The drive in rowing technique


The drive phase is the part of the stroke where the athletes move the boat.

That happens during the time the blades are in the water: from the time the blades are placed in the water at the catch to the time that the blades are extracted from the water at the finish.

Lightweight men rowing
Power leg drive Photo Credit: TownTopics

The drive is a dynamic and fluid movement that allows the athlete(s) to apply their maximum power. A good drive sequence is not just a heave; it is a rhythmical unfolding of the body which has been compressed during the recovery.  It involves all the parts of the body linking the handle(s) to the boat, a chain of muscles from your hands gripping the handle to your feet pressing on the footstretcher.

  • Imagine holding the end of a length of chain (a slinky is even more fun!) lying on the ground. Move your end sharply to one side and back and watch the other end move.  How do you get the fastest, whippiest movement from that last link?
  • Are your movements short? Long? Fast? Slow?
  • Do they accelerate? Slow down? Have a constant speed?
  • How does the chain itself move at the times when you have got the fastest end movement?
  • In what sequence are the links moving or being moved?
  • Do they jump and rattle or have you got a sinuous snake?

In the drive the pressure put on the feet passes through the linking muscles to accelerate the handle(s). The longer, the stronger and the smoother our actions the greater our finishing handle speed.

Sketches of good drive in rowing


Drive 1

  • The catch is considered separately, the drive sequence starts after the blade is buried in the water.
  • The movement is initiated by the legs pushing against the foot stretcher.
  • The seat and handle should move the same distance relative to the boat.
  • The low back holds firm. This requires that the hamstrings, gluteal group and core hold firm.
drive_ii_pingDrive 2

  • The back holds the same angle / opposition as the drive starts and develops.
  • The athlete hangs off the handle, weight is mainly on the feet, pressure on the handle, light on the seat.
drive_iii_pingDrive 3

  • The legs continue driving.
  • The back begins to open, swing from the hips as the legs pass through the point of maximum power(knees at right angles).
  • The athlete still hangs from the handle.

Drive 4

  • Legs still driving.
  • The body still swinging.
  • Shoulders begin to squeeze, draw the handle in with arms still straight.
  • After shoulders begin the arms begin to bend and draw.
drive_vDrive 5

  • Legs fully extended but feet still pushing against the stretcher.
  • Gluteal-hamstring group holds firm.
  • Shoulders fully compressed.
  • Arms draw handle so outside hand barely touches 1st rib.

Benefits of a good drive sequence

The immediate and most important benefit of good driving is more speed. The drive is the part of the stroke that has a direct and positive impact on the boat speed. A good drive sequence will allow a sculler or crew to get the boat to the highest possible short term speed each stroke given their power to weight ratio.

Good driving imparts a rhythm that makes it easier to maintain effort and therefore speed. If a crew rows in a rhythm that matches the boat then they are more likely to be efficient and able to row at high speed for longer periods.

A good drive also helps the attitude of the boat in the water. A good drive reduces unnecessary vertical weight displacement by the athlete(s) and helps maintain the optimal, horizontal, boat attitude.

Kris Korzenowski, the celebrated coach of the Dutch, the Americans, and the Chinese says “What goes up goes to God; what goes down goes to the devil; we want to go along.”

Perils of bad drive sequence

Incorrect drive sequence wastes energy. If the drive is ill sequenced and ill-timed more of the athlete(s) energy is wasted warming up the water rather than moving the boat. In order to maximize the effect of the available power, the sequence of the drive needs to be good and it needs to be done in time with the boat.

  • Remember your chain?  What happened when your movements were too sudden? Too slow? Too weak?
  • Imagine now that you’re holding the chain in the middle and still trying to make the end move at its fastest. Go on, give it a shake. Clunk! The end’s just come back and hit you on the hand.
  • Try again. Can you get the same speed? The same smoothness? The same translation of power?

An incorrect sequence like trying to move your back before you’re pressed on your feet leads to bouncing of the boat, jerky and wasteful acceleration and lower than optimal speed.

The Drive in Rowing: Pre-requisites

Scull handle grip when oars are in the water
Scull handle grip when oars are in the water

Most of the pre-requisites for a good drive sequence are physical.

An athlete needs sufficient flexibility and strength to be able to perform the sequence correctly. Improving flexibility and strength don’t happen overnight, it takes time and is more likely to happen if the athlete is in a structured exercise program.

  • Try shoving a box or crate along the floor to improve your leg drive sequence. Use something with a bit of mass; a petrol tank, crate of drink bottles (if they still exist), the Club’s box of boat ties.
  • Stand on one leg with the other foot on the box and shove it away, pressing on your foot and stretching out your leg
  • Can you make it go further still by stretching right to your toes?
  • Even more fun is lying on your back on a shiny gym floor, knees bent and feet flat against the wall – high enough up so that your shins are parallel to the floor.
  • Now push.
  • What sort of push takes you furthest? Short and sharp? Long and strong?
  • What sort of push will move the boat further?

P.S. Lying on a mat that slides will save you from getting your knickers in a twist!

The Drive in rowing: How to get a good drive rowing technique

Get strong and flexible!  The drive is a complex series of movements under load and the aim is to apply maximum power to the boat. In order to do this, an athlete needs flexibility, strength, and coordination in order to perform a few good strokes and fitness to do it frequently and at high ratings.

There are plenty of land-based exercise programs available to help with flexibility and strength. The Home Exercise routine or another similar calisthenic routine is a basic tool that is highly recommended. A good core stability and strength program is also vital.

A good simulation of the drive sequence is the squat jump. If a group of rowers and scullers is asked to perform a series of good squat jumps there will be an extremely high correlation between those who jump well and those who drive well. If you can’t jump you can’t row.

In particular, short or inflexible hamstrings, inflexible ankles, weak and inactive gluteal muscles, weak or unused core, all make a good drive or jumping difficult.

The ultimate exercise for preparing rowers and scullers to drive well is the Power Clean. This an Olympic Weightlifting lift. Cleans simulate the rowing action well and are an excellent form of strength training. All top-level rowers and scullers should be able to power clean.

The ability to perform a power clean well isn’t something that is acquired overnight, the athlete needs a properly structured program using simpler lifts to prepare the body and learn the skill before attempting the full lift.


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This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Duncan Coneybeare

    Great article – really informative and thought-provoking!

    1. Rebecca Caroe

      Thanks, Duncan

  2. zviad

    thank you

  3. Lois Melina

    Thanks for this! I’m an older, recreational rower with arthritic knees. I can’t do exercises that involve squats and jumps–even squats without jumps or kettlebells are problematic for my knees. Rowing itself isn’t problematic, which is why I’ve embraced it in the last few years. Any suggestions for other strengthening and flexibility that put less stress on the knees? Thanks.

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