Rowing Technique: The Stroke

Rowing Technique: The Stroke
by Coach Kasey
(Photos by Lisa Haefner)

This is going to be the first of a series of articles on Rowing. I will focus on explaining the basics of the rowing stroke.  Most CrossFitters struggle performing this technique if they do not have any prior experience with rowing in high school or college.

If done correctly, the rowing stroke is very simple and only consists of two true components:

1) The Recovery: This is the movement to the front of the stroke also known as the Catch.
2) The Drive: This is the movement from the Catch to the Finish, also known as the back of the stroke.

The recovery of the stroke should be much slower than the drive. For instance, a ratio of 3:1 is extreme but a good jumping off point for learning.  Meaning, it takes you three times as long to return to the front end of the rower then it did to perform the actual pull.  If you can figure out how to recover properly, all you need to do is perform each step in reverse to get back to the finish from the catch.

While the stroke only consists of two true components, one can learn the position of the recovery and the drive by thinking of three simple cues, in this order from the Finish Position (Photo 1).

1. Arms Away
2. Body Over
3. Legs Up

This is the sequence the body must move to be in the correct position at the Catch to perform a correct Drive.  If you are out of sequence (for a variety of reasons to be discussed in following posts) then you will not be able to generate power effectively.  Or in general terms, you’ll be working really hard to not go very far on the rower.

What’s most important to remember: once the correct sequence is established, then power can be applied. It is best to think about the drive as a push with the legs instead of a pull with the arms.  The leg drive begins with a jump off of the foot boards (where you strap your feet in), and then the stroke is finished by allowing the arms (and handle) to come in to the sternum at the end of the stroke.

To illustrate these positions, from the back end of the stroke to the front:

1. Finish Position aka Back End of the Stroke
Legs are pressed down, posture is held with a slight lay-back (about 5-10 degrees), handle is pulled into the bottom of the sternum. Everything is repeated in the inverse order to get from the catch (front of the stroke) back to the finish.



2. Arms Away

Handle floats out until arms are straight. Traps stay down – do not shrug the shoulders up.



3. Body Over
Upright posture is maintained while shoulders come in front of the hips. You will pivot over the hips, feeling a stretch in the hamstrings – not bending or stretching through the spine. If your back has a C shape in this position, it’s wrong; you are not setting yourself up to have a good position in the front end.



4. Half-Slide
Legs have started to bend. Heels are still down on the foot boards. Nothing about the body positioning has changed from the Body Over position (3) except that the knees have bent and the seat has moved forward.  The hips are still behind the shoulders in this position.  Letting the hips get in front of the shoulders is one of the most common errors in the stroke, resulting in the seat hitting the heels and a loss of power during the drive.



5. The Catch
Shoulders stay in front of the hips and posture is maintained while the handle reaches the front of the stroke.  The heels come up, but you do not come up onto the toes. Not only is this the end of the recovery, but the beginning of the drive.  It is probably the smallest and shortest part of the stroke, but one of the most important.  There needs to be a quick turn around (switching direction from forward to backward) and an immediate feeling of connection in order for a full pressure stroke to be executed properly.



6. The Drive
Everything is repeated in the inverse order to get from the catch (front of the stroke) back to the finish.

Thinking  about your rowing stroke technique from the Finish Position (1) rather then with the Drive (6) can make it easier.  This is very similar to the concept of working from the hang position down to the floor with Olympic lifts to learn the correct positions before add speed to the movement.

Any questions about Rowing? Please post your questions to comments – they will be featured as topics for future rowing articles.


  • Matthew Mediatore

    I so needed this. Thank you

  • Robert

    Kasey you look very happy during the catch? No mention of lowering the handle slightly during the catch and then slight up during the drive? You pointed this out to me in one of the classes and it has a made a difference.

  • Brian P

    Kasey’s deconstructing of rowing for me has made me actually enjoy it!

  • Matt Zoufaly

    Cool article! I was wondering if you could discuss strokes per minute in some more detail. Some questions I see some confusion around:
    – How do I control it? (i.e. how do I get the rating up and keep that nice ratio you spoke about)
    – What rating is appropriate for what kind of piece?
    – How is it related to the damper setting on the erg?

    • Kasey Heil

      1. You control the stroke rating by literally going slower or faster. To decrease your stroke rating, slow down the recovery while maintaing a hard drive. To increase the stroke rating, go faster on the recovery, which will allow for a faster drive. I say the ratio should be 3:1 as almost an exaggeration to emphasize how much slower the recovery needs to be in comparison to the drive. This holds true when the stroke rating is super low (16-ish), but will approach something closer to 1:1 when the stroke rating is high (30+).

      2. As far as what stroke ratings are appropriate for what types of pieces, think of it as running cadences. If you were to go run a 100, your cadence will be much higher than if you were going to go out and run 3 miles. Higher stroke ratings (26-32) will be best for short pieces (less than 750m), while lower stroke ratings (18-24) will be better for longer pieces (more than 750m). That being said, these are just general guidelines. If a person happens to have amazing cardio and might be lacking in strength, they will be better off holding higher stroke ratings even for longer pieces and vice versa.

      3. There is no correlation between damper setting and stroke rating. Unlike on a bicycle where certain gears are more conducive to higher or lower rm.’s, you can pull any stroke rate on any damper setting (even though that is not advised). I recommend putting the damper around 5 because that simulates the feeling of being on the water closest. If you want to get into even more detail, the damper is not even the most important thing, but the drag factor which is a setting that you have to dig deep into the monitor to find. Putting the damper all the way up to 10 is going to be excessive in just about any and all situations. I think the only time I’ve ever had it on 10 was to do a 10 stroke test. So for any pieces that last more than 10 strokes, it is going to be too heavy. I once had a coxswain describe having the damper too high as trying to get a personal best time on a 1 mile run while wearing a weight vest, it just doesn’t work. In reverse, having the damper too low (1) will not allow you to feel enough connection on the drive.

  • Great post! I also appreciate the smirk in the final photo.

  • Ben N

    Thanks. Curious to hear recommendations on breathing technique. Noticed yesterday that my breathing was closer to drowning int he water than rowing on top of the water.

    • Kasey Heil

      There is only one spot that you need to think about breathing and the rest will take care of itself. Exhale when the handle gets to your sternum. I actually will make a sound like a big “chh” when the handle hits my chest so that I feel like I get into a better rhythm.

  • Victoria White

    More of these please! This is great!

  • Andy Graves

    Wow, thanks. Shoulders in front of hips and no “C” shape in back are great take-aways. With the Catch, is the idea that, while returning slower than the Drive we still want enough momentum to load tension at the front of the Catch?

    • Kasey Heil

      You should be able to still have tension at the catch if you are rowing at a rate 6 or a rate 36. There is no correlation between the slower recovery and getting tension at the catch. I will be doing another blog post later about how to feel the “pick up” correctly. It basically has to do with slightly lifting up the handle at the front end while turning around. The slower recovery is giving you time to breathe and sort out your stroke. If you shoot from the finish to the catch you literally take any time for you to take breath out of the situation so you will not be able to apply correct pressure on the drive.

  • Joe F

    For those interested, there was a rowing technique feature posted on The article is aimed towards on the water rowing, but all of the principals remain the same on the erg.—Three-Basic-Principles/#.VPINB_ldVEI

    Cliff’s notes version:
    1. Stay horizontal – keep the chain/handle moving on an even plane (i.e., avoid vertical movement)
    2. Relax – avoid holding tension throughout the body and stay loose through the stroke
    3. Row fluidly – rowing isn’t a series of single reps, the handle should be in constant motion