Photo: CrossFit Inc.
Jason Khalipa rowed a 1:18:02.3 for the “Half Marathon Row” event at the 2013 CrossFit Games; a blistering 1:49/500m pace that I am not sure I can survive 2k at. But let’s put this in perspective: in a casual training session, World and Olympic champion rower Eric Murray beat Jason’s time by a massive 11 mins (2 miles) [Watch it here]. In spite of this, Jason’s rowing tips video has been viewed over 158k times on YouTube making it the 16th most viewed rowing technique video on the channel to date.
This left me to consider the question: Would CrossFitters become better at rowing if they took tips from pro rowers rather than Jason?
With this question in mind, I picked up the phone to Greg Hammond, Marketing Director (CrossFit) for Concept 2 and asked him: Is CrossFit “rowing” the same as professional rowing? And if not, what can we learn from their differences, and how should this influence our training?
Here is what I gained from talking with Greg:
- Rowers use boats, CrossFitters use ergs
Using a Concept 2 machine isn’t rowing on the water; there are no boats or oars involved. Instead, it is a machine us Sport Scientists refer to as an ergometer, or “erg”, used to measure work performed. “This is key to the differences in technique and training between CrossFitters and rowers” says Hammond. “Rowers train to move a thin, light boat through water as efficiently and as quickly as possible whereas CrossFitters train to use the erg as efficiently and as quickly as possible, but without the worry of getting wet. There is a much bigger need for smooth fluid technique and balance on the water.” CrossFit even offers a training course for rowing that lets CrossFitters actually get on the water the second day to show them the complexity of the movement.
There is a much bigger need for smooth fluid technique and balance on the water.
- CrossFitters tend to “muscle” it
Jason Khalipa deadlifts over #550 and can snatch over #275. The strength he has over the comparatively slender elite rower means he has additional power to call on.
“I see a lot of CrossFit athletes bobbing and throwing their heads back when on the erg.” reports Greg.
“This is a result of them muscling their strokes: employing more upper body strength in the pull at the cost of efficiency and stability. In Jason’s case he also pauses in the recovery, which breaks up the flow between strokes.
“In contrast, professional rowers keep their heads and torsos moving back and forth in a fluid non-stop, horizontal plane of motion. This is vital in flow and balance when on the water and avoids leaving speed and power on the table through muscling or pausing.” Muscling the stroke this way on water will cause the boat to slow down.
- CrossFitters use the erg differently
To CrossFitters the erg is simply a piece of equipment used in the WOD: “It’s like a kettlebell,” says Greg. “It’s used in a variety of ways that often come with strategic considerations. When doing Jackie for example, the row at the start needs to be paced correctly to preserve energy for thrusters and pull ups.
The old saying: A ‘WOD can’t be won on the erg but it can be lost’ is very true.
This is different to professional rowing: Athletes row a set distance and when they are done they don’t have to worry about pull-ups or box jumps waiting for them at the finish line. Their aim is simply to excel at rowing.”
- Elite CrossFitters and On-water rowers need to put in time to build capacity
One similarity between Competitive rowers and CrossFit athletes is the need to put in the time to build capacity. Improving technique is just a one part of the equation. “CrossFit Games winner Rich Froning has reported rowing over a million meters in a year [that’s almost 2,740m a day on average] to improve his rowing.” Greg tells me. “Putting in time on the erg should be as important to you as working the Olympic lifts and gymnastics movements if you want to be a great CrossFitter.”
Here are the practical learning points from my discussion with Greg on how to be a better CrossFit “rower”:
- Be prepared to devote significant time to the erg to build capacity and work on technique if you want to go from good to great.
- Master the erg. Get to know how it works, what the dampener does and how to get the most from adjusting it; Learn what the computer is telling you about stroke rate, split time, power output etc. and use this information in your training to develop benchmarks and milestones to show performance gains on a regular basis.
- Consider the different situations you’ll be in on the erg in the WOD and work on incorporating them into training. Learn how using it can impact your strength and capacity based on pace and duration. Aim to read the WOD and know exactly how you are going to pace the row, regardless of what is thrown at you, knowing you will be using it optimally.
About Greg Hammond
Greg has been an employee at Concept2 for 17 years. He has been training with CrossFit since 2006. Greg trains out of Champlain Valley CrossFit, rubbing shoulders with celebs like Dani Horan and Matt Fraser.