How to Be a Good Rower

Rowing is one of the most enjoyable sports you can do. Not only is it great fun, but it also provides a great overall workout. In order to be the best rower you can be, it is important to master proper stroke technique. Once you have settled into the boat and have properly strapped in your feet, you are ready to learn proper rowing technique.


A stroke is divided into four steps:

  1. Image titled Be a Good Rower Step 1
    The Finish
    • Extend your legs so that you are pushed as far back on the slide as possible.
    • Lean your body back slightly. This is called the body rock.
    • Hold the oar handle to your chest, about the width of a fist above your belly button.
    • Place your hands about shoulder width apart on the handle, with the outside hand on the edge of the handle.
  2. Image titled Be a Good Rower Step 2
    The Recovery
    • Tap the handle straight down with your outside hand (towards your lap) so that the blade of the oar is completely out of the water.
    • Feather your blade by turning the handle with your inside hand so that the blade is parallel with the water.
    • Push your arms away from your body so that your elbows are nearly locked.
    • Bend your body forward at the hips until you are leaning slightly forward with your arms extended. Remember to keep your back straight throughout the entire stroke.
    • Pull your body forward along the slide until your shins are vertical. As you do this, remember to keep the blade of your oar a few inches above the surface of the water.
    • Square your blade while you come up the slide by gradually rotating the oar handle back into its original position, with the blade perpendicular to the water. Make sure to square early before the catch as squaring at the catch in a race can cost you valuable time!
  3. Image titled Be a Good Rower Step 3
    The Catch
    • Reach as far as you can with your arms without hunching or overextending your back. You should be as far forward as possible on your slide.
    • Make sure your blade is squared, or perpendicular to the water.
    • Drop the blade into the water by lifting your arms a few inches.
    • Make sure the blade is submerged just under the water. Try to keep the blade just below the water and the shaft as dry as possible.
  4. Image titled Be a Good Rower Step 4
    The Drive
    • Push your body back with your legs, with your arms straight and your body still leaning forward. You must drive yourself with your legs
    • Pull with your back by leaning back from the forward position it was in (your back should end up at the same angle as it was at the Finish position) when your legs are almost fully extended.
    • Pull your arms back into your chest (the width of a fist above your belly button) so that you are back in the Finish position. Be careful to keep your arms straight when pulling them into your chest.
  5. Image titled Be a Good Rower Step 5

Know the Rowing Language

Crew has its own language, some of it borrowed from nautical terms or from other sports, and some of it unique, created during its centuries-old history.

Some Terms to Know:

Backsplash: The water thrown towards the bow by the blade as it enters the water

Blade: The end of the oar that goes through the water , marked unique to the team

Blowing Up: When a boat starts out too fast and tires coming down the course. Also known as "Fly and Die"

Bow: The forward end of a shell. The end your back faces. And the bow is the person who steers the boat.

Bow ball: The rubber ball on the tip of the bow, required in racing as a safety device

Catch: An upward motion of the arms that places the squared blade in the water. The beginning of the stroke.

Check: An abrupt deceleration of the shell caused by some uncontrolled motion of the rowers

Cox Box: The headset and audio system the coxswain plugs into the shell connected to speakers that are positioned by the seats

Coxswain: (pronounced cox-in) A person sitting in a shell facing forward who steers the shell, calls the cadence and coaches/urges the rowers during a race. Coxswains are typically small in size and do not have to be the same gender as the rowers.

Crab: When a rower's oar gets 'stuck' in the water, usually right after the catch or just before the release. The most common cause is improper squaring or feathering

Digging: When a blade goes too deep in the water during a stroke

Drive: The part of the rowing cycle when the rower applies power to the oar, primarily with a leg drive, then the back and finally the arms

Erg: Short for ergometer - a training device that simulates rowing, measuring time and simulated distance covered

Feathering: Turning the oar so the blade is parallel to the water surface, done in conjunction with the Release

Finish: The last part of the Drive where the power comes from the back and arms. When the oar comes out of the water.

Ten Hard: Ten short strokes performed at a very fast speed to eliminate check and pull ahead of a competing boat very quickly. This stroke is usually only seen in sprint races.

Head Race: Long distance races (5000m) often held on a course with multiple turns. Competing shells start at different intervals and race against the clock.

Launch: Power boats used by coaches during practice and by race officials during regattas

Layback: The amount of backward lean on the rower's body at the end of the finish

Missing Water: The rower starts the drive before the catch has been completed

Novice: A first year rower at a given level of competition

Port: The left-hand side of the shell when facing forward. Also describes sweep rowers who handle an oar on the port side of the shell (but on the reverse-seated rower's right).

Power Ten: A call for rowers to do 10 of their most powerful strokes to pull ahead of a competitor

Rate: The number of strokes per minute. Also called the stroke rate.

'Coming Forward: Moving the blade forward by extending the arms, leaning forward and then sliding the seat forward. The period between drives.

Regatta: Rowing competition made up of a series of races held on a course.

Tap Down: A downward motion of the hands which removes the blade from the water.

Repechage: A race for boats who did not qualify for the final or semi-final from their heat but were close enough to merit a second chance.

Rigger: The metal extension fastened to the side of the shell which holds the oar.

Rowing Cycle: A series of steps executed by rowers on each stroke; see Release, Feathering, Recovery, Squaring, Catch, Drive, Finish, Layback

Rushing the slide: When a rower moves his/her seat too quickly during recovery, resulting in their stroke getting out of sync with the rest of the boat.

Sculling: Rowing where each rower holds 2 oars - 1 in each hand.

(#)-seat: The seat on a shell numbered from bow to stern. (Ex: 1-seat is the bow)

Seat racing: practice drills used to determine the seat order of rowers in a shell

Set of a boat: The stability and levelness of a shell,k affected by many factors such as rower posture, hand levels, rigging, stroke timing, and weather conditions. Known as 'keel'.

Settle: The point of a race after a standing start that the boat is moving at full speed, at which time the rating is lowered and the stroke length is increased

Shell: A racing boat used in crew. Shells hold 1, 2, 4, and 8 rowers.

Skying: The blade being too high above the water at the end of the catch.

Slide: The rails in the boat on which the seat moves forward and backward

Sprint Race: Shorter distance races (1000 - 2000m) usually held on a 6-lane straight line course. Competing shells start at once and race side by side to the finish line.

Squaring: Turning the blade perpendicular to the water.

Starboard: The right-hand side of the shell when facing forward. Also describes sweep rowers who use an oar on the starboard side (but on the reverse seated rower's left)

Stern: The rear end of a shell. Rowers face this end of the shell.

The Stroke Seat: The rower sitting nearest to the stern, responsible for setting the stroke length and maintaining the cadence of the stroke rate

Sweeping: Rowing where each rower holds 1 oar with both hands

Swivel: The oarlock on the rigger that allows the oar to pivot

Unisuit: A one=part racing uniform worn by rowers and coxswains

Things You'll Need

  • A shell (for sweep rowing, a pair, four, or eight-oared shell)
  • A team of 2, 4, or 8 rowers
  • An oar for each rower
  • Non-baggy shorts (usually spandex) or a unisuit
  • A water bottle (recommended)
  • Sunscreen (highly recommended)
  • A good attitude and willingness to learn!


  • When pushing with your legs, it sometimes feels natural to simultaneously begin pulling with your arms. Do not do this. Wait until your legs have nearly reached their full extension before you begin leaning back and pulling the oar towards you.
  • Keep your head straight and look forward while you row. This helps the set of the boat and can help your focus, control, and breathing.
  • Always keep your back straight, no hunchbacks.
  • At the catch, try to slice the blade cleanly at a 90 degree angle into the water, if done right this should create a small "backsplash".
  • Remember that the set (balance) of a boat is the most important part of rowing
  • Balance and synchronization are the keys to rowing. You want to make sure that at all times your weight is directly over the axis of the boat. Do not lean over the port or starboard sides, even when you are at the "catch."
  • Do not grip the oar tightly with your whole hand. Hold it more like a claw, with your fingers as the hooks.
  • As you return to the catch position, make sure that you keep your oar completely out of the water.
  • During a race, taking shallow breaths makes it easier not to let your breathing get out of control.
  • When you are just beginning, do not focus on maximizing power. Take easy strokes that will help you internalize proper rowing technique.
  • Catching a crab is when a rower loses control of their oar and it gets 'stuck' underwater.
    • The handle usually gets pulled violently over the rower's head and can be forceful enough to flip the rower out of the boat and into the water. This happens to all rowers and can be extremely dangerous.
    • To fix it, turn the handle and pull the blade out of the water. This takes some work, and if you can't fix it by yourself a rower near you will help you.
  • Balance is one of the most difficult things to achieve in rowing, so do not feel badly if the boat rocks a lot at first.
  • If at all possible, try taking only one breath each stroke, inhale during the recovery, exhale during the drive. If you are rowing at a very fast or very slow rate, this would be more detrimental than helpful.


  • Keep your back straight throughout the stroke to avoid back injury.
  • At the release, do not wait too long to release the oar blade completely from the water. Failure to do so may lead to the oar striking you in the face.
  • When you are just beginning, row in an eight person shell or a training boat (a boat that has a wider keel that is harder to capsize). This erases the worry of flipping when you are first learning.
  • Push evenly with both legs, pulling too hard with only one leg can result in pulling a muscle and an un-set boat.
  • Make smooth movements and adjustments. When a boat is not set, you may get frustrated and want to make violent movements to fix it. This will not work. Moving yourself or your oar violently can cause the set to get worse, or make the boat quickly dip to one side.
  • Watch your timing! Letting your stroke get out of sync with the rest of the boat can result in ruining the set of the boat or catching a crab, and can make rowing harder for every rower in the boat.
  • Beware of "gunwale bite"! This is when the boat dips violently to one side and causes the outside hands of either port or starboard rowers to get smashed into the gunwale (side of the boat) because of the unexpected movement.
  • Trying to move the boat with your back (as opposed to the legs) is the most frequent cause of back injuries in rowing. Remember that your legs have more power than your back so the portion of the stroke when your back is in motion should be treated like a follow through.
  • Watch your hands! If you are rowing in an offset boat, keep an eye on your hands and their relation to the gunnel of the boat. If you aren't careful, your hands may get stuck between the oar handle and the gunnel if the set dips too much to your side. If you keep your hands away from the gunnel, however, you can improve the set of your boat. Careful, though, if you keep your hands too far away, you may make the set worse!

Article Info

Categories: Rowing