Rowing is perhaps one of the oldest and most versatile of water sports in current times. Whether you’re interested in a relaxing activity, a competitive sport that can be practiced solo or in teams, an intense workout, or even simply a way of traveling across the water, rowing may be just the thing for you!
This guide will give you all the information you need to get started with rowing, work on your skills, and begin to row at an advanced level.
What Is Rowing?
Rowing involves propelling a narrow boat across the surface of water using oars. The rower sits facing backwards, i.e. facing the stern of the boat, using oars that are held at a pivot point which stays in a fixed position. This fixed point allows the oars to act as levers and the blades in the water to act as fulcrums, propelling the boat forward. Rowing can be of two varieties – sculling, where a single rower holds one oar in each hand, and sweep rowing, where one rower holds a single oar in both hands. While the former can be practiced as a solo activity as well as in a team, the latter necessarily requires at least two rowers, and is generally practiced in teams of up to eight.
Rowing has been around as a means of transport ever since humans have traveled by water, and even its existence as a sport can be traced back to as early as the 15th century BC, when it was practiced during the funeral games for Aeneas. References to rowing used for conveyance in travel, trade and warfare can be found throughout the history of the following years, while its practice as a sport saw a resurgence in the middle ages with rowers racing down the narrow canals of Venice.
Modern rowing competitions were first held in 15th century England with rowers competing in the Lord Mayor’s Water Procession in 1454, and a few centuries later, rowing was among the original events of the modern Olympics. The founder of the Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, was himself a rower, and the sport made its way on the program of the 1896 games. Though it was dropped due to bad weather, the rowing events eventually made their appearance in the second games in 1900, and have stayed on the program ever since.
In current times, though plenty of younger water sports have emerged and grown in popularity, rowing remains a consistently practiced sport in the international arena, with the Fédération Internationale des Sociétés d’Aviron (FISA) as the International Rowing Federation or governing body for international competitive rowing. Additionally, it is still a widely practiced recreational and practical activity across the world.
Though rowing at a competitive level requires a high level of fitness and intensive training, at a recreational level it can be a relatively quick activity to pick up. Learning the correct technique, however, remains crucial for avoiding sprains and other injuries, and if you’re interested even in rowing for relaxation, it will be worth your while to spend some time getting prepared and learning to row effectively and safely.
Preparing to Row
If you’re simply looking to try out the activity or are completely new to rowing, it’s best to first focus on your solo skills before thinking of sculling in a team or sweep rowing.
Any rowboat with its accompanying oars will suffice for you to first learn the technique, but if you’re more invested and are looking to rent or buy a boat for yourself, it’s worth your while to find out about the different varieties available, and choose the best fit based on your individual needs.
For recreational purposes, a standard rowboat with oarlocks on the top edges of the sides of the boat can be used. These boats are generally fairly stable, with builds that are neither too long nor narrow, and may sometimes have a transom or a flat-edged surface as the stern. The seats on rowboats are often fixed in place, and can usually accommodate non-rowing passengers.
Alternatively, if you are aiming to practice rowing as a sport, you may want to invest in renting or buying a racing shell. These are built long and narrow for maximum speed, and the oarlocks are fitted on outriggers away from the boat. They include sliding seats and shorter sides, and have two pointed ends as the bow and stern. They are faster and less stable than standard rowboats, and are usually designed to hold 1, 2, 4 or 8 rowers, and are used for racing and competitive purposes. Shells also often include a space for a coxswain, who doesn’t row but sits facing forward, i.e. facing the bow, and is in charge of guiding the boat and ensuring the implementation of the team or coach’s plan for the race as well the safety of all those on the boat.
Both rowboats and racing shells can vary based on shape, size, material and their various feature, so make sure to find one that best suits your needs.
Next, make sure you have suitable pair of oars to go with your boat. There are various factors that can influence this, the most important of which is length. The length of your oars should be proportional to the beam or the distance between the oarlocks on your boat, so make sure to check what the right length of oars for you is before buying.
Several other factors like the weight, blade size and stiffness can affect the balance between speed and stability, so while you may want to opt for a heavier and softer oar with slightly smaller blades, a lighter, stiffer oar with blades that are large enough to displace more water with each stroke may be more efficient if you intend to take up rowing as a competitive sport.
Rowing does not require much safety equipment to be worn, though personal flotation devices like life jackets should be kept at hand in the boat, and worn when rowing in waters that are not calm. Additionally, a small pump should be carried with you onboard to empty out any water that may enter the boat. A basic first aid kit and tool kit are also useful to keep on board, particularly if you intend on rowing for an extended period far from the shore.
Finally, while being an advanced swimmer is not necessary for recreational rowing, you should make sure that you have some basic swimming abilities before rowing even in calm or shallow waters. Rowing at a more advanced level at faster speeds or in more turbulent waters, on the other hand, requires you to be a confident and adept swimmer.
Learning the basic technique of rowing can be a quick process when done correctly. While becoming an advanced rower requires hours of training and practice, simply learning the technique for the first time can be done easily and with a steep learning curve. While it can be a fairly intuitive process, it is important to be aware of small details that can make your rowing more efficient and more safe.
First, take your boat to a suitable location like a calm lake that is neither too shallow nor too crowded. Keeping it parallel to the dock or shore, climb in by stepping into the center of the boat and sit down facing the stern. Make sure your oarlocks are fastened properly and that your oars have been pushed through so the catch of the oar is properly fitted to the oarlock.
Push off the dock and hold one oar in each hand. Keep your arms extended in front of you, leaning forward slightly, and keep your wrists flat so your knuckles face upwards and the blades of the oars can enter the water perpendicular to the surface. This first phase of the stroke where the blade enters the water is known as the catch. Pull your arms back close to your body to push the oars through the water and propel the boat forward (opposite to the direction you’re facing). Lean back slightly to maximize the distance you travel with each stroke, using your abdominal muscles to keep your back relatively straight. Avoid slumping your back at all times, as this can lead to injuries in the long term.
To prepare for the next drive, push down on the oars to extract the blades from the water, extend your arms forward to push the oars back, leaning forward slightly without curving your back too much. As you do this, feather the oars to bring the blades just above the surface and parallel to the water, with the concave side facing upwards. This motion involves dropping your wrists to rotate them slightly so your knuckles face you. Avoid griping the oars too tightly, and instead keep your hands hooked around them as you would with a pull up bar. This phase of preparing for subsequent drives is known as the recovery.
If you’re using a shell rather than a row boat, there are some additional features and processes to account for. Firstly, with a shell being less stable than a standard row boat, be careful of where you step while entering. Place your feet only on the markings that indicate which spots will keep the shell stable and prevent it from tipping over.
After entering and sitting down, strap your feet into the shoes in front of the sliding seats. As you pull your arms back close to propel the boat forward, slide the seat backwards, straightening out your knees. In the recovery phase, as you push your arms forward, slide your seat forward until your shins are perpendicular to the surface. Additionally, remember to hold your oars on the water on either side of the shell to maintain its balance, even when you’re resting.
With some practice, you’ll find that this process is fairly intuitive. At the same time, it can be quite strenuous and tiring, so make sure not to go too fast or too long at first, and give yourself and your muscles some time to get used to the new workout!
Navigating Your Boat
After you’ve had some time to get comfortable with the motions of rowing in a straight line, you’ll need to learn how to steer your boat in order to navigate and row in any direction you like.
As with reversing a car, this can take a while to get used to given that you row facing backwards, but it’ll soon be as instinctive as rowing in a straight line. Keep in mind that going right or left indicates that the front of the boat (the bow) is going in that direction, and not the side you’re facing (the stern). Before you begin turning, remember to look around behind you and make sure that the path is clear.
There are several ways of making your boat or shell turn. One easy way of doing this is simply rowing using only one oar. If you want to turn to the right, row with only your left oar, and vice versa.
If you want the turn to be a little quicker, you can keep both blades in the water and row in opposing directions with each arm. That is, if you want to turn to the right, you can row normally with your left oar (pulling your left arm in) while simultaneously pushing your right arm out, making the boat spin on its axis as a result of the opposing motions.
Both these techniques can be used to change the direction of the boat, but the strokes do nothing to propel the boat forward simultaneously. If you want to maintain your forward momentum while turning, there are ways of doing this by altering your strokes. These work particularly well in racing shells that are lighter and in situations where you want to avoid losing speed.
One way of turning while you move forward is by applying more pressure on the side opposite to the direction in which you want to go. That is, if you want your boat to go left, lean in and apply more pressure to your right stroke. Another way to achieve this is to begin the stroke with your right arm farther out than your left, and begin the left stroke only after your right hand is level with it. This will ensure that you finish both strokes together and will save you some time in the recovery for your next drive.
Watch the video below for an idea on how to turn effectively while simultaneously moving forward:
Spend some time mastering your steering skills. Practice going at a steady pace in a straight line, and practice your turns till you’re able to move the boat or shell at the angle you want. Make sure to use your abs as you push and pull to avoid hurting your back and shoulders. You’ll soon be able to row instinctively, leaving you free not only to enjoy yourself more, but to learn other skills to help you become a better rower.
Now that you’re able to row comfortably, spend some time learning breathing techniques to optimize your strokes. Breathing in a steady pattern supplies oxygen to your muscles in a regular manner, and can not only improve your stamina but also give more power to your drives as you row.
In general, one long breath for each stroke works well for low intensity rowing. You can do this by inhaling during the recovery and exhaling slowly during your drive (the full-lung technique) or by inhaling during the drive and exhaling during the recovery (the empty-lung technique).
During higher intensity rowing, you may need to increase you breathing to two breaths for each stroke, with a one quick breath – inhale and exhale – during the recovery, a deep inhale just before the catch, and a long exhale as you drive.
Breathing patterns can differ widely based on personal preference, so experiment and find out what works best for you, as long as it’s steady! Make sure your breathing is coordinated with each stroke, and work on taking it from a pattern that is a deliberated effort to one that is fluid and instinctive.
Breathing techniques can sometimes be neglected while learning a new technique as they may not immediately show their benefit and may even make things more difficult at first. In the long run, however, breathing correctly can have a significant impact on your performance as a rower, and on your level of enjoyment as your row.
If you’re looking to row with a partner or in a team, sweep rowing is a useful skill to learn. Though the basic idea remains the same, sweep rowing involves some modifications in technique as a result of each rower using a single oar rather than two.
Sweep rowing can be practiced in pairs or other multiples of 2 – usually 2, 4 or 8 – with an equal number of people rowing on either side. Sweep rowers are often accompanied by a coxswain, who among other things, ensures the coordination of all those rowing.
The first thing to relearn for sweep rowing is the grip. While one hand grips the end of the oar keeping your little finger at the very tip, the other hand grips the oar about two hand-widths apart. Remember not to grip the oar too tightly, but to hold it as you would a suitcase.
As you row, your outer hand should stay relatively relaxed as your inner hand feathers the oar to flatten the blade at the time of extraction and recovery. Watch the video below for tips on how to achieve a good sweep rowing grip and technique.
Once you’ve learnt the basic stroke, try and maintain a constant rhythm, as this will make it easier to coordinate with your partner and teammates. If drives in sweep rowing are out of sync, the straight line of the boat’s path will be broken, and you may lose out on speed and efficiency. Additionally, make sure you hold the handle of the oar at a consistent height with each stroke, and that this height matches that of your teammates. Pulling the handle in at mid-sternum level during the drive and dropping the height by about 2 inches during recovery is standard, but you will need to work out the exact positions that work for all those involved.
In order to turn your boat in sweep rowing, rowers on each side will need to row in opposition to each other. This is similar to the method where a solo rower rows using the usual forward motion with one oar and a backward motion with the other. In sweep rowing, if you need the boat to turn right, the person rowing on the left will need to use the standard forward stroke, while the one on the right will need to flip their oar so the concave side faces the bow, and drive their stroke by pulling their hands in. The two oars will move in opposite directions and turn the boat.
Sweep rowing can be a time consuming skill to master, as it involves not only perfecting your own technique, but coordinating and matching your movements with others. At the same time, practicing it can greatly improve your solo skills as well as your overall coordination and collaborative skills that help not only with rowing and sculling in a crew, but with all team sports.
Enhancing Your Rowing Skills
If you’re committed to rowing as a sport, there are plenty of ways you can ensure that your technique is correct and that it continues to improve.
Having an instructor or experienced rower observing you and correcting your posture and technique can be very helpful while you learn, since it’s often difficult to tell if and how you’re going wrong at first. Once your basics are in place, you can practice some drills to enhance your control, speed and stamina, and maintain the best posture and technique for safe and efficient rowing.
- Feet-Out Rowing: This is an important drill to help you test your current technique and improve upon it as required. Unstrap your feet from the shoes in front of your seat and continue to row as you would. Removing your feet from the straps will prevent you from relying excessively on the fastenings that allow you to pull and push against them, and teach you to maintain constant pressure on your foot stretcher as well the blades of your oars. Additionally, it will help you realize the correct moment and posture for every transition from your catch to the drive, extraction and recovery, as over-stretching at any point will imbalance your shell.
- Square Blade Rowing: This involves rowing without feathering the blade at all, keeping it vertical throughout the stroke instead of rotating it into a horizontal position during recovery. Rather than dropping your wrists to extract the blades from the water, use only your forearms to push down on the oars and lift the blades out. Alternate between 5 strokes of feathered rowing and 5 strokes of rowing on the square. This drill will help you achieve a clean catch and extraction at the right time, and will help you work on the correct depth at which to drive your blades. It will also improve your balance, as you will face a lot more resistance during the recovery phase after each drive.
- Top Quarter: This drill is designed to help improve your catch. Begin by sitting in the catch position with your arms pushed forward, knees close to your body, and blades in the water. Stay in this position, and adjust yourself so that you are neither bracing nor flexing any muscle group, but are comfortably able to hold your pose for about 5 counts. Pull the oars slowly – just a few inches through the water – before extracting completely, relaxing your muscles, and returning to the catch position. The slow and short strokes will help you focus on your posture and catch technique repeatedly and get fully comfortable with the feel of the blades entering the water. A strong catch is essential for a strong drive, so it’ll be worth your while to spend some time perfecting this drill.
- Isolations: These drills involve isolating one part of your body carry out the strokes as you row. Common drills in this category are legs-only, where the bending and extending of your legs is what powers your movement rather than your upper body, and arms-only, where the legs are kept stationary in an extended position and your upper body remains stiff, forcing your arms alone to carry the weight of the strokes. These drills allow you to focus on one area at a time, perfecting your technique as well as strengthening your muscles.
- Low Stroke Rate Rowing: Sometimes, increasing your speed can make you feel more in control, while mastering a slow stroke can be a harder challenge. Work on slow strokes (20 or less per minute) in order to put more emphasis on and improve the power of your drive, balance, and fluidity. As you do this, try and keep the shell moving smoothly without any jerks, and without losing too much speed. In the long run, this will also help you go faster as it will add more power to your drives as you row at a higher frequency.
- Pause Drills: These are particularly useful in ensuring coordination amongst members of a crew, though they also help immensely in ensuring proper posture, body preparation, timing and pressure. Essentially, these drills involve pausing at different points during the stroke, allowing you to check your individual technique and your crew’s synchronization.
Watch the video below for an idea on the different pause drills you can practice:
Though rowing recreationally can involve varying levels of intensity, and can be relaxing or strenuous depending on your preferences, it will in almost every case provide you with a complete workout, and if done frequently, can have significant health benefits.
If you take up rowing as a sport, however, you may need additional exercise and training to develop and maintain the strength and stamina you need to row. Competitive rowing is an extremely strenuous activity, and staying fit, flexible and strong will not only improve your performance, but also help prevent injuries of various sorts to your muscles. There are several things you can do to become a better rower even when off the water.
- Cardio Workouts: Rowing is a cardiovascular exercise, so building your stamina, lung power, and overall fitness levels with other cardio workouts such as running, swimming, cycling, and elliptical training can help greatly. Cardio workouts can be done daily, and a 30 to 60 minute session 5 times a week will not only help your rowing abilities but will help you stay healthy and strong.
- Building Core Strength: Your core muscles will be constantly engaged as you pull and push while rowing, and a strong center will give more power to your strokes, reduce fatigue, and reduce the risk of back injuries. There are several ways of working on your abs, including crunches, pilates, and holding yourself in plank position. By developing your abdominal muscles, you will also simultaneously improve your balance, which is yet another important element of rowing efficiently.
- Breath Training: This is helpful not just in maintaining a constant breathing pattern as you row, but also helps increase your lung power and prevent breathlessness. Correct breathing techniques can be practiced during all of your workouts by taking even breaths in constant rhythms and exhaling as you exert yourself. Additionally, the yogic practice of pranayama or breath control can help immensely in optimizing your breath for greater balance, strength, stamina and concentration.
- Weight Training: Rowing utilizes all major muscle groups including the legs, abs, chest, back and arms, so keeping them in shape is essential for performing your best. A number of weight training exercises and regimes can be followed depending on the areas you most need to focus on. The forearm and wrist muscles are sometimes sidelined in such workouts, but are important for rowing as they are used each time you feather the oars, so make sure to strengthen them along with your other muscle groups. Except for the abdominal muscles, most others require a day of rest for recovery, so schedule your workouts beforehand to avoid overexerting a single muscle group.
- Stretching: Working on the flexibility of your muscles by practicing stretches can help prevent injuries caused by tense muscles being engaged in strenuous activity. Besides integrating stretches in your daily workout, you should also make sure to stretch and warm up properly before rowing in the water to prepare your muscles for what is to follow.
- Rowing Machine: Investing in a rowing machine or joining a gym where one is available can be hugely helpful if not essential to maintaining your fitness and technique for rowing while off the water. In one comprehensive workout, using this machine can not only provide an intense cardio workout and engage all the muscle groups you’d use while rowing, but also help you with your technique and breathing while you’re learning. If you’re a serious rower, you can supplement your time on the water with a session on the rowing machine on a daily basis, with longer sessions on days when you’re unable to row in the water. Being a strenuous workout, it’s important to maintain proper posture and technique while using the machine to reduce the risk of injuring yourself.
- Eating Right: Getting the right nutrition and avoiding unhealthy foods is essential if you’re looking to row seriously. Rowing burns a large amount of calories, and you will find your appetite increasing as you row more. As this happens, it’s important to eat the right kind of food and get enough nutrients in your system. Getting plenty of proteins for keeping your muscles strong and carbohydrates for keeping your energy levels up is important, as is getting enough vitamins and minerals from fruits and vegetables. Processed foods should be avoided as far as possible, and you should make sure that you don’t skip any meals. Drinking plenty of water is essential.
Rowing competitively, you’re sure to get plenty of guidance on workout and nutrition plans to ensure that you’re able to do your best, but following a fitness regime even if you’re a recreational rower can help immensely. Being stronger and fitter will not only help you row better but allow you to enjoy it more and for longer periods without tiring or injuring yourself.
Safety Precautions to Take While Rowing
Whether you’ve taken up rowing as a competitive sport or as a relaxing recreational activity, there are some precautions you should take to ensure your own safety and that of others, and have the best possible rowing experience.
- Rowing is a strenuous activity, so if you have any doubts or any preexisting health conditions, check with a doctor before starting about whether it’s safe for you.
- Ensure that you’re a comfortable swimmer before rowing in deep waters. Keep personal flotation devices onboard at all times, and wear them if at all unsure of your swimming abilities or of the water conditions.
- Make sure your location is suitable for rowing. The waters should be calm and not too crowded, and should be free of obstructions and obstacles. Additionally, check the weather conditions before each rowing session and avoid going out on the water in case of high winds, storms or lightning. Do not row if it is very foggy or visibility is poor due to any other reasons.
- Look after your equipment. Keep your boat and oars clean and store them in a dry place without piling other equipment on top. Additionally, make sure not to use an abrasive cleaner on your oars, and pay special attention to the grip. A smooth grip will reduce friction and protect your hands from scratches and calluses. If you oars are wooden, make sure there are no chips and splinters close to the grips.
- Avoid rowing alone. If you’re out on a recreational boat, you will probably have space for non-rowing passengers, and if rowing on a single racing shell, have someone accompany you on theirs or find a location that is not completely isolated. If you do venture out alone, inform someone of your plans and of the time you intend to return.
- Dress appropriately for the weather. Wear light clothing in hot and humid weather and light but warm and windproof clothing in cold weather. In either case, don’t forget the sunscreen.
- If you’re going on a long rowing trip far from the shore, make sure to take emergency supplies, a first aid kit, a basic toolkit, a pump, and extra food and water.
- Stay well hydrated when you row to avoid muscle cramps.
- Make sure your technique is correct to reduce the risk of injuring yourself. Back and wrist injuries in particular can be common among rowers, but the risks can be minimized by proper feathering technique, proper posture, and by keeping your core muscles engaged.
- Make sure of your own technique before joining a crew, and make sure you’re all on the same page about safety procedures before rowing together.
With your strokes and turns mastered and a few safety precautions adhered to, a host of possibilities in the world of water sports and travel can open up to you. Rowers across the world have referred to it as a highly consuming, even life-changing activity. Whether as a recreational hobby, a lifestyle or a profession, rowing can give you relaxation, exhilaration and fitness as you desire.
Its range allows people of all ages and experience levels to participate, so give it a go, practice hard, and immerse yourself in all it has to offer!
Jen Miller is a former electrical engineer and product specialist with more than 20 years of product design and testing experience. She has designed more than 200 products for Fortune 500 companies, in fields ranging from home appliances to sports gear and outdoor equipment. She founded Jen Reviews to share her knowledge and critical eye for what makes consumers tick, and adopts a strict no-BS approach to help the reader filter through the maze of products and marketing hype out there. She writes regularly and has been featured on Forbes, Fast Company, The Muse, The Huffington Post, Tiny Buddha and MindBodyGreen.