Novice Training

There is probably nowhere else in the world where learning to row is as fun, easy, and inexpensive as at Oxford, and this is doubly true for those studying at Balliol. Each year, we train dozens of men and women who have never touched an oar before. Within weeks, they are entering their first race, and in a year or two they are the talk of the river.

If you are new to Balliol, look for us at Fresher’s Week events and join in on the autumn novice training extravaganza! If you’re interested in joining mid-year or over the summer, get in touch with the appropriate captain. We’re always looking for new talent, and will do our best to train you up as quickly as we can!

Novice Training Programme

Most of our novice rowers and coxes join the Club in the late summer through October, when new “freshers” arrive in Oxford. They learn about the Boat Club at Freshers’ Fair events at Balliol, or from friends who already row. After attending one of our “taster sessions” in the indoor rowing tank or out on the river, new members are ready to dive into training! They take a required swim test and embark on a mission to build a rowing foundation in order to perform well in Christ Church Regatta and set the course for their senior rowing careers.

The novice training regime is under the guidance of the Men’s and Women’s captains, and generally lasts five or six weeks — from early October to late November. Over this period of rapid progression, most novice sessions are one of three types:

  • River Outings – The bread and butter of rowing training, novices learn to row in boats on the Isis stretch of the river Thames, under the direction of a coxswain (“cox”). For the first few sessions, senior rowers are in each boat to provide a bit of extra balance and strength. As the weeks go forward, novices’ Christ Church Regatta crews are set and the crews learn to mesh into racing powerhouses.
  • Erg Training – Training on ergometers, or indoor rowers, is a good way to build strength, rhythm, and technique without worrying about balance or pausing to spin at each end of the river. Novices begin by using the ergs to build up the components of a rowing stroke. Soon, they are doing “long ergs” to build endurance, “sprint ergs” to build strength, and “pyramids” and “interval work” to attack specific parts of the race.
  • Tank Sessions – Novices sometimes take to a big concrete boat in an indoor swimming pool in order to perfect parts of the stroke — such as staying synchronized or rotating the blade handle — that cannot be replicated on an erg but are complex enough to warrant learning without a wobbling boat.

After all of this work, the novices are ready to attack Christ Church Regatta with a passion. By the time the winter holidays come around, they join right in with the year-round senior training.

Novice rowers participate in an indoor "tank session", learning finer points of the stroke.

Novice rowers participate in an indoor “tank session”, learning finer points of the stroke.

The Basics

Although your captains, coaches, and coxes will go over everything you need to know in detail on the erg machines, in the tank, and on the water, some people like to know some of the vocabulary before they get started. If that sounds like you, read on!


  • Boat and Crew – Unlike the Americans, who call them “shells”, we call the physical boats that we row in just that — “boats”. Also, the sport is “rowing” and the whole team a “boat club”. “Boat”, “crew”, or “squad” may also refer to an group that trains and competes together (“the women’s first boat”, “my crew”, “the Blues squad”).
  • Rower, Oarsman – One of the athletes who is pulling an oar.
  • Cox – Short for “coxswain”, this is the athlete who sits at the bow or stern (front or back) of the boats and gives commands via a microphone. The cox is responsible for steering, motivation, and strategy.
  • Captain – At Oxford, the captains are responsible for the training plans of their crews, the safety of outings, and obeying the rules of the river. Captains are often assisted by “boat captains” in each crew.
  • Boatman – The professional equipment and repair guru who is contracted by the college to help take care of our boats, transport boats to events when able, etc.
  • Blade – Another term for the oar. The “spoon” refers to the coloured bit at the end of the blade that pushes against the water.
  • Rigger – The metal contraption bolted to the side of the boat to hold the blade. The plastic bit that holdes the oar shaft directly is called the “gate”.
  • Sweep Rowing – The major form of rowing in Oxford, this is where each rower holds one blade. Generally, the direction of rowers’ blades alternate.
  • Sculling – The alternative to sweep rowing, in sculling each rower holds one blade in each hand.

It’s also worth knowing the basic race formats:

  • Side by side race – The most common type of race in the spring and summer, this is also what you see in the Olympics. Multiple boats line up even along the start line, start rowing at the same time, and the one to cross the finish line first wins. For larger regattas, a single- or double-elimination tournament format is generally used. Christ Church Regatta is a side by side race.
  • Head race – This is a common type of race in the autumn and winter. Boats race against the clock, with time beginning when they pass the start line and ending when they cross the finish. When prizes are given, it is to the boats in each category with the fastest time. The Isis Winter League races are head races.
  • Bumps race – This unusual format is iconic of Oxford rowing. Because the Isis is too narrow for a decent side by side course, the bumps format involves boats lining up bow-to-stern, with 1.5 lengths of clear water between them. When a cannon fires, the boats begin rowing, trying to make contact with the boat in front before being hit by the boat behind. Each day, the start order is adjusted to move successful boats up, and boats who were bumped down. Torpids and Summer Eights are bumps races.

The Rowing Stroke

British Rowing (the governing body of rowing in the UK) has a very nice article illustrating the anatomy of a rowing stroke. Although the images in that article (to which the “Point” references refer) show a sculler and most rowing at Balliol is “sweep”, the motion is very similar. An alternative illustration is below; click it for a full-size version.

British Rowing's "perfect stroke."  Click for full size.
  • At the catch position (“front-stops”), the rower is fully forward — their arms extended, back straight but angled forward at the hips, knees bent and touching the chest, and seat slid forward. From here, “the catch” refers to dropping the “spoon” of the blade into the water. (Point 1)
  • The drive begins with the legs. The rower keeps their arms and back straight and hips rocked forward while pressing against the foot plate with their legs. This leg drive produces most of your power. (Point 2)
  • The last bit of the drive is effected with the back/hips and arms (in that order). Here, men’s and women’s terminology differ, with men referring to a “back rock” or “firing the glutes” while women are more likely to refer to a “hip drive,” but the result is the same: a strong end to the drive. (Point 3)
  • As the rower reaches the finish position (“back-stops”) — legs straight, back straight but angled slightly backwards at the hips, and arms drawn into the chest — it is time to extract the blade from the water. This is done by tapping down on the handle, also called extraction. (Point 4)
  • The recovery phase of the stroke is a mirror image to the drive. The rower first extends their arms, then rocks forward from the hips, and then slowly glides forward on the seat to reach the catch position. This is also called the slide. (Remaining Points)

The Boat

The commands issued by the cox can seem confusing at first, but are straightforward once broken down. The front of the boat (forward in the direction of travel) is the “bow“, and the back of the boat is the “stern“. From the cox’s perspective (ie facing forwards), the left side of the boat is the “stroke side” (for Americans, “port”) and the right side is the “bow side” (“starboard”). (This is true even when the stroke rower rows on “bow side”.)

The rowers are numbered, in order, from the bow. Coxing instructions refer to rowers by their numbers. The bow-most rower (1) is also known as “bow”, and the stern-most rower is known as “stroke”, because he or she sets the rhythm for the rest of the crew to follow.


Commands can be directed to any combination of rowers. For instance, a command for “stern four” is for rowers 5, 6, 7, and 8. A command for “bow side” in the boat below is for rowers 1, 3, 5, and 7. You get the hang of it quickly.


Coxing Commands

Your cox will be very explicit with instructions for your first few outings, but it can help to have an idea of what to expect ahead of time. The basic rowing command consists of the subset of rowers it applies to (“all eight”, “stern four”, “bow pair”, etc.), followed by the command itself (“full slide rowing”) and finally, for most commands, a “ready, go.” A few basic commands are:

  • “Rowing.” – Believe it or not, this is the general command to start rowing. There are about a million variations, which can dictate the effort to give (eg “steady state rowing”) or the length of strokes (eg “half-slide rowing” or “arms-only rowing”). These variations are all explained the first few times you do them, and then become second nature.
  • “Hold it up!” – This is the “emergency stop” command. All rowers brace their oars square in the water to bring the boat to a quick stop. “Hold it up” can also be used (with a calmer voice) to have one or two rowers anchor their blades in the water to steer the boat sharply (eg while landing).
  • “Set the boat.” – This is a general balance command, meaning to prevent the boat from flopping from side to side. Novices often do this by having one pair of rowers use their blades like stabilisers, balancing the boat while the other six row. This command can also be given when the boat is at rest — when it instructs all rowers to use their blades to stabilise the boat — or when all rowers are rowing — when it means to balance the boat by careful adjustment of hand heights and body position.
  • “Come to <a position>.” – Generally in preparation to row, the cox will ask you to come to one of your standard positions. “Backstops” is the finish position — knees straight, back straight and bent back at the hips, arms into the chest. “Frontstops” is the catch position — knees bent and next to the chest, back straight and bent forward at the hips, arms straight and rotated out toward your rigger.
  • “Take a tap.” – This is a command for (usually) one rower to take an arms-only stroke, in order to line the boat up to get rowing. Because it is only directed at one rower, it doesn’t require a “ready, go.”
  • “Back it down.” – This instructs a rower or rowers to take a reverse stroke, by flipping their blade completely backwards, placing it in the water at the finish position, and pushing the handle away from them. It is used to align the boat, or to spin the boat at the end of the river.
  • “Drop out.” and “Join in.” – These commands are used for changing the set of rowers without completely stopping the boat. For example, if stern six (3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8) are rowing while bow pair (1 and 2) are setting the boat, the cox might say “three and four dropping out, bow pair joining in, on the next stroke, go” to change things up a bit.
  • “Easy there.” – This command means stop rowing. In order to finish a length off in style, upon hearing “easy there,” all rowers will simultaneously pause their stroke at the same position (typically quarter slide) with their blades off the water, allowing the boat to glide along the water in perfect balance until the cox tells them to “drop.”
  • “Take the run off.” – This command means to turn your blade 45° in the water in order to gently slow the boat to a stop. It can also be given to just a few rowers to create asymmetric drag in a tricky steering situation.

The only way to really get comfortable with all of these commands is to go on a few outings. Within a week or two, it becomes second nature. And remember that your cox is a person too, and usually will have a good sense of which commands you’re familiar with and which require a bit more explanation on the water.

We look forward to seeing you on the river!