The neutral spine rowing drill is one of my favorite drills to teach the hip hinge and shoulder muscle control on the erg and ingrain good movement patterns. This drill is not as simple as “just pop your hands behind your head,” though, and requires a bit more analysis and troubleshooting to get the most out of it. Done correctly and analyzed thoroughly, the neutral spine drill provides a great learning opportunity for the athlete to dial in physical positioning and great feedback for the coach or self-coached rower on potential problem areas in stroke technique, strength, and mobility.
The Neutral Spine Rowing Drill
How to Do the Neutral Spine Rowing Drill:
- Sit on the erg and clasp your hands behind your head
- From this position, practice rounding the shoulders up and forward (protraction), and then packing them back and down (retraction)
- Rock back to your normal layback position
- Rock forward to your body-over position, keeping knees straight
- Perform 5-10 reps of just this back-end movement, going from layback to body-over
- Advanced athletes may continue up the slide, going through the full motion from recovery to drive while keeping hands behind the head and shoulders in the back-and-down position.
Note any specific points where you struggle to maintain a neutral spine, tight abdominal muscles and braced torso, and shoulders in the back-and-down position.
I use this drill most at the back end of the stroke around release mechanics. This is the easiest position to achieve physically and the least controversial in rowing stroke philosophy compared to greater differences at the front end and drive. Problems that appear at the release position tend to exist later in the stroke cycle as well. However, you may use this drill through the rest of the recovery and drive, as I’ve done in the demonstration above, if you’d like to and it fits your stroke philosophy. Practice a full stroke, paying close attention to your torso position and posture for 8-10 strokes, then pick up the handle and take 8-10 strokes trying to maintain exactly the same torso positioning.
If you did that all perfectly, great! I like to use the neutral spine rowing drill as an enhanced warm-up to dial in torso positioning after a full-body land warmup but before beginning programmed erg training. If you found it difficult to maintain proper posture and torso bracing at any point during the recovery or drive, then here is where the analysis comes in.
Neutral Spine Rowing Drill Analysis
The first step is understanding why the technical error is a problem for performance and/or risk of injury. I often find that rowers commit technical errors due to lack of awareness of how their movement affects boat speed, set, physical health, and performance. The other common cause is “I didn’t know I was doing that.” Rowers often have one idea of their performance and can be very surprised when they see themselves on video. The camera is a great teaching tool for this stage. I find that explaining why the fault is a fault improves athlete understanding of the sport, ownership of their experience, and motivation to improve their technique. We can always start with education and making sure coach and athlete are on the same page. I would always rather have a conversation and make sure both parties clearly understand each other than spend 4-6 weeks strengthening and mobilizing only to hear that there was a simple misunderstanding and the athlete could actually perform the correct technique all along.
I only go to mobility and strengthening once I feel confident that the athlete understands the error and the correction but is still unable to make the correction and maintain the correct technique at full speed or pressure.
The neutral spine rowing drill emphasizes key physical skills of the hip hinge and general shoulder coordination. I find that rowers who do not strength train and only row and erg are often deficient in these movement patterns. The rowing and erging environment is too chaotic and challenging in coordination, balance, rhythm, and attentional demands to be a good learning environment for fundamental physical skills. My full-body warmup and all of my strength training programs for rowers emphasize these skills to provide opportunities to learn, practice, and develop strength from these crucial physical positions.
It is possible for an athlete to have an understanding of technique, opportunities to learn and practice fundamental physical skills, strength from these key positions, and yet still be unable to achieve full range-of-motion from good physical positions in the rowing stroke. Mobility exercises may come into play here as part of the diagnostic plan. Mobility is a combination of flexibility and stability. Athletes need to be flexible to achieve the positions of the stroke, but they also need to have great stability so that they can generate force from those positions, and sustain that force over an entire race. Mobility exercises such as those found in the “Mobility for Rowers” series may be helpful here. Significant restrictions or pain from positions should be referred to a physical therapist or other medical professional.
Troubleshooting the Release Position
Fault #1: Rounding
Problem: Rounding at the release means dumping the handles and washing out, wasting all the power you developed during the drive. A strong release is vital to propel the boat and set up the boat for the recovery. Rounding at the release also makes the rock-over step of the recovery more complicated, because you either have to un-round to rock over, or you stay rounded which creates its own problems later in the recovery.
Teaching: Teach the athlete how to sit up straight and put their shoulder blades into a back-and-down position. I’ll often have the athlete shrug up to feel “wrong” as contrast, then cue them to pack down. This is a subtle and often unfamiliar movement, and a vital one for rowing posture.
Mobility: Tightness in the pecs, lats, and upper traps will keep the athlete in an internally rotated, upwardly elevated, rounded position. Check out “Mobility for Rowers: Thoracic Spine” for more.
Strengthening: As we alleviate tension from the pecs, lats, and upper traps, we need to strengthen the low and middle traps and other postural muscles of the mid-back to hold the correct postural position. YWT raises, face-pulls, band pullaparts, x-band rows, and batwing rows (or ISO rows) are great exercises for teaching and strengthening the shoulder retractors and depressors responsible for achieving and maintaining the back-and-down position.
Fault #2: Arching
Problem: Arching at the release carries a significant injury risk to the back muscles as this hyperextension places great pressure on the anterior side of the intervertebral discs–in plain English, a risk for disc herniation or injury. It might be better than rounding for bladework and pressure, but it’s not as good as neutral for either and it has a much higher risk of injury.
Teaching: I tend to not use the the “proud chest” cue because it can be easily misunderstood and turned into the position of hyperextension like you see above. Make sure athletes know how to sit up straight and what the release position should look like according to your stroke philosophy, then make sure that they are keeping their abs “on,” or flexed to draw the rib cage down and support the torso. Breathing is a hugely important skill for rowing as well, and one that should not be taken for granted. I often see this flared rib cage fault in athletes who breathe shallowly into their chest, rather than deep and diaphragmatically. Teach athletes the diaphragmatic breath.
Mobility: This can be thoracic spine again, as athletes who do not have mobility through the thoracic spine will compensate for it somewhere else, in this case by arching the lumbar spine. Cue the athlete to flex the abs and draw their rib cage down, then see where they fault. If they have a mobility restriction, it is likely that their upper-back will round over at this point. “Mobility for Rowers: Thoracic Spine” again with special attention to the hinging over the foam roller exercises to improve thoracic extension.
Strengthening: If the athlete is consistently unable to keep the abs flexed and rib cage down, core strength could be an issue. I love the dead bug exercise for training the abs in this ribs-down position, so long as the athlete can be diligent about staying in a good position.
Fault #3: Shrugging
Problem: Shrugging at the release is an injury risk for upper trap overuse, strain, and resulting shoulder pain. Shrugging is also likely to raise the handle, which buries the blade and makes for sloppy releases and increased chance of catching a crab.
Teaching: This again requires teaching the back-and-down position of scapular depression and retraction, then maintaining it through the release. I will often use a visual cue of a 3×5 card taped below the erg screen reminding the athlete to relax the shoulders.
Mobility: The athlete may also have really tight upper traps. This is one where I’m fine with taking a mobility approach simultaneously with the technical approach, as stroke after stroke with shrugged up shoulders is likely both the cause and the result in this case. “Mobility for Rowers: Thoracic Spine” again, with special attention to working the lacrosse ball around the upper shoulder area.
Strengthening: The low and middle traps and posterior deltoids can almost never be too strong. They are a small muscle group easily overpowered by the big upper traps, so my rowing programs always include extra work for the smaller postural muscles of the mid-back. Again, YWT raises, face-pulls, band pullaparts, x-band rows, and batwing rows (or ISO rows) are all great for this muscle group, and improving strength here will improve torso position as well as power at the release.
Knowing drills and knowing how to use drills and make corrections are two different things. Know what drills make sense for your program, stroke philosophy, and athletes, then know how to use the information from those drills to help athletes become better rowers. You might not row the exact same style of stroke or have the exact same release position as I’ve demonstrated in this article, but I hope this helps you see how you can adapt drill philosophy to your own stroke style. The same diagnostic process of examining athlete knowledge, ability, mobility, and strength can be applied to any drill for any stroke, so use this as a starting point for your own analysis.
Last updated July 2020