Best Rowing Drills: 3 Top Skill Drills from Michigan's Gregg Hartsuff

While men's club rowing has become increasingly competitive over the past decade, there's no question that the Michigan Wolverines are still the top dogs. In recent years, the Wolverines have seen rivals emerge in Virginia as well as Grand Valley State University, but despite best efforts, Michigan has had a vise-grip on the men's points trophy since the inception of the American Collegiate Rowing Association.

Going back to pre-ACRA days, Michigan crews often made inroads against varsity competition at the IRA Regatta—in fact, Gregg Hartsuff's frosh crew from 2002 won a silver medal, just over two seconds back of Washington. Here, Hartsuff shares three of his favorite drills for refining technique on the water.

1. Front-End Progression

"This drill made lightbulbs come on in sophomores' heads," Hartsuff says, in speaking with him during a recent Georgia training camp with the Wolverines. "You start by taking a narrow, inside grip—you move the outboard arm down next to the inboard arm—and you pause at what I call 'the point of un-weight,' which is about three-quarter slide." That is, you take the first quarter of the stroke with a narrow, inside grip, and then release and pause. The pause allows the boat to slow down enough for the rower to feel the weight and lock at the front end as he or she initiates the drive, and the inside grip reduces the leverage, adding to that feeling of load at the catch. After getting the hang of this with the narrow grip, Harstuff will have his athletes return to normal grip before moving on to the next stage: "Then, you progress to doing what I call 'front-end touches,'" he explains.

"You're coaching the entire time on leaving the body forward—just getting a light push going. Just getting enough to make a connection," says Hartsuff. "The negative of that drill—because there's always a negative that goes along with the positive—is that guys will tend to want to drive too long, if you don't coach it. You have to coach them to do the drill correctly first, and then focus on technical points that you want—for me, that's leaving the nose over the knees while the legs are pushing, getting the shoulders down, and being direct to the water." If the crew can get on the same page as they execute this drill, good things tend to happen. "I find that if they can get this going together, if they can initiate together, then they'll eventually accelerate properly." This is particularly crucial in an eight, where, unlike the single or the pair, picking up the load together before the pin can make or break your speed. "That's what it does—it brings everybody together on that focal point."

2. Ghost-Rowing Drill

I took the liberty of naming this one, but funky nomenclature aside, this drill is unusual and makes a clear point. "I find most athletes will, if given the chance, tend to round out the finish. What I mean by that is they'll pull down—and even if they don't pull into their laps, per se—and start washing the blade out. So, I like to do a stationary drill where the athlete puts his blade in the water at arms and body over, and then goes to the finish, letting go of the handle. Then, while another pair takes a stroke, he'll watch the handle and track it's path to the finish. Watch what it does. Most guys will naturally want to row like their in a rowboat at their grandfather's cottage up north—they'll go up through the middle, and down at the end. This drill shows them what the path of the oar needs to be to stay connected."

3. Arms Only, All Eight, Feet Out

"It's a challenging drill, but certainly I'll do it with my top guys. That one'll teach a few guys how to connect, real quick," Hartsuff says with a laugh, "because you've got to stay connected, or else you're going off your seat." Typically the drill will start by sixes, and later the final pair is added to make the pickup quicker and challenge the balance and timing of the crew. "It makes a big difference when that pair adds in—it's a whole new challenge." Once the boat is stable and the crew is executing the drill properly, Hartsuff moves through the pick drill with feet out.

Thanks very much to Coach Hartsuff for sharing his experience with us! This is the sixth in our 'Best Rowing Drills' series, following up on Kevin Sauer's favorite fiveMike Teti's approach to techniqueLinda Muri's multi-faceted exercisesthe athlete's perspective with Megan Kalmoe, and body awareness drills for rowing with Carlos Dinares. You can find a series index on our Rowing Drills page. 

If you like the idea of more coaching articles and ideas from some of the masters of the craft, please let us know, and share the love—together, we can move the sport forward.


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