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Indoor Rowing (Part 2): Common Faults

I was recently in the gym filming content related to the first article in this series, which highlighted basic set-up and use of the indoor rower.  A gym member inquired what I was doing.  When I told him, the member got a puzzled look on his face and responded, “Why does someone need instruction on rowing, don’t you just grab the handle and row?” 

I don’t fault this gentleman for his naivety; as a society we often “don’t know what we don’t know.” However, using his same logic, doing your taxes would be easy, “don’t you just write down your expenses?”  Performing a deadlift would be simple: “Don’t you just pick the weight up off the ground?”

In reality, while the basics of the rowing stroke are fairly straightforward (catch-drive-finish-recovery) perfecting the stroke is more complex.  It’s a lot like golf: the constant pursuit of the perfect stroke.  The aim of this article is to help coaches new to rowing teach proper mechanics and identify common faults.  This article will break down the rowing stroke using the pick drill, identify the seven deadly sins of indoor rowing and discuss the importance of proper form to maximize performance and durability in your clients.

Learning Objectives:

  1. Readers will be exposed to the pick drill and its usefulness as a tool to teach the mechanics of the rowing stroke
  2. Readers will be shown common faults in rowing and given suggestions for how to fix them
  3. Readers will be introduced to pathologies related to poor form during indoor rowing


For those unfamiliar with indoor rowing, it is a rhythmic and fluid four-phase compound joint motion. When performed properly, the rowing stroke is like watching a Red Tailed Hawk fly through a slight headwind; the perfect balance between a powerful lift driven by the wings followed by a graceful and efficient glide. When performed improperly, the rowing stroke looks more like a wounded duck. Once you can identify the proper rowing stroke and what can go wrong, you are much better equipped to get your clients powering and gliding like birds of prey. Let’s examine the complexity of the rowing stroke by breaking it down into more easily digestible components.

Assimilating the Proper Stroke Using the Pick Drill

In the late 1960s, psychologists Fitts and Posner introduced a three-stage model of motor learning.  It consisted of the cognitive, associative and autonomous stages. The idea is that in the early stages of motor learning there is much thought and energy involved in learning new tasks (Wulf, 2007). However, after rehearsal and proper instruction, one begins to know what looks and feels right so he or she can adjust in real time. Eventually, the movement becomes automatic and there is little thought or adjustment needed. Thus, it makes sense when learning new motor tasks to break them down into smaller “bite-size” pieces to reduce the amount of thought needed to practice each segment of the pattern. Additionally, as a coach, common faults are easier to address and correct when working with these smaller “bite-size” chunks.

One method for learning the proper rowing stroke is to highlight different aspects of the stroke using the “pick drill.” The pick drill simply breaks the stroke down into its component parts:  

  1. Arms only
  2. Arms and torso with hip pivot
  3. Partial/full slide (1/4, ½, ¾, full)

During the arms-only drill, the legs stay straight and the torso is angled back to the 1 o’clock position; from there, simply pull the handle to the upper abdomen while depressing and retracting both scapula.  By grooving this Finish position, new rowers get exposure to what the 1 o’clock position feels like and learn to quickly bring their hands around the finish turn in one fluid motion, while keeping the legs down and still.

The next aspect of the Pick Drill is the arms and torso with hip pivot pattern. Continue to keep the legs down and still and have the client pivot forward around the hips from the 1 o’clock position to the 11 o’clock position. It is common for clients to lose neutral spine during this drill; a good cue is “keep your chest pointed towards the Performance Monitor during recovery.”

Finally, the legs are included into the stroke with the partial slide drill. During partial slides the upper body mechanics remain the same as a full rowing stroke, but the lower body progresses from a ¼ slide on the monorail to a ½, ¾ and finally full slide. Your clients should feel their power increase on each incremental position.  By the full slide position the shins should be vertical at the Catch.

I recommend performing each section of the drill for approximately 30 seconds to 1 minute depending on your client’s fitness level and ability to properly perform each pattern. Keep in mind, it might take 6-8 sessions to “dial in” these individual patterns and another 6-8 to refine the sequence of the full rowing stroke. I can’t overemphasize the importance of the pick drill; it allows your clients to have some level of success during each workout and helps you identify which aspects of the stroke need extra work. For further explanation of the pick drill please view adjunct video.

The Seven Deadly Sins

The seven deadly sins of indoor rowing certainly don’t carry the moral and ethical amplitude that originated from the 4th century Christian church confessional practice; however, for those who want to be held in high virtue in the rowing community and perform at their absolute best, these sins should be avoided.

1.) Loss of Neutral Spine Posture

In Dr. Stuart McGill’s article, Core Training: Evidence Translating to Better Performance and Injury Prevention, he points out that the core musculature functions differently than the limb musculature in that core muscles often co-contract, stiffening the torso such that all muscles become synergists (McGill, 2010.) The carry over to rowing is that the core muscles must act to keep the spine in neutral alignment so that power can be transferred from low to high and high to low through the kinetic chain. Furthermore, McGill points out that repeated bending of the spine is a common mechanism for injury. Maintaining a neutral spine posture in rowing is just as important as maintaining neutral while performing dead lifts or plank drills.

2.) Undulating Handle Return

If the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, then why do so many rowers engage in an undulating handle return? The reason for this fault is sequencing: the proper sequence on recovery is arms, torso and finally legs. If the rower doesn’t follow this sequence and moves the knees too soon, by the time the handle approaches the knees, they have elevated to the point at which the rower must raise the handle up to clear them. Raising and lowering of the handle during recovery is inefficient, involves more work and should be avoided for optimal rowing.

3.) Shooting The Tail

It is not uncommon for novice rowers to begin the drive phase by first pushing the seat away from the flywheel and then following with the hands and torso.  This is referred to as shooting the tail. Shooting the tail occurs when there is a disassociation between the seat and the handle at the beginning of the drive phase. This disassociation creates an “energy leak” reducing power through the kinetic chain (Cook 2013.) At the very beginning of the drive phase, make sure the seat and the handle move together for approximately ¼ of a slide, at which point the torso starts to hinge followed by the arm pull.

4.) Excessive Layback

Unless you’re driving a 1964 Chevy Impala, excessive layback in the seat is not cool! At the finish position the torso should lie back to the 1 o’clock position, no further. Excessive layback increases the workload on the abdominals, slows pace and decreases overall performance. It often helps to video your client or to use a mirror while “dialing in” proper layback on the finish of each stroke.

5.) Chicken Winging

Chicken Winging is often seen in conjunction with excessive layback and is the habit of raising the elbows vertically at the finish of the stroke. Chicken Winging decreases power and puts undue stress on the upper trapezius and levator scapulae (muscles commonly associated with excessive tightness and trigger point pain.) The ideal elbow position is similar to performing a Seated Low Row: elbows raised just off the rib-cage.

6.) Opening the Back Too Soon (Shooting The Back)

Opening the back too soon refers to the back swinging open toward the 1 o’clock position too soon in the Drive phase. In the Drive phase the torso should be at 11 o’clock at the beginning of the phase.  When the rower reaches ½ slide the torso should be at 12 o’clock.  Not until the rower approaches the finish position should the torso open to 1 o’clock. Shooting the back reduces power while increasing premature fatigue.

7.) Death Grip on the Handle

Rowing is about efficiency, fluidity and power. Without proper relaxation during the recovery, the rowing stroke becomes “chunky” and exhausting. Similar to a boxer who must relax muscles prior to throwing a punch, so too must a rower relax his grip on the machine’s handle during the Recovery phase of the rowing stroke. One trick I learned from UCanRow2 Master Instructor Chad Fleschner is to “play the piano” during the recovery. Playing the piano is a simple fluttering of the fingers during the recovery. Fluttering the fingers during the recovery reduces the tight grip on the handle, economizes energy and prepares the client for a rapid “punch” during the drive phase. One note: This is a technique to be used periodically to remind the rower to relax his or her grip on the handle. It should not be used on every stroke.


Although indoor rowing is a complex movement pattern, coaches can easily clean up form using the Pick Drill and looking for common faults. I highly recommend coaches spend some time refining their own rowing stroke and looking for deadly sins through the use of video analysis prior to teaching others. Stay tuned for the third article and video in this series, which covers how to program a workout to enhance rowing performance. For those interested in learning more about rowing instruction and becoming a certified instructor, check out the website.

Watch the below video for a complete overview of the common faults of indoor rowing:


Cook (2013) Athletic Body In Balance: Optimal Movement Skills and Conditioning for Performance. Champaign, IL, Human Kinetics (pp. 9-10)

McGill, Stuart (2010) Core Training: Evidence Translating to Better Performance and Injury Prevention. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 32 (3) 33-46

Wulf, Gabriele (2007) Attention and Motor Skill Learning. Champaign, IL, Human Kinetics