Best Rowing Drills: 5 Favorites of Olympic Champion Esther Lofgren

Lofgren training in the single (Photo courtesy of Esther Lofgren)

Olympic gold medalist Esther Lofgren is no stranger to success on the water. In addition to her podium-topping performance with the U.S. women's eight in London, Lofgren also won two world titles (2010, 2011), with her first international medal—a bronze—coming in the women's straight four in 2006. Here, Lofgren shares some insight into the drills that have helped her progress technically along the way.

"I think, for me, the stroke is built around your body being in the right position—it has to be properly supported, especially the catch and the transition from the catch into suspension," she says. "You're always trying to set it up such that, when you're putting everything you have into the stroke, it's translating into boat speed rather than just wailing on it."

She continues: "So, the drills are kind of a balance of, I don't want to say 'comfort,' but a way to find stability while really zeroing in on what's happening at the catch, and experiencing that in a couple of different ways. A good catch isn't always the one that feels the lightest, or the most explosive—it's the one that's the most effective." Later she adds that having video, especially video of drills at very low stroke ratings, is invaluable in the learning process for athletes—so break out those iPads, coaches. "It's very easy to feel like you can't have better posture, or sit up straighter, etc., but then you see the video, and you think, my gosh, there's more there."

Below, Esther outlines five of her favorites. From Esther:

1. Release-to-catch (and Catch-to-release) Drill in the Single

Sit at release, blades buried. Zero pressure on blades, practicing proper sequence and with good body form, push out and roll up to full compression. Feel reverse pressure on blades in catch position.

Phase 1: From that point, push with zero pressure, again with proper sequence and form, through the drive, swing, and finish. Using the core, stabilize the handles at the finish position in front of the body. Repeat and increase familiarity and muscle memory.

Phase 2: From the catch position point described above, while you can still feel the reverse pressure on the blades, execute one stroke drive. Extract blades and balance at gather point. Stop boat and repeat.

2. Early Catch Drill

Goal: To separate the movements of the hands/arms and body/legs/feet.

Start with very light pressure/low rate rowing by half boat (or single) focusing on full body preparation by 1/4 slide. Add in an early square (at around 1/2 slide).

Smoothly drop blade(s) in at 3/4 slide, feel the handle(s) press into your hands/pressure in shoulders and lats, then change direction with connected pressure off the footplates. [There's a slight pause at the catch, just after you place the blade, to feel the handle(s) press back into your hands, etc., before changing direction.] Repeat for roughly 15 strokes.

Lengthen to drop at 7/8 slide, repeat for 15, then lengthen to drop at full, still focusing on a smooth, gravity-focused drop just before changing directions, dropping from the arm socket/lat not the shoulders or hands.

3. Circle Drill

I know Kevin [Sauer] suggested this in an eight—wow! I've definitely have never done that one! However, this is the singular, most helpful drill/skill work in my rowing career.

Have your partner (or use your other oar to) create a stable, level platform. Look out at your blade, listen to the stroke—blade staying buried, the pattern of acceleration. Play with zero pressure and floating the handle through—it will move at one level through the drive [just as Greg Hartsuff suggests in his 'Ghost Rowing Drill']. Use the heaviness of one blade rowing to feel the connection and the acceleration more clearly.

In the single, this is easiest for the back half of the stroke—focus on what rolling the blade in your hand, thumb pressure, etc. should feel like. In the double or quad, feather one blade for the entire stroke and row/focus on the other blade, alternating.

Ed. note: National team veteran Charlotte Hollings demonstrates several of the above-mentioned drills in the video below.

4. Pausing at Technical 'Gather Point'

This one is really critical when jumping into a new boat or trying to bring different rowers together in a new lineup. Whatever 'gather point' is being emphasized (i.e., the point in the stroke that gets longer and more relaxed when you shift down in rate)—that is the point at which you should introduce the pause. Typically this will be between the finish and arms away, at arms away, or at arms and body over.

Focus on keeping the connection to the footplate in the pause and continuing to row 'with the boat' as you come out of the pause to take the catch. In sweep boats, also pay attention to your stability and core engagement: your weight should not shift into the center of the boat at the finish and then way out to your side during the recovery, but rather should remain fairly steady (on your inside butt cheek).

5. For Fun: One-leg Press Drill

In cycling, a recent-ish fun technical gadget is called "power cranks"—bike pedals that are not locked together, but rather that move independently, so that you have to use all the muscles in each leg for both the pedal drive and the lift back up, and do it in sync. Since roughly 70% of power in the rowing stroke comes from the leg drive, it's crazy that so many rowers have very different strength levels and muscle usage patterns from one leg to the other.

This drill works best in a single: Take one foot out and consciously focus on not using that leg at all. Focus on the entire stroke pattern, most importantly on maintaining constant connection to the footplate, with only your one "activated" leg. Go from zero pressure up to steady state over the course of a few minutes, then switch legs and repeat.

Thanks very much to Esther for sharing her expertise with us! You can keep up with Esther Lofgren via Twitter, as well as via her personal website

This is the eighth post in our 'Best Rowing Drills' series, following up on Kevin Sauer's favorite five, Mike Teti's approach to technique, Linda Muri's multi-faceted exercises, the athlete's perspective with Megan Kalmoe, body awareness drills for rowing with Carlos Dinares, three top skill drills from Michigan head coach Gregg Hartsuff, and sequencing and drive mechanics with Nick D'Antoni. You can find a series index on our Rowing Drills page.


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