Best Rowing Drills: Finding Effective Stroke Length with Frank Biller of Virginia

UVa men's squad training on Rivanna Reservoir (Photo courtesy of Frank Biller)

The second post in our second season of #BestRowingDrills takes a closer look at determining, and improving, effective stroke length on land, and on the water.

There's a reason why Virginia has been a crew to watch in the men's club rowing ranks since head coach Frank Biller took the helm. Biller has brought a careful, scientific approach to his coaching, and the results have shown as much at the national level. Here, he shares two important things to keep in mind as you develop and train athletes to apply power effectively on the erg and with the blade.

1: Range of Motion

"My biggest thing is identifying deficiencies in range of motion, because this is what determines the quality of the rowing stroke," he explains. "There are two things that I find extremely helpful. The first is an overhead squat with a PVC pipe—something that forces the athlete to keep his arms stretched out overhead, without weight. Take a video of that and identify where the weakness is. A very good athlete that has good functional abilities—range of motion, strength, flexibility—will keep that pipe exactly over his head, going straight down all the way into a deep squat, without any shaking of the knees, or twisting or bending; they're not going to fall over forward, they're just going to sit back and down. Do this twice in a row."

What should you be looking for? "The moment that the pipe comes forward—the moment that they have to lean forward to compensate—or the moment that the knees start wobbling, or the feet start twisting, that identifies right there that there's a problem in their movement that could be inflexibility, or a lack of strength, whatever it is." Armed with that knowledge, Biller and staff can work to address those weaknesses, and that forms a necessary step before the athletes can begin to train to their full ability. "Nobody gets to do anything with any weight until they can execute that perfectly."

While it's not the only diagnostic that the Cavaliers use to get started on the right foot, it's an important one that will be familiar to anyone who has been coached by Biller and his staff. (Side note: One particular UVa men's rowing alum was excellent at this—Matt Miller is now competing for a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team.)

For a quick video demonstration, follow this link.

2: Effective Length, By Land And By Sea

"You can spend hours drilling with somebody, to not fall over, or dump the hands at the catch—all of these things have almost nothing to do with the athletes' willingness or unwillingness [to make a change], or paying attention to the hands, or comprehending how the blade has to go in the water. You can throw all this overboard, because the simple fact is that when they are rowing hard, and their bodies fall over at the catch, that has nothing to do with rowing technique—it's entirely functional. It's something that you cure on land, not on the water."

So, winter's not that big an issue, then? "Oh no, it's not a problem at all—we're working on technique more now than we will when we go back on the water."

How so? Biller's athletes spend most of their erg time (UT1 or UT2) with the feet out, which helps to both maintain engagement of the feet through the back end of the stroke, as well as fire the glutes, and ultimately protect the back from injury.

UVa racing in Switzerland, summer 2015

"Rowing feet out will show you your effective stroke length," he says. "The moment your feet are coming off the foot stretcher, the moment that you're losing contact—I often say, even when the legs are down, keep driving the legs, because you're still connected while using the trunk—but the moment that you're no longer pushing on the foot stretcher, you're not only not propelling the boat forward through the water, but moreover, you're actively slowing the boat down because you're dragging the blade behind the boat."

Helpful though it may be, Biller cautions coaches to use it wisely. "An important aspect of feet-out rowing is what is prevents you from doing. I don't do it extensively on the water, because you have more imbalances to deal with, and if you take the strapped-in feet away, then you take away the rowers' ability to stabilize the boat. So, it's an important thing to think about. Also, if you row too much with feet-out on the water, you may start to create some bad habits with the blade work at the finish—so, it really has to be reinforced and trained on the erg, where there is total stability. Then, on the water, it shouldn't be necessary to practice it extensively—maybe as part of the warm-up, as a calibration."

On land, however, it's a different story. "On the erg, the opposite is the case. When you observe some of these guys with the big layback—we call them 'over-boobs' because they pull the handle in over their boobs—the issue is that there is a perception that you can have a faster split. But the truth is that over 2k, you can't. And the worst case is when you have that [high finish] with the seat slipping forward underneath toward the foot stretcher—what happens there is you wind up putting 1.8x your bodyweight on your lower back."

He continues: "When you're conscious of your effective stroke length, not only are you using the entire range of motion of the upper body, but also it's being driven by the glutes, not by the back. You're putting zero additional load on the lower back, so you avoid back injuries." That is, since you need to keep your glutes engaged to maintain pressure through the feet, you have the body's largest muscles taking on a greater share of the work, rather than transferring that strain to the back muscles. "It really has to do with proper glute activation—if that doesn't happen, then you'll resort to using other muscles."

3: Heel Feel

Another important part of the equation is the heel connection to the foot plate. "Although we often say drive through the heels, I'm not saying, per se, that you have to drive with the heels, but the key is that when your heel has connection with the foot stretcher early in the drive, the central nervous system will recognize that stability and allow you to fire [your muscles]. For example, it's impossible to fire your glutes and hamstrings if the heels aren't in touch with the foot plate. You can't override it—you may think you're doing it, but you're not. That connection allows you to drive the glutes and hamstrings, which allows you to use the trunk the way you should, just like you do in a deadlift."

These issues are what Biller's getting at when he talks about addressing the keys to successful water technique on land. "Case in point—try doing a deadlift standing only on your forefoot—or, maybe don't. Even a squat, just standing on the balls of your feet, without the heels? Big problem. It goes right back to that overhead squat—if you're able to keep your whole foot flat on the ground, then you've got good flexibility and that will translate well to the erg and the boat."

Thanks very much to Coach Biller of Virginia Men's Rowing for taking the time, and we look forward to another great ACRA spring racing season, just around the corner. In the meantime, catch up on the rest of our #BestRowingDrills series and improve your training and technique by following the link.


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