Rowing: Tips and Tricks to Perfect Your Stroke


So now that you CrossFit, gone are the days of the elliptical machine, Stairmaster and treadmill, right?

CrossFit workouts provide an ample amount of cardio options for your sweating pleasure: Think running, air-dyne biking, burpees, double-unders and rowing.

Functional movements that can challenge both your aerobic and anaerobic capacity, depending on the workout.

Anyone who has kept up with the CrossFit Games over the past couple years may remember one workout in particular that the top athletes from around the world were commissioned to complete: a half-marathon row (21,097 meters to be exact).

Top contenders, Samanatha Briggs, for the women, and Jason Khalipa, for the men, completed their rows in 1:27 hours, and 1:18 hours, respectively.

There is no doubt that these two athletes’ endurance, technique and skill is what won the event for them.

While here at CrossFit Central, we can most certainly assure you that you will not be seeing a “Half-Marathon Row” written on the whiteboard (anytime), there is no doubt that proper technique, form and skill on the ‘ski ergs’ can make all the difference in the world when it comes to your speed and efficiency in your warm-ups and workouts.

Here are a few basic tips and tricks to keep in mind when you hop on that rowing seat:

  • Drive with your legs. Rowing is primarily a leg-intensive exercise—not a ‘pull with your arms’ exercise. Your arms are merely guides for the handle. You want your quads and glutes to feel a little burn after a hard row.

  • Sit up tall. Don’t hunch over or use your back to ‘pull’—remain tight throughout your core and let your upper body act as a pendulum between 11 and 1-o’clock.

  • Think: Legs, hips, arms, arms, hips, legs. This is the order with which you drive the handle forward and back—the legs push off first, your hips follow, your arms pull the handle back, your arms lead in, then your hips hinge and your legs follow. While you’re at it, keep your elbows RELAXED.

  • Pretend your doing a clean: Hips drive! Arms stay nice and straight throughout the pull.

  • The handle comes to the bottom of your ribs. For the ladies, you want to pull the handle to the bottom of your sports bra. For the men, well, pretend you’re wearing a sports bra.

  • Don’t re-bend your knees too soon. As you start to return forward, your knees need to remain straight until the handle is above your mid-shin. Hinge at the hips, sit up tall, and wait (just like with a deadlift) until the bar has passed your knees to re-bend them.

  • Set a pace and stick to it. The hard the ‘push’ with the legs and pull of the handle towards your ribs, the further you will go. To go ‘faster’ doesn’t necessarily mean you have to move faster and faster with your legs and arms—rather think strong and steady wins the race.

Got it?

If not, no worries! Here’s a few more tidbits, courtesy of the makers of our rowing machines themselves, Concept 2:

Damper Setting 101

What ‘level’ or number should you set the damper dial on?

Many people confuse damper setting with intensity level or resistance. Instead, the intensity of your workout is controlled by how much you use your legs, back and arms to move the handle—in other words, how hard you pull. This is true regardless of where the damper lever is set: the harder you pull, the more resistance you will feel. Because indoor rowers use wind resistance (which is generated by the spinning flywheel), the faster you get the wheel spinning, the more resistance there will be.

Think about rowing on the water. Regardless of whether you are rowing in a sleek racing shell, or in a big, slow row boat, you will need to increase your intensity and apply more force to make either boat go faster. The difference is in how it feels to make the different boats go fast. Making a sleek boat go fast requires you to apply your force more quickly. Making the slow boat go fast also requires more force, but the speed at which you apply the force will be slower over the course of the rowing stroke.

With a little experimentation, you will find a damper setting and drag factor that work best for you. Concept2 recommends starting out on a damper setting of 3–5. Really focus on technique, and as you improve, you may find that a lower damper setting gives you the best workout and results. Very rarely do any of us train at a damper higher than a 6 or 7.

Resist setting the damper lever too high; this can exhaust your muscles before you reap the full cardiovascular benefit rowing provides.

The Rowing Stroke 101: A Breakdown

The rowing stroke can be divided into two parts: The drive and the recovery.

There is a coordinated movement pattern that happens, built upon the following positions and phases:

“The Drive” (Phase 1)

  • With straight arms and an upright position of the upper body at “one o’clock”, press firmly on the foot plate and begin pushing (or ‘driving’) with your legs.

  • As your legs approach straight, lean the upper body back to the eleven o’clock position and draw the hands back to the lower ribs in a straight line.

“The Finish” (Position 1)

  • Legs are extended and the handle is held lightly at your lower rips

  • Your upper body is at the “eleven o’clock” position—slightly reclined with good support from your core muscles.

  • Head is in a neutral position.

  • Neck and shoulders are relaxed, and elbows are drawn backpast the body with flat wrists.

“The Recovery” (Phase 2)

  • Extend first with your arms until they straighten.

  • Lean your upper body forward to the one o’clock position.

  • Once your hands and the oar handle have cleared your knees, allow your knees to bend and gradually slide the seat forward.

“The Catch” (Position 2)

  • Arms are straight; head is neutral; shoulders are level and not hunched.

  • Upper body is at the one o’clock position—shoulders in front of hips.

  • Shins are vertical and not compressed beyond the perpendicular.

  • Balls of the feet are in full contact with the footplate.

Breathing 101

Create a breathing pattern and stick with it throughout your row. This will supply regular oxygen to your muscles so they can function optimally, and it can also help you increase the intensity of your workout.

  • During low intensity rowing (one breath)—Exhale gradually on the drive, expelling all remaining air at the finish. Inhale on the recovery.

  • During high intensity rowing (two breaths)—Exhale as you finish the drive. During the recovery, inhale, then exhale quickly. Inhale again just before the catch.

Warm-Up AND Cool-Down 101

Rowing can be a great way to warm up when you hit the gym to get some blood flowing, AS WELL AS cool down after a tough workout to flush some lactic acid from your muscles. Typically a 500-meter row will be equivalent to a 400-meter run. Mix in some stretching pre and post-workout and your body will be nice and loose.

Nicole Hughes