5 Ways to Improve Your Rowing

Cassi Niemann
June 24, 2023
Reading Time: 9 minutes
Table of Contents

    Rowing is one of the many conditioning tools that can be used to meet the current physical activity guidelines. While it’s not necessary that you become THE BEST rower, or even love rowing, we do want you moving efficiently in all things that you do. We believe that will ultimately help you get the most out of your training time. In this article, my goal is to clarify the bigger concepts of rowing, how best to use the machine and get you feeling more comfortable with the order of operations, so you can get the most out of your time on the machine.

    A brief introduction, I’m Cassi Niemann, a Barbell Medicine Coach, and a Master Rowing Instructor for UCanRow2 and Concept2, the manufacturer of everyone’s favorite conditioning machine, the RowErg. And with almost 25 years of experience, I’m here to improve your rowing. Don’t worry, Barbell Medicine is not going to start pushing ONLY rowing for conditioning. We just want you to row BETTER!

    The Tips

    1. Adjust the damper.
    2. Set your feet.
    3. Sit with intention.
    4. Learn the sequence.
    5. Understand the data.

    If you can implement these five tips, then you’re already on your way to a more efficient stroke and an effective use of your time doing conditioning. So, let’s dig in.

    Tip 1: Adjust the damper setting. 

    The damper lever on the side of the Concept2 machine has settings of 1-10. And what it actually does is control the drag factor. The drag factor is a number given to the rate at which the flywheel is decelerating after each stroke. This number changes with the volume of air that passes through the fan cage. And the damper is what changes that volume of air. (You can find your drag # in the menu options in your monitor.) 

    The damper at a 10 allows more air to enter and increases the drag on the flywheel. With the damper at a 1, less air enters and decreases the drag on the flywheel. Understand this – the Concept2 RowErg is not like other resistance training equipment. You cannot pre-set a load. The damper is not the resistance and doesn’t make the workout “harder” or get you any stronger or faster.

    What is ultimately measured by the machine is your ability to accelerate the flywheel and overcome the air resistance that is trying to decelerate it. And the harder you work, the more resistance you will feel, and what the machine will measure, independent of what damper setting you’re using.

    This matters because a higher drag means your power is applied through a slower movement against a higher load. A lower drag means your power is applied more quickly against a lighter load. 

    So where should you set it? Your ideal damper or drag factor is subjective, some might even say nuanced. It is dependent on how well you connect to the machine, your technique and comfort levels, and ultimately at which setting you can apply the most force possible for a defined period of time, without major form breaks.

    I keep it very simple. Don’t know where to start? Put it in the middle. Right on a 5.

    Most people will be most effective (with proper technique) between a 3-5 damper setting, which typically correlates to a drag factor of 100-130. Though take note, the drag number is also dependent on elevation, quality of machine and quite frankly… dust. 

    In the end, what is MOST important is that you learn to move effectively, through an order of operations, with your body, on the machine.

    APPLY IT: Try rowing with different damper settings for both your longer steady state workouts and shorter sprint intervals. Break up a longer steady state piece by changing the damper setting every 2 minutes. See which setting feels better when you’re rowing slower and with less intensity. Then when doing a shorter interval workout, switch the damper setting every round. See which one gets you the most meters. Experiment! 

    Tip 2: Set your feet. 

    On the erg, there is a place to put your feet, we call it the foot-stretcher, and this setting can be adjusted. Therefore, it should be. For most people, a good place to start is with the strap over the widest part of your foot, at the ball of your foot or most likely over the bottom of your shoelaces. While this may seem like a trivial thing to focus on, the position of your feet can make a huge difference in how comfortable your stroke feels and how well you transfer force into the machine. 

    So again, place the strap over the ball of your foot, or the bottom of your shoelaces and pull the straps tight. This will allow you to get adequate reach at the catch (the beginning of the stroke when your arms are out-stretched and the handle is closest to the flywheel). When you are in this position, you want your shins vertical, knees to be either under your arms or inside your arms, close to your armpits. This is typically good for most people but there are a few exceptions. If you have super long femurs and your knees are in your face (or hitting your arms), then you should lower your feet down to get them out of the way. If you have a lot more on the front side, like a belly, an unborn child, or a burrito baby… well, you may need to lower your feet as well to allow a better reach at the catch. In lifting, we talk about the importance of tracking your knees over your toes, so the same thing applies here. If the height of your feet forces your knees to splay to the sides (past the elbows) when your body hits your legs, then lower your feet might make the stroke more effective.

    When it comes to footwear, the recommendation is to avoid wearing lifting shoes, but any other type of shoe is fine. Inflexible shoes could keep you from reaching a good catch position (shins vertical) as your heels may need to raise to get there. Plus the extra lift in the heel changes the angle of the footstretcher itself. And while some may argue that a cushiony running shoe will equate to a loss of power from the leg drive as it absorbs energy – for the typical lifter using rowing as a conditioning tool, the loss is minimal as the force is sub-maximal. 

    APPLY IT: Before rowing – ensure the straps are lining up with the widest part of your foot. Then try the Pick Drill before starting your workout – use this break down of the stroke to help establish the way your body feels when you approach the catch and if your feet are in the best position for you. Start with arms only, keeping your body back at the finish position. Then after about 10-20 strokes, add in the body swing to row using only arms and body. Then after another 10-20 strokes, add in the legs by coming up the rail towards the catch halfway then drive back. Finish it off with 20 solid full strokes, determining if your feet are in the right position for the best production of force.

    Tip 3: Sit with intention.

    The way you sit can actually matter while rowing. Sitting up tall and adjusting the hips so you’re sitz bones are driving down into the seat will allow you to get your shoulders forward of the hips in the recovery. Reaching a full catch position with shins vertical, arms extended and body angle forward can help make your stroke more efficient and powerful. The rowing stroke is 60% legs, 30% hips and 10% arms – so much of the power is derived from the body swing after the legs are driven down. Adjusting your position and sitting with intention can allow you to get a better body angle forward and get more out of each stroke. 

    APPLY IT: Try the Pause Arms & Body Drill – using the break down of the stroke to emphasize the body swing out of the finish before each return to the catch. 

    Tip 4: Learn the sequence.

    There is a very simple, repetitive sequence which allows for the coordinated application of force in the rowing stroke. It involves the entire body and when done in this order, it creates a smooth, effective movement. Learn these components: CATCH, DRIVE, FINISH, RECOVERY and then apply the mantra: “legs, body, arms – arms, body, legs.” The catch begins with the shins vertical, the body hinged forward from the hips (at 1 o’clock) and the arms extended straight towards the flywheel. The drive begins when force is applied by pushing through the feet into the foot stretchers as the legs are extended – the body remains hinged forward and the arms remain straight. As the legs reach full extension, the body swings open (from 1 o’clock to 11 o’clock) and the arms then begin to pull the hands directly into the chest. At the finish position, the arms are pulled in, the body is swung open and the legs are extended. The return to the catch is called the recovery, meaning minimal effort is being exerted. This is done by extending the arms, swinging the body back over to a 1 o’clock position (to clear the knees) – then, and ONLY THEN, should you bend the knees and continue until the shins are back in a vertical position. So to simplify, drive your legs, swing your body, bend your arms, then extend your arms, swing your body and bend your knees. Repeat. Easy, yeah?

    No? Ok, let me relate it to something you might understand. The conventional deadlift closely simulates the rowing stroke in that you are moving weight with your arms straight, midline tight, driving the legs and transferring power from your feet all the way to your hands. Now, I’m not saying the rowing stroke should look just like a deadlift or that you should do 500 deadlifts to mimic a rowing race. I’m saying that in terms of biomechanics and force transfer, there is a correlation and if it makes it easier for you to understand the progression, then that’s great. 

    We are looking for a hip-dominant stroke, one that has effective compression, a body angle forward of the hips, low shoulders, flat spine and a hang, or suspension, of the body from the lats which allow the legs to do the work primarily and then lead into a hip swing into the finish. The deadlift similarly uses force generated by the extension of the knees and hips, transmitted along a rigid spine with the lats connected perpendicularly to the bar so they can move the load vertically. Apply the same concepts that allow you to move maximal weight in a straight line vertically help you move sub-maximal weight in a straight line horizontally. 

    APPLY IT: Give the Reverse Pick Drill a try. Focusing on the use of the legs initially with about 10-20 strokes keeping the body over and arms straight. Then add in the body swing to row using only legs and body. Then after another 10-20 strokes, add in the arms and finish off the stroke, using the manta: arms, body, legs – legs, body, arms. 

    Tip 5: Understand the data. 

    The monitor on the Concept2 RowErg is quite advanced and it’s worth taking some time to figure it out. The most effective display shows your SPLIT (listed as a time /500 m and biggest number in the center) and the STROKE RATE (or SPM, Strokes Per Minute usually in top right hand corner). These two numbers will determine how much work you are doing and at what speed. The split represents how long it would take you to row 500 meters at your current intensity level, so if it says 2:00, that means it will take you 2 minutes to row that distance. This is used like a mile time for someone running a marathon. It helps pre-determine how fast you may finish a longer distance and can help inform your training program. Obviously, the lower the number, the more power you are producing.

    The stroke rate represents the number of times you move back and forth on the machine in one minute. Moving very quickly back and forth means very little if you’re not applying very much power. Finding a pace that allows you to be efficient will enable your stroke to be more powerful. Therefore, knowing this rate is just as important as knowing your split and mastering the stroke depends on your ability to manipulate both outputs at the same time.

    We have a common saying in the rowing world, it’s “row slow to go fast,” and by that we mean that speed does not always equal power, especially when technique is less than efficient. The best thing about rowing is that for every hard thing you do, you get a break. There is a drive AND a recovery and the more you can take advantage of the rest on the recovery, the more power you can deliver on the drive. To create more intensity on the drive, you need to push harder through the legs, connecting into the body swing with a smooth finish of the arms. This drive should always be faster than the recovery, and to apply more pressure but stay at a lower stroke rate, you’ll need to really slow down your return to the catch. Focus on a 3:1 or 2:1 ratio for every stroke. Once you have mastered the sequence of movements, you’ll be more likely to maintain good technique when you increase the speed. 

    APPLY IT: Try a 5-minute piece where you start at a 28 stroke rate at full effort. Every minute drop your stroke rate down 2 beats (28/26/24/22/20) and see if you can maintain the same split. Reduce the stroke rate with a deceleration of the recovery. Alternatively, if going the other way, you would increase the stroke rate with an acceleration through the drive. This will challenge you to generate more power at low stroke rates but allow you to be more efficient as it gives you more time to recover. Take note though that maintaining a consistent stroke rate takes practice and time. Even just aiming for a steady stroke rate in your longer steady state work will help with this practice.

    Cassi Niemann
    Cassi Niemann

    No products in the cart.

    25% Off Apparel, Templates & Supplements w/ MDW25