Indoor Rowing Handle Position Controversy and Experiment

There has been a lot of buzz online this week about a poster for British Rowing showing a national team athlete using purportedly poor technique at the finish during an ergometer test on the Concept2.

My view is this:  The ergometer is not an exact simulation of actual rowing, and the physics are different, especially on a static erg like the Concept2 without slides.  The technique to maximize results on the erg is different than the technique to maximize boat speed, and elite athletes know how to do both.  On the C2, maximizing the length of the pull by any means necessary will improve your score.  A previous post on this blog shows how Canadian elites do 3-stroke max wattage tests on the C2, and the technique is ridiculous but effective in terms of how the C2 calculates power output.  While we can criticize the publisher for picking this particular picture, we shouldn’t criticize the athlete.  If she is wearing a GBR jersey in an Olympic year she clearly knows how to be maximally effective both on and off the water.

But the controversy got me thinking:  Is it actually more effective to lay back and break the wrists at the finish on the C2

I was always coached by Jim Barker at Undine Barge Club to “sit up and support the finish” in order to maximize the ability to keep pressure on the blades with the smaller muscles in the arms and upper torso once the leg drive was over.  Being on the C2 instead of in a single scull makes it easy to get sloppy on this, but it also makes it easy to test the theory out!

Here’s what I did:

8 rounds of 100m, arms-only rowing, with 1 minute rest in between.  The first four rounds I broke the wrists at the finish and let the elbows drop below the wrists.  The second four rounds I tried to keep the wrists parallel to the forearms and elbows (more like actual sculling).  Then I looked at the elapsed time on the intervals to see which was faster.  This video shows the difference in technique:

Concept2 Handle Position Experiment


What were the results?  The last four intervals (wrists flat) were about 1 second faster than the first four (wrists bent), even though my arms were tired and the stroke rate was somewhat slower.



How did the power curves differ?

Curve 1 (wrists bent):  Sharper drop-off, uneven “blip” in the power curve.



Curve 2 (wrists flat):  shallower slope to the drop-off, smoother curve.



What I found, at least for me, was that keeping the wrists as flat as possible made the finish a little slower, but allowed me to pull with the traps straight through to the fingertips, so that the force curve did not drop off as sharply at the finish.  This let me squeeze out the last four intervals about a second faster than the first four, even though my arms were full of lactic acid by then.  This says that over a 2K piece, maintaining a strong and upright finish position would lower my score by at least a few seconds.  My finding in this non-scientific test is that while you may get more chain length by laying back and pulling extra high, you will not be able to maintain acceleration on that extra chain length, and therefore you may not get much benefit for the extra energy expended.

Appreciate any reader comments.

BONUS QUESTION:  Can anyone recognize the racing tank I am wearing?  It is “old school” from a US club that doesn’t exist anymore, but is still my favorite jersey….


4 thoughts on “Indoor Rowing Handle Position Controversy and Experiment

  1. GB poster: I noticed the picture and liked it, though it was a great composition. Wasn’t bohered at all by the form.

    I’ve seen some on-the-water rowers with some interesting erg techniques that usually involve trying to lengthen the stroke.
    This is footage from a recent 20 min ergo race called the (Amsterdam) Ergohead where the following records were set:

    LSA, Steffen Bonde: 6156m (1:37.5) – Black w/ vertical red stripe
    SA, Roel Braas: 6433m (1:33.3) White shirt w/ red and green stripe

    Here’s another picture of Roel:

    Roel is on the Dutch men’s 8 national team, and pulled a 5:45 2K 11 months ago.

    Here’s my personal favorite, Henrik Stephansen setting the new 2K LWT World Record at 5:57.4 last week:
    Purists might say he bends his arms early and has a huge backswing, layback and takes the handle too high, wrong wrist position etc etc. I see a rowing machine of a man pounding his way to an erg score that nobody else ever managed.

    I think as far as indoor rowing races go these rowers are proving the purists wrong. Of course you can’t row like this on the water, but that’s not the point for these guys during an indoor rowing race.

    1. Johan, It’s funny – I was going to reference the Stephansen video also with the same observation regarding the arms – the technique looks rough but you can’t argue with the result! Same could be said of Waddell in the 2000 Olympic singles finals. I think it’s easier now for people to critique the elites because of the amount of video footage available, etc. Thanks again for the links, and for reading!

      P.S. is Roel wearing Okeanos colors in that picture? I have a similar-looking racing shirt from 1989 when Okeanos hosted us to race the Senior B eight at the Holland Beker. I will never forget their hospitality!


      1. Roel rows for Okeanos, good memory Marc 🙂 Good to hear they made a memorable impression on you, and that you ventured all the way out here back then. 🙂 As far as technique on the erg goes, I think its best taught the classic way with flats wrists etc etc. Then if/when you get to the elite level I think you know what works best for you.

        Enjoyed the article!

  2. I think your ‘better’ results with flat wrists are because the connection is stronger with a straight line from your hand/handle to your elbow.
    Thanks for doing the experiment to let us know the answers. Maybe next time round you can do it the other way – flat wrist first then bent wrist and get a comparison?

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