A Rower's Guide To Conquering The Erg
Are you a CrossFitter who cringes every time rowing shows up in a WOD? Do you feel like a flailing idiot on the rower while some other athletes around you look like they are cruising? Do you constantly ask yourself why in the world 500m is taking so damn long, while others are off the rower in a matter of minutes?
Just like every other movement in CrossFit, there is a certain technique on the rower that will maximize efficiency during workouts—and maybe make you even like the rower! Just kidding--You should never like the rower. And if you do, you’re probably doing it wrong.
As a rower of seven years, I have a love/hate relationship with the erg (the proper name for the rower). Whenever I see rowing in a WOD, I usually groan. You would think that I would love to see something that I excel in, but after seven years of constant physical and mental abuse caused by this stupid machine, it takes everything out of me to pick up that handle and give it everything I have. But, every time I hop on that dreaded machine I still go through a checklist of things I need to do to row strong and efficiently.
Over the years, technique has been drilled into my head constantly by multiple coaches. I have learned pacing and figured out what numbers I should be seeing during certain workouts. I have sat on that sliding seat staring at that stupid screen long enough to come up with mental games to keep me somewhat sane. I’ve had a lot of people ask me for tips and tricks on the rower, so I thought I’d share them with FC^2 so everyone can join in on the fun!
So, without further adieu, here are my personal tips that I’ve picked up throughout my rowing journey that still help me get through workouts today.
Catch, Drive, Finish, Recovery
Before I get into the tips, let’s learn about the rowing stroke. These are the proper terms for all the different parts of a rowing stroke. While not completely necessary for the everyday crossfitter to know, it is helpful to understand the stroke a little more in depth when you’re trying to improve technique.
The Catch—This is the beginning portion of the stroke. Here, your arms are fully extended, your back angle is set, knees are bent, and hands are closest to the flywheel.
The Finish—This is the end portion of the stroke. At the finish, your legs are fully extended, back is at a 45-degree angle, and arms are fully drawn into your body.
The Drive—This is portion of the stroke that is between the catch and the finish. It is hard, quick and powerful.
The Recovery—This is the total opposite of the drive. During the recovery, you return from the finish to the catch in a relaxed and controlled manner.
Because we're so high tech, I found a pretty solid stick figure picture to illustrate here.
Okay, now that we have that cleared up, let’s move on to the fun!
Legs, back, arms. Arms, back, legs
I see a lot of funky rowing techniques going on when I watch non-rowers hop on the erg. And for good reason---they don’t know any better!
When it comes to learning how to row properly, the only thing you should be thinking at first is this mantra: Legs, back, arms. Arms, back legs. That’s it.
From the catch, your legs go down first, your back opens up to a 45-degree angle, and your arms draw into your body, right under your sternum. You are now at your finish position. From the finish, your arms go out, your back swings forward, and your legs pull you forward towards the catch under control.
A lot of the time people’s arms get all caught up in the knees. This tells me that you’re bending your knees before you release your arms and back. Be patient!
This was the first thing I ever learned when I sat down on a rower for the first time and it is always the first thing I teach anyone who wants to learn to row.
Take away: When your arms bend, the power ends. So be patient and drill this movement pattern!
Rowing and Olympic lifts: A match made in heaven?
I’ve only been CrossFitting for two years, but one thing that I’ve noticed is how similar the movements and power application between rowing and Olympic lifts are. Bear with me for a second on this one.
Olympic lifts are the most explosive exercises out there. The hip strength, stability and power that are exerted during these two lifts are incomparable to any other lift out there.
When you break down the rowing stroke though it is extremely similar to an Olympic lift in execution and where the power comes from—leg drive and hip explosion.
Think of your clean set up: Knees bent, shoulders slightly over the bar, arms straight, and your back angle is locked in. Your hamstrings are loaded, your body has tension in all the right places, your back is tight, and abs are engaged.
This is the exact setup at the catch.
Now, think of what happens when you start your pull. Your knees get out of the way, your back and hips move together, your hips open after you hit that power position and you begin to pull that bar up with a big shrug and high pull.
This is the drive in rowing.
I’ve found that when I teach someone how to row and relate it to something in CrossFit that is drilled more than most movements, such as the highly technical Oly lifts, it clicks with them.
Takeaway: If you start overthinking the stroke, go back to basics. Get a PVC pipe and do some drills to focus on the pulls and bar positioning. Then get back on the rower and see what happens.
What comes to mind when you think of a rower? They are tall with broad backs, and super strong arms, right? While all that is true, have you ever looked at their legs? Rowers have legs like tree trunks and for good reason---that’s where the power comes from!
I used to love when people ask, “Oh you row?” and then follow it up with some crazy arm flailing motion, as if they were rowing a row boat. I always wanted to say back, “No, I row!” and do some weird motion with my legs, but I figured I shouldn't embarrass myself anymore than normal.
All jokes aside, my favorite all time cue from when I rowed was always, “Big legs!” Every time I heard that, I knew that the push of my next stroke needed to be more explosive, more powerful. It needed to be bigger.
Think about it: What muscles are bigger, your hips, legs and butt or your shoulders and arms? If you said hips, legs and butt then you are 100% correct! And if you didn't, well we need to get you a crash course in Anatomy 101 pronto.
Every time I hear someone say, “Bigger pulls! Pull harder!” I cringe. While rowing does require a strong pull, it requires an even stronger push off and drive with your legs.
Just like in an Oly lift, your arms are just acting as straps. They keep you connected to the rower and transfer the power you generate with your legs and hips to finish the stroke.
Takeaway: Next time you hear someone say “Pull harder,” always think, “Push harder”.
What’s the rush?
As CrossFitters, it is basically engrained in our heads to go as fast as possible. So naturally, when it comes to the rower, many athletes probably think that flinging themselves up and down the slide will produce the best results because, duh, they are moving as fast as possible.
Well, when it comes to efficient rowing, this isn’t necessarily the case. It is possible to move up and down the slide rather quickly and efficiently, but don't let all the technique we’ve been learning go out the window.
The recovery portion of the stroke is where the control needs to take place. The drive is explosive; but the recovery is just that--- its recovery. Take this time to breathe. Take a big breath during the recovery and release it on the drive.
Every stroke, no matter how many strokes per minute you are rowing, should always have the ratio of 3:1.
The drive is a one count, while the recovery is a 3 count.
Take one big explosive stroke and then on the way back to catch, recover for three seconds. Exaggerate this drill for a while, seeing how fast you can drive back and how slowly you can get back to the catch.
As you get better at controlling your recovery, start rowing at higher stroke ratings, but keep that same 3:1 ratio.
Takeaway: Use control on the recovery and remember to breathe. Always use the 3:1 ratio between the recovery and the drive.
The biggest part of rowing for me was always mental. Staring at a screen that is telling you exactly how fast (or slow) you’re going and how much further you have to go, can either make or break you. I hate to admit it, but there are many times it breaks me.
When I am on the edge of giving up and just want to get my mind off of how much left I have to row, here are some things I like to do while rowing.
1. Concentrate on technique- I actually do this in a lot of exercises during crossfit. It’s a totally neutral thing to concentrate on, so I can’t turn it into something negative in my mind, therefore sabotaging my entire workout.
2. Play a numbers game- I’ve long ago figured out for myself that when I’m rowing, each stroke I take equates to 10 meters rowed. I’ll use any and every way to use this knowledge to make the time pass. 250m left? That’s 25 big strokes. 1000m left? Just get it down to 500m left and then its two sets of 25. 25 strokes is one set of 10 and three sets of five. If you can break big numbers down into something manageable, all of a sudden 2000m doesn't seem that bad. Just kidding its still terrible. But, now it just seems more doable.
3. Strokes for calories-Whenever I row for calories, I figure out how many calories I am getting per stroke, and then I try to figure out how many strokes it will take me to finish. Again, a numbers game. I suck at math so this equation usually takes me the entire row, so by the time I’m done my legs, my lungs, my arms and my brain are aching.
4. The “What am I going to eat?” Game- Well, let’s be honest, this is all I think about all the time, so I guess this doesn't really count. But thinking about the ice cream that may be looming in the near future actually does make you row faster. It’s a proven fact.
5. I can do this- Oh, so cheesy I know, but yes, I actually do think this, and yes, it actually does help. When I see a number that is always a mental block for me (850m left of a 2k row….), I always think to myself, “Just get passed this. You can do this. You’ve done it a hundred times before”. Knowing and remembering that I’ve done it before reminds me that I can do it again. Positive thinking people!
So that’s it, fellow FC^2 friends! That’s all I've got for you this time. Go hop on that rower and start drilling technique work and watch your times drop! Soon you’ll be that person whipping through your 500m rows making others wonder how you do it!
- KB is a former Division I College Rower, current CrossFitter and awesome trainer!