the entire movement, and explosively push away from the flywheel with your legs like you would at the bottom of a thruster.
How To Improve Rowing Technique Step 2: Push Don’t Pull
A strong push from the legs starts with the catch. In the catch you’re in your closest position to the flywheel, with your arms extended straight, with your wrists flat. Your torso should be slightly forward, with a straight back, but not stiff like a board. Your shins should be vertical and your feet should be ready to drive you backward.
From the catch, it’s important to remember that pulling harder isn’t going to get you any farther if you’re not using your legs first. Pushing through your heels and transferring that power to your legs, creates more than 60% of your force and momentum through your hips. So next time you hear someone yell PULL HARDER, let that be an automatic cue to PUSH HARDER with your legs.
How To Improve Rowing Technique Step 3: Use Your Hips
Like we said in step 2, your legs are going to give you 60% of your force throughout the entire erg rowing motion. Your arms are only going to give you about 10% of your force (remember, they’re along for the ride). So what about that other 30% of your force? It’s all in the hips, baby.
In order to create a strong, fluid motion as you move from the catch to the drive, and into the finish, you need to transfer force between your legs and your torso with the hips. Pry against the legs, aggressively open your hips while still pushing with the legs, and feel the strong and fluid accelerated push of the machine, creating major force!
How To Improve Rowing Technique Step 4: Keep Your Back Straight
Getting better at rowing is going to require a neutral pelvis. A neutral pelvis position is going to keep you from injury while rowing. If you’ve ever experienced that awful feeling in your lower back where your erectors are burning up and your tailbone hurts, then it’s most likely due to your positioning. Overreaching and creating a c-curve or Kyphotic curve of your spine in the catch exposes the low back to overloading and potential back injury.
Instead, when you keep your hips in a neutral, upright position while reaching forward to approach the catch, the pelvis is able to rotate while activating the hamstrings and glutes for power. This not only reduces your chance of injury but sets you up to generate the largest force of power throughout the movement. Unfortunately, this is where most coaches fall short of their responsibilities, leaving the athlete damaged and at risk for injury long term.
Fortunately for you, becoming more aware of your hips and torso can provide a huge amount of benefit. Once you figure out just how much force comes from your legs, you begin to realize that your torso is used more for stabilization and in the finishing touches of the row.
Your back positioning should follow a consistent flow, in the following progression.
THE CATCH keep your lower back in a strong position.
THE DRIVE the upper body should, while remaining in an upright position, slightly swing back to add acceleration to legs.
THE FINISH lower back should be tall, strong, and slightly leaned back.
RECOVERY the pelvis should rotate back in line with the lumbar spine, creating loosely extended arms and shoulders as you move back towards the flywheel.
How To Improve Rowing Technique Step 5: Pace Yourself
You wouldn't sprint the first leg of a 5k run so why would you sprint when you get on the ergometer (yes, that’s another name for the rowing machine). Instead, set out to run the 5k, or the 5k row in our case, at the same pace the entire time. Regardless of how long the distance is, each stroke should be on pace with the one that came before it, and as the one that will follow. Good news – the machine’s monitor actually tells you what your split is, so the guessing is taken out of it. Your monitor will say something like 2:05/500m, or something similar, meaning it’s going to take you 2 minutes and 5 seconds to row 500 meters.
Why should you pace yourself while rowing? Well, once you know how to apply a consistent power output overloads of strokes, you’ll find out what a slow, medium and fast pace means for you, so you can find a good stroke rate. When you pace yourself and take the time to figure out your preferred speed, you then gain the ability to gauge a workout – as in when rowing shows up in your WOD, you know if it’s better to hold back or full out sprint, so you can maximize your results, find pockets of time to rest, and get more output from your input.
How To Improve Rowing Technique: The Takeaway
The good news is this – rowing doesn’t have to suck. I remember when I started CrossFit I despised rowing sessions because it killed my lower back and I was slower than molasses. After working with a coach and having him take me through a consistent and fluid progression, my rowing has become a strong and strategically paced component to my training and WOD.
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