Thursday, September 11, 2008

Spracklen’s Notes – Part 3

Spracklen’s Notes – Part 3 – Rowing Technique
By Mike Spracklen
October 1987

Good rowing technique is a combination of POWER (muscular coordination) and BLADE control. A boat will only travel as fast as the blades drive it!

In a 2000 meter race an Oarsperson rows between 200 and 250 strokes in his bid for a medal. This is a small number compared with the many thousands rowed in a training period. Concentration of effort per stroke is obvious and it is one of the hardest things to achieve in the sport.

A stroke can be divided into two phases:
1. The Power phase.
2. The Recovery phase.

This System sets out to train rowers to apply full power to each stroke and to take a good rest between strokes, which will enable them to apply a high load for a long time.

The phrase 'Sting and Float' identifies the Power as the 'sting' and the recovery as the 'float'.
Good technique is based on the coordinated strength of the oarsperson, which provides the power, and control of the blade to transmit that power into efficient propulsion of the boat.

The correct path for a blade, the sequence of movements, which coordinate muscular strength into power and the recovery phase, which helps the body to maintain full power for 200 strokes, is illustrated on the following pages.


The most efficient path for the blade is described as follows:

The blade should:
Enter the water quickly in the most acute angle to achieve full use of the reach forward.
Move quickly into the horizontal plane once it is covered.
Accelerate from entry, through the middle of the stroke to the finish where it reaches maximum thrust
Remain at the same even depth throughout the stroke, well covered but with the shaft clear of the water
Leave the water quickly and cleanly at the end of the stroke and turn onto the feather only when it is clear of the surface.
Travel forwards well clear of the water after extraction, at an even height until it comes down to the surface squared and ready for the next stroke.

It is important to avoid the following common TECHNICAL ERRORS for the reasons given:

The angle and speed of entry is critical. Length of stroke is lost and valuable leg drive is used inefficiently until the blade is covered.

The direction in which the blade travels through the stroke is important. It must relate to the direction of the boat. A blade moving in an angle, which takes it deep into the water at the midway point, is inefficient: the blade achieves less grip, some of the propulsive force is misdirected, and resistance to the oarsperson is caused by the shaft breaking through the water. These are the main areas of inefficiency, but other problems created by a deep blade are height of draw, balance, rhythm and inconsistency.

The blade must be extracted cleanly at the finish of the stroke at the moment full power is released. A blade that drags out of the water impedes the smooth flow of a fast moving boat.

The blade must be carried forward well clear of the water to avoid contact with the surface, a wave or another puddle. If the blade is carried too close it is necessary to lift the blade higher when it is to be squared for the next stroke. This movement Just before blade entry inhibits the preparation for a good catch. It also leads to the blade missing the first part of the stroke as described before. A blade carried too close to the water restricts the free flow of the boat and the crew finds difficulty in keeping the boat on a level keel.

Correction of these errors is part of learning good technique. Understand what good bladework is, make sure the rowers are quite relaxed, and encourage them to look at their own bladework during technical sessions and inform them that practice makes perfect and mileage makes champions.

In the same way that oarsmen must apply their power together, the oarsmen must work their muscles in support of each other. The correct movements of the body to achieve this coordination of strength are described as follows:

The hands guide the blade into the water.
The legs provide the speed which gives the blade early grip on the water.
The muscles of the back, shoulders and arms hold firm and provide strong connection between legs and blade.
The legs provide the main source of the power and maintain firm pressure throughout the stroke. Soon after blade entry, the trunk begins to swing back and the shoulders send the seat forward, drawing the oar so that through the middle of the stroke all muscle groups are working together.
The trunk continues to swing back till the time the arms are pulling so that pressure is maintained on the blade whilst the boat is increasing its speed.
The oarsperson sits tall as his/her hands draw high into his/her chest at about the height of his second rib.
He/she makes sure that his/her hands do not hit his/her body at the finish of the stroke.
His/her hands move quickly and smoothly down and away from his/her body following the line of his thighs.
The inside hand turns the blade onto the feather immediately after it is clear of the water.
When the arms are relaxed and straight and hands clear the knees the trunk swings forward before the slide leaves backstops. The body angle is held all the way forward to the front stops in readiness for the next stroke.
The seat leaves backstops slowly and unhurriedly, but without wasting any time. The sliding forwards is in sympathy with the motion of the boat and it is during this phase that the rower rests and prepares himself/herself for the next stroke.
His/her legs begin to rise as the seat approaches front stops. He/she remains sitting tall in the boat and floats up over his/her knees ready for a long reach forward. He/she is quite relaxed, letting the speed of the boat running beneath him/her draw his/her seat forward to front stops.

The style is based on a powerful drive from the legs with other muscle groups working in support. Every available muscle is used to drive the blade. Immediately the blade is released from the water the rower relaxes. This allows his/her body to achieve some recovery. It is this recovery which enables the rower to apply full power to 250 strokes or the number of strokes it takes to row 2000 meters.

It is Important that the following common POWER ERRORS are avoided for the reasons given:

The sooner the sliding seat leaves backstops the slower it needs to travel. At the rate of thirty, the time available for sliding forward with a good rhythm would be under 1+ seconds. Clearly, time spent sitting too long at backstops has to be made up to avoid the rate dropping, and the rower ends up sliding faster forward.

The momentum generated from the power of the stroke should be channeled into a smooth and lively recovery of the hands leading the body forward and the seat from back stops without wasting time.

The speed of the sliding forward should not exceed the speed during the stroke. Sliding too fast forward does not allow the rower to rest fully. There are other disadvantages in that it does not permit smooth running of the boat, the rower loses feel for the boat and he/she is hurried into the forward position from which he/she is unable to time his/her next stroke. Falling or pitching over the knees at front stops stems from sliding too fast forward.

The length of stroke, determined by the angle of the body in the forward position, originates from the swing forward of the trunk from backstops. Attempting to reach for more length once the slide has left backstops often has the opposite affect. Diving forward for more length can cause the body to fall onto the thighs and actually prevent good length forward.

Stretching for more length, putting strain on the arms and back, at a time when the body should be set ready to spring onto the stroke, not only prevents a good beginning but it puts strain on the back which sometimes cannot hold firm. This leads to slide shooting which is a common fault!

Another common fault, which is linked to stretching for length, is the hands dropping which lifts the blade too high off the water. This inevitably means that the first part of the stroke is missed.

When the legs drive at a faster pace than the hands move, it is evident that the back muscles have not held firm and some of the leg power is wasted. There is also the risk of injury to the back muscles. Stretching for more length forward is a common cause of slide shooting. It is important that the trunk holds firm as the legs drive the blade into the water.

Young people and sometimes newcomers to the sport are often weak in the lower back and have difficulty in holding the trunk firm against the power of their legs. In these circumstances it is advisable to teach the technique of opening the body before driving the legs. This places the back in a stronger position and more able to hold firm. As development of the back muscles takes effect, gradual change in the technique should be introduced. It is very difficult to achieve a good catch in a fast moving boat without full use of the legs.

This fault occurs when pressure is reduced on the blade during the last part of the stroke. With no support, the body curls forwards. This reduced blade pressure is caused by either of the following faults:

I. Using the arms at the beginning leaves the rower less arm strength with which to draw the finish. This also eliminates the powerful latissimus dorsi and reduces the effect of the deltoids (shoulders), gluteals and erector spinae muscles.
II. When the back does not hold firm against the leg drive, the legs reach backstops ahead of the stroke in the water. The arms are unable to cope with this amount of work left to do and pressure on the blade is reduced.
III. Opening the body at the beginning of the stroke which delays the leg drive and reduces the effect of the legs so that co-ordination of the muscle groups is less efficient. The weakness shows at the most vulnerable part of the stroke, i.e. the finish.
The oarsperson sits tall in the boat as he/she swings back at the finish, applying full body weight to the blade. This swing back supports the draw with the arms, and pressure is maintained on the blade of an accelerating boat. It is with this pressure that the body recovers itself for the next stroke.

The hands extract the blade from the water in the lively flowing movement leading the body into an inclined forward position and the seat into motion, sliding to front stops. The rower relaxes during this recovery phase to help the body achieve some rest and to prepare for the next stroke.

It is a common fault to move the seat off backstops with the arms still bent and the body not fully inclined forward. The effect of this is:
I. The hands are carried too high so that they can clear the knees as they rise. The blade is carried too close to the water, which also impedes the balance of the boat.
II. The body swinging forwards as the slide approaches front stops will fall onto the thighs and prevent a good forward reach.
III. The last minute reach forward prevents the rower from preparing well for the next stroke.
IV. The oarsperson is less able to relax and have sufficient rest. Tension will be likely in his hands and shoulders.
V. The stern of the boat will drop rapidly just before the catch as the oarsperson pitches forward from front stops.
VI. The body will be in a weaker position for the next stroke.


Understand what a fault is and accept that it exists.
Identify the cause of the fault.
Understand what good technique is and practice it.
Practice makes perfect.


Three factors determine the speed of the boat. They are:
1. Power - how fast the boat travels each stroke.
2. Length - how far the boat travels each stroke
3. Rate - how many strokes are rowed.

If a crew rowed at maximum capacity in all three of these components at the same time, it is doubtful that crew could row 10 strokes before technique withered and boat speed faded. The number of strokes required to complete 2000 meters is about 250 and clearly, an equilibrium of power, length and rate must be achieved. Rowing is basically a power endurance sport, but it requires a high level of skill. Choosing the "right" technique and then teaching it is a coaching skill and there are many differing opinions about which method is the best.

Whatever the method, power, length and rate are the basic ingredients.

Rate is the easiest to achieve. Keeping it at its optimum in a race is not the main problem. Length and power are the first to deteriorate when the pressure of the race reaches its peak.

The most efficient part of the stroke is when the blade is passing at 90 degrees to the boat. Only when it is at this angle is its force propelling the boat wholly in the correct direction. In theory, an efficient length of stroke is from 45 degrees at the catch to 135 degrees at the finish. In practice, the body prevents the arms from reaching more than 125 degrees. To achieve 45 degrees at the catch, the reach must extend beyond this angle. A longer finish can be drawn in a sculling boat but it is inefficient to draw more than 130 degrees.

Maximal power is achieved by appropriate sequencing of the contributing muscles from strongest to weakest.
• Legs first. The quadriceps and gluteals
• Then the Back. The lower back.
• Then the Shoulders and Arms. The latissimus dorsi, trapezius, rhomboids and biceps.

The boat goes only as fast as the blades drive it. The power transferred through the blade to the boat is only as much as the legs supply. A good technique is based on the work of the legs to create most of the total power.

The faster the blade enters the water the more positive will be the grip, the longer will be the stroke and the faster the boat will travel. The important points are:

1. Hands guide the blade into the water.
2. Legs apply the power
3. Trunk and arms link legs to blade

All the muscles are working through their middle range and the blade is at its most efficient point in the stroke. Make full use of this advantage by beginning the draw with the arms before midway. The arms must start to draw well before the legs reach the backstops.

Retain pressure on the blade through to the finish by pressing toes on the footboard, by using the leverage of the trunk, and by keeping the arms working with the body. Although legs reach backstops before the arms and trunk have finished working, the toes should continue pressing hard to give support with the back until the blade is extracted. The trunk should be moving towards the bow until the moment before the hands reach the body (if the arm draw starts too late, this timing will be delayed).

The rowing stroke comprises fast movements and slow movements. The essence of good rhythm in the boat is the contrast between them. Done well, a good motion looks smooth, continuous, and unhurried but it can be difficult to see that contrast. The fast movements begin with the entry of the blade and continue through the stroke and the movement of the hands away from the body after blade extraction (the finish). The slower movements begin when the hands pass over the knees and continue until the next stroke. The inertia created by the power of the stroke carries the hands down and away from the body when the seat is at the backstops. The body relaxes immediately as the blade leaves the water so there is no interference with this natural free-flowing movement. The seat moves slowly forward in contrast to its speed during the stroke. The rower prepares by gathering, ready to spring from the stretcher onto the next stroke. The movement of the seat must be faster during the stroke than it is during the recovery. The sooner it leaves the backstops after the finish, the more time it has to reach the front stops and the slower it can travel. The hands and then the body move lively away from the finish to allow the seat to start on its way forward.


Hands, Body, Slide...
1. Move the hands down and away over the knees
2. Pivot the body forward onto the feet
3. Move the seat away from the backstops.
4. Move forward, rest the body and let the boat run underneath you.

To achieve optimum position for the application of power and good forward length - note the following points of posture:

Head high encourages good posture for body and spine
Chest against thighs. Rotation should be centered around the hip joint, not the upper or lower back
Shins vertical - strong position for the quadriceps
Relaxed but alert - poised like a cat ready to spring

The oar handles should be held in the fingers, not the palms. The hands should generally be at the tips of the oars to maximize inboard leverage, with the thumbs pressed against the handle nub to generate sufficient outward pressure against the oarlock. As someone said, "The handles should be grasped like one is holding a small bird: firmly enough to hold on, but not so hard as to kill it." The grip of the fingers around the oar will automatically increase sufficiently when contact with the water is made The arms and hands should extend along a horizontal plane out well over the gunwales as the blade angle is increased in preparation for grasping the water. The entry of the blade into the water will be accomplished with a relaxation or slightly positive "flick" of the hands and arms while maintaining the blade angle (not opening the back) to achieve the catch.

Contract only those muscles needed to perform a specific function. This is achieved by relaxation of the hands, arms and shoulders, the areas where tension will be most prevalent. The muscles of the upper body will be more effective if they begin the catch in a relaxed condition. Muscles will contract instantly when a load is forced upon them.

The importance of bladework must be appreciated. Only the blades move the boat, therefore an important part of the technique is the skill with which the blades are controlled.
Good blades have these characteristics:

A long stroke in the water I Minimum loss of reach forward/Quickly grip the water I Covered throughout the stroke.
Utilize power/Grip the water with minimum loss of leg drive/Work in a horizontal plane/Covered throughout the stroke.
Do not interfere with the run of the boat/Clean extraction/Carried forward clear of the water/Balance the boat.


It is always necessary to compose before any dynamic action (e.g. Lifting a weight, striking a note, hitting a ball, or rowing a stroke). The question is "where is the best place to "poise" prior to the action? There are different ideas in rowing on where the poise should be.
The current method is to poise during the last part of the movement towards the front stops. The inertia created by the draw at the finish is used to carry the hands away from the body, the trunk into the catch angle and the seat from backstops. The rower has time to relax, let the boat run under the seat, and to prepare for the next stroke. The poise just before blade entry is sufficient to achieve a very fast catch.

Sculling styles differ in where emphasis is p laced. Body positions and movements will be influenced by this emphasis. The method should be based on rhythm. The stroke is divided into two phases:

The Stroke or power phase, and
The Recovery or resting phase.

Scullers are trained to apply full power to each stroke and to rest during recovery, which will help them apply power to 250 strokes or the number required to complete the race.
The ability to apply power is an essential physical requirement. Physical capacity is acquired by training but the coordination of muscular contraction in the rowing stroke is the essence of good technique.

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