Outside magazine, September 1995
A pair of trick sunglasses has made Vesko Nenchev's day. They're cheap specs that a friend found in a novelty shop, in no way remarkable except that they're equipped with small mirrors that let you see what's behind you. This gimmick makes the six-foot-four, 250-pound rower--a former Bulgarian national team member, now head coach for the Oregon Rowing Unlimited club in Portland--very excited. "Rowing, you see," he explains, slipping on the glasses with a grin, "is the only sport where you cross the finish line with your butt first."
Perhaps it's this backward proclivity that has made rowing the relatively forgotten sister in the family of participatory aerobic activities. A century ago it was among the most popular sports in America, and thousands of dark-suited, straw-hatted men would gather on urban rivers to watch the big races. But now, in the easy-access era of in-line skates and mountain bikes, running shoes and hiking boots, only a small group of athletes attempts the art of skimming along the water. That's unfortunate, because in some ways rowing is tailor-made for these urgent times.
"All of the evidence I've ever come up with points to the same conclusion," says Fritz Hagerman, director of the physiology lab at Ohio University. "Minute for minute, rowing is the best energy-expending activity around." Hagerman, who's been researching the benefits of rowing since the 1960s, most recently completed a study commissioned by NASA to find out whether astronauts in training would be better off rowing or cycling. "Rowing consistently burned 15 to 20 percent more calories for the same workout duration," says Hagerman, "and the differential grew as the efforts got more intense."
Nenchev offers more seat-of-the-pants evidence. "You hear that cross-country skiing is the best overall conditioner, that you can burn 600 calories an hour doing it," he says, with a dismissive swipe of his ham-size hand. "But in a rowing workout I often burn 750 to 800 calories in the same amount of time."
Throw Your Body at It
If that sounds counterintuitive, it's safe to say you've never been in a shell. The sliding seat was developed more than a century ago specifically to get more power into each stroke. With your feet bound in stirrups, the moving seat allows the quadriceps--your largest muscles--to contract when the oars are out of the water and extend when they're submerged, which is when you're propelling the boat. As for the rest of your body, the stroking motion makes nearly perfect physiological sense. It employs almost all of the muscle groups, in order of relative strength and importance: The large muscles of the back follow the legs in supplying the drive, while the arms and hands are used more for support and balance. That, Joy says, is why an hour of rowing is enough to give you a complete workout. At the same time, because rowing is a low-impact exercise, experienced recreational rowers can mix low- and high-intensity efforts from several times to seven days per week without experiencing pain or soreness.
But rowing isn't just about brawn. In fact, it's feel, and a sense of rhythm, that makes a rower effective. People who seem born to play tight end or power forward are also the rowing coach's natural candidates to become elite oarsmen and -women, in part because of their tremendous range of motion--that extended reach benefits them in the one-oar-per-person "sweep" style of crew rowing. But they also have touch, which usually comes a little easier to us mere mortals than to the often awkward Shaqs of the world. In other words, if you want to row, small can be beautiful, especially if you're trying to handle two oars in a one- or two-person scull. "In a certain sense, the bigger and stronger you are, the more you're at a disadvantage," explains Nenchev, who isn't exactly petite. "Big guys tend to try to muscle around a boat and end up screwing up the stroke."
Become a Coordinator
Nenchev demonstrates on a rowing ergometer. "The thing to avoid is watching the health-club guys on the machines," he says, and performs a poorly executed stroke: shoulders slumped, legs only half-extended, arms working in short, spasmodic pulses. He then repeats four rapid, apparently effortless strokes, explaining that while it looks seamless, the rowing motion is best understood in terms of its parts (see "Skills: Piercing Together the Seamless Strokes," below). He comes to rest leaning back, with the handles poised below his rib cage. "This is the end of the stroke," he explains. "Back in Bulgaria, all of the professional rowers have holes in their shirts just at this spot." He continues, "Now the hands: The most common mistake is to grip the oars too tightly, like a baseball bat. Hold them lightly and right at the ends to get the proper feel for the blades entering and leaving the water."
Invited to give it a try, I quickly discover that the very feature that makes rowing so appealing--the synchronization and flow of its full-body motion--can also make it frustrating. "The most difficult thing about rowing is coordinating everything," Steve Wagner, head crew coach at Rutgers University, told me earlier. "Compressing the legs fully, pulling with the arms, maintaining the correct posture--let alone balancing and accounting for the wind and current--gives you a lot to think about. But remember: The skill isn't just in making the shell go faster, but in making it go faster with less and less effort."
Gradually, under Nenchev's patient instruction, I find myself stroking more smoothly. I know I've got a long way to go, but for a brief moment I can imagine myself out on the Willamette, gracefully sculling along. Like any sport, says Nenchev, with enough practice it becomes second nature; on one occasion, to everybody's brimming satisfaction, he coached a group of blind rowers. "When you get to that point of familiarity, there's one other thing I forgot to warn you about," Nenchev says, lifting his bulk lightly from the machine. "Rowing can get very addictive."
John Brant is a contributing editor of Outside.