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Masters Feature: Good Posture

Last month we talked about some of our pet peeves, mainly square blade rowing and quick hands out of bow. Continuing on that theme, this month we’ll tackle sitting up in the boat, i.e. rowing with good posture.

First though, let’s consider rhythm. Most everyone will agree that one needs to let the stroke flow, to establish a rhythm that is at once both smooth and powerful. Something that is fluid tends to be more efficient. We’re not simply thrashing about, exerting power with little to show for it.

Another factor of being efficient is using only the muscles that help move the boat forward. Sitting up takes a lot of energy and uses muscles in the vertical plane. Remember that the water is flat, and we’re trying to move the boat across that horizontal surface. Any up or down motion is wasted energy. Head should move along one horizontal plane, shoulders along a slightly lower plane, but neither should go up or down. If they do, you’re bouncing the boat – not the fastest way to get down the course.

If you’ve been taught to sit up and keep the back straight, you can’t help but to go up and down. Imagine your back as a trapdoor. Your hips are the hinges and your head is the top of the door. As you swing your head will go up, like the top of the trapdoor until the body reaches vertical and then it will go back down. I’ve heard that U.S. women’s coach Tom Terhaar describes the motion as allowing your body to move through a low tunnel. You don’t want your head to rise up and hit the top of the tunnel, instead keep your head one inch below the roof of the tunnel throughout the drive. I imagine the body as something more flexible than a door. I think of a carpet and we’re rolling and unrolling that carpet on the recovery and drive respectively, very similar to the Pilates movement of rolling the body from a seated position down and up one vertebrae at a time.

Another argument I’ve heard for sitting up is in comparing the rowing stroke to doing squats or dead lifts. But again, rowing is a horizontal sport, not a vertical one. Beyond that, when we do squats, our feet, hips and shoulders are all lined up, but when we row our feet are lower than our hips and our shoulders are significantly higher than our hips, creating a very different angle to the whole equation. You would never do a dead lift with the bar bell out in front of the feet. Yet essentially, that’s what we have to do when we row.

The sit up mentality has a very strong grip on the high school and club programs, many rowers who come to Calm Waters have been taught this style. I’ve read articles in Rowing News about sitting up, I’ve heard coaches at the USRowing Annual Convention talk about sitting up. So who am I to say different? I don’t have a degree in anatomy or physiology, but I do have eyes and I watch a lot of World Championships and Olympics videos. Nobody is sitting up! I recently watched all of the Olympic-class finals from the 2011 World Rowing Championships in Bled, and couldn’t find a single rower with “good posture.”

Sometimes I wonder if it’s just a difference in definition, but I’ve read and heard people talk about literally arching the back – chest out, shoulders back, line the hips and shoulders up. I just don’t see that position among the elite rowers, or even among the people who advocate it. I’ve seen any number of them row, and they don’t even do it.

I also went through and looked at a huge number of Sportgraphics photos from the Head of the Charles, mainly the older scullers. Again, not one was sitting up. Arching your back isolates all the stress on vertebrae four and five, which is where and why rowers injure their backs. Rounding the back allows the stress to be more evenly distributed along all of the vertebrae.

There are many rowers out there who have been at this sport for a long time – the 10-year national team veterans, the 60/70+ year-old scullers. I haven’t seen one who was sitting up. If a rounded back is bad, these rowers wouldn’t be able to have these long careers. I’m convinced it’s the sitting up that strains the back. Those are the rowers you don’t see 10 years down the line. If you relax and stay fluid in the boat, you’ll have many years of enjoyable rowing ahead of you.

Thanks for all the feedback from our last article. As always, if you have any comments, don’t hesitate to contact me through

Written by Charlotte Hollings | Dec 06, 2011

Charlotte Hollings and her husband, John Dunn have spent more than 70 years immersed in the sport of rowing. Both have rowed on the U.S. National Team, winning several international medals. Charlotte’s coaching career has taken her west to Stanford University before heading back east to Boston University and then Cornell University. John remained close to home, coaching at his alma mater of Cornell University for 18 years, first as the frosh lightweight coach, then varsity lightweight and finally varsity women. In 2001, Hollings and Dunn started the sculling camp Calm Waters Rowing in Lancaster, Va. For more information,

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