I can hear it from across a busy gym: your inefficient, sloppy, powerless rowing stroke. If you have a crappy stroke, you’re missing out on power development, efficiency in your training, and any semblance of respectable numbers with meters or time achieved. A proper stroke looks effortless (but it most definitely is not an effortless activity!!!), and allows your split time to be lower, watts and calories higher. It’s not too hard, but gets butchered, so here’s a step-by-step to improve a wicked whole-body cardio method.
As an ex-rower and strength coach for a rowing team, I’ve spent my fair share of time on an erg. It’s not an easy thing to pick up, but with a few checklist items to think about at different points throughout the stroke, it shouldn’t take too long to pick up. It takes focus, but the nice part is that a single stroke is fairly light weight and it’s easy to accumulate a lot of good reps, seeing as you’re doing upwards of 20/minute. Similar to a lot of lifts and exercises in the strength world, if you set yourself up well and hit certain points along the way, you’re going to have a successful effort.
The stroke has 2 ends – the catch is when you’re compressed and about to drive, the finish is when you’re as elongated as you’ll get during the stroke.
Freeze frames of these 2 major positions:
Finish: Legs straight, chest tall, back (mostly) straight and leaning back slightly, hands holding the handle right at the bra-strap/sternum level. Check it:
Catch: Vertical shins, knees not caving towards each other, chest tall, back (mostly) straight but slightly leaning forward (with your butt should be behind your shoulders), arms outside of your knees and reaching out in front of you, hands high. Voila:
Step by step to put together an entire stroke:
Step 1: Arms only. Maintain the finish position but reach forward JUST with your arms, and pull back to your starting position. Hand level should stay around the sternum and should not drop towards your thighs. As you join consecutive strokes together, your hands should do a little bit of a “down and away” when they’re at your body, but this isn’t a huge circle – slightly push down on the handle, push your hands away and they can gradually return up to the proper height. Here we go:
Step 2: Arms and body. Stay tall, but after your arms have straightened out in front of you (towards the catch), swing your body in the same direction. You are pivoting your body position from slightly leaning back, to slightly leaning forward. We call this body swing. We’re movin!:
Step 3: Half slide. In this part of the stroke, you are just breaking at the knees. And it doesn’t happen until your hands have passed your knees. Drive through your legs to return to your finish position. Earlier points mentioned like down and away with the hands and then staying tall and pivoting your upper body remain true – remember, this is a list of checkpoints. Gettin there:
Step 4: Full slide. Once you break at the knees, you’re going to compress to the catch. The idea of compressing gets a little exaggerated sometimes, because you’re not actually getting as small as you can. I noted in the catch position description above that your shoulders should be in front of your butt – some people bring the seat too close to their heels and end up in a bad position to drive.
Step 5: The catch. Look at the description above, figure yourself out.
Step 6: The drive. At this point, you’re slightly leaning forward, are nice and tall, with arms extended. From here, drive your heels into the foot stops and put your strength into the handle to bring it with you – you shouldn’t be leaving your upper body behind at the catch and have the seat shoot back from under you. Once your legs have straightened out, you’re finishing the drive with your body swing and arms.
Step 6: The recovery. Repeat your checkpoints, and keep it steady. This is where you RECOVER, and catch a breath or two. Take it slow.
Check out this video: Putting it all together
- Dumping hands at the catch or finish: At the catch, hands are generally at the height of your knees. At the finish, keep them towards your sternum instead of dropping them in your lap. Dumping them generally leads to a shortened stroke.
- Knees breaking too early: This is commonly seen when someone is also dumping their hands into their lap, and it forces the hands to go up and over the knees instead of following a straight path. This is probably the one I see the most. It’s very disjointed, looks and sounds like a mess, and is a really slow/weak way to row. Slow down, figure out the individual parts, and then make it a whole. Working on the arms and body swing can make a big difference here.
- Hand position: Go palms down on both hands, please. None of this mixed grip BS. Grip tightly and put weight into the handle when you’re pulling, but keep it relaxed on the recovery.
- Over compressing at the catch: you shouldn’t be slamming the seat into the back of your heels at the catch – this means you’ve gotten your butt in front of your shoulders. The ideal position has you slightly leaning forward with your butt behind your shoulders so that your legs can do more of the work.
A good rowing stroke is fluid, looks relatively effortless, and can get you a killer workout. Later in this series I’ll give a few sample workouts and drills to try, but for now aiming for 10-12 minutes of good technique with a stroke rate of ~22 will be plenty.