Let’s be honest. Rowing is a serious component of CrossFit that should be afforded the respect it deserves through regular practice and study. Of course, this is far easier said than done.
Perhaps you feel as if you’ve wasted gargantuan amounts of energy only to get minimal returns. You’ve sought out the most efficient way to do everything else in CrossFit, now it’s time to look at rowing the same way.
When digging into rowing philosophies you tend to find two distinct schools of thought. One school is the purist rower who wants you to know every nuance, term, and tradition in the sport of rowing. The other school is the CrossFitter who’s created her own style, blending the articles, videos, and coaches she’s seen and heard and doing her best to have an efficient technique.
You probably expect me to pick a side and stake a claim that there’s nothing to be learned from the other. But actually, we can benefit from both. We can use each school to give us the right combination of old school vs. new school that’s ideal for CrossFit.
2 Old School Secrets That Increase Your Efficiency
It’s easy to jump on a Concept2 erg (or rower) and pull until you want to heave. But old school purists have refined rowing to get the most out of each stroke while minimizing effort that doesn’t impact your output. To conserve energy use these tried and true concepts:
1. Learn to relax on the recovery phase of the stroke
The recovery is the transition from the back of the stroke (the finish: where the handle is near your chest) to the front of the rower.
Contrary to some beliefs, this is not a stop and pause point. Instead, as you finish the stroke close to your chest, immediately and quickly push your hands towards your feet. Next close your hips. Finally, and I emphasize finally, let your knees bend.
Here’s where you learn to relax. Avoid pulling yourself forward with your legs, rely instead on the forward momentum you created by pushing your hands away quickly and then let your legs relax as the knees bend.
Try this: Take a 5-second stroke. Push hard and quick through the drive for one second. Then practice the recovery pattern; quick hands, closing the hips, and slow legs for four seconds. Take 15 – 20 strokes and have someone count for you. The end game is to feel what it’s like to turn your legs off and let them relax.
2. Quick, Explosive Catches Will Shave Seconds Off your Split
The catch is the phase of the stroke where you transition from the recovery to the drive.
Any lag time here slows the flywheel while you wait. In turn you spend more energy than necessary getting the flywheel up to speed—and flywheel speed equals power.
On the other hand, if you transition seamlessly from the recovery into the drive by driving your legs down quickly and powerfully, you’ll notice a positive impact on your time.
Try this: Use the same 5-second drill as above. As you reach the catch position put your focus on how quickly you can move from recovery to drive, bracing your core and pushing through your legs.
Note of caution: Many find it easier to transition by pulling with their arms before their legs drive. I use a cue that every athlete knows to explain why we don’t want to do that.
“When the arm bends, the power ends.” -Coach Mike Burgener.
Take 15–20 strokes with this drill at a time to focus on your form. If you can have a coach watch you, even better.
The Secret The New School Had Developed
While the old school has gotten plenty of things right, let’s not discount CrossFitters for their ingenuity either.
Create the most efficient path possible by moving the handle in a straight line. In the rowing world the hands move up and down at parts of the stroke due to the need to control the oar handle. We don’t have an actual oar to worry about in CrossFit.
At the catch, the chain should be in the middle of the rectangular box that guides the chain path, and as you drive it should make a straight line to the base of your sternum.
Keep your arms and hands as relaxed as possible. Between them they make up a very small percentage of your power output, avoid spending unnecessary energy by gripping too hard or pulling too early.
Try this: Use a piece of chalk to make two marks on that rectangular box an inch apart, one half an inch above the middle, and one half an inch below the middle. As you row, keep your chain in-between those two chalk marks. Now you have visual feedback so you can self-correct.
Practice Like You Do Your OLY Lifts
Nothing shows progress more than practice. Expect to see great returns if you invest the time to drill yourself. A little work every day produces gains and you’ll notice your attitude toward this valuable machine changing.