The Rowing Finish: How Much Layback is Ideal and Why

Mar 10, 2020

At the finish of the rowing stroke, the upper body is leaning back slightly, using support of the core muscles. Biceps and back muscles also help to maintain the finish position of the upper body. Legs are extended, stabilized by the contraction of the glutes and the quads. Shoulders are low, wrists are flat, the grip is relaxed, and the handle is pulled in to just below the rib cage.

What do we mean by “leaning back slightly”? In rowing, the backward lean of the upper body is called the “layback.” What is an ideal amount of layback? Is it the same for everyone? What are the determining factors? And why is it important?

The layback adds to the length of the rowing stroke, engaging more muscles through a wider range of motion and thereby enabling the athlete to generate more power per stroke. So then why wouldn’t you want to lay back even further—extending the stroke as far as possible? There are several problems with extreme layback:

  • It’s a hard position to hold and requires a lot of core strength.
  • It’s a relatively weak position, from which you are not able to put much force on the RowErg handle.
  • It's going to take a while to get back up from that position and move the body toward the catch for the next stroke, wasting valuable time and energy, and lowering your stroke rate.

The general rule of thumb is to think of the hands on a clock and aim to have a layback that puts the body at 1 o'clock (or 11 o'clock if you’re looking from the other side!).

Every body is different, and there are some reasons that one might row with a layback that’s different from the general rule of thumb:

  • Core Strength: A lack of core strength may make it harder to hold a layback position. At the same time, rowing will help you build that core strength, because it engages those muscles. At the other extreme, very good core strength may enable you to row with a lot of layback—but that is not necessarily a good thing, for the reasons mentioned above.
  • Stroke Rate: If you’re training for racing at a high stroke rate (strokes per minute or “spm”), you may find that it helps to cut back a bit on the layback, at least temporarily. By leaning back a bit less, you'll be able to get back up to the next catch more quickly. It makes sense to prioritize the catch over the finish, since that’s where the large muscles of the legs can initiate the drive.
  • On Water Prep: If you’re an on water athlete, your coach will likely make recommendations on erg stroke length to match what he or she hopes to see when you get on the water. Depending on what oar blade shape you row with, the end of the drive can be a relatively inefficient part of the stroke—making excessive layback a real waste of your energy. A lesser amount of layback may be desired.
  • Comfort: If for any reason, it’s not comfortable for you to get the recommended layback, then don’t. Or try to introduce it gradually, as it becomes more comfortable.

Here are some ways to experiment with finding your best layback positon:

Layback Situps

  1. Sit at the finish, with legs straight, handle pulled in to your ribs, and shoulders back in the 1 o'clock position.
  2. Now shift to no layback—an upright position.
  3. Now shift (carefully!) to an extreme layback position.
  4. Repeat these three positions, paying attention to how much work your core muscles are having to do to maintain the position.

Layback Positions with Rowing

  1. Do the same as the first drill, but row continuously: One stroke with no layback, one with normal layback, one with extreme layback, and repeat.
  2. Come back to a comfortable middle ground for you.
  3. If possible, have a friend observe (or use a mirror/video) to see whether you’re at 1 o'clock, one-thirty, twelve-thirty…  Just so you know what works best for you!

Rowing Without Layback

Take 10 strokes where you finish each stroke in the upright position—no layback at all. Does it feel effective?

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