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What % of the rowing stroke is leg, back or arms?

Evan Snyder writes: Most of us have done the arms/arms+body/Half slide warmup exercise drills on the water, but the … read more

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Evan Snyder writes: Most of us have done the arms/arms+body/Half slide warmup exercise drills on the water, but the contribution each element has

English: Rob Waddell at the North Island Club ...
English: Rob Waddell at the North Island Club Championships on 2 February 2008. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

to your rowing stroke may surprise you. Years ago, Rob Waddell said in an interview that the power generated in a rowing stroke was in a ratio of 60% legs, 30% back 10% arms. I have now conducted both the Ergometer and the on the water tests to determine just how much contribution each muscle group has to the rowing stroke.

Experimental Methods

  1. Each element was done over 1 minute of time (erg and water).
  2. Legs only = keep back at the catch position and arms straight, push legs down from vertical shins to flat
  3. Back only = legs flat, arms straight and rock back from catch to finish position
  4. Arms only = legs flat, back at finish layback, draw arms from straight to finish

Results (Erg – 2 trials)

  1. Legs only = 200 metres / 1 minute at 35 spm; 219 metres/ 1 minute at 39 spm (36.7% 35.8% respectively)
  2. Back only = 175 metres / 1 minute at 34 spm; 206 metres/ 1 minute at 42 spm (32.1% 33.7% respectively)
  3. Arms only = 170 metres / 1 minute at 39 spm; 186 metres/ 1 minute at 51 spm (31.2% 30.4% respectively)
  4. Total distance 545 metres; 611 metres in 3 minutes (averages = 177.6m 203.7m / 1 min respectively)
  5.  Total distance for normal rowing over 3 minutes = 678m

Results (Water – 1 trial)

  1. Legs only = 165 metres/ 1 minute at ca. 30-35 spm (40.7%)
  2. Back only = 125 metres/ 1 minute at ca. 30-35spm (30.9%)
  3. Arms only = 115 metres/ 1 minute at ca. 30-35 spm (28.4%)
  4. Total distance = 405 metres (average = 135 m)
  5. Total distance  for normal rowing over 1 minute = 215m (x 3 = 645m)

Analysis of results

  1. Legs only = 35.8% 37.54% (erg) vs 40.7% (water) of total distance (compared to 60% predicted)
  2. Back only = 32.1% 33.7% (erg) vs 30.9% (water) of the total distance (compared to 30% predicted)
  3. Arms only = 31.2% 30.4% (erg) vs 28.4% (water) of total distance (compared to 10% predicted)


In this “gem”, on slide no. 15 it shows the % of power produced by the Legs, Back Arms. Dr. Kleshnev’s values (on the water) are: 46.4% Legs, 30.9% Trunk (back), 22.7% Arms (based on around a 30 spm rate with legs% increasing with stroke rate, trunk% staying constant and arms% decreasing)

My values for on the water were: 40.7% Legs, 30.9% Trunk (back), 28.4%


A) While not doubting the anecdotal comments, nor experience of Rob Waddell, it might be an interesting exercise for all rowers to find out how much of each muscle groups they are using in their rowing stroke. In my case, contribution of the back is quite close to Rob’s predicted level. However, the arms played a significantly larger contribution, while the legs less so.

Is this an anomaly or is the contribution of the arms more than what was previously thought?

It is interesting to note that on the water vs the erg, the legs seem to play a greater part of the stroke and the arms less so. On the erg there is no penalty to be paid for pulling (hard) the small, straight handle straight to the body just under the xiphoid process, whereas in a sculling boat the two handles begin in front of the body, but are pulled up beside the trunk just at the bottom of the rib cage which does require a bit more “finesse.”

B) When rowing normally for 1 minute on the water at 30 spm, I completed 215 metres. Corrected to 3 minutes this is 645 metres which is significantly higher than the 405 metres for the sum of; legs only, back only and arms only water distances. Similarly, on the erg, I had done 678 metres for 3 minutes.  This is also much greater than the 545 and 611 metres for the sum of; legs only, back only and arms only erg distances from those trials.

Both on the water and on the Erg, these results illustrate the “Gestalt” effect of the rowing stroke, i.e. the total being greater than the sum of the parts. This, in my view, is also a justification for the concurrent (force application) or classical style vs. the sequential (force application) or modern orthodox style.

Rowperfect reponse – how to teach and improve

Anyone wanting drills to do that improve co-ordination as you transition from legs to back and back to arms may want to try these exercises (each link explains how to teach the drill and what to expect from it).  Practicing these can help you to harness more muscle power to your stroke.

Arms and Body Rowing – helps build more power towards the finish of the stroke and ESPECIALLY good for masters who don’t use their back muscles for boat power!

Slide progression from front stops – helps lengthen the stroke in the water and co-ordinate each part

And as a final comment on Evan’s analysis – he has not weight adjusted the ergo score which may change the result compared to the on water distance.

About Rebecca Caroe
Rebecca is the host of RowingChat podcast and is a masters athlete and coach. Passionate about helping others enjoy the sport as much as she does. View all posts from Rebecca Caroe

One thought on “What % of the rowing stroke is leg, back or arms?

  1. It’s interesting reading, but I also have to agree with the comments at the end. The boat is at its slowest at the catch and your legs has to accelerate the boat, therefore more pressure on the legs. The back and arms come into effect when the boat is at its max velocity

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