Rowing With Crossfit: Power Is Nothing Without Proper Technique

As an ambassador of rowing, Owner of two Roworx Centers In Long Beachson of an Olympic Rowing Coach Father and Olympic Bronze Medalist, I have been in very close association with Concept 2 it has been an adventure coaching and training many people how to row with proper technique.

I was invited to the CrossFit Games Qualifier held at the Orange County Sheriff’s Training Academy in Tustin, California on April 18 and 19, 2009. The organizers of the CrossFit regional introduced me as a 4-time Collegiate National And Pac-10 Champion At UC Berkeley, 2001 Worlds Silver Medalist, 2002 US Nationals Silver Medalist, National Team Rower From 2001-2006, and Two-Time International Ironman Competitor. They recommended that any of the competitor’s at the regionals could ask for rowing advice from me as I was sent to help as a volunteer/coach for the rowing event. They also referenced my Father, John Nunn as an Olympic Bronze Medalist in 1968 and the Men’s Olympic Rowing Coach in 1976.  The races and heats on Sunday included a 2,000 meter rowing race followed by six rounds of 20 box jumps and 10 wall-ball shots. The day was hot and around 95 F, but the heat didn’t slow the great athletes or their cheering sections. When the competition was over, six male athletes and six female competitors were chosen to make the trip to Aromas in July. The thing I found most interesting was that out of all the 500 + CrossFit Competing Athletes at the CrossFit Games Qualifier there was NOT ONE ATHLETE that asked for some last-minute rowing advice or technique before enduring a 6 – 8 minute 2,000 meter race on the rowing machine. Personally, if I was about to go into any competition and had a national team athlete in that discipline available to give technical coaching I would do anything to ask for the best advice before going into that race and or competition. There also seemed a lack of knowledge in nutrition among most of the Crossfit athletes at the event as I saw many of the competitors not drinking enough water and not eating well during the competition. The row was, for me and the spectators, the most exciting part of the qualifiers, hands-down… THE MOST EXCITING. I helped rolled 20 Concept 2 rowers into the competition arena and lined them all up in to one row. To have so many competitors in such a small space, all lined up in order, meant that the crowd could watch the field as a whole. It was kind of like a horse race – one clumped mass all moving fast and hard, straining to come in one meter ahead of the next guy over. The athletes’ tension was palpable, and the crowd fed off the perceived intimate competition. Athletes were squaring off, literally head to head, against each other and at the beginning of each heat, the competitors stepped up, strapped in, grabbed the handles… and then waited, tense and twitchy, like shirtless, sweaty thoroughbreds at the starting gate. Their coaches stood behind them, just as anxious, waiting for the signal to begin. And in that moment, the crowd was quiet. The men and women were turning in very slow times compared to even high school rowing Concept 2 2,000 meter standard test times. The women athletes were averaging around 8 min to finish 2,000 meters while most of the men were averaging around 7 min in a 2k race. High school women rowers average under 7 min and high school men rowers average well under 7 min on crew teams around the U.S. For myself, my fastest time is a 5:57 2k and I would still be able to function afterwards. The fact of the matter is that CrossFit proclaims they have the ‘fittest athletes on the planet’ however most of them are being beaten by high school athletes by nearly 1 minute on average. This is where technique comes into play and needs to be the cornerstone of a CrossFit’s athletes mentality. Power is wasted without proper technique. The horn would blow and the athletes would begin to pull. And it was clear, immediately, who could actually row. Because the event was more than six minutes long, it gave the crowd a chance to walk around, checking out each competitor. Technique flaws were readily apparent and pacing mistakes were easy to spot.
There was an argument I came across while reading through some blogs that a CrossFit athlete wrote about the qualifier in Southern California in 2009 that was just basically an excuse of why rowing is unfair to CrossFit compared to actual rowers.

The quoted text was:

‘I don’t agree with the 2K as an event to measure an individual’s ability to qualify for the CrossFit Games. Rowing is a very technique specific skill. If you were to look at the times of any collegiate CREW team you would find that even the most elite times in the CrossFit games 2K are below average when compared to these individuals but if you took one of the CREW Athlete’s and had them row 1K, then do 30 Burpees, and end with 20 155lb jerks you would discover that as far as CrossFit goes they are sub par. I think rowing can be a component of a CrossFit qualifier but not an entire event (2,000 meters) due to the fact that someone with good technique could appear to be a very strong CrossFit Athlete when in fact they are just a proficient rower. Not to mention the person with poor form is working harder than the technique proficient rower. So, again it fails as a measure of true fitness.’

Photo Above Taken By: Tim Banfield

In response to this statement I would have to say that many of the different Crossfit’s mission statements in 100 words or less includes the following statement: ‘Push the body to the maximum… Health and Fitness knowledge,  and facilitate others toward success with our experience and knowledge. Other mission statements include the following: Bike, run, swim, row, etc, hard and as fast as you can with no excuses…’  From this, I infer that rowing is a required a skill set to develop to be a successful ‘CrossFit athlete’.

The Olympic standard distance in rowing is the 2,000 meter race and the fact is anyone can row 1,000 meters and especially 500 meters without much of a challenge to their bodies physically and mentally.

Bottom Line: The 2,000 meter race distance is what separates the men from the boys!!! Whatever sport, activity, or race you decide to participate in make sure you take the time and learn the technique. Everything you do requires technique, golf, running, baseball, swimming, etc. I believe the CrossFit athletes think rowing looks so easy and that there is really nothing to it, however on the contrary it is one of the hardest most physically demanding sports you can do and rowing needs to be heavily respected just like most other sports and activities. Everyone knows that an Ironman Competition is one of the hardest races to accomplish, however did you realize that rowing can be one of the best cross-training exercises for triathletes and athletes alike. During the 2012 Olympic Games In London many of the rowing athletes I knew told me stories of how they discussed and matched up training sessions with other athletes during the games and they were all blown away at how hard  the intensity of rowing was and the workouts that were involved.  

Message to CrossFit: Take the time, be patient, and learn technique before jumping into an event or workout set to prevent injury and more so to prevent your ego being beaten up by high school athletes. 😉 Respect Rowing!  Work smarter and harder to get better results and faster times. I can put up a 1:17 500 meter piece and a 2:53 1,000 meter piece right now and have lots of fun doing it 🙂 However the 2k is much different as the standard for all national team  rowing athletes around the world  on the Concept 2 Rowing Machine is under 6 min. If you want the ultimate challenge try racing a 6,000 meter piece in the test for ultimate physical strength-endurance and breaking my best time of 19:10! I can help all of you get better scores if you want to reach out to me and have a coach I will get you faster scores overnight just by using a few technical rowing corrections. 

Please understand that I am not trying to ‘call out’ or ‘put down’ CrossFit in anyway. I am making statements about rowing to make everyone aware that there needs to be some accountability to bad technique in rowing throughout CrossFit and other fitness centers like it in order to prevent injury and slow times. I have a passion and a love for rowing and fitness that transcends every other sport. I always compare rowing and it’s physically demanding attributes to some of the hardest competitive sporting events I’ve ever done including my first full-marathon and 2 Ironmans. Racing 10,000 and 6,000 meters on the rowing machine would be harder than most events or competitions that I have done.

To give you a example up close and personal, one of CrossFit’s greatest athletes Mikko Salo recently did a rowing workout that consisted of five 1000 meter splits, with just a 3min rest in between each split. His times were 3:15, 3:15, 3:15, 3:18, and 3:17. In reality, this grown man and CrossFit’s Champion Athlete would also be beaten badly by the best high school lightweight rowers. I have seen his technique on YouTube and it’s no surprise to see very bad technique flaws with his rowing right away. Watch as Mikko rows very rigidly and not smooth throughout the stroke creating even more effort while trying to row fast and put up big numbers. When asked why he places his feet where he does on the Concept 2 Rowing Machine Mikko replies ‘I don’t know… I just put the feet where I think it feels good’ There is a reason why the feet need to be placed lower on the foot-boards in order to generate more power through the legs at the proper forward angle of the body in the ‘catch position’ of the stroke.’ The foot placement is a very important aspect of the rowing stroke as if your feet are too high you will not be able to create the most amount of power at that particular angle. Mikko also pulls the handle into his lap and low at the finish of each stroke dumping all of his energy down and not into his abdomen straight through the body. By not pulling the handle straight through the body and into the abdomen at the finish, Mikko develops a pause during the stroke which causes loss of momentum, energy, and efficiency.

In conclusion, I challenge CrossFit Fitness Centers everywhere to take a step back and look at the Concept 2 rowing machine in a different light. Know that anyone can row 500 meters and 1,000 meters fast, however going the ‘Standard Olympic’ distance of 2,000 meters is where you can really find out how fit and technically savvy you are with rowing! Also know that there are over 200 17 yr old male high-school rowing athletes going much faster than 7 min and over 200 17 yr old female athletes racing much faster than 8 min! Don’t be beat by high-school athletes and contact  Jack Nunn Roworx for coaching and technical rowing, nutrition advice and much more in order to gain speed and knowledge on the Concept 2 rowing machine. 

Spend one day with Former US National Rowing Team Member Jack Nunn And Former U.S. Men’s Olympic Rowing Coach And Olympic Bronze Medalist John Nunn to maximize your skill and speed with rowing, a very important component of many CrossFit workouts and beyond. You will learn more efficient National Team Caliber Concept 2 Rowing Technique, Ski-erg Technique, technical error analysis and correction, verbal cues, rowing physiology and kinesiology, Ski-erg physiology and kinesiology, how to format the best workout for maximum power during a CrossFit rowing workout, maximizing rowing power and efficiency, increasing rowing power output for better WOD times/scores and more at this comprehensive workshop. The day will include lecture, rowing on the Concept 2 indoor rowing machine, team teaching, and two intense heart pumping workouts. Knowing how to row correctly and teach rowing to your clients are invaluable skills within all fitness communities.

The following video was taken a few years ago when CrossFit And Concept 2 came together and asked me to help coach CrossFit athletes how to transition the power and technique from the rowing machine out on to the water. It was a great success and it only added value to our sport and more respect for rowing on the water!

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Jack Nunn

Jack Nunn is the head trainer and owner of Roworx. Jack is a former national team rower who has competed in more than 100 triathlons, including 9 full Ironmans. He has created a system of rowing that prepares the whole body for both competition and fitness longevity.

Ready to Start Training for Your First Triathlon?

Download the Top 10 Essential Tips for Your First Triathlon for Free.