Learning To Use The Legs First During The Rowing Drive Phase

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I wrote this post because I have had a number of people in the last month tell me that they use a rowing machine or they have one at home and would like some advice on how to use it the most effectively. I humbly hope that these nine hundred or so words with accompanying video can help provide some direction for those wanting to know more. You can also refer to this post that discusses how to sequence movement on the recovery part of the stroke.

Here are a couple of minutes worth of instruction (see video below) on how to use the legs first when initiating the drive portion of the rowing stroke. It’s really important that while you are learning how to row that you learn to use the strongest muscles in the body to generate the most power at the beginning of the rowing stroke.

(Yeah, I know that the video was not shot in a gym or by the river…but time is a precious commodity when you are at my age ;))

The sequence of the drive of the rowing stroke should be legs, back and the arms finish last. I see many people on rowing machines in the gyms that I have visited drive with the back working first before the legs. Frankly, it hurts me on some level to see that because I see it as a waste of potential power.

When learning how to perform the rowing stroke it is important to break each part of the stroke into smaller segments. Once each segment has been practiced you can proceed to integrate the parts into the whole stroke. To implement this, I often use the “legs only” drill at the early stages of a rower’s development to help teach connection and power application.

It is important that the person learning how to row understands that the secret to a good drive is that the drive starts low at the foot stretcher. Another secret to good rowing involves an athlete’s ability to suspend their body weight/skeletal frame off the handle. The correct motion is to push the foot stretcher away while “hanging” the body weight off the oar handle with relaxed arms. It is best to think about pushing the legs down away from the upper body rather than moving the upper body away from the legs. I tell my athletes to let the arms hang off the handle like ropes as they push with their legs.

Start the drill by sitting in a strong catch position with good posture. The shoulders should be in front of the hips, the shins should be vertical or just shy of vertical. The “legs only” drill is exactly as it sounds, just the legs. It is important that the arms stay relaxed and that the feet “push” the foot stretcher away.

It is also important to preserve the body angle, shoulders in front of the hips until the legs are fully pushed down. I remind the athlete that the drive is initiated through the foot stretcher through the hips. No effort should be made to “pull” the oar handle with arms. Just hang off the handle through the lat muscles and let the legs and the core do the work.

As the legs push down it is important that core is activated to ensure that there is a good connection between the hands on the handle, the hips and the feet on the foot stretcher. The core provides the connection between the legs and the upper body. The handle should move the same horizontal distance as the hips as the legs go down. In addition, I recommend that the rower push the heels of the feet down as quickly as possible. With the heels down on the foot stretcher the athlete can recruit the glutes and the quadriceps more effectively. This also makes biomechanical sense. If you were performing Olympic lifts such as the deadlift or squat and wanted to generate the most power you would push through the heels. You would not perform those lifts by pushing primarily through the balls of the feet. The weight and power application is generated through the heel of the foot.

Once the legs are down then the rower moves up to the catch position again and the sequence is repeated. When a rower has mastered the drill there is good connection between the rower and the wheel on the Concept 2 rower. It also helps to think about connecting the hands (handle) with the feet (foot stretcher) with the help of the core.

An effective stroke starts with early connection from the start of the drive phase. This is why it is critical to practice a coordinated and controlled leg drive to start the stroke. The more effective a rower can be about connecting to the wheel and applying their power as early as possible, the more efficient and powerful the stroke will be.

In conclusion, I am aware that it is good practice that the back starts to be used before the legs are completely flat. This makes good sense because the best practice is to phase the legs, back and arms (in that sequence) into one fluid power application. A good stroke will allow these phases to blend into each other as you flow through them.

As a novice rower progresses they can learn to integrate the phases of the drive and generate more handle speed (more power). However, when teaching the stroke for the first time I recommend breaking the stroke into segments so that an inexperienced rower can understand the idea of pushing with the legs before levering with the upper body. If you can learn to start the drive by pushing with the legs and suspend your weight off the handle, that’s a great start!

If you have any questions about this post, please let me know in the comments or email me at neil@coachbergenroth.com.

Happy Rowing!

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  1. Tom says:

    What is the best way to suspend your weight?

    • Coach B says:

      Tom, I would hold the handle and ask the athlete to hang off the handle, by pushing through the foot stretcher with outstretched arms. You face the rower as you hold the handle. If the rower is suspended off the handle and the footplate, they should be able to lift their behind off the seat without bending the arms. Does this make sense? Make sure you have a good hold of the handle before the athlete tries this. Here are two videos to help with drills. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XyYeQZ-dOqk&list=PL5eb0WCGNsyCqOZh4Cn4thnSX40y4xu6e https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nNdoMYwgYH8

      • Tom says:

        Thx for the information. I have one additional question: I know as one approaches the catch, depending on flexibility of the ankle, the heel starts to rise off the foot rests. Is it better to work on ankle mobility n keep the heel on foot rest? I would think it would generate more power n better splits. What do u think?


        • Coach B says:

          Driving through the heels is an important part of completing good deadlift technique as well as squats. It allows for better recruitment of glutes and other leg muscles and therefore power application. Therefore, similar principles can be applied to the rowing stroke. Ideally, the heel would stay on the foot stretcher at the fully (and correctly) compressed position. However, this may not be the case so spending some time working on ankle mobility would help (if you have the time). In my opinion, mobility (functional movement) is free speed and should be a part of any coaches approach to achieving the best from their athletes. I hope this helps!

  2. Greetings.
    I suggest near 20 mm wooden blocks under your heels on the erg or boat. While ensuring constant heel contact, it will also make it harder to over- extend the legs at the finish. Try to relax your ankle.
    In this regard I recommend bringing the knees down more slowly, to be near straight, but not overextended, at the SAME time as the arms finish. The knees are NOT held down, and immediately rebound. The hands push the handles away quickly to clear the rising knees. This technique will remove the oft seen effort required to hold the legs down, and might prevent physical damage from overextension.
    Have fun.

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