By Coach Liza Dickson
This is a companion article to the video. If you haven't watched the video, check it out below:
A common question I get regarding technique revolves around layback - how much should a rower have? I think my rowers want a simple answer to this, but as usual with me, there isn’t a simple answer. For this discussion, I’m going to explain a bit about how I coach and my style. Every coach has their own style - there is room for all of them, your coach has one and you should listen to it. But never be afraid to ask them “why?” they coach anything the way that they do.
The style of rowing that I coach is based upon the optimal utilization of both a rowers body and the equipment. Basically, trying to use those two things the way they were intended on being used and in tandem. Focusing on these two things prevents injury and promotes optimal boat speed. Each rower is different, so my style revolves around trying to find the optimum use of their body. That’s why if you watch my crews row down the Montlake Cut on Opening Day, they are not perfectly matched with the bodies. Unfortunately, in Junior Rowing I have not had the luxury of a matched set of 8 rowers that were all 6’5! Instead of making them all look the same (when their bodies seldom are the same), I work on helping each athlete attain their most effective and efficient stroke based on the biomechanics of their body first and foremost. That is step 1. Oversimplifying an entire year of coaching, the next step is looking at oars: catch angles, and stroke lengths making sure they are matched (and yes, sometimes that means making the short guy row with extra layback - but only if he is capable of it physically). None of the above works if you are not set up properly in relation to the equipment, but here again we border on the different rowing styles, so I’m going to leave it to your coaches to set you up the way they want you in the boat.
Now that you have some understanding on my approach, on to that pesky layback question. Of course all rowers want to be as long as possible, but there are limitations with their body (individual anatomy) and the setup of the equipment (physics). For each athlete to find the layback that is appropriate to them, I have my rowers row feet out. It’s important to make sure you are on the seat properly on the front of the ischial tuberosities (bottom of the pelvis, aka sit bones). Once feet are out, I am asking our athletes to find the layback that THEIR core can support with the feet out of the shoes. So on the drive, athletes are pressing into the feet and as the blade comes out of the water, the pressure on the bottom of the feet must cease. Rowers are in the layback position and without their feet in the shoe, they can not rely on the top of the shoe to hold them in the layback position. Rowers MUST rely on the strength of their core. It takes some strokes each day with feet out to find that perfect layback where the rower is relying on their core strength to end the drive and make the turn to the recovery learning NOT to rely on the tops of their feet. When rowers pull excessively on the top of the shoes in the layback position they are not in control of their body - the body is able to FALL to the bow. That is not optimal for boat speed. Additionally, pulling excessively on the top of the shoes means you don’t have to use your core. If you go back further than the strength of your core will allow, you are putting your back at risk.
A few things go into this core strength and it goes beyond doing a core workout every day. (though you still do need to do that work!) The next thing is physical development. For instance, a teen boy is still growing rapidly and while we can strengthen the core muscles, the connections through ligaments and tendons remain loose within the whole body. Therefore, they are likely not going to be capable of a longer layback solely because they are still growing. Often my junior boats do not have very much layback for this reason. As that rower enters his early 20’s his core will be capable of a longer layback. Take a look at a college crew and you’ll see that. The final thing is length of time rowing. So many times you hear your coaches say things like : “ you just need to take more rowing strokes to be good at this!” This is true for developing your core strength - the longer you row, the stronger those muscles get from rowing and the more efficient you are, therefore making you capable of having some longer layback. As my sculling coach always said, “The best core workout for rowing is using your core while rowing!” I’ll pick up on that topic next time.
Feel free to reach out with any questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. I spent one year intensively studying anatomy, physiology and biomechanics in massage therapy school. That knowledge changed how I coached.