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Many rowers who leave the sport often cite injury as their main reason for leaving – back pain being one of the major complaints.
In this article, I’m going to talk through one of the best ways to reduce the risk of developing injuries whilst rowing, and that is by improving our posture and position on the rowing machine.
I will also discuss some of the ways to strengthen different parts of your body, which is essential for maintaining effective and safe rowing technique.
So let’s get started.
What Is a Good Rowing Posture?
The answer to “what is good rowing posture” is a very complex conversation, especially in the context of indoor rowing. Improving the rowing technique might not immediately translate to better splits, but rest assured that it will in the long run. Everyone’s body is different, so everyone’s posture on the rowing machine is going to vary.
What I can and will do, however, is offer some guidance to help you develop the perfect rowing form to help you avoid major mistakes when rowing and prevent injuries.
Simple Technique Is Good Technique
Let’s consider the basics, first of all.
Erg Instructor Laura Tanley demonstrating Rowing Positons
To take the finish position and recovery phase as our starting position, your legs should be flat, handle drawn into your torso with your wrists approximately flat (although the position of my wrists is not something I often stress about whilst on the rowing machine), and elbows close to your body.
Your body should be rocked to 1 o’clock and should also be relaxed but with your core strong and engaged.
Moving forward through the stroke-
Your arms should move away from your body.
Once your arms are away, your trunk rocks forward – this movement should be driven from the hips rocking over and not the lower back collapsing forwards.
When the back is rocked forwards, then the knees can break, allowing you to start to slide forward towards the catch.
Maintain the core engagement (don’t allow yourself to sit supported by your lower back). I do this by ensuring that I am sitting slightly forwards on my seat and focus on keeping my chest proud.
At the catch, your shins should be vertical – it may be the case that you are not flexible enough at the moment for your shins to be able to reach a vertical position. This is absolutely fine (for now), but consider looping some mobility exercises into your practice so that you can move towards a better position.
Whilst at the catch, make sure your lower back isn’t hunched over – the hinge should be from the hips, and make sure you’re loose in the upper body. In general, I try to ensure that I have a loose grip and loose fingers – this helps to keep everything else in my torso loose.
The first movement away from the catch should be a push with the legs. Often, rowers will immediately open their backs or pull their arms. This is an inefficient way of rowing and increases your risk of injury.
So, push away with your legs to ensure that you are using the correct muscles. A good prompt is to “drop the knees”. Thinking about what your knees are doing helps to improve your technique from this position. Another helpful prompt is to keep the shoulders forward as you start the drive – this helps you get a nice punchy hip swing and ensures you’re using the big muscles during the stroke.
The arms begin – or should only begin – to draw in after the legs have driven and the hips swung through. The longer you can hold the arms extended the better your splits and your rowing posture are going to be during the drive phase. You’ll be able to apply more power through the movement by not allowing your arms to bend too early.
Learn More – Watch our Youtube video below by Rowing Instructor & Coach Max Secunda:
Should I Keep My Back Straight When Rowing?
The short answer is No. This is an absolute hate of mine with rowing coaches. So often, I see novices being taught to keep their back dead straight when they’re rowing. Doing that is neither necessary nor optimum.
I think coaches often teach novices to keep their back straight as a lazy way of teaching the hip hinge. The sad thing about that is it prevents you from properly engaging your core during the stroke and puts you in an overall weaker position throughout the rowing stroke.
So What Is the Correct Shape of the Back?
You should allow for a neutral position of the back – not so much that it makes a ‘C’ shape, but enough so that you’re not sat bolt upright.
If you find that you’re rolling your spine and creating a big arch in order to get the lean forward in the catch position, then you need to take a look at the way in which you’re rocking your hips forward.
In my opinion, the best way to learn the hip hinge properly is by practising exercises such as the Romanian deadlift and kettle bell swings.
If you’re still struggling to reach a good position at the catch, then I suggest you take a look at your overall mobility. It’s likely you’ll be suffering from tight hips, legs, and hamstrings.
Equally consider your upper body mobility. Do you have tight shoulders? Can you comfortably perform an overhead squat? Have a read of my article on the best exercises for rowers to improve mobility.
Why Is Core Strength Important for a Good Rowing Posture?
Core strength is important both whilst indoor rowing and in the boat. Keeping the chest up at the catch and sitting tall (chest proud) at the finish position are essential to get the best results and avoid back injury.
Keeping the chest proud at the finish in the boat allows you to extract your blades with the spoons square (avoid washing out). This will make you so much faster and help balance the boat for the next stroke.
In the gym, keeping a strong rowing posture at the finish will allow you to flow your hands away loosely. This means that you won’t be wasting energy squeezing the life out of the handle with a tight grip during the higher rate workouts.
Feet Out Rowing Drill
To practice good posture in both settings, try the feet out rowing drill. This is going to force you to hold a strong finish position at the end of the drive phase, which will ultimately improve your rowing technique massively.
Watch my video here where I demonstrate a simple “Feet Out Rowing Drill”
Make sure to keep a tight core as you’re doing this drill and that you’re fully extended as you row. The temptation with this drill is to ease off during the drive phase so as to avoid falling off your seat – this is not going to help you develop proper form.
Instead, focus on using the correct muscle groups and keeping your feet in contact with the footplate throughout the stroke. Focus on these things, and you’ll be able to sit comfortably on your seat.
Also ensure that you are driving with your legs and not making the stroke by pulling with the arms. If you’re finding it hard to balance at the finish (or you keep coming off your seat), chances are you’re giving it too much pull and not enough leg drive!
With the proper rowing posture, not only will you avoid injuries and back pain, but you will also improve your splits and overall rowing performance in the long run.
Follow the techniques and drills given in this guide to perfect your form in each phase of the stroke and strengthen different parts of your body. Only by mastering the basics can you make progress in rowing and stay in the sport!
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Written by Max Secunda – RowingCrazy.com
Experienced Heavy Weight Rower, Rowing Instructor & Coach, Novice Men’s Rowing Captain, British Concept 2 Record Holder & Rowing YouTube Influencer
Max is a rower at Vesta Rowing Club based in London, UK. He started rowing at the University of Sheffield, where he also was the Captain of the Novice Men’s Rowing Team, Max has a well know YouTube channel where he vlogs about his rowing training and experiences.