Row Like a Rower! 5 Common CrossFit Rowing Mistakes
If you made a pie chart depicting the amount of time that you spend working on technique and skills vs. strength and cardiorespiratory endurance, most CrossFit athletes would reluctantly admit that the skills training should probably make up a little more of the chart. If you further break down how much time is spent on different skills, Oly lifts probably get a disproportionately large piece of the pie, with some amount of time spent on gymnastics, and a small amount for random skills like double unders, rope climbs, sled pushes, and atlas stone lifts. Maybe once in blue moon there will even be some mention of doing some kind of running form drill, but how much have you really though about your rowing? Here are a few of the most common mistakes and some tips on how to correct them.
1. Setting the damper too high
The damper on a Concept2 Erg is like the gears on your bike. Rowing is a light and fast activity, like running or cycling, if it feels heavy and slow, you’re in trouble. There are two major reasons to keep the damper at a reasonable setting: efficiency and safety.
Remember that these rowing machines are designed for the rowing community. The “10” setting is something a crew would use for heavier-than-rowing workouts; they don’t compete or row normal practice pieces at this resistance. They might do 10 to 20 strokes at a time at this resistance with some easy recovery strokes in between. Think of it as hill sprints for a runner, or a gymnast using ankle weights for some specific exercise. This is not your every day setting, and certainly not your “race” setting. As long as you have good form and stroke length, you’ll be much more effective and efficient at a higher pace and a lighter setting. If you can row a 2k in less than six minutes, go ahead and put it up to a “7” or “8,” but the rest of us “normal” athletes should be rowing around “4” or “5.” A 2k race should generally be rowed at a settled pace between 36 and 42 strokes per minute (sprinting at the beginning or end of the 2k can be up as high as 45spm!). If you are sprinting a 500m piece and your strokes per minute sits somewhere in the twenties, your damper is set way too high.
A heavy setting can also be damaging to your lower back. Although good rowing form includes a tall spine position with an engaged core, it is necessarily a more elongated and relaxed posture than the set up for a heavy deadlift or clean. (Try rowing with a completely locked-back deadlift set up, and even if you’re really flexible, you’ll find your stroke length will be cut in half and you will fatigue very quickly.) At the catch, you are reaching the farthest and your body is the most extended, but that is the same point in the stroke where the flywheel is moving the most slowly and will effectively feel the “heaviest.” Too much load for hundreds of reps in this position is a recipe for lower back problems. If I told you to do 300 muscle cleans in 8 minutes, how much weight could you safely put on the bar?
2. Pulling with the arms at the catch
The rowing concept of “hanging” or “hanging on the oar” should be very familiar to the CrossFit community, because it is the equivalent of leaving the arms straight during the first pull of a clean or snatch. Most people (even experienced rowers) have a tendency to try to pull with the arms right at beginning of the catch. With very few exceptions, people don’t actually continue to pull with their biceps through the leg drive, they just sort of hold a slight angle with their elbows until they get to the end of their drive when the arms are supposed to engage. This fatigues the arms unnecessarily, and provides an extra bent joint where energy transfer between the foot plate and the handle can dissipate.
3. Using little or no body swing
During the rowing stroke, just like in a good clean pull, the angle of the body should swing open forcefully, but only after the initial leg drive has effectively begun to move the bar (handle). At the catch, the shins should be vertical and the body should be angled as far forward as possible without the body and head slouching downward. This should put the lowest ribs in contact with the thighs, and there should be some distance between the heels and the seat. At the finish, the body should be laid back slightly, enough to engage the abs, but not so much as to cause a downward slouch of the body and head. This means that there should be a distinct “swing” of the body (opening of the hips) at some point during the drive, similar to a clean. This should occur after the leg drive and before the arms engage. Two major faults result in little or ineffective body swing.
Compressing the seat too close to the heels before the drive causes the body to become upright before the legs start to push. If you’re already upright or laid back before you start to push with the feet, there isn’t going to be much angle left to swing through.
Secondly, if you swing the body back during the first part of the leg drive you will lose the ability to accelerate effectively through the middle of the drive, and you will lose the ability to add your body weight to the swing. A later swing with give you a good “hang” on the oar that will float your weight a little off the seat, vectoring that weight horizontally into the foot stretchers.
4. Finishing too high and too far back
The handle and chain on the rowing machine should travel in a straight flat plane. Many CrossFitters pull up on the handle as they get to the finish of their stroke and end up with the handle at their chest or even up by their neck. Pulling vertically on the handle does not get you more meters! Try rowing 10 to 15 strokes at 50 to 55 strokes per minute. Does the chain move smoothly, or does it flap all over the place?
Finishing high often occurs in conjunction with laying back too far at the finish. Although laying back until your shoulder blades touch the tracks will get you a slightly longer stroke, there are three reasons no to do this. 1) You will waste time to get back to the next stroke. Can you row effectively at 40 strokes per minute like this? 2) You will end up in a much less powerful position at the finish. The wrists will look like you are pretending to be the Easter bunny, and you will be pulling up with the wrists rather than pulling into your body like a ring row or Pendlay row. 3) You will unnecessarily fatigue your core. Rowing is already a very core-engaged, six-pack developing exercise. There’s no need to add a full sit up at the end of every stroke.
5. Rushing the slide (on the recovery)
A quick snappy accelerating drive should get the flywheel spinning fast. Smoothly extend your hands away and hinge your body out of the laid-back position, then take your time sliding the seat forward to get back to the catch for the next stroke. If you do, you can grab a tiny rest and get your body set for the next stroke. In the meantime, the flywheel is spinning out and giving you free meters. More rest + free meters = greater efficiency. With that said, there is a point of diminishing returns. The flywheel slows which gives you a declining number of free meters each second, and it makes the next stroke slower and heavier. A good rule of thumb is to make the recovery twice as long as the drive. It’s just like a waltz: from catch to finish is “1…” and from the finish back to the catch is “2… 3…” During a short sprint (40+ strokes per minute) it might be more like a 1:1½ ratio and during a longer row (<30 strokes per minute; anyone want to row a 10k with me?) it might be closer to 1:3.
If you have been doing CrossFit for a long time and have never worked on your rowing form, you may find that changing long-standing habits may make you less effective the first few times you try it, but developing good form will keep you safe, make you more effective, and more efficient. Most people also find that their Olympic lifts also benefit, because of the strong similarities in load ordering and power application.