Drive Length, Too Long, Too Short, Just Right – How Much Length is Right and How to Achieve it

What is there was a proven technique you could follow to improve your rowing workout times?

Faster rowing times with less effort? Sure.

More power when you need it? Why not?

Rowing becoming your rest station? Absolutely.

Despite what you might think, there is a proven format for these goals.

Repeatable, scalable technique. It isn’t complicated, but it takes practice.

At Dark Horse Rowing, we reverse engineer, test, and analyze technique and work with thousands of athletes per year. Then we turn the most effective cues and strategies into detailed, step by step programs for you.

STEP 1: We test and analyze everything.

STEP 2: You get the best programs.

For example…

A couple months ago, we heard from several of our athletes that getting in two one-hour sessions a week was getting challenging with their work schedule and family commitments. So we built a 3 day a week, 30-minute program that we’ve been testing on our athletes to generate the greatest impact. It’s working great, people are reporting less time stress, and they can get their work done quickly.


before and after workout

What we’ve found is amazing. It has never been about the length of the workout. And, the solution isn’t even hard. It’s not complicated. But if you don’t consistently give attention to areas like these then you’ll miss out on easy wins.

That’s why we’re here to do the hard work for you.

This week is all about the drive.

If you’ve never noticed, there’s only one part of the rowing stroke that allows you to do work on the rowing machine.

It’s called the drive.

It’s that part where you feel resistance on the handle and you push away as hard as you can.

But here’s the kicker…many coaches don’t talk about how long you should be when you drive. Usually, because it’s a bit of a mystery and it’s easier to just say “get as long as possible.”

But we wanted to understand if that was really the best suggestion.

Will Length at All Costs Make You Faster?

Before we answer that question, though, it’s best to take a look at the two parts of the stroke where you can even add length. The Catch and the Release.

The Catch is the front of the stroke, right before you drive.


the catch

Photo Source:

If you get in a good position here, you become a loaded spring. You’re tight, loaded, and full of potential energy.


The Release is the back of the drive.


the finish

In this position, we’re changing directions to a smooth and orderly recovery. Basically, this is a pass-through just like the catch except we’re not moving into a force production phase.

The goal here is to keep the handle moving and begin the forward path to getting back to a good catch.

Are you picking up on the differences already?

Getting longer in only one of these places will make you more effective.

Now before we waste our energy going through the biomechanics of why, take a look at this picture…


bad finishPhoto Source:

We’d ask you to sit down on a machine and hold that position for 10 seconds. Very quickly your body will show you that this is NOT where you get effective length.

The Research

Next, we went to the research. First from The CrossFit Journal then, to some old school researchers in the rowing world.

What The CrossFit Journal determines is that posture and coordination are critical to performance.

This study demonstrated how critical posture and coordination of different body segments are to rowing performance. Furthermore, poor starting posture may not allow one to properly coordinate a movement. This is true not only for rowing but for many other movements as well.

Guess where those two come into play? THE CATCH

So we’ve established that good posture is critical and for better performance, you need to be coordinated through the drive.

That’s a point for length at the catch.

The study also found:

Several research studies have been performed to characterize optimal rowing techniques. Most rowing experts agree that the proper sequence of motion—in order to maximize both stroke power and efficiency—is to start the row by driving the legs, then extending the hips, then pulling with the arms last. The majority of the stroke power comes from the legs and trunk (1). The greatest force exerted on the handle occurs in the first 40 percent of the row cycle

There’s another point for length at the catch.

Finally, check out this graph from that same study…

speed graph

All you really need to see are the solid lines. Blue is the leg, red is the hip swing, and black is the arms.

Check out the last few frames. 29 through 35. It’s a critical drop off of speed. What you’re seeing is the loss of speed during the drive.


If you’re trying to lengthen the release, you’re basically trying to give more juice to slowest part of the stroke.

Point 3 for the catch.

Next, according to research from An Introduction to the Biomechanics of Rowing:

“The work is all the more inefficient the more tension there is in the muscles at the end of the effort, because the work is wasted isometrically, without producing any performance.” (Landois-Rosemann 1962, p. 504)

This information disqualifies an orientation toward hard pressure at the finish of the rowing stroke, and it highlights an emphasis on the beginning of the stroke.

“Equal work, realised through extreme tension of the different muscle groups, results in various local loads. The higher loads manifest themselves in the smaller muscle groups (i.e., the arms), and the lower loads in the larger muscle groups (i.e., the legs).” (Hollmann/Hettinger, 1976)

From this statement it makes sense to employ a synchronous whole-body effort of muscle potentials, taking into account the different force potentials of the leg, back, and arm muscles. Emphasis on the finish of the stroke should be de-emphasised because of the high local load on the arm muscles.

If you just skipped over that because of the confusing jargon, don’t worry. It just scored a 4th point for the catch.

All roads lead to Rome (err, the catch).

So back to our question of length at all costs…

The right amount of the length is the most length you can get at the catch.


A good position is necessary. The greatest force exertion is the first 40% of the stroke and you load better at the catch which means STRIVE for the best catch possible and realize a relatively reasonable release.

Written by Shane Farmer

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