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Row, Row, Row Your Best

No, the goal is not to go "gently down the stream.” It's to push every muscle to its max to get the most out of every stroke you take on the rowing machine. Here's how.

In all my work with athletes over the past 25 years, the most impressive group I have ever seen in regards to the combination of power, strength, muscular and cardiovascular endurance, overall fitness and body composition is crew athletes. Are you surprised? If so, you may need to spend a little more time on the rower.

As a CrossFit athlete, you were most likely introduced to the rower through an On-Ramp program or at least by a trainer who understands the basic biomechanics of the rowing stroke. The problem is that after the stroke is shown and described, trainers often don’t spend time critiquing rowing technique like they do other CrossFit movements. What can soon result is bad technique adopted by default.

However, maintaining proper technique on the rower works all the major muscle groups of the core, arms and legs in a balanced manner. Rowing with good technique and with high intensity burns a tremendous amount of calories and improves upper- and lower-body power (measured in watts). So what constitutes good rowing technique? Read on.

The Rowing Stroke

The rowing stroke is divided into four parts: the recovery, the catch, the drive and the finish. Compare your technique to the optimal coordinated movement pattern described here.

1. The Recovery


The recovery is the part of the stroke in which your body is sliding forward from the “finish” position back to the “catch.” It is indeed “recovery” — when you feel little to no muscular tension in your lats or arms.

From the finish position, allow the natural movement of the handle to draw your hands out away from your body until they are almost completely straight. Make sure your arms are relaxed, not locked out. As soon as your hands clear your knees, let your knees bend and allow the seat to slide forward. Now you can extend your arms until they straighten.

At this point, as you near the “catch” position (the most forward point in the stroke), pivot from the hips and make sure you are leaning your body forward. How much? Lean so that your upper body is in the 1 o’clock position.

As you enter the catch, maintain a tight core and keep your feet flat. (Don’t rock onto your toes.) Your shins should end up vertical, and there should be no space between your thighs and your torso.

2. The Catch


At the catch, body position is crucial. If you enter the drive phase out of position, the muscular force you produce will not be efficiently applied to the stroke. Do a quick body check. Your arms should now be straight with your shoulders level and in front of your hips. Avoid the common problem of hunching your shoulders. Your head should be in a neutral position.

It’s important to make sure your shins do not go beyond perpendicular to the floor.You should feel that your bodyweight is hanging off the handle and that the resistance you are feeling is the balls of your feet making contact with the footplate.Before you start the stroke, you will feel suspended, with hardly any of your weight on your seat.

Now, this is a crucial point. At the bottom of the catch, your lower body must be “engaged and connected” to the handle.This means that as you stop your forward motion, you need to let the handle begin to apply tension as it slows to a stop. You should begin to feel your lats and trapezius being “engaged.” (The tension in the lats is felt most often just under the shoulders.) If you engage them fully and correctly, the entire stroke will be more powerful and efficient.

At this point, at which your arms are straight, lats are engaged and thighs are against your torso, you should feel “loaded” and ready for the drive. When you are in this position, it helps to remember that rowing is a pushing sport, not a pulling one.

3A. The Drive: Early


Keeping your arms straight and maintaining the same torso position (the 1 o’clock position), drive your feet hard against the footplate. It’s your powerful quadriceps that provide the force to accelerate the handle. Your shoulders should stay loose and your arms straight.Think of your arms during the early drive as being like steel hooks from your shoulders to the handle.

About one-third of the way through the stroke, or when the handle is just in front of your knees,you can begin to add to the force of your quads by leaning your body back (extending at the hip) to the 11 o’clock position. Up to this point, your thighs have been against your torso — like they were in the bottom of the catch — but by extending away from your thighs, your powerful hip extensors will begin to work with your continued leg drive.

Remember, the key to maintaining a good stroke rate while increasing intensity is applying a good deal of power during the early drive and keeping your recovery under control. A forceful push or explosion here can set a successful pace.

3B. The Drive: Late

When your knees are near full extensionand your back has reached the 11 o’clock position, it’s time to add the final power components to keep the handle accelerating. Up to this point, you have not bent your elbows. Now it’s time to “draw” your hands powerfully into your body.Pull your hands directly back to your lower ribs. This brings your lats, brachioradialis, biceps and rear deltoids into action.

A common mistake here is to flex at the wrists. Be careful to avoid that; your wrist flexors are no match for your lats. In other words, make sure your wrists stay flat.

In the final part of this draw, you can begin to add force from your shoulders. Think about retracting your shoulder blades as your shoulders move back in a relaxed, flat plane toward the finish position.

In the two phases of the drive, you can see how maximal power is achieved by the appropriate sequencing of contributing muscles from strongest to weakest. You start first with the legs (quadriceps and glutes), then get contribution from the hip extensors (lower back) and end with the arms and shoulders (brachioradialis, biceps, rear deltoids, lats, trapezius, rhomboids).

4. The Finish


At the point at which your knees are fully extended, you are at the “finish.” Make sure you have completed the pull completely so that the handle is held lightly at your lower ribs, about solar-plexus level.

Your upper body should be in the 11 o’clock position with good support from tight core muscles. Your head should be in a neutral position, chest high, neck and shoulders relaxed, and elbows drawn past the body with a flat wrist.

Two Factors to Monitor

Even if your technique matches the above patterns, there are still two movement-related issues that can throw you off. First, athletes often have a habit of rushing the recovery. Don’t try to pull yourself forward to the catch in order to speed up the recovery phase. (It’s called “recovery” for a reason!) Even in brief, hard events such as those used in CrossFit workouts, it’s important to give the body a chance to recover before the hard push of the drive.

So how do you know what that recovery pace should feel like? Keep this in mind: Your drive-to-recovery ratio should be 1:2. In other words, your recovery should take twice as long as your drive.

Second, be careful not to grip the handle too tightly. This can become especially difficult to avoid when rowing with high intensity because the natural instinct is to grip the handles with the same level of intensity as the exercise demands. Instead, work on holding the handle in your fingers, not your hands. Throughout the stroke, your grip should be loose and flexible enough so that you feel as if your fingers are hooking the handle.

Choosing a Damper Setting


Ever wonder what number you should have the “damper” on? A damper (you know — it’s that lever on the side of the flywheel housing that controls how much air flows into the cage) on a rower is very similar to a bicycle gearing mechanism. That is, the damper affects how rowing feels but it does not directly affect the resistance.

The higher the damper setting, the more air is allowed into the flywheel housing. And with more air, more work will be required to spin the flywheel against that air. Not only that, but more air also slows the flywheel down more quickly during the recovery, thereby requiring more work to accelerate it on the next stroke.

A lower damper setting allows less air into the flywheel housing, making it easier to spin the flywheel. It’s like shifting to easier gears on a bike. But do not confuse a damper setting with intensity level or resistance. The intensity of your workout is directly related to how much power you develop in your legs, back and arms to move the handle; in other words, how hard you push. (Notice I did not say “pull.”) Regardless of the damper number, the harder you push, the more resistance you will feel.

Many athletes wrongly assume that rowing on the highest setting will result in their best score. Not necessarily. This is where the performance monitor on the rower can help.

The monitor measures how much your flywheel is slowing down — called the “drag factor” — between each stroke. On each subsequent stroke, the monitor uses the drag from the previous stroke to calculate how much work is being performed. Consequently, your true effort is determined regardless of the damper setting. This measurement is what allows coaches to compare different athletes on different rowers. But be careful. Differences in air temperature, elevation and even how much lint is caught in the flywheel housing can make the same damper settings feel different from rower to rower.

Your fitness goals also affect your choice of setting. For instance, if you’re interested in developing your cardiovascular system, you would want to avoid a damper setting that is too high. A high setting will be more likely to fatigue your musculature before you begin to tax your cardiovascular system. In general, lower damper settings are optimal for workouts aimed at stressing aerobic metabolism, while higher damper settings make rowing more of an anaerobic or strength workout.

Experiment with different settings. You will soon find the damper setting and drag factor that work best for you. Don’t know where to start? A standard recommendation is to start with a damper setting of three to five.

Breathing Rhythm

Try to match the rhythm of your breathing to the rhythm of your rowing stroke. Here’s a tip from elite rowers: At low intensities, take one breath per stroke. Exhale gradually on the drive, expelling all remaining air at the finish. Inhale on the recovery.

As you row harder, add a second, shorter, breath per stroke. Exhale as you finish the drive. During the recovery, inhale and then exhale quickly. Inhale again just before the catch.

Perhaps what is most vital here is that you create a breathing pattern that works for you and that you maintain that pattern throughout your rowing workout. The unimpeded and regular supply of oxygen ensures efficient function of your cardiovascular system.