How To Row Properly, According To Trainers

It's not the most intuitive piece of fitness equipment.

Here's how to row properly on a rowing machine, according to pros.
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Some workout machines are more intuitive, like the treadmill or the stationary bike. But if you aren’t sure how to row properly on a rowing machine, you’re definitely not alone. The rower can be intimidating with its big fan, moving seat, and loose handlebar just hanging out in the front of it. Once you get the hang of it, though, you’ll be able to reap the many benefits of the low-impact fitness modality.

At first glance, you might think rowing only works your arms and shoulders — but it’s actually a full-body workout (when done correctly). “Rowing works 85% of your body's muscles, which is a lot, so you want to make sure you’re doing it properly to get the most bang for your buck,” says Caley Crawford, the director of education at rowing studio Row House. That means you’ll get that boost in cardio endurance and increased full-body strength. It may feel tough at first, but rowing with good form helps you move through each rowing stroke with power and efficiency — and it’ll also help prevent injury.

The biggest sign that you’re using the rowing machine incorrectly? Back pain. “Many people complain that rowing hurts their back, but that’s because they’re not using proper form,” Crawford tells Bustle. “If you’re rowing correctly, it’s actually good for your back.” It’s also good for your erector spinae muscles, lats, rhomboids, glutes, and hamstrings, as well as many other muscles that play a role in overall body awareness and core stability, Crawford explains. An added bonus of that is it’ll have a positive effect on your posture, too. Here’s how to get started on a rowing machine.

How To Set Up The Rowing Machine


First up, you’ll have to get into the proper position on the rowing machine. Sit down on the seat facing the fan and adjust the footholds so that the strap goes over the center of your foot, says Crawford. Then set the damper — aka the adjustable tab with settings one through 10 — to somewhere between two and five. “You do not need to go all the way to 10 because rowing is effort-based and you control the intensity,” she says.

Once your feet are secure in the straps, grab the handles with an overhand grip and hold your arms up at about shoulder height. Keep your core braced, chest lifted, and roll your shoulders back so there’s a “slight pinch” between your shoulder blades, Crawford says.

According to John Strotbeck, a two-time USA Olympic rower and founder and chairman of Boathouse Sports, you should also bend your knees so that your shins are perpendicular to the floor and use a loose grip on the handles. Got that down? Now it’s time to row.

How To Row Properly

For some quick lingo, one full row or stroke will consist of four parts: catch, drive, release, and recovery.

“During the first part of your row, your legs should be compressed with your shins perpendicular to the floor with your arms fully extended and relaxed,” Strotbeck says. “Your shoulders should be in front of the hips, and you should be leaning forward just a few degrees.” This beginning position is called the catch.

During the drive, you straighten your legs to move back. “In the initial part of the drive, the upper body and the arms should simply hang onto the handle,” Strotbeck says. From there, open your hips, engage your core, and lean slightly back as you pull the handle into your body about a thumb’s length from your stomach, he says.

“For optimal speed and performance, the greatest amount of force should come from your legs, which will allow you to pick up the most ‘speed,’” Strotbeck adds. “Push hard using your legs and maintain a light grip with your hands so that little force or effort is coming from your upper body and arms.”

If you were in a boat on the actual water, this is when the blade or oar would “release” from the water. After that is the recovery. “Your hands move away from the body first, followed by your back — which swings forward — and then your hands,” Strotbeck says. “Finally, your legs release and reach full compression towards the catch.” During the entire stroke, keep your chest open and head up so it’s more comfortable and easier to breathe, he adds.

Common Rowing Mistakes To Avoid

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According to Crawford, many people make the mistake of rowing faster as a way to get a more intense workout, when you should actually row harder. Check the screen and focus on getting your split time lower over a period of time, she says. This is how long it will take you to row 500 meters.

While you’re at it, don’t bother adjusting the damper to a higher setting to make it harder on yourself. “The damper doesn’t affect the ‘resistance’, it affects the ‘drag,’” Crawford explains. She says to think of it like bike gears: When you change them, it doesn’t make you go farther with each pedal rotation — it just feels different. “When you bump the damper up, you’re essentially putting bricks in your boat,” she tells Bustle. “You as the user have to create your own resistance on the machine in order to go farther in a given amount of time.”

It’s also important to let your legs do the work. “If you’re rowing correctly, the power generation is made up of about 60% legs, 30% core, and 10% arms,” Crawford says. “So, it's actually a full-body workout and mostly legs and core.”

Beginner Rowing Workout

Keep it simple if you’re a newbie and give yourself time to adjust to the machine. “The best workout to get started is easy rowing for 20 minutes at a steady rate of 20 to 22 strokes per minute, or SPM,” Strotbeck says. “Once you are comfortable with 20 minutes of steady state, you can increase the difficulty by doing 10 sets of one minute of hard rowing and one minute of light strokes.” You’ll be a pro in no time.

Studies referenced:

Ian Gee, T. 2016. Investigating the Effects of Typical Rowing Strength Training Practices on Strength and Power Development and 2,000 m Rowing Performance. J Hum Kinet. doi: 10.1515/hukin-2015-0153.


Caley Crawford, director of education at rowing studio Row House

John Strotbeck, two-time USA Olympic rower, founder and chairman of Boathouse Sports