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Back Talk

BY BILL MANNING
PHOTO BY ED MORAN

While the primary power of the rowing stroke comes from the legs, it’s necessary for the back to connect this power to the handle and add needed acceleration.  

Always reinforce that the legs should initiate the drive and that the body must not take the catch by lifting up off the thighs (which occurs when the seat stops, the athlete is unbalanced, and/or the legs are not used first). Early, sequential preparation of the torso on the recovery creates stability at the top of the slide, sets up the body for the leg push, and facilitates the application of horizontal power on the drive.  

The legs drive the body backward while the trunk holds against this push, thus forming a secure connection between the feet and the handle. Connecting the push of the legs to the handle prevents shooting the slide or bum shoving.

Actively opening the body against the push of the legs makes the leg drive, and consequently the stroke, longer. It’s a firm torso opposing—working against—the push of the  legs, and not always additional layback, that adds effective length. Otherwise, the legs cannot engage for the needed duration. The body will remain in front of the hips initially but, having less distance to travel, still will finish at the same time as the legs. This also enables the athlete to increase the drive speed and thus maintain pressure on the blade as the load gets lighter—the vital acceleration that moves the boat faster as the drive progresses.  

There are typically two ways athletes can use the back in the boat effectively. Those with long torsos and short legs will sit generally with a tall, straight back, hinge from the hips, and use the back as a lever. Those with longer limbs and shorter torsos may do this or may have a more rounded back that looks like it is uncoiling during the drive.  

The drive itself is taken generally in one of two fashions: simultaneously or sequentially. In a simultaneous drive, the back more actively opens as the legs initiate the drive. The legs and the back push and pry together.  In a sequential drive, the back follows the legs. The back still holds against the push of the legs but most of the push occurs before the back opens dynamically. Body movement is minimized as the drive begins but increases as the boat picks up speed and the load gets lighter. Either works, but it’s best if the entire crew does the same thing.

More body is used in headwinds because the drive takes more time and is heavier. The torso does not necessarily lean back farther to lengthen the drive; it works more strongly to resist the leg push, which makes drive last longer. Conversely, less body should be used with a significant tailwind because of the quicker drive and inability of the back to keep up with the speed of the legs. This is also true of different boat classes. Athletes rowing slower boats such as pairs often will use their backs more obviously, while athletes in faster boats such as quads and  eights will sit much more upright.

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