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From Steve Whelpley, GRP Rowing Coach
Especially those of us counting the days until a thaw, it is critical to use the erg in full consciousness of the rowing you intend to do in the near future. It is often not what drill we do, but how we do it. While “top quarter” and “arms only” are far from revelatory drills, I want to take a new look at them through the use of a Concept2 Dynamic erg. There’s an exchange in both drills between one aspect of our body holding, while our other half moves. There’s a purposeful play and tension between the concepts of dynamic and static within our own bodies that is always at work throughout the stroke. However, during a given stroke cycle or drill, that play may be a mirrored image of itself. When we row top quarter, the hands need to follow the legs. In contrast, when we row arms only, the legs must follow the hands.
Those of us in Vermont are forced to think seasonally about our sculling, while those in warmer climates get to continually embrace it. Even so, we can all use ergs for something more than just a physiological tool when appropriate. When using a tool, it is important to use it for its strengths and intended use. Many times, we grab a convenient flathead when we really ought search for a Phillips head. Stumbling through the unscrewing of a Phillips head with a flathead, we shame ourselves, retrace our steps in hindsight, and hopefully learn for the next time. So, make the most of your time away from the water by recognizing the capacity of the tool you’re sitting on.
While rowing ergometers are physiological tools for all, each rowing machine may offer particular insights as a specific tool for your rowing. The best tool for this prescribed “work” (aka drills) is the Concept2 Dynamic Erg. That’s not to say other dynamic rowing systems wouldn’t be passable tools for this as well, but the unique construction of a C2 Dynamic accentuates the nuances of the drills and serves as an exceptional fit for the head of the screw.
Rowing machines nowadays adopt the common contrasting language of “Static” and “Dynamic.” It could be argued that a rowing stroke on the water must embody both “static” and “dynamic” qualities during the course of a stroke cycle. Coaches often reference the concept of leaving your hands outside the gunwales for as long as possible, assuming your blade is in the water, in an effort to not miss connection at the front end. This language of “leaving the hands behind” suggests a static effort in the hands as we attempt to redirect our bodily attention to the hips. At the same time, coaches often drill rowers to have fast hands into the body in order to keep up with the connection at that point in the stroke. Coaching for the quick movement of the hands into the body is a call to be dynamic in a part of our anatomy that once was asked to be static at the other end of the stroke. Now, the door begins to open so that we may try and take this attention to the erg.
On dynamic rowing systems, the scissoring action of the rowing stroke as hands and legs move in opposite directions is magnified by the fact that the connection moves around the rower rather than the rower moving around the connection (aka your center of mass moves very little). The magnitude to which is this is true on the C2 Dynamic is why it makes such a good teacher of the top quarter and arms only.
When rowing “top quarter” slide on a dynamic erg, you simply try to execute the first quarter of your drive. Often, coaches use it to try and weed out opening with the shoulders or grabbing with the arms. Often, rowers are more prone to these mistakes during the drill than not. On a C2 Dynamic, you can do this drill with a little more accuracy because you can strive more directly to “leave the hands behind.” Attempt to row “top quarter” on a C2 Dynamic without having the handle move at all. Let the legs take the full work of the top quarter. It is a bit of a trust fall because you will not feel an immediate, dummy-proof hook up of the connection. This is why people often tend to grab or open on the C2 Dynamic. Feeling nothing on the handle, they hurry the connection in an effort to find tension in their hooked grip. Do not let the handle move, simply move the legs for what you imagine would be the top quarter of your leg drive, and observe how you might feel the connection in a new, subtler way.
Take a look at the supporting video and see how good of a job the athlete does of keeping the handle in one place. The gridded bedsheet helps to draw out reference points. You could effectively accomplish the same thing by adding “curb feelers” to your erg. Use zip ties to mark the handle at the catch and attempt to keep it there as you execute top quarter. Make sure your shoulders are stable and ready to transfer the will of the legs.
The front end is all about static hands and dynamic legs as we search for the most natural connection possible.
There are very few people in the world that actually maintain connection with the arm draw. Typically, we spend 80% of the rowing stroke chastising ourselves for prematurely using the arms. We crave that tactile sense of connection and often bring it in not for the sake of boat speed, but for the sake of nurturing our ego, that either wants to feel engaged or is panicked about the process of being engaged. Either way, we tend to hurry the hands through the top quarter and the mid-drive. Then, when we’re finally allowed to make appropriate use of them, we rarely do.
It is quite a thing to keep up with the speed of our own connection. The faster the boat, the harder it gets. The building of a drive leads through a cascade in the body that is constantly accelerating. As a result, by the time the drive arrives at the back end, the hands need to be flying. One of two things often happen: 1. the hands do not move fast enough and the deceleration of the boat starts while the blades are still in the water or 2. the hands do in fact accelerate but as the blades emerge from the water causing an unloading of the blade as the loom hurriedly sweeps to the stern.
On a C2 Dynamic, you can practice arms only more effectively than anywhere else. Take your arms only stroke, but with the intention of moving your feet to the stern as you do. The closer you draw the handle to the body, the further you must send the foot stretchers in the opposite direction. As the legs are long, you must keep them strong. In order to transfer the energy of the arm draw to the boat, it must get to the footboard. This comes by way of keeping the legs engaged even once the leg drive is done, staying firm and supported in the core, and dynamically utilizing the arm draw in accordance with the movement of the boat (or foot stretcher).
Again, look to the supporting video for the arms only strokes. In this case, the athlete is coming down from full slide strokes, so the first few must be taken simply to keep up with the speed of the flywheel (or boat). Once that happens, he takes care to try and work the foot stretcher as far away from as possible on each arms only stroke. You can use the grid to gauge how effective his transfer of energy from the handle to the feet is on each stroke.
This happens on the water as well, but it is made more challenging to observe by the fact that the boat is moving as well.
There is symmetry and balance in many aspects of our sport. The scissoring dance of the drive is illustrated by watching an athlete execute these drills on a C2 Dynamic. While the hands are static and the legs dynamic at the front end, the tables turn by the backend allowing the hands to be dynamic and the legs static. Similarly, when the arms are long, they work to be static, stabilize, and transfer the dynamic energy of the legs. When the legs are long, they work to be static, stabilize, and transfer the dynamic energy of the arms. With time, a rower grows more adept at harvesting connection at each end of the stroke (and in between), cutting down on the amount of time it takes to find the flywheel or the water. Until then, it is important to recognize the shift in how the body makes connection possible at both ends.