Indoor rowing is one of the fastest growing fitness trends in the US. Head to any major city and you’ll find rowing gyms. Even the local YMCAs are taking the rowing machines out of the corner and moving them to a prominent spot. But, with the rise of rowing, we also find many people rowing with poor technique. In addition to holding an RKC certification and regularly teaching kettlebells at FitWit Studio, I also started to teach rowing this past year and became a certified rowing instructor through UCanRow2. Many of my clients already have a background in kettlebells, and I’ve found that kettlebells can be a highly effective method to teach rowing.
First, a little bit about rowing… You may have seen athletes at the gym leaning all the way back at the end of a stroke and moving with lightning speed up and down the slide. For the most part, you’ve probably observed very poor form. Rowing, like kettlebell training, is highly technical. The power of the stroke comes from the push-back (legs) and the movement forward is all recovery. A goal is to set up for a strong push during the recovery. Basically, the movement pattern starting from the front of the erg is to push back with the legs, then the body goes back at a “one o’clock” position while the arms pull in. Return to the front of the erg by straightening the arms, hinging at the hips to the “eleven o’clock” position, before moving forward on the erg to the start or “catch” position. The order of the movement: legs, body, arms, arms, body, legs. Repeat this pattern one million times and you are rowing!
As I began to teach clients the rowing technique, I found myself moving them off the erg and over to the kettlebell so they could really learn how to properly row using the deadlift, goblet squat, and swing.
Kettlebell Deadlift: Hinge
When rowing, the body closely mimics the deadlift position. But, since it’s often difficult for clients to understand the concept of the hinge while on the machine, we practice our kettlebell deadlift set-up. We work on the hinge, and use the power of the legs to drive the kettlebell up. Then we get back on the erg and mimic the same position. The deadlift also helps clients really understand the correct shoulder position—rather than allowing the shoulders to round forward at the end of each stroke, they learn to keep their back in a strong position.
The Goblet Squat: Drive
Because most new rowers think that the power comes from the arms, it’s really important to teach them how to drive from their feet, and engage their glutes to push themselves back. I’ve used the goblet squat to reinforce this idea. My clients start with a fairly light kettlebell, and go deep into a goblet squat. They pause for 2-3 seconds at the bottom before standing up by driving hard thorough their feet. They do 5 reps, then do the next set with a heavier kettlebell. We repeat this process 2-3 times. The goal for this drill is to teach them that with heavier weight, they need to drive harder into the ground to stand up. After this drill, we get on the erg and practice the drive.
The Kettlebell Swing: Rhythm
Rowing has a certain rhythm to the stroke. You press back hard and fast, then recover slowly. Each individual has to find the right rhythm (stroke rate) for their most efficient row. If you go too quickly, your heart rate will spike too high. But if you go too slowly, you’ll burn out your legs. The kettlebell swing mimics the same rhythm that we are trying to find on the erg. A hard, fast drive gets the kettlebell up, before we allow the kettlebell to fall back down as we recover. All of the work happens on the way up. The swing has the additional benefit of reinforcing the hip hinge of the deadlift.
I’ve found that people who have practiced kettlebell training for a year or more tend to pick up rowing technique faster than those who haven’t. If you’re looking for a new cardio workout to add to your routine, I suggest trying rowing.
Kathryn Taylor, RKC, ACE-CPT, Oh Baby Fitness!, UcanRow2, TRX Level 1, is Studio Manager of FitWit Studio in Kirkwood/Decatur, Georgia.