After yesterday’s post about my recent indoor rowing adventures some people I know, and maybe some I don’t, seem somewhat inspired to give this sport a try. When you’re housebound during The Plague, it is a pretty wholesome hobby. In the spirit of my Armchair Triathlon Advice I thought I’d write what I know about indoor rowing.

The most important thing to cover is how to not screw up your back.

To start that off, let’s go to a sport that I know even better than rowing and you probably do too. One of the things I see quite a bit which triggers my bicycle coaching instincts is someone climbing a hill on a bike and their upper body is bobbing like crazy. On a bicycle extraneous upper body motion wastes energy in exactly the way you do not want it to. Competent cyclists must develop the skill to feel like that kind of energy wasting motion is truly wasting energy. It must become an instinct! I bring this up because it’s important to talk about why this happens and why it needs to be coached out of people using actual brain thinking until it is automatic. It is important because in rowing there is an equivalent kind of sloppy form, but unlike cycling, if you get it wrong you do not merely perform suboptimally. No, you can easily destroy your back and end your rowing career. Let’s avoid that.

What causes this bobbing in inexperienced cyclists? I certainly can remember that sensation from before I had a clue. The answer is desperation. We’re used to living our lives well within our means. You usually don’t find yourself halfway up the basement stairs unable to proceed because you’ve suddenly become paralyzed with fatigue. But riding a bike, especially up a hill, can involve unusually high wattages. Without experience in this realm of strange bio-kinematic physics what happens is the inexperienced are taken by surprise. They start the climb fine. But what has happened is that they’ve been given a small energy loan from the body which is assuming this silliness is going to stop Very Soon. But when that loan is not paid back quickly the body starts shutting off service. On the bike it starts with the legs and what happens is that inexperienced cyclists continue to spend wattage from whatever extraneous body parts will allow it. You see people bobbing their heads or shrugging their shoulders or flapping their elbows or bouncing the whole bike up and down while their cranks slow down and stubbornly refuse to go any faster. Basically they are spending dumb energy that is not going into solving the real problem.

This sounds like a diversion from rowing but you really must understand this problem to face it with the proper respect. When rowing it is very easy to unload your maximum wattage. How long can you sustain that? The answer is of course not very long. Then what? What dumb muscle groups will you pointlessly flail about with to produce the equivalent of bobbing on a bike? The harsh answer is that unlike cycling, there are no spare unused muscles. Maybe you can nod or bob your head stupidly, but already that hints at the real problem. What people do when they have toasted the muscles that control their proper rowing technique is they do dumb things with their spine. It takes many forms but a common one is pushing your butt back — dangerously hunching your back — while the oar goes nowhere — and then lashing out with the back muscles. This works deceptively well for about two strokes. And then your rowing career is over.

Everyone has heard the sensible phrase "Lift with your legs." Rowing uses the whole body, true, but since your legs are far and away your strongest muscles, rowing is really a leg strength sport with some light upper body diversion thrown in. Make sure you internalize that idea. My first piece of advice is to really try hard to punish your legs — if something is hurting and it’s not the large muscles of your legs, you’re doing it wrong. I actually had a slight variation on that as a strong cyclist with very weak arms. But if your back ever starts to hurt, you need to stop doing what you’re doing immediately. If it doesn’t hurt that much and you really don’t want to take a break, you need to focus all of your workout energy on technique. What technique specifically? The technique that allows you to row with a comfortable back. There is no Plan B.

How can you make sure you’re rowing in a way that keeps your back safe? Fortunately it’s not that complicated. It really comes down to good posture. In cycling sitting lazily in a bad position is going to cause problems. Rowing doesn’t have terrible ass end interface problems like cycling, but having the discipline to always maintain excellent posture is even more important. If you’re very tired, a sensible workout on a rowing machine is sitting there doing nothing with good posture. If you can’t do that, don’t even think about rowing.

What entails "good" rowing posture? To me it is feeling like you are in full control of your spine’s position. When you slouch you’re letting gravity do whatever it wants to your back. Rowing involves some gravity and a lot of other forces. You must have complete control of your spine at all times.

A simple rule that I try to follow is to start with the spine in a comfortable and sensible shape and never change it. Your vertebrae evolved to move a bit with respect to each other but that motion does not power a rowing stroke. If your spine is bending or twisting as part of your power delivery, you need to rethink your technique.

The good news here is that if you do a lot of rowing you’re also doing a lot of focusing on good posture and strengthening the muscles that facilitate it. This is why rowing is not incompatible with back problems if done correctly.

I’ve stressed the fact that you need to watch your back. But there’s slightly more to be said. When people start as novices in rowing clubs they usually get the same lesson. There are tons of technique videos out there but if you only watch one, Gary the buff Kiwi explains pretty much everything you need to know about the typical beginner lesson in under 3 minutes.

When I was a kid I was taught: legs, back, arms; arms, back, legs. (It’s a FILO queue if you’re a computer science person.) Notice that Gary the buff Kiwi says ligs, body, ahms. Sometimes he even says "hips". I think today coaches are trying to avoid saying "back" because it gives people the wrong idea. In that middle phase, your spine may move in space, but it is not providing power. It is not changing shape. That is important.

One way I’ve thought of to properly visualize this is to imagine laying on the floor. (It’s a thought experiment - you don’t even have to do it! Yay!) You could stick your legs in the air and wave them around. If your feet were together and extended above you in this way, you could then bend your knees and your legs would be doing stuff. Pretty dumb, yes, but here’s the important part — if your knees are bent or not you can still raise and lower your legs while lying on your back and yet you’d never think to call that a back workout. That’s rowing. Your back is set. Maybe not in the same shape as lying on the floor and maybe not using gravity, but your spine should be immobilized by your good posture and control while you do crazy power stuff with your legs, knees bent or not.

When I thought about writing some rowing tips, I thought I would take some photos of my lovely rowing technique. Then I got over myself and remembered that this is the 21st century and I could do better than that. Way better.

Around the 1 minute mark of this video (which can’t be embedded, sorry), the British-Californian man highlighted was the first person to cross the finish line in the fastest boat in the most prestigious regatta of the last 8 years. I think we can safely assume he knows what he’s doing.

I did some video processing to help us analyze his stroke. The most helpful thing I did was to stabilize the frames so that the stationary focal point of the camera was on the oarsman. Usually with rowers sliding around in a complete boat perspective it’s hard to get a sense of what it’s like to be them. Here I’ve tried to lock the camera to his center of gravity, basically where his back intersects the gunwale.


Then I added colored lines to show the three stroke phases mentioned by Gary the buff Kiwi. Green is the leg drive, red is the hips, and magenta is the arms. I roughly made the arm lines longer when his arms were more bent; the lengths of the other two lines are just so that they would be visible and have no special meaning. I lined up the leg line on the front of the shins. The red body line is interesting because his shirt has a vertical seam which I used and I think it provides a pretty consistent and accurate look at his core body position.

The first thing to note is that the green line leg drive is very quick. This is where the vast majority of power comes from and the rest is all icing on the cake while the legs rest up for the next jolt. The part of the stroke where the oar goes in the water is called the "catch" and coaches really try to get their crews to explode with leg power at the catch. This Olympic he-man gets his shins perfectly vertical like a machine — just like coaches would coach you to do. But if that’s a lot of stress for you, do what’s comfortable. You’re not an Olympian. No big deal.

The next thing to notice is that the bent arm pull at the end of the stroke, called the "finish", never happens while the legs are still driving. Speaking of arms, this boat is a "sweep" oar boat meaning he’s rowing port side only with a single oar in both hands. This is why his body twists as he reaches for the catch — he places his left shoulder between his knees. Obviously if you’re rowing in a gym or your living room, you do not need to think about such things. Still as someone who once did a lot of port side sweep rowing and erg rowing, they are more similar than different.

That brings us to the critical red line. I think the forward angle is a bit exaggerated at the catch because he’s more twisted than he’d be sculling or on an erg. Some of the red line straightening up on the leg drive is really his body untwisting. But it all seems correct enough to me. You can see that he opens with his body more powerfully only once the legs are done. And his arm pull finish is only really executed once he’s leaned pretty far back. Still, the part that beginner lessons leave out is that his phase transitions are all smooth and fluid.

The really important thing is to pay attention to his back. It is curved a bit as would be natural sitting on the floor reaching for something in front of you. But it is never stressed — he never changes its shape. Look at his stomach which is as straight as his oar. You just know that if you punched this 196cm guy in the stomach he’d laugh at you.

If you really study this sequence you can see that his back does compress a little — it must — but only when he is relaxed on the recovery; the reason is that he needs to lower himself a bit to keep his oar out of the water. Watch his head against the shoreline and you’ll see this in action (some of this is boat surge). But when putting power into the drive after the catch, his back has the flex of an I-beam. He actually fully re-extends his back well ahead of time while still relaxed and reaching for the catch with the oar over his shins. If you’re rowing indoors, none of that oar handling applies to you! Just keep your back solid. Keep the oar/handle at a consistent height, about at the sternum.

Without seeing you row, that’s all I can say about form.

There are a couple of other minor things to worry about with rowing. While cycling is notoriously harsh on the ass end interface, rowing is notoriously harsh on the hand interface. Fortunately, this problem is not too bad for indoor rowing.

I started my rowing career in real boats on a nearly frozen off-season lake, clumsily smashing my soft lazy hands into the gunwales over and over until there was way more blood than I expected rowing would produce. Things are much easier for indoor rowing.

Is some country trying to bend immigration law to get you on their Olympic rowing team? No? Ok, great. That means you’re a perfectly normal person. And as such, if you want to wear gloves, then gloves are fine. Do not listen to rowing weenies who sneer at gloves because they can be problematic in real shells pulling on real oars. When I started back on the erg this fall, I quickly tore up my hands and was not about to feel stupid about the half dozen pairs of cycling gloves I own just sitting around mocking me. Even with gloves, you will get calluses. I’ve got one of those skin abrading stones and file my hands into a sensible shape as needed. At this point I sometimes row with gloves and sometimes not depending on how I feel at the time.

My final advice for taking up indoor rowing is don’t go crazy with ambition. Don’t set massive goals. You will not stick with unrealistic expectations. If you attempt to go from couch potato to moderate athlete training instantly, that’s like going from moderate athlete training to Olympian training instantly. That is unlikely to produce good results. Try to have fun and find the satisfying parts that you feel good about. Not everybody can find such sentiments in such a masochistic hobby, but I assure you it’s possible!