The science behind heels up or heels down

Heels up towards catch

A guest post by Sara Hendershot Lombardi at Rowefficient.

The science behind this rowing question should I have my Heels Up or Heels Down as I approach the catch?  It’s a perennial question.

Let’s dig into the science here.

We get this question a lot…should I be letting my heels come off the footplate when I’m approaching the catch, or should they remain down?

This question comes from many CrossFit athletes who are working on mastering the erg, but it also appears on rowing message boards all the time as we’re constantly chasing efficiency.

The answer comes down to three simple mechanical rules. Whether you’re currently rowing heels-up or heels-down, understanding why is a key to mastering the rowing stroke.

1. Heels-Up Reduces Vertical Force

One of the most challenging concepts to coach and to engrain as a rower is the ability to apply your force horizontally. That should be a primary goal as you make technical changes to your rowing stroke. You want to use your body weight to apply efficient horizontal force to the handle with as little vertical force as possible. This will create a more direct handle path from catch to finish, and therefore creates a better chance for greater power application.

We’ll refer to the diagram below[1] created by Dr. Valery Kleshnev, the leading researcher in rowing biomechanics. When your heels come up, a few key things happen:

  • The Vertical handle (Vh) force is reduced
  • The Horizontal lever of the rowers’ weight (Hw) is increased

What we want to avoid is “losing our seat,” which occurs when the vertical force on the handle exceeds the weight of the rower. If you’ve ever lost contact with your seat, you’ll know what we’re talking about. This is more likely to happen if you’re rowing with your heels down.

2. Heels-Up Engages Quadriceps

When we allow our heels to come up, we are better able to maximize our compression (or distance into the catch). This also minimizes the lever at the knee joint, which leads to an earlier and more forceful contraction of the quadriceps muscles, and a quicker extension of the knee.

Rowing requires all of the muscles of the lower body, and we want maximize the strongest ones. Your quadriceps should dominate the first half of the leg drive, and your hamstrings and glutes take over once your heels have driven down and your knee angle is at 90 degrees. If you limit the amount of compression you can achieve at the catch, you are limiting the recruitment of your quads. Yes, your posterior chain is an important piece of the rowing puzzle, but you want to recruit as much of your leg as possible.

3. A Longer Stroke has more Speed Potential

If you are overloaded or loaded for too long the stroke will feel heavy and difficult to accelerate. Conversely, if your stroke is too short at the front then it will be over before you’ve hardly found your connection to the fan (or water).

Stroke length should be an absolute priority in the rowing stroke. When comparing a longer stroke to a shorter stroke, a longer stroke will often beat a shorter stroke, even when the shorter stroke has a higher maximal force and higher average force! [2] At Rowfficient, we teach a long stroke that doesn’t compromise posture or a healthy body position.

Many people will mistake a higher stroke rate for purposeful heels-down rowing. As your stroke rate rises, your stroke length will naturally shorten. The maximal stroke length happens around 24 strokes per minute[3] and will significantly shorten above 40 strokes per minute. If you’ve seen someone (ex. Sam Loch) shooting for World Records in short distances like 1 minute or 500 meters, an average stroke rate of 48 strokes per minute will lead to a shortened slide which might look like a purposeful heels-down position. Trust us, it’s not purposeful. This is just a byproduct of rowing a high stroke rate. Length should still be the priority.

Heels up towards catch
Heels up towards catch. Photo Credit: Rowefficient

Our HEELS-DOWN Response.

1. I’m not a rower, I only want to use the rowing machine.

Our Rowfficient program is a performance driven program. We give you the tools to maximize your success, and we think anything less is robbing you of your athletic potential. With that in mind, our program may not be the best for a “lifestyle” rower. If you are simply looking for a toned butt and hamstrings, heels-up rowing might not be for you.

If you are new to rowing, you may not be able to achieve an ideal position on day 1 with heels up. But rowing requires a progression like every other movement. We actually love heels-down rowing as tool, though we find it important to distinguish the difference between a drill and a performance piece.

2. Heels-up means you used your quads or hip flexors pulled you up to the catch.

False. You may in fact be using your hip flexors to pull yourself up the recovery, but it is not happening because your heels are rising off the footplate. Your muscle recruitment on the recovery is dictated by your finish position, not by your catch position. This is why we prescribe so much “Feet Out” rowing.

3. If I row heels-up, my hips don’t stay behind my shoulders.

This is also false. There are many ways to coach shoulders staying in front of your hips like practicing your hang position or using the “connection drill” (see video on the blog).

Further discussion with Sara Lombardi Hendershot on this point
I wrote to Sara
When you say “heels up” do you mean as you approach the catch?  You see the Kleshnev diagram has the athlete with heels down in two of the images and only up in one of them.
Second question: Some people keep their heels up throughout the power phase and “point their toes” so the heels only touch the foot plate on the recovery.  What do you think about this technique? I think it activates the calf muscles too much….
Sara replies
Yes, we are referring to the approach into the catch (so heels up in the last few inches of the recovery). We are mostly addressing this because we’ve found several coaches teaching their athletes to row at 3/4 slide with their heels down because they believe it allows them to use their posterior chain more. That is true, but then the athletes are missing out on the utilization of their quads. The Kleshnev drawing is showing how different areas of your legs are utilized at different areas of the drive. The heels up position in the first few inches of the stroke is quad dominant, then once the heels are down you should be using your glutes and hamstrings.
So no, we don’t like it when athletes only push through their toes the entire stroke. Surprisingly, I know Olympians who do this! But they are also athletes who have ZERO glutes definition and likely very little engagement there, which is leaving a huge opportunity to create power on the table.

2 thoughts on “The science behind heels up or heels down

  1. Tom Copeland says:

    Interesting article. What is the author’s view on products that seek to reduce the amount of heel lift at the front of the stroke? I’m thinking of the Bat Logic footplates that seek to enable earlier engagement of hamstrings, glutes etc. by getting the heels down earlier. The Bat Logic website used to have materials claiming that the vertical lift of the heel up and away from the footplate was in itself wasteful – but I can’t find them on their website now.

    Would the Bat Logic product (or similar ones, if there are any), in her view, lead to an increased (wasteful) vertical component earlier in the stroke? And should they therefore be avoided?

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