Technique Exercises for Speed on the Indoor Rower: The Drive

Written by Concept2 NZ on July 24th, 2018.

When it comes to training and racing on the Indoor Rower, the drive phase of the stroke- where the legs, body and arms work together to accelerate the flywheel- is where strength and endurance combine to generate speed. While other aspects of rowing technique are significantly important for efficiency and positioning, getting the drive basics right is essential to achieving improved speed and reaching your goal splits.

To help you improve your drive technique, check out the following exercises used by rowing coaches on and off the water, that break down the drive into manageable focus points, helping you to make meaningful and permanent technical improvements.

Catch Exercise

Catch exercise is often used by rowing crews on the water to fine-tune the start of the stroke, where the rowing blades enter the water and the connection is made between the pressure on the blade and the feet against the foot-stretcher. When applied to the Indoor Rower, the catch happens at the start of the stroke (when the handle is closest to the flywheel) and occurs as the resistance of the flywheel is connected to the feet on the foot-stretcher (just like in the boat). In the catch phase of the drive, it is important that the right muscle groups are connected to the resistance on the handle, so that the drive can be maximized for both power and efficiency. You have probably heard the rowing drive sequence described as a transfer from legs-body-arms, with the catch acting at the starting point by which the legs are recruited to drive against the flywheel.

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The catch position 

The catch exercise involves repeated strokes of the 'catch' movement alone, to practice follow these steps:

  1. Start by sitting at the catch position on the indoor rower, make sure your shoulders are low and relaxed, the handle height should be approximately level with the middle of your knee.
  2. Gently apply pressure to the foot-stretcher through your legs, be mindful to maintain the angle between your body and your legs and ensure that your shoulders do not lurch upwards towards your ears. Stop the stroke as soon as your elbows pass behind your knees.
  3. Roll back towards the flywheel to take another catch stroke. Repeat this process, focusing on feeling the movement of the handle match the pressure applied through the legs.

The catch exercise can easily be included in your warm up to help fine tune the start of the drive. Getting the initiation of the drive right at the catch can set you up for good drive technique through the remainder of the stroke and is worth taking the time to practice- even if the exercise itself doesn’t feel like a workout. Try including 2 x 10 strokes of catch exercise within your next rowing warm up.

Legs Only

Once you have mastered the catch portion of the drive, the legs only exercise takes the stroke a step further and encourages full use of the legs before the body and arms take over. It is common for indoor rower’s to make the mistake of allowing the body to lever back too early, thereby reducing the effectiveness of the much larger (and more effective) muscles in the legs. If this sounds like it could be you, give the legs only exercise a go to isolate the leg muscles, and ensure you are getting the most out of these key muscle groups.

  1. Start by sitting in the catch position. The initial phase of the exercise will incorporate the catch and provides another opportunity to pay attention to the connection taught by the catch exercise.
  2. After the initial catch-phase of the drive, continue to extend the legs in one fluid movement. Be careful not to allow the angle of your body to change. Throughout the entire exercise, your bodyweight should remain on the front of your seat, and your body angle forward of your hips. Finish the stroke with your body in this position and your arms and legs outstretched.
  3. Bend your knees and roll back forward to the catch position to repeat the stroke. Just like the catch exercise, you can repeat the legs only exercise in sets of 10 strokes within the warm-up, to give you dedicated time to focus on the connection and use of your leg muscles.
Check out the following demonstration video:

By breaking down the drive to focus on connection at the catch and full use of your legs, you are ensuring that the most powerful muscles used in the drive are connected and utilized to their full potential. From the end of the legs-only phase of the drive, all that is left to do is to transfer the resistance from the legs to body, and finally draw in the arms. For more information on the sequencing of the drive, check out our in-depth drive post HERE.

‘Stroke Build’ Exercise

Once you are confident in the catch and legs only exercises, the next step is to string the drive together. The ‘stroke build’ exercise sequence is carried out over four strokes, allowing you to build the drive from small manageable sections, keeping the focus on connection and leg drive from the start of the stroke. This is a great exercise to include after 5mins of general warm-up, as it allows you to keep rowing somewhat continuously, while still taking the time to focus on critical aspects of the drive that require some attention.

  1. Stroke 1: Start at the catch position. This first stroke is a repeat of the catch exercise, making sure the legs are connected to the handle from the beginning of the stroke, and that the shoulders, body and arms remain loose and relaxed.
  2. Stroke 2: Return to the catch position to take stroke two. This stroke is a repeat of the legs only exercise, giving you the opportunity to build off the ‘catch exercise’ and focus on making the most of your legs, without the body and arms interfering.
  3. Stroke 3: Return to the catch position to take stroke three. This stroke will complete the legs only exercise, allowing the body to take over only as the legs finish. Be careful not to bring the body in too early- only once the legs are reaching full extension. The only difference between this stroke and a full stroke is that you have not yet used your arms- leave these outstretched at the end of the stroke and use them to lead your body over your hips before breaking your knees to roll towards the catch.
  4. Stroke 4: Return to the catch position to take stroke four. This stroke is a full rowing stroke in the sequence of legs-body-arms. This is a chance to ensure the movement patterns of the catch and legs only exercises are practiced within the context of a full rowing stroke, and that technical changes achieved by these exercises are transferred to your full-stroke rowing technique.
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The arms are recruited last to finish off the stroke and flow into the next stroke

Repeat this exercise sequence for a couple of minutes in every warm up on the Indoor Rower. In doing so will be able to focus in on your rowing technique before moving onto higher-intensity or endurance training, setting yourself up for good technique throughout the session.

For more tips on form and technique, check out these other helpful articles:

Three Common Technique Mistakes on the Indoor Rower

Three Things You Can Improve to Become a Faster Rower

Understanding Rowing Technique: The Recovery Sequence

Understanding Rowing Technique: The Drive Sequence