Before working at Concept2, my fitness background included running, avoiding leg day, and in the past two years, CrossFit (where I began working on my chicken legs). Needless to say, I was versed in the Concept2 Indoor Rower in more than enough workouts to consider myself “good.” Maybe it was my height, my extra large biceps, or my endurance background that lead me to enjoy pain on the “erg.” Fast forward just a few months into working at Concept2 and rowing next to some “real live” rowers (collegiate and national team athletes, etc.); it was clear I was highly misinformed. The little I’ve learned in the past few months has made an amazing impact in all of my workouts. I am by no means trying to gloat about my improved times; what’s valuable are the improvements I’ve made compared to my level of current fitness.
Seven Tips from a non-elite CrossFitter ("scaled" is the term here) to Improve Your Rowing
- Stroke Rate
When I started CrossFit, the owner of my box was nice enough to tell me 36 strokes per minute (s/m) isn’t the most efficient way to row. I got this down to a SUPER low 28 s/m and thought I had it nailed. In my short time at Concept2, I’ve taken huge chunks of time off of my old PRs, all while having average stroke rate for these pieces around 20 s/m. I found this adjustment to be immensely beneficial, and when I do find myself pulling at a higher rate, I am able to pull much stronger splits due to practice of strong full slow pulls. Some changes included 50 seconds on a 5k, 1:10 on a 6k, and 3 minutes on a 10k. Let’s be clear, I am NOT more fit now that I work here, but I am more efficient.
To begin, the extra large bicep comment was a joke; my upper body is reminiscent of your average cyclist, or the opposite of someone who skips leg day. I’m in shape, but no bodybuilding magazines are recruiting me. I was strong enough to pull a low 7 minute 2k and a sub-20 minute 5k, but I was probably using about 70% arms and 30% back; where were my legs? With a mix of observation and coworkers
yelling at meinstructing me on form, I noticed tremendous differences. The cues legs, hips, arms then arms, hips, legs repeat in my head when I work on form. Think deadlift: As you pull with straight arms, you extend your legs, and lastly fully open your hips. With the row you would then finish your pull bringing the handle to your sternum.
I don’t mean protein shakes and three hour power naps (also important), but too often I will see people shoot from the finish back to the catch as if it could somehow generate maximum power. Or even worse, the cringe-worthy recovery that happens before the pull is complete. How are you returning to the catch if your legs are still bent during the drive? Recovery really is meant to be just that—recovery. That time should be spent slowly returning to the catch, allowing yourself to breath, relax and prepare for your next strong pull.
- Fly and Die
The best way to start a 5k is to hit your best ever split in the first eight strokes and then settle into your pace, right? Not even close. Like a lot of CrossFitters, I had that diagnosis of pacing issues. I was that dog starting a run or a hike. It didn’t matter if it was a hill or Everest, one mile or 12 miles, it was start at 110% and figure it out after. The main difference is that a dog doesn’t know the distance, I did. The long-term advantage in a piece, especially anything of significant length, is nil when it comes to ripping on the handle to start the row. These days even for a 1000m piece I'm settling into my pace within four to five strokes, with no intention of faltering from that.
If you think rowing is an arm or upper body dominant activity for an able-bodied individual, then you are misinformed and cheating yourself of valuable seconds. Yes, it hurts to push with your legs, it hurts to push over and over, but your leg muscles are large and can do wonderful things. Much more than your puny little arms.
I’m going to talk about pride, but 100% related to damper setting. Funny thing about the damper, ANYONE, and I mean anyone, can make the rowing machine move on a damper setting of 10. Too often someone tells me they did this or that length piece, and they add that it was on damper setting 10. More often than not, I’m not impressed with the times (I’m not impressive myself). Most world record 2k times are set on a damper setting in between 3–5. The damper does not equate to a weight. You have not put 405 pounds on a bar and snatched it by putting the damper setting on 10. Nor have you grabbed an empty barbell on damper setting one. To truly find out the best setting you will need to fool around with the damper. Check out this brief 2007 CrossFit Journal article from Concept2 Founder Peter Dreissigacker about this exact topic.
Don’t try and fix every single little error you make in one session. When I adjusted my stroke rate, I wasn’t holding the same pace. When I tried to use my legs more efficiently I also noticed my pace wasn’t as strong. We’ve all been in a class where a coach tells you four steps to a better lift. I’ve never been able to instantly apply all those four cues the very next lift. You take one of those cues, and go with that for a bit, until that is mastered. Like all activities, breaking steps down and working at them slowly will lead to huge improvements down the road. That guy who can bench 350 pounds, but can’t hold his arms overhead may be able to only power snatch 175 pounds his first week in CrossFit, but he won’t add much more, if any, to his snatch until he breaks down his mobility and technique. I am not going to be a world class rower or CrossFitter. This doesn’t mean I can’t improve as an athlete in these two sports. From the perspective of a CrossFit athlete, you should treat the indoor rower like a lift. Just because you can complete it, doesn’t mean you’ve mastered it. Faster body movement does not usually transfer to maximal efficiency (depending on the movement).
The indoor rower really is a full body workout, so you should feel it everywhere. If your legs aren’t getting fatigued, you have a lot more to give. I was recently checking out my legs and saw some new striations I was pleased with. Don’t judge me—you all check yourselves out. Take your time to master the indoor rower; it will benefit you in so many realms of fitness.