4 Principles to Master the Rowing Machine

Believe in yourself, start small, and take your first steps to your best rowing yet.

Rowing is one of the most beneficial movements the human body can perform. Get it right, and there’s nothing more physiologically demanding on earth. In its purest form rowing is about using your body to create power. But this simplicity is often lost in translation. The language rowers use, the narrative of who’s in more pain, and even the Lycra we wear surround the sport in a layer of complexity that’s alienating and confusing. Add in the fact that rowing is a movement very few people have grown up with, and you end up with a sport that’s stuck in the dark ages.

Rowing is my expertise, and my vision is to inspire every athlete to master it. (Photo: RowingWOD)

CrossFit has sparked an obsession with movement and movement-based sports like gymnastics, weightlifting, and rowing. And it’s about time. With modern populations suffering from inactivity and lifestyle disease, movement is more valuable than ever. Rowing is my movement expertise, and my vision is to inspire and empower every athlete to master it. I believe every human is an athlete, and every athlete should row.

4 Principles to Master the Rowing Machine

Rowing is a time-efficient workout that uses almost every muscle in your body. It’s the best way to build your aerobic capacity for CrossFit, fitness, and life. Rowing transfers well into anything that demands extension of the knees, hips, and elbows, meaning it makes you better at pretty much any sport. Rowing is something we’ve been doing for thousands of years to cross rivers, lakes, and oceans. It has the capability to deliver potent metabolic stimulus and profound meditative movement for hours.

Rowing is awesome. But to make it accessible, we need to cut the complexity, simplify the language, and tap into our innate abilities to learn the movement.

In my coaching, I do this by focusing on four main principles.

1. Find Your Own Rhythm

A rower of any ability has a natural rhythm regardless of technical errors or sub-optimal movement, so the first thing I ask of any athlete is simply to row. I tell the athlete to remember that whatever corrections and technical changes we make, they must be filtered into their own unique rhythm. Rhythm is the most important driver of performance in rowing.

When it’s at its strongest, the boat and the machine are moving most efficiently. From our circadian rhythms to our oscillating heartbeats, rhythm is an important aspect of human survival and performance. Our bodies thrive on rhythm. It can be used as a focus to block out pain, or tapped into as a meditative way to get through miles. So if my athletes learn nothing else, they learn that rowing is rhythm.

2. Practice Continuous Movement

Whether in the boat or on the machine, your handle should always be moving to recycle your momentum and strengthen your rhythm.

The complexity that surrounds the rowing stroke leaves athletes with the idea that the stroke is made up of two parts: the drive, and the recovery. This isn’t true. The drive and the recovery are two terms used to describe major components of the rowing stroke, but the entire movement is continuous. If you watch an elite rower, you shouldn’t be able to tell where one stroke ends and another begins.

3. Celebrate Your Success

When you can’t hit your desired pace or start to deviate from your race plan, the rowing machine lets you know instantly. One of the biggest mistakes we make is to frame that instant feedback negatively. Athletes tend to look at things as ‘half-empty’ on the rowing machine. We notice when our speed dies or when we don’t hit the target rate, but when we’re on rate, on rhythm, and on our correct pace, we take it for granted. If a 2k is completed in 6:56, the instinct is to focus on the fact it wasn’t quite sub-6:55.

Remember to have fun.

Don’t forget to have fun in your training. (Photo: RowingWOD)

Whether in rowing, sport, or life, focussing on the things we do have only leads to greater achievement. Ambition is a great asset for long-term improvement, but it has the potential to suffocate short-term success. So celebrate the small wins, get on a roll, and enjoy every success on your rowing journey.

4. Play the Long Game

I still get out and row on a regular basis with a group of Olympians based in London. The group comprises of athletes from the 1980 to the 2012 Olympics and I assure you, this group of merry men are experts in a boat. But even we are still learning and striving to master the craft of the rowing stroke. Rowing crews at the top of their game can win the Olympic final yet still find half a dozen things to improve for their next outing or race.

The perfect rowing stroke is a near-unattainable goal and in my experience, the closer you get, the farther away it seems. Your rowing journey should be focussed on the progress you’ve made and not how close you are to rowing perfectly. You have between now and the rest of your life to row better, move better, and get fitter. Enjoy your rowing journey and play the long game.

It’s the Journey, Not the Destination

I’ve been fortunate to achieve many things I’ve set out to in life. Standing on the World Championship podium, being selected into the Great Britain Olympic Team, and graduating medical school are some of the big goals I’ve achieved. But what’s struck me most is that the destination was never as enjoyable as the journey. Rowing is easy to learn, but difficult to master, and mastering movement is a journey that should be enjoyed every step of the way.

If you master the rowing movement, the performances will follow. Use the four coaching principles here and you’ll see improvements quicker than you ever thought possible. I’ve had many athletes come through my RowingWOD camps and seminars who have smashed new personal bests a matter of days after our time together, the most recent of which being Sam Briggs breaking her previous 500m world record. Now it’s your turn.

Believe in yourself, start small, and take your first steps to mastering the rowing machine today.

What’s so great about rowing?