I had a fellow CrossFitter tell me today that they had been coached as part of a CrossFit cert to keep their heels anchored when rowing since “rowing is like a deadlift.” I smirked a little as this impressed me as an example of the old adage “to a carpenter, everything looks like a nail.” The coach was somewhat right in that the last half of the drive uses the posterior chain, and the heels are anchored. But I think the coach was wrong on two very important points:
1. At the front of the drive, the quadriceps are the primary muscles used, and this switches to the hams/glutes only after half slide. Explosive quad activation at the catch is one of the primary predictors of boat speed. The level of compression in the legs is much closer to a deep front squat than to a deadlift, which requires more quadriceps activation.
2. A deadlift is a slow, deliberate, powerful movement, usually with a pause between reps, that does not utilize eccentric/elastic contractions. Rowing is a fast, dynamic, explosive, rhythmic movement that absolutely depends on eccentric/elastic contractions. Pausing between strokes would cause loss of momentum and stored energy. I believe rowing is closer in nature to unbroken thrusters, squat jumps, box jumps, or even double unders. All of these are very different motions from the deadlift, and in none of them does one land on the heels or keep the heels firmly planted on the floor. They all are done unbroken, at a high cadence, requiring rhythm and timing. Deadlifts are seldom programmed during a metcon.
A very detailed explanation of the reasons for the combined quad/posterior chain motion in the rowing stroke is provided in the Rowing Biomechanics Newsletter.