Fitness Tips

How To Use a Rowing Machine Correctly—Because We’re Definitely All Making the Same Mistake

Photo: Getty Images/ Cavan Images
Almost all novice rowers make the same mistake within seconds of strapping into a rowing ergometer, says world-class rower Libby Peters, the former associate head coach of the University of Pennsylvania women’s rowing team. As a member of the U.S. National Team, Peters won a bronze medal at the 2008 World Rowing Championships. Needless to say she knows how to use a rowing machine properly.

It’s not entirely intuitive, but with practice, rowing becomes as natural as, say, breathing. And now that it’s no longer a sport reserved for Ivy League athletes, rowing machines are finally getting the recognition they deserve. From indoor-rowing fitness studios to at-home equipment, like high-tech gamified rowing machines and foldable rowing machines, stroking has become as ubiquitous as cycling or running. But perhaps its greatest appeal is that rowing machine workouts target multiple muscle groups—which is just one of many rowing machine benefits.

While providing a great full-body, low-impact workout, a rower is designed primarily to target your legs—but one of the most common rowing mistakes people make is tasking their arms with all the work, pulling with all their might, says Peters. She recommends rethinking the way you approach the exercise.

“The thing to remember about rowing is, it’s basically like you’re lifting like a heavy load,” says Peters. “When you’re in a boat, the load is you and the boat itself; when you’re on the erg, the load is the resistance being created by the machine.” (This was an “aha!” moment for me when I heard it.)

Rowing Terminology

If you’re new to the exercise, you might hear people throw around rowing jargon like “erg” and “catch.” Here are several common terms related to rowing that you need to know, all of which you should keep in mind as you’re learning how to row properly.

Erg
Erg, ergometer, or rowing ergometer are terms commonly used to refer to a rowing machine or indoor rower.

Damper
The damper, located on the side of the rowing machine, is typically a lever that allows users to adjust the level of resistance. Resistance levels can range from 1 to ten.

Stroke
The stroke is the full range of motion that’s composed of four parts: catch, drive, finish, and recovery.

Catch
The catch is the start position of a rowing stroke, mimicking the point on a rowing boat where the oar blade first enters or “catches” the water.

Drive
The drive is the movement that follows the catch, and it typically involves the most exertion. This “working” period is when users pull the handle towards themselves, against resistance.

Finish
The finish is the final point of a rowing stroke, where users successfully “drive” the handle toward their body.

Recovery
The recovery is a moment of rest between the catch and the finish, when users return the handle to its starting position of a rowing stroke.

Strokes Per Minute
Strokes per minute (or SPM, for short) is the number of strokes a user is able to complete within a minute. This metric is typically be displayed on the monitor of a rowing machine.

Split
How long it will take you to row 500 meters at your current speed.

How To Use A Rowing Machine, With Tips From a World-Class Rowing Coach

Whether you’re using an at-home rowing machine or one at the gym, learning how to row properly will ensure you get the most from your rowing machine workouts and prevent injury. Below, Peters explains the best rowing machine form technique, from catch to finish. With practice, the machine promises to become one of your favorite pieces of equipment.

But, first things first: Before you sit down on the sliding seat, make sure to adjust the rowing machine’s damper setting. Set it to level three, four, or five. Cruising at these lower speeds will keep you from hurting yourself when you’re just getting your sea (land?) legs, according to Peters.

  1. The Finish: To start, strap in your feet, straighten your legs, and clutch the handle so it falls right at your lower ribs (your palms are facing down). Your upper body will lean slightly back at an 11 o'clock position.
  2. The Catch: To move safely into the catch, slide your body forward until your shins are parallel and your knees are directly over your ankles. Your chest will be touching, or nearly touching, your thighs at the 1 o'clock position. Make sure to keep your upper body from rolling forward.
  3. The Drive: Pay attention! This is the trickiest part. Start by pushing your feet forward to straighten your legs. Once they're completely flat, pull your body back from the 1 o'clock position to the 11 o'clock position. Finish by pulling the handle into your body while keeping your core tight.

You did it! Peters warns that the whole movement pattern will feel clunky and mechanical at first. Once your body familiarizes itself, you can close your eyes and imagine you’re skimming across a placid lake, rather than sweating buckets at the gym or on your home rowing machine.

A 12-Minute Beginner Rowing Workout

For people familiarizing themselves with how to use a rowing machine, Peters recommends starting with intervals, interspersed with active recovery. “I really like interval workouts for young or new athletes,” she says. “I think you get more out of it by doing higher quality with shorter time or shorter distance.” Below, she shares a 12-minute beginner rowing workout.

Minute 1: 16 to 18 strokes per minute (SPM)
Minute 2: Active recovery
Minute 3: 16 to 18 SPM
Minute 4: Active recovery
Minute 5: 16 to 18 SPM
Minute 6: Active recovery
Minute 7: 16 to 18 SPM
Minute 8: Active recovery
Minute 9: 16 to 18 SPM
Minute 10: Active recovery
Minute 11: 16 to 18 SPM
Minute 12: Active recovery

Rowing Machine Benefits

There’s plenty to love about the rowing machine. For one, it offers a full-body, low-impact workout that engages approximately 86 percent of your body’s muscles. Just what muscles does a rowing machine work, exactly? You can expect the workout to hit your core, back, arms, and legs. Rowing benefits your heart health too, Caley Crawford, NASM-certified personal trainer and director of education of indoor-rowing studio Row House, previously told Well+Good. Combining strength and cardiovascular training, it makes for a pretty efficient workout.

Regardless of whether you’re primarily using a rowing machine for strength training, cardio, or just for fun, the first step is learning how to use a rowing machine to ensure you’re getting the most from your workout.

Frequently Asked Questions

What muscles does a rowing machine work?

Rowing machine workouts primarily target the legs, but they will also hit your arms, back, and core.

Which is better—treadmill or the rower?

Whether you’re rowing or running, you’re promised an excellent cardiovascular workout, but there are key differences between the two exercises. If you have compromised vision, or you want a workout that’s easy on the joints, rowing might be an ideal option for you, Hollis Tuttle, the director of instructors at City Row and former fitness instructor at the Mile High Club, told Well+Good. She also says that rowing builds strength in your legs, arms, back, and core, whereas running mostly targets the legs. Conversely, running requires no equipment and it gives your heart more of a workout. That said, “my advice for someone who is trying to decide which workout to do is to focus on what they enjoy more,” says Tuttle.

Is rowing hard on your knees?

One of the major rowing machine benefits is that it offers a low-impact workout—and, according to Tuttle, that means it may be ideal for those with pain in the hips and knees. However, without proper rowing form, you can put yourself at risk of back or shoulder injuries, Liam Power, six-time New York state champion rowing roach, previously told Well+Good, making it all the more important to learn how to row properly.

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