The Basics of Rowing: Breaking Down the Stroke

Written By: Margie Ellison

Before we learn how to walk, we must crawl. Before we learn how to run, we must walk. What does this have to do with rowing? Well, we must learn the basics of the movement before we dive into the more difficult workouts and pull faster splits. As a former collegiate rower and now passionate coach, I am a firm believer nearly any individual can use rowing in their training. This includes training specifically for rowing, or using it as a supplemental tool for an individual’s main sport(s). Between low impact on the joints, and the simultaneous use of strength and endurance systems, it is beneficial to nearly every athlete.

You don’t achieve a 900lbs squat by just getting under the bar moving up and down, the same way you don’t achieve a sub 6 minute mile by throwing on some running shoes and hitting the streets. So why do we see people hopping on the erg (indoor rowing machine) and pulling as hard and fast as they can, never really learning the basics of form and technique? When broken down, rowing form is actually quite simple. It goes as follows: Legs, back, arms, arms, back, legs. Before I get into detail, it is important to remember this sequence and that each body part is not to move simultaneously. Now, you’re probably sitting here wondering “Well, Margie, what does that mean?”

The Catch Position

The first sequence of the stroke is the catch position. This is the part of the stroke where the rower’s blade is about to enter the water to initiate the stroke. If the rower is on an erg, this is right as the pull is initiated. During this position, the rower should reach forward with a straight back, creating an angle at the hip crease. Arms should be fully extended allowing the elbow to run vertical to the shins and heels, while the shins are also vertical. Going beyond vertical with the shins over compresses the knees and puts the rower at risk for injury. Anything less than vertical and the rower is not optimizing the length of their stroke. There is often confusion that the feet should not come off the foot stretcher. This is false, as you will find nearly every rower’s feet come off the foot stretcher at the catch position. Unless an individual has extreme dorsi flexion at the feet, their feet will come up off the foot stretcher. To be quite honest, I cannot recall a time I saw a rower, using correct form, whose feet did not come off the foot stretcher.

The Leg Drive

*Mid leg drive, just before the layback is initiated

The next sequence of the stroke is the leg drive. As I mentioned above, we do not want our body parts to move simultaneously. Why is that? Well, if a rower were to combine the leg drive and the lay back, they would shorten their stroke. In order to optimize performance and move the most distance possible, the rower must make their stroke as long as they can, using every bit of leverage their body allows. A strong leg drive is created by using explosiveness with the legs. When initiating the leg drive, the rower wants to keep their arms fully extended, and their body in the body over position. At this point of the stroke, we are just using our legs.

The Layback

*The layback position where the legs are fully extended, the arms are still extended out, and the torso is at a good layback angle

A few inches before our legs are fully extended, we begin the layback of the sequence. This is also known as opening up the back. It is ideal to lay back around a 45 degree angle. This is the most optimal layback position because anything less and the rower is not using their leverages to their complete advantage. Anything more than 45 degrees and the rower is creating more work for themselves. Like the leg drive, the arms remain fully extended out in front of the rower. Keeping the torso and back straight, we begin the layback by moving at our hips. It is important to note that the only point of movement should come from the hips as shown in the below image.

*The angle at which the torso should move

The Finish

*A strong finish position where the legs are fully extended, the torso is in the layback position, and the arms are pulled tightly into the body.

At the finish, the rower is simply pulling their arms into their body. About 1-2 inches below the nipple/chest area is an ideal finish position. Like any other movement, we want to have a strong finish. Because rowing is a total body movement, we sometimes see rowers having weak finishes. What I mean by this is they are not pulling their arms in strongly. The finish should be just as strong and explosive as the leg drive.

The Recovery

*The arms away position looks the same way the rower looks like right before they initiate the layback

Do you recall in the beginning when I said remember the following sequence “legs, back, arms, arms, back, legs”? It should start to make sense now. To refresh, the stroke sequence: legs, back, arms, meaning we use those body parts in that order. The recovery is the exact opposite: arms, back, legs, in that order. To initiate the recovery, we extend our arms into the arms away position. Just like the stroke, we do not use body parts simultaneously during the recovery.

*The body over position right before the rower comes up to the catch

Once the arms are fully extended, we bring the body forward to the body over position. During this, the rower’s arms are still fully extended, and legs are still straight. At this point, the rower will use the legs to come up the slide back into the catch position. At this point, the stroke is restarted.

Drills to Improve Form

Some basic drills to improve form include pause drills. During pause drills, the rower will pause at certain parts of the stroke. Pauses can be done at one part of the stroke, or two parts of the stroke. For example, if the rower wants to work on their body angle, they would pause at the finish, and pause at the body over position. This would be a double pause drill. A few examples of different areas to pause at include:

  • The catch position
  • Arms away
  • Body over
  • 1/4 slide, 1/2 slide, 3/4 slide
  • The finish

Basically, any part of the stroke can be paused at. There are countless ways to create drills in order to improve the rower’s form. A few examples on how to do pause drills:

  • Pause at body over. 10 strokes on, 10 stroke off. 3x through, then 20 full strokes. Here the rower will take 10 strokes where they pause at the body over position for for a split second. Then they will take 10 full strokes. Once they have gone through this set 3 times, they will take 20 full strokes.
  • Double pause at arms away and body over. 10 strokes on, 10 strokes off. 2x through, then 20 full strokes. Here the rower will take 10 strokes where they pause once at arms away for a split second, and once at body over for a split second. They will then take 10 full strokes. Once they have gone through this set 2 times, they will take 20 full strokes.

I strongly recommend including 5-15 minutes of drills and practicing form during each rowing workout and training session. Whether the athlete’s main sport is rowing, or it is used as a training supplement, practicing form is always beneficial.

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