What is Perfect Rowing Form?
Updated: Nov 2, 2022
You might have heard all the hype about perfect rowing form, perfect lifting form, perfect squatting form, and so forth. However, do you really need perfect form and what does it mean to have perfect form?
Do you need perfect rowing machine form?
Hold onto your seats for this one...I’m dropping the gavel, but no...you don’t. Before you go running around saying, “WHAT!” or “This is BS”, hear me out. If you’re following anyone in the rowing world, you will see them mentioning good form, how to achieve it, and so forth. Even I do it. But honestly...rowing is just like any other sport. There is no perfect, one fits all approach. Not only that, but our bodies are meant to move, curve, adapt, and so forth. Our bodies can take a lot! But when it comes to lifting, squatting, working out, and sitting at a desk, we put so much emphasis on how to do it “properly”... Sit with good posture. Don’t lead with your back when rowing. Lift from your legs and don’t round your back. Don't squat with your knees not in front of your toes. Squat only with you your hips back and so forth. Even I’ve said all these things to clients as a physical therapist. So how come some people get hurt when they are doing it “perfectly” and others don’t?
Great question! Our answer is usually...well they got tired and their form got compromised. Or they didn’t actually have great form. Okay....sure, maybe those things are happening, but in reality, we aren’t perfect all the time and how come one person can do the exact same thing, the same way, and be pain-free, and another person blows out their back? Or perhaps you get back pain with rowing and the person next to you, rowing makes their back feel better. It’s because we are all DIFFERENT. As much as we all preach good form, it’s important to remember that what is “perfect” may not be “perfect” for you! But if you are looking for the steps of rowing form and how to row, check out this post on "proper rowing form."
What rowing form is perfect for you then?
In the physical therapy and movement world, whenever teaching a sport or movement, there is a beginning phase and it doesn’t being with teaching you the movement. I know, shocker! Let’s use a squat as an example. If you come to me and say, “My knee hurts every time I squat.” I’m not going to dive into teaching you how to squat, that would not be in your best interest. I’m going to ask you to squat for me. I want to see what you are doing.
- How do you squat?
- What is the movement pattern your body wants to do, and why is it painful.
- Are your feet really close together, or shoulder width apart, or maybe even wider?
- Do you have one foot pointing forwards and another pointing slightly outwards?
- Do you lift your heels up or keep your heels down?
There are so many things to look at in a squat and so many different ways to squat. If you naturally squat with your feet wide with one foot pointed outwards, and then I come and say, put your feet together and don’t let your foot point outwards, I just changed the positioning of your ankle, hip, foot, and knees. That might put extra stress on an area
that you might not have as much flexibility or mobility. Maybe you point your foot outwards because you don’t have a lot of ankle mobility, so you can get into a deeper squat position in that position than you can if your foot is pointed forward. I talk all about squatting and how it is related to your rowing position in this video.
If we never look at what your natural movement is, then are we truly helping you get into a “perfect” form position? We need to take your entire body into account. However, we always start with a base of what a squat is. We bend at the hips, knees, and ankles and lower our booty to the ground. I'm not saying that you can't adapt how your form is, because if that's something you want to work on and change, awesome, go for it. For instance, improving ankle mobility to get your feet closer together in a deep squat or keep your ankles down longer. But if you aren't someone looking to put the energy into that, then what your natural body movement is, it's really important. How we get there is the journey. In rowing, the base is that there are four components to the rowing stroke:
the catch, the drive, the finish, and the recovery. How you do those steps and what position your body is in is the journey, which will vary from person to person. So yes, watch the form videos, but remember that what someone says may be a great starting point, but you might need to adapt it for you. Here is a video about rowing form as a starting point.
What is an example of a change to make with rowing form?
Here is a change that I have a lot of my clients make. Normally when rowing, during the drive phase, you extend your knees all the way and then extend your hips so you are leaning back slightly, then bring your arms in to get to the finish position. Well, if you have tight hamstrings or you have some sciatica with nerve pain doing down the back of your leg, this position can actually be really stressful on the back, the nerve, and the hamstring as you go to extend your knees all the way straight and your hips are still forward. It can also cause stress when you start the recovery phase where you push your arms away and then bend forward and are basically in that same position as you were during the drive phase. See the photo for a visual on the position I am talking about.
So naturally, someone might straighten their knees, and then open their hips up early, which in “perfect” form world, would be a “no-no”, just like the change I actually have people make which is also a “no-no”. So first, I would want to know is it your hamstring or your back that might be contributing and what are you feeling?
You might not even realize this is why you are doing this when you’re rowing. But...depending on the cause, it might actually be better for you to not straighten your knees all the way. By keeping a slight bend in the knees, you are helping to take some strain off of all those areas I mentioned earlier. It doesn’t need to be a huge bend in the knee, but a gentle one where you don’t lock your knees out. That small change might make everything else fit into place in the order of things and voila...it might not be what people say is “perfect”, but it might be “perfect” for you and your body at that time. If you aren't sure if what you are feeling in your back might be pain or normal soreness, checkout this blog post.
If you’ve read this far, congrats and thanks for sticking with me. I hope that what I said above makes sense, but if not, always feel free to reach out to me. Not only that, but if you want to know more of why you might be doing things or what the best form for YOU is, I offer one-on-one rowing consults and all the info can be found here. They can be done via zoom, in-person in the Denver, CO area, or you can even just send a clip my way and get a whole video back just for you.
You can also join our community of rowers!