Rowing Technique: Common Errors

Rowing Technique: Common Errors

by Coach Kasey Heil

(Photos by Lisa Haefner)

Make sure you check out the first two Rowing Technique articles, The Stroke and  Adding Pressure to the Drive first! 

In my last article, I discussed how we add pressure to the drive. When we begin to add pressure to the drive, here are some common errors in technique we start to see and some quick fixes and cues you can use to improve your rowing.

1. Pulling with your Upper Traps

Rowing is a horizontal sport. Any vertical movement in your pull will prevent your from properly applying pressure. How do you know if you do this? You literally fall off the rowing machine.

You tend to jump up off your seat during the drive or slip all over your seat. There should be tension in the upper back and shoulders in order to apply a proper leg drive, but it needs to be felt between the shoulder blades, and not up by the ears. If you feel your shoulders shrugging up towards your ears think about having a long neck, relaxed traps, and pulling them down.

You can also focus on keeping the chain in the middle of the cage. Do not let your hands float too high or too low as you row.


Handle Too High


Handle Too Low

Handle Too Low

2. Shooting the Slide

This occurs when you extend your legs and your seat slides all the way back to the finish without your handle also moving back. This prevents you from utilizing the power you just created using your legs. Basically, you’re using your lower back and arms to create power which is much less effective.

Shooting the Slide.

Shooting the Slide

How do you know if you are doing this? You can hear a big whooshing sound from the seat as it shoots backwards.  You should hardly be able to hear the seat moving on the way back to the finish.  If you are folded in half (basically your chest is on your thighs and your butt is waaaay behind you) then that’s also an obvious sign you are shooting the slide.

The main way you avoid this is to maintain posture through the front end of the drive. (Sit up!)  Don’t let yourself slouch.  Another cue I use regularly is to tell members to keep their eyes above the top of the monitor, which will help encourage good posture.

As you get tired during a WOD, don't let your posture turn into this!

As you get tired during a WOD, don’t let your posture turn into this!

3. Opening the Shoulders Too Soon

This occurs when the drive is initiated with the upper body, and the legs are used secondary.  This turns the stroke into a lower back dominant movement, instead of having the legs be the primary movers.

The way this can be fixed is to try to leave the shoulders in front of the hips until the legs are almost straight.  The handle and the seat need to move at the same time until the legs are extended.

Opening the Shoulders Too Soon

Opening the Shoulders Too Soon

So, take a moment and think about these two common errors. They both mean you have issues with the sequence of your rowing stroke.

If you’re opening your shoulders too soon: Your handle moves, but your seat doesn’t.

If you shoot your slide: Your seat moves, but the handle doesn’t.

Ideally they should move together.

How do you fix this? It might be helpful to completely slow the stroke down into a three part, robotic movement.

First, straighten the legs.

Second, swing the body over. (AKA start to lean back and open at the hips.)

Third, pull the arms in toward the sternum.

Still confused? Check out the previous rowing articles (links above) for more in-depth explanation and pictures.

4. Confusing your Speed with your Stroke Rate

Most CrossFitters do not differentiate between speed and stroke rate. They get confused between how fast they are traveling a distance versus how quickly they are moving forward and backwards on the rowing machine.  (What is stroke rate? Read more here.)

Just because you row a bunch of short, fast strokes, doesn’t mean you are going anywhere. It would be like a runner taking super tiny, choppy steps, swinging their arms wildly. They’d only go a short distance, but would spend a lot of energy running. Take advantage of a long, powerful drive on your stroke. It will be much more effective when trying to cover a set distance.

5. Your Rowing Ratio (2:1)

This brings us to the idea of ratio in rowing.  The recovery (the way to the front) should take longer than the drive (the way back).  This is easy to understand when you have a low stroke rate (<20 spm).

An athlete can have an extremely powerful and fast drive, while maintaining a slow and relaxed recovery. The recovery is the only opportunity an athlete has to breathe. You should exhale when the handle reaches your chest and you will naturally take another breath without having to think about it.

Rushing through your recovery is counterproductive.  Even when the stroke rating is high (28-34 spm), rowers should still take advantage of a more controlled and relaxed recovery. This will help with their breathing.  (Remember rowing a cyclical endurance sport and athletes depend on oxygen).