Rowing: does proper technique matter in terms of power production and does it help to prevent injury by Erin Ritterbusch
[This is a guest blog by Erin Ritterbusch who is currently an intern at Athletic Lab. Erin is a recent graduate of Auburn University where she received her Master’s degree in Exercise Science with a concentration in biomechanics.]
The first thing I learned when I joined the club rowing team at my undergrad was that technique is the most important aspect of becoming a powerful and efficient rower. Not only does it allow you to produce more power, but also helps prevent injuries that can occur with improper technique on the rowing machine. The sequence of a stroke is the basis of good technique, which helps rowers translate to the water. The biggest misconception with rowing is that power comes from your arms, but in actuality, the majority of power comes from your legs. The beginning of the stroke is called “the catch”. The catch is then is followed by “the drive” phase, “the finish” or “release”. The last phase of the stroke is “the recovery” phase. These four phases are sequential in nature rather than simultaneous because they should be treated as one fluid motion. *It should also be noted that the drive and recovery phases are normally seen as a 1:2 ratio; meaning that the time spent to “recover” on the way up the slide takes twice as long as driving the legs back during the power producing phase of the stroke. Creating this rhythm allows for the continuous flow of the stroke and gives you true recovery time. Additionally, on the water, it will reduce any forward jolting of the boat, which can set back the number of meters gained during the drive.
1: The Catch
2: The Drive
3: The Finish
4: The Recovery
Generally, the order of the rowing stroke is seen as legs, body, arms during the pull and then arms, body, legs during the release. This sequencing is very important. It coordinates the movement properly and generates optimal results. An article published in the CrossFit Journal, called “The Biomechanical Analysis of Rowing,” states that Most rowing experts agree that the proper sequence of motion- in order to maximize both stroke power and efficiency- is to start the row by driving the legs, extending the hips, then pulling with the arms last. The majority of the stroke power comes from the legs and the trunk. The greatest force exerted on the handle occurs in the first 40 percent of the row cycle. The article goes on to say, the power developed in the legs and the sequencing of the leg drive to the trunk extension are the most crucial aspects of rowing. Failure to properly sequence motions can compromise how the spine is loaded, which may explain why low-back pain is common among elite rowers. This brings up my next big point on the importance of proper technique- the injury prevention side of this topic.
Many injuries can result from improper technique, such as low back injuries, rib stress fractures, shoulder pain, patellofemoral pain, IT band syndrome, forearm and wrist injuries, etc. When observing non-rowers on the rowing machine, the most common mistakes I notice are hyperflexion of the back during the catch, too much or too little extension of the back during the finish, overall bad posture throughout, and non-sequential movements. But the most common mistake of all is the lack of understanding of where the power should stem from. Driving with your heels is the best advice I was given by my coach when I first started rowing. You want to start at the catch by having a flexed back, but not to where you are hunching over, and with the handle being held parallel to the machine. As you start the stroke, you want to drive your heels down and make sure you use that as your driving force rather than throwing your body back as you pull, which could cause strain to your lower back. As your legs are almost fully extended, you begin to extend your hips, and then follow that with pulling the handle towards your chest. Be sure to keep good posture throughout the drive by keeping your shoulders back and sitting upright by keeping your back straight. As you finish the stroke, you want to be just past 90 degrees of hip extension and the handle to touch right under your chest when your elbows are fully flexed. You want to make sure to keep your elbows close to your body as you pull the handle as opposed to creating a “chicken wing” type effect with your elbows perpendicular to your body. As you begin the recovery phase, first let your elbows extend (keeping in mind that the handle bar stays parallel to the rower throughout this phase), followed by flexion at the hips and then flexion at the knees to return to the catch.
However, technique can escape from anyone if severe muscle fatigue begins to set in. For my biomechanics class in undergrad, we had the opportunity to do a group project in the biomechanics lab. My group decided to do a study comparing the technique of a collegiate rower before and after putting them through fatigue inducing exercise. From this study, we learned that fatigued muscles definitely affect technique, no matter how skilled the rower. In the article “Rowing Injuries,” it cited a study by Caldwell called “The effects of repetitive motion on lumbar flexion and erector spinae muscle activity in rowers,” nothing that throughout a maximal rowing trial on an ergometer, lumbar flexion of the subjects increased from 75% to 90% of their maximum range of motion, most likely due to muscle fatigue.?
On a Saturday morning during my senior year in the off-season, we had a relay race on the erg (what we called the indoor rower). Pushing through and giving 110% as my teammates cheered me on, I finished my row and hopped off the erg. I and was immediately met with excruciating pain in my lower back. For the next several weeks, I couldn’t do any simple tasks without experiencing shooting pain in that area. We found out later that I had a bulging disc between my L4 and L5 vertebrae and it essentially ended my Spring and last season before it even began. I will always wonder if it was caused by improper technique because of fatigue and/or if it was brought on in the weight room from a technical error, which was a place we frequented everyday during the winter. Either way, it is important to note that it is vital to listen to your body so you know when its limit has been met and you need to stop in order to prevent injury. Having proper technique on the rower will not only be safer and ward off injury, but you will also see your power output go up and your time go down!