Rowing For CrossFit: Form, Common Mistakes, and More | WODprep

Rowing For CrossFit: Form, Technique & Common Mistakes


It’s the form of cardio that we see programmed the most often in CrossFit gyms, as well as the Open. 

Yet way too often, I see athletes doing it wrong… 

Sometimes, very wrong. 

Yanking at the handle… not using their legs… pulling back too far to the point where they’re almost flat… we’ve all seen this guy before: 

Whether you’re brand new to rowing for CrossFit, or have been doing it for awhile yet - this article is going to break down the movement, optimal form, damper setting, myths, and more. 

Rowing For CrossFit: The Basics

Let’s start with addressing types of rowers. If you’re here because you’re thinking about purchasing a rower yourself, this article breaks down the variety of rowers that are on the market, and the pros and cons of each.

Keep in mind, CrossFit HQ has somewhat strict standards as to which brands of rowers are allowed to be used within CrossFit competitions. If that’s something that matters to you, it’s best to stick with the Concept2 Rower - which comes in a variety of models.

Rowing: Foot Placement & Strap Set-up

Sit down on the rower, and position the straps across the balls of your feet - tight enough so that feet don’t move too much, yet still allow you to slide in and out during a workout.

Foot plates should be adjusted so the widest part of the foot is even with the strap. This is important for the drive phase, and pushing through the midfoot. This set-up will also adjust the angle of your hip when you come into the catch

What about the rower's damper?

Listen up. You should not be setting the rower’s damper as high as possible, ever.

Read that again.

It’s true that a higher damper will increase the power of your pull - increasing calorie and distant rates - but this also equates to a much higher amount of work that is needed for each pull… which isn’t necessarily beneficial. With the increased work requirement that comes with each pull, you’ll end up fatiguing more quickly and not being able to overcome the higher resistance of the damper. 

The rower’s damper should be adjusted based off the drag factor. On a C2, you can find the rower’s drag factor under ‘more options’ on the main menu - read more about that here.

Men should shoot for a drag factor of about 125, and women 110-115. Normally, this is around damper setting 6 for men, and 5 for women. 

Rowing for CrossFit

Rowing For CrossFit: Let’s Talk Technique

In order to understand the correct form that athletes should be using when rowing, let’s break down the row into phases:

  1. Catch
  2. Drive & Extend
  3. Drive & Open
  4. Drive & Draw
  5. Finish
  6. Recovery

Cool list - but what does it mean?

Rowing Step 1: The Catch

Rowing position should start in ‘the catch’ which is also where you’ll be finishing the movement. Sit on the rower with a strong, stiff back. You should be leaning forward, just slightly from neutral, with arms fully extended. Knees are bent, and shins should be vertical. 

A note on heel position: The goal should be to keep your heels down. That being said, many CrossFit athletes have tight ankles… so my stance is that a small amount of heel rise is OK - as long as the drive phase initiates by pushing through the midfoot, NOT the toes. 

Rowing Step 2: Drive & Extend

The drive is initiated by pushing through the heel/midfoot to begin extending the knee. During this step, your torso should be maintaining the same angle as step 1 (slightly forward). 

Again, the main focus here should be to drive through the midfoot, not the toes. 

Rowing Step 3: Drive & Open

Once the knees are past 90 degrees (moving towards extension), it’s time to begin to open hips. All the while, your arms naturally will begin moving back towards your body, yet you shouldn’t be focusing on pulling - continue to focus on your legs.

Rowing Step 4: Drive & Draw

Now it’s time to think about your arms. Once the hips are open and legs are fully extended, draw your arms back and bring the handle of the rower to your chest - the bottom of your sternum. Wrists should be in line with forearms, and elbows draw back.

Key: Note that elbows should draw back - NOT up and wide. Keep them close to the body.

CrossFit Rowing

Rowing Step 5: Finish

This step is technically just the slight pause that occurs once the draw has been finished. Your body should be leaning back just slightly (think: 1 o’clock) with your legs straight, arms pulled in, wrists still in line with forearms, and the handle at the bottom of your chest.

You’re ready to complete the movement and move into the recovery step.

Rowing Step 6: Recovery

Recovery is the portion of the movement that takes us from the finish, back to the catch (the start of the row). This is done in exact reverse order from the drive. Push your arms away, and once extended, lean at the hip so that your body moves forward into the 11 o’clock position. 

Bend the knees, and draw your body back into the Catch position (step 1). 

Rowing Technique: Common Faults

Let’s take a look at some of the most common faults that we see when it comes to rowing for CrossFit.

Faults in the Catch (starting position)

  • Shins are past vertical 
  • Heels aren’t flat - athlete is starting on their toes
  • Reaching/leaning too far forward (torso should be angled at 11 o’clock)
  • Reaching the handle all the way to the flywheel 

Faults in the Drive

  • Collapsing forward when extending legs (should only be leaning slightly forward)
  • Opening the hips too soon (this normally happens when the butt slides forward)
  • Pulling the arms first (think: legs first)

Faults in the Finish

  • Pulling back too far (or laying back completely)
  • Elbows pulling out
  • Pulling the handle too low, or too high

Faults in the Recovery

  • Initiating with knees first instead of arms. 
  • Keeping elbows bent - this puts athletes in the incorrect position when starting the Catch

Rowing & Pacing

On the monitor of your rower, you’ll notice a box that displays S/M. This stands for strokes for minute, and is a good way to track your pace. 

Generally, I advise shooting for a stroke rate between 22- 28 per minute. If we maintain a high stroke rate, the resistance of the wheel will feel lighter, as you are not letting it slow down as much between reps.

For the more visual learners out here, check out the technique breakdown that I give after CrossFit 19.1 was released.


Rowing For CrossFit: The Wrap Up

So after reading the step by step breakdown on rowing for CrossFit, and checking out the most common faults - where do you stand? Is your rowing form perfect and ready to go, or do you have some adjustments to make?

Remember, correct rowing form is important when it comes to efficiently completing workouts. Give these tips a try, or share this with a friend who has been struggling with rowing. 

Is improving your rowing a goal that you're working on? Check out our article on goal setting, and how to set yourself up for success

About the Author CJ DePalma

Resident Physical Therapist who answers all pain-related questions. Dr DePalma owns his clinic “The Movement Dr”, and is a WODprep Coach, L-1 Trainer, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), and USAW-L1 Trainer.

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  • Is rowing a good exercisr for me as I have Spondlylisthis L4 and L5 also spinal Stenosis

    • Cj says:

      Hey Bernadette!

      There are no inherently dangerous exercises for Spondy or Spinal stenosis as everyone experiences different symptoms with these injuries.

      Dont be afraid to row Either. It is very safe.

      If it terribly painful then you may not be ready yet but if it is pain free or just minimally discomforting, then you are good to go!

  • Josh says:

    As a moderately experienceed rower, indoor and on the water, the advice to keep your heels down, or almost down, for the whole stroke sounds wrong to me. Lifting your heels towards the catch with your shins still vertical gives you another couple of inches of length which is key to efficiency. Placing them down at the start of the drive and then ramping up the power once your feet are down, pressing through the heels, would give you more bang for your buck and stop the machine from sliding forwards across the room. Rowing short is good to get the flywheel spinning initially, but to row fast it means you need to apply more power in less time. Somebody with the same fitness and a longer stroke will outperform you. This is also why rowers tend to be tall.

    • Cj says:

      Hey josh.

      Thanks for the input.

      You definitely have more experience than I.

      But based on the research I’ve done and the collegiate and Olympic rowers I’ve learned from, this is the most accurate advise that I was able to give. I assume their are other ways to teach it, but heels up is not one that I have come across.

      While a longer pull will create more power per each pull, usually when you see someone reach further (heels up) they compromise their torso position as well which may not yield the most efficient pull?

      You mentioned elevating the heels and then creating force by slamming the heels. Again, Not bad advice, but a much harder thing to teach since most people are toesy in the rower anyways and it creates more room for Error.

  • Andy Roberts says:

    Great article. I learned rowing from an rower. Exactly as you describe! Well done!

  • Erik says:

    Great article!

  • Veronica Garza says:

    always like to see videos

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