I have often joked that the way we train—by using movements from various Olympic sports, such as weightlifting, gymnastics and rowing—that we essentially butcher every single sport we get our hands on. While that might sound kind of harsh, the truth is we’re not trying to make you elite at any one sport—just adequate at many sports.
Rowing is certainly an easy one where you can become more than just adequate. In fact, it’s not uncommon for a talented athlete to start rowing and make their country’s national team within just two or three short years. The point is only to say it doesn’t take long to become a relatively effective rower.
That being said, common mistakes still ensue. But before we get to the mistakes, let clear up some terminology first so we’re all on the same page.
The catch: This is the portion of the stroke where—if you were in a boat—this is where you’d place the oar into the water. It’s essentially the start of the stroke, where you’re sitting up tall and your handle is close to the cage, just as you’re getting ready to drive your legs down hard.
The finish: Like the name says, the finish is the end of the stroke. If you were in a boat, your oar would come out of the water at this point. At the finish, your spine should be neutral and you should be leaning back and your handle should be pulled in right to your chest.
The drive: This is the exertion part of the stroke where you’re driving from the catch position to the finish position—when you’re pushing your legs down, then opening your body, and finally pulling the handle to your chest.
The recovery: This is the part of the stoke where you travel from the finish back to the catch. It begins by straightening your arms back out, swinging your body until your shoulders are in front of your hips, and then pulling your body back up to the catch position. Like the name says, you essentially do have a moment to recovery during this phase of the stroke.
Ok, back to the five common mistakes
- Bending your knees too early on the recovery:
The first thing that should happen when you reach the finish is your hands and arms should start moving back toward the catch position, and then your body should follow by swinging it over until your shoulders are in front of your hips (though you swing your body forward, you still want to think about sitting up tall and avoid hunching in your shoulders as you swing). Often, though, I see people bending their knees before their arms or body start to move. What ends up happening then is the handle hits your knees as you continue to move back to the catch, stopping the handle from moving in a perfectly linear in, which is what we want. Often when I tell people to correct this, they shoot their arms out too fast as they’re in a rush to clear their knees. Don’t be in a rush. Hold your knees straight as you straighten out your arms at the same speed at which they pulled into your chest. Wait for your body to swing over, and then start moving toward the catch with your legs.
- Rushing the recovery:
Usually people speed up the recovery as they get closer to the catch, which is the exact opposite of what you want. Your recovery should actually slow down as you move back into the catch. In rowing we call it "rushing the top quarter of the slide." As your body gets closer to the catch, think about consciously resisting the urge to speed up with your hamstrings.
- Pausing at the finish:
This might actually be the most common mistake! People want to catch their breath, so they pause for a second or two at the finish. This essentially stops the boat (or in this case, the machine) causing your power to drop significantly. Instead, as soon as your pull your hands to your chest, start moving them back out again. If you feel it’s all happening too fast and you’re not getting a chance to breathe, think about slowing down the recovery, and ultimately your stroke rate (see #2). Breathe on the recovery, not by pausing at the finish position.
- High stroke rate:
Rowing is all about efficiency. Just because you're stroking at a high rate, like 32 strokes per minute, doesn't mean you’re moving the boat fast. The best rowers know how to row with a lot of power at a low stroke rate.
For our purposes—as a general rule—the only time you should ever be stroking at 32-plus strokes per minute is if you’re going for a 500-meter all-out sprint. For a novice rower, I would generally recommend doing a 2-km piece at around a 28 strokes per minute (max 30), and a 5-km piece at around a 26. Similarly, if you’re rowing in a conditioning workout (let's say 3 rounds of 500 meter row, 12 deadlifts and 21 box jumps) try to keep your stroke rate between a 24 and a 26. This doesn't mean you can’t still drive hard and powerfully. And eventually as you become more proficient you will be able to row at a higher stroke rate, but it’s important to learn to row well at a lower stroke rate first.
- Early arm bend:
As you drive, your arms should stay straight until the last portion of the drive. The sequence goes: legs, back, arms. If you can see or feel that your arms are bent before or as your cross your knees with the handle, you know you’re bending them too soon.