Countless times I hear athletes at the gym say “I’m bad at rowing because I’m short” or being more dramatic, “I hate rowing because I’m short”. On the other hand, tall people are perceived as being good or even excellent rowers based on their height alone.

To understand how much, or how little, height matters in rowing we need to take a step back and look at the world of competitive rowing, the rowing machine, and physiology of rowing to make a statement on what makes someone a “good” or “bad” rower.

The History of Recruiting in Competitive Rowing 

Today most college coaches are looking for height. That’s a fact.

But it’s not as simple as everyone used to think. Did you know, that up until the 1950’s everyone thought tall rowers were too clumsy to handle a rowing shell? Through the 80’s and 90’s recruiters went a bit crazy with tall rowers and now more recently shorter rowers (especially scullers) are becoming more common.

Tall rowers still dominate the field but with the bias of coaches and recruiters encouraging tall rowers, and discouraging short rowers from a young age. However, it’s nearly impossible to determine how much the height of elite rowers is a result of bias and how much is performance selection.

Honestly, no one really knows for sure. Obviously having long arms and legs help, but aside from being whole in body, and likely above average height, there is a LOT of variation. As with all physical performance metrics, there’s less an ideal image, and more an ideal range.

Height vs. Weight

Size is of a greater advantage on a Concept2 stationary erg than in a boat. The taller you are, the better natural lever you are, and the more of a mechanical advantage you will have. Other than height it seems that an arm span greater than one’s height is desirable.

Rowing in general, and on the erg especially, actually has more to do with weight than height. Rowing is about generating power per stroke rather than the length of drive per stroke, and it’s easier to generate power if you’re pushing more weight and transferring more momentum into the machine.

That’s why there’s a weight class distinction between Lightweight and Heavyweight rowers but no height distinction. The length of your stroke matters, but not nearly as much as weight in the overall scheme of rowing. Sure, everything else being equal, taller = better rowing performance. Luckily, a lot of the “everything else” is changeable.

Tall vs. Short

Yes, and we already mentioned the weight. And of course, the taller you are, generally the more you weigh. So it’s a win/win being tall. If you take two people with equal fitness level, one 5’8″ and one 6’3″, they should pull the exact same score – the difference will be that the shorter person will have to row at a higher SPM to make up for the difference in length.

Of course, it is not correct to assume that a 6’4″ rower will always outperform a 5’8″ rower. If the shorter rower has better technique, strength, and endurance (as well as intangibles such as determination through pain), he will move a boat better than the taller rower.

The Physical Pillars of Rowing

First, we need to know what goes into erg performance. To simplify it, we can look at 3 variables: rowing technique, cardiovascular engine and brute strength.

Without good technique, you can’t be efficient and you will just spin your wheels getting nowhere fast. Rowing is not the most natural movement, and having/developing an efficient stroke can help your performance a lot.

Without a big oxygen transport engine (VO2 max), also known as aerobic capacity, you can move the flywheel fast, but it’s going to be very short-lived. You may have more massive lungs, but that doesn’t mean you’re an excellent athlete. Otherwise, any and every aerobic event would be dominated by giants. The thing with lungs is not just about how much oxygen you can draw in, but how much you can convert into useful energy.

Without strength, you can spin along at a high rate with excellent technique, but you’re not moving that flywheel very fast.

The Big Triangle of Truth: The best in the world are beasts at all three. The rest of us might excel at one or two, but probably have a weak link or two which limits us. Obviously, height can be a factor but it has not much to do with performance.

The Mental Pillars of Rowing

While most of us look at ourselves and others and judge by physical appearance, it is obvious that most of the variables that really matter in rowing are not visible. Besides aerobic capacity and experience, there is another argument, the mental side of rowing.

Motivation, learning capacity, willpower, mastering pain, and fatigue, “rebound ability” from setbacks and failure, concentration, and dealing with nerves in a competitive setting are a huge part of being a better rower. Understanding all the factors that are the trademarks of a good rower can bring you closer to your potential. All these have nothing to do with your height. It’s rather a question of asking yourself if your head getting in the way of your performance.

How to Improve

The question should never be “Am I a good rower?”. It should be “What can I do to become better at rowing?”, regardless of height, as this obviously isn’t going to change.

Good technique is critical. If you are new to rowing you should spend a vast majority of your time working on proper technique. Technique improvement is probably a never ending process, but the large improvements that take huge chunks off your times can be made relatively quickly. Without proper technique, you can’t take advantage of all the natural gifts such as aerobic capacity and brute strength you’ve been blessed with.

Once your technique is solid, the principle of specificity takes over. To be good at using the rowing machine, you need to use the rowing machine. Running, biking, sprinting, gymnastics, CrossFit, etc. can all contribute to improved fitness. While they may increase your overall fitness you can’t neglect to get on the rowing machine. Putting meters in on the erg at a low intensity and balancing it with higher intensity efforts (tempo efforts) will raise your threshold and improve your oxygen delivery engine, while continually improving your efficiency.

So Does Size Matter?

Yes, size matters. But we’re not talking about your physical size because that is just one of many factors. Other factors such as your strength, cardiovascular capacity, and technique are also factors in determining your pure rowing ability.

You may ask what does it take for you to reach your potential as an athlete and rower? The true challenge in rowing is primarily between you and your mind.

Success in rowing requires mental strength to master the limits you think you have.

You are both the problem and the solution. So while you may not be able to change your height, you can change your technique, your strength, and aerobic capacity, if you really want to. 

Sources:

Physiology of the Elite Rower – Stephen Seiler

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