Breathing Technique for Rowing

I had some questions from CrossFitters recently about breathing strategies for rowing.  They had been watching some videos in which people were trying to apply deadlift technique to rowing – i.e. knees out, back straight, breathe in before the catch, etc.

There is not a huge body of work on this topic, because it’s something that has much less impact than improving your fitness or working on basic technique.  Some coaches such as Xeno Muller have posted on this in the past, and there are few discussions on it on Rowing Illustrated and CrossFit.com.  There is some disagreement on this.  As someone who primarily rows on the water in a single scull and on a dynamic erg, this post is based on my personal experience and experimentation.  It may not work for everyone.

This information is primarily targeted at indoor rowing on a static erg (standard Concept2) as that’s what most CrossFitters use, but the same basic info applies in a boat or on a dynamic erg (e.g. RowPerfect, C2 on slides, etc).  The impact of changing your breathing technique will be dramatically obvious and natural in a boat or dynamic erg, but you may have to “feel” it out a little on a static indoor rower in order to figure it out.

For CrossFitters, this is an area in which the rowing-as-deadlift analogy breaks down.  First, let’s review the basics of the rowing stroke (thanks to Mizzou Rowing for the graphic):

image

Conventional wisdom would be to breathe in leading up to the catch and exhale throughout the drive, much as you would on a “rep” of a deadlift.  This would mean that you were fully “inflated” and your core was supported at the catch, which seems like the point of maximum loading on your lower back:

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There are a couple of issues with this:

1.  Being fully “inflated” at the point of maximum compression means that you are losing an inch or two of stroke length.  Stroke length is one of the variables used to calculate split time on an indoor rower, and just that extra inch will translate directly into a lower split.  You will also be able to keep a more neutral upper body position if you are “deflated” at the catch, i.e. there will be less chance that your belly will hit your thighs while your seat is still moving forward, causing you to open early and upwards with your back when you start the drive.

2.  The point of maximum stress on your lower back and core on a static indoor rower (vs. a boat or a dynamic rower) is actually at the finish, especially if you accentuate your layback.  The reason is that you have your entire body weight moving backwards in a suspended position, and you have to brake it, lose suspension, and reverse direction.  Your abs kick in to brake your upper body swing (1), and as soon as you start to lose force on the handle, the weight of your upper body compresses your lower back (2).  If you have accentuated your layback, it’s probable that your seat will actually slide forwards a little and try to pop your knees up (3).  This results in a “slouched” position that is not neutral, is not supported, and is really bad for your back, like trying to catch a power clean with a loose core and curved back.

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Remember that in rowing, the absolute load on your lower back is less than in a deadlift, but what will injure you over time is the repetitive motion and the change in direction if you are using poor technique.  It’s more like doing a metcon of 100-200 light deadlifts using touch-and-go at a high rate of repetition, and the same cautions apply.  While rowing is relatively lower in injury than most other sports, indoor rowing in particular can be tough on the lower back because of the finish, not the drive.

A better, if counterintuitive strategy, is to breathe OUT on the recovery and IN toward the finish.

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This does two things:

1.  It allows you to be fully relaxed and extended at the catch, giving you room to get a couple more inches of length.  This does not mean that your spine has to be unsupported – you should still practice proper posture and not allow your shoulders to “dive” into the catch.  If you catch in a relaxed position, it will be easier for you to suspend the power of your legs through the lats on the drive while keeping your shoulders on a horizontal line to the finish.

2.  It allows you to be fully “locked in” and supported at the finish.  Body upright with a little (~20 degrees) layback, chest full, wrists flat.  This will not only help you brake your body smoothly with your core, but it will minimize the effect of your body weight compressing your lower spine and will de-incent you to lay back too much.  In indoor rowing, the finish is where you need your core to be the most “locked in,” because it’s the point where it’s easiest to grid your back down.

Practice this at a moderate stroke rate such as 22 strokes per minute (i.e. where you don’t get out of breath and also don’t have to hold your breath!).  You don’t want to have to think about it during a WOD, so you want to get used to it in practice so that it just comes naturally.  You can feel the difference instantly and dramatically in a boat or on a dynamic erg, you may have to feel for it initially on a static C2 erg.  You should see your splits go down with the extra length, however.

A great time to practice this is the day after a really hard ab-centric WOD involving situps, hollow rocks, or toes-to-bars.  Your abs will be sore and you can really feel how hard they have to work to brake your body weight at the finish.  It will help you feel the difference that altering your breathing pattern can have.

A note on doing this during a WOD:  You will reach a point where you can’t survive with one breath cycle per stroke.  You will need to take 2-3 full cycles depending on your stroke rate, and you don’t want to have to think too hard about it.  My advice is to cue yourself to exhale coming into the catch, and don’t worry about anything else – your “reptilian brain” will figure it out on its own.

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10 thoughts on “Breathing Technique for Rowing

  1. Maybe, I’m an outlier, but I tend to breathe twice per stroke. I exhale on recovery and at the end of the drive. This seems to fit with the 18-20 stroke rate for lower intensity and 30 and up for more intense efforts.

    • Hi Greg, absolutely…this is a bit of an oversimplification. I tend to breathe twice per stroke as well, one full cycle on the drive and one on the recovery, maybe with not quite as full a breath on the former. I try to get fully empty right before the catch. See you at Masters Nationals?

  2. So you are saying I am doing this wrong. I will try to pay attention to it on my erg session this afternoon because I don’t know exactly how I breathe. I am sure I exhale on the finish though, and I suspect I breathe twice per stroke.

  3. Well, I’m not sure I’m saying you are doing it wrong – everyone is different and you should find your comfort zone because that will help you perform better. Try to pay attention to how you are breathing this afternoon, and experiment with changing your breathing pattern – you may see an improvement in your length at the catch. Breathing twice per stroke is absolutely the way to go when working hard – I would just time one of your exhalations on the recovery and see if that helps you.

    • I did pay attention to it, and guess what? When I breathe twice, I exhale just before the catch and at the end of the drive, just before the finish. I also noticed that the drive is “small inhale, big exhale” and the recovery is “big inhale, small exhale”. I think it is a pretty optimal way to breathe.

  4. I have to disagree with the advice on this article. The highest load on the back is at the catch while your legs are picking up the weight of the boat or the wheel of an erg. At the finish, the abs are not supposed to be stopping the upper body swinging into the bow. Instead, the arms draw the oar or handle and stop the upper body.

    Also, exhaling activates the muscles that support the spine. Exhaling during the drive is advised (look at Volker Nolte’s ‘Rowing Faster 2nd Edition). Most rowers will star with one full breath per stroke inhaling on the recovery. As intensity increases, many will switch to two breaths per stroke. There is an exhalation during the drive followed by an inhalation and exhalation during the recovery and a quick (not full) inhalation just before the catch.

  5. I agree with Sculler x. 2 breaths – out for the catch and release. Most top scullers seem to do this. Also I advise to do it ALWAYS, so that it becomes an ingrained part of your rhythm.
    Have fun.

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