Do you use momentum to get the last few inches of reach as you approach the catch? Or do you get there with freedom and ease? Your body, like all physical objects, follows the path of least resistance. Your catch length -- the distance your hips and shoulders travel into the stern -- can vary based on your flexibility and strength. Good flexibility and strength allows freedom and ease when approaching the catch, while deficits can create the need to use momentum to force your final, and less-than-ideal catch position.
The catch is a fundamental component of the rowing stroke. How we achieve this position varies based on our individual body type, flexibility, strength, and technique. With good flexibility and strength, the hip-shoulder position (fig. 1) can be set early in the recovery to create a strong body posture by the body-over position. Once this position is set, the remainder of the recovery simply involves sliding the hips into the catch position (fig. 2). Poor flexibility and / or strength can alter proper sequencing which can force the rower to use momentum to achieve adequate reach length. Changing the hip-shoulder relationship on the second half of the recovery can lead to a less powerful position at the catch, which in turn can increase the risk of training-related injuries.
Strength and flexibility imbalances limit your body’s ability to execute an effective and powerful rowing stroke. In other words, your brain will tell your body to take a rowing stroke, but your body can only produce the movement with the tools you have given it. Poor (inflexible and /or weak) tools give your body less effective options to perform a rowing stroke, which can result in a less powerful stroke as well as increased risk of injury. Better (strong and flexible) tools give your body more options to take a long and powerful stroke, and reduce your risk of injury.
Athletes with poor tools can still generate long and powerful strokes. The price of this trade-off, however, is an increased risk of training injuries that include lumbar disc herniation, low back pain, stress fractures, joint pain, etc. Since the body follows the path of least resistance, limitations in flexibility and strength can force the body into poor recovery postures, which may require the help of momentum to create the desired stroke length.
Often times, the increased stroke length comes from excessive movement of the shoulders and back during the second part of the recovery, (fig.3). Stroke length is a concern for both coaches and athletes. When athletes have poor tools, they often need to use momentum to create the demanded increase in stroke length. Momentum can create a longer stroke but it is often less powerful. This occurs when the shoulders continue to travel into the stern while the hips have stopped moving into the bow (fig 4 -blue). Increasing the demands of the upper body and back (versus the hips and knees) at the catch can lead to increased injury risk.
One simple way to measure your ability to get freely into the catch is to test yourself on an erg. Start out at the finish of the stroke, then proceed to the body-over position and pause for several seconds. Then pull yourself into the catch position. Hold the catch position for 5-10 seconds and have someone mark where your handle position is relative to the erg and mark the measured distance (fig 5 – red). Make sure that your hip-shoulder distance does not change as you approach the catch. Next, begin rowing for about 10-15 strokes and again measure the distance of your handle from the cage of the erg (fig 5 – yellow). If the handle positions are identical, then you have good flexibility and strength relative to your body posture at the catch. If the distance of your stroke increases (ie. the handle is closer to the cage) it may indicate you are using momentum to get those extra inches (fig. 4 – blue).
It is also possible that you could also have a sequencing problem as you approach the catch (ie. your shoulders continue towards the catch through the whole recovery). In my experience, many rowers who dive with the body at the catch have moderate flexibility and strength imbalances that force poor sequencing as they approach the catch. This quick test can also be used as a general exercise to start working on improving the catch position without the use of momentum. Start at the finish of the stroke and pause at body-over position. Then slowly pull yourself into the catch as deeply as you can without changing the hip and shoulder relationship, which was set at the body-over position. Hold for 5 -10 seconds and repeat as necessary (10-15 reps is a good start).
Using momentum to achieve adequate stroke length leads to more tension on the recovery, reduced power on the drive, and an increased risk of injury. The best alternative is having strong and flexible tools. Staying strong and flexible will help you achieve a long and balanced stroke and excellent relaxation during the recovery – a requisite for a powerful drive and ideal rowing stroke.