How to Use a Rowing Machine: A Beginner’s Guide

AAlmost all novice rowers make the same mistake within seconds of strapping on the rowing ergometer, says world-class rower Libby Peters, former associate head coach of the University of Pennsylvania women’s rowing team. As a member of the US national team, Peters won a bronze medal at the 2008 World Rowing Championships. Needless to say he knows how to use a rowing machine properly.

It’s not entirely intuitive, but with practice, rowing becomes as natural as 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 home equipment, such as high-tech gamified rowing machines and foldable rowing machines, stroking has become as ubiquitous as cycling or running. But perhaps its biggest appeal is that rowing machine workouts target multiple muscle groups—just one of many rowing machine benefits.

While providing a great full-body, low-impact workout, a rower is primarily designed to target your legs—but one of the most common rowing mistakes people make is letting their arms do all the work, pulling with all their might, Peters says. . He advises you to rethink the way you practice.

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

Rowing terminology

If you’re new to exercise, you may hear people using rowing jargon like “erg” and “catch.” Here are a few common rowing terms you need to know, all of which you should keep in mind as you learn how to row properly.

Erg, ergometer, or rowing ergometer is a term commonly used to refer to a rowing machine or indoor rower.

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

A stroke is a full range of motion consisting of four parts: catch, drive, finish and recovery.

The catch is the starting position of the rowing stroke, mimicking the point on a rowing boat where the oar blades first enter or “catch” the water.

The drive is the movement that follows the catch and usually involves the most effort. This “working” period is when the user pulls the handle toward themselves against resistance.

The finish is the final point of the rowing stroke, where the user successfully “drives” the handle toward their body.

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

strokes per minute
Strokes per minute (or SPM for short) is the number of strokes a user is able to complete in one minute. This metric is usually displayed on a rowing machine monitor.

how It will take you a long time 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 a rowing machine at home or one at the gym, learning how to row properly will ensure you get the most out of your rowing machine workout and prevent injury. Below, Peters explains the best rowing machine form techniques from catch to finish. With practice, the machine promises to become one of your favorite tools.

But, first things first: before you get on the sliding seat, be sure to adjust the rowing machine’s damper setting. Set it to three, four or five levels. According to Peters, cruising at this low speed will keep you from hurting yourself when you’re just getting your sea (land?) legs.

  1. End: To start, strap on your feet, straighten your legs and clutch the handle so it rests on your lower ribs (palms facing down). Your upper body will lean back slightly at the 11 o’clock position.
  2. catch: To get safely into the catch, slide your body forward until your shins are parallel and your knees are directly over your ankles. At the 1 o’clock position your chest will touch, or almost touch, your thighs. Make sure your upper body does not lean forward.
  3. drive: Pay attention! This is the trickiest part. Begin by pushing your leg forward to straighten your leg. Once they are completely flat, bring 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 awkward and mechanical at first. Once your body familiarizes itself, you can close your eyes and imagine that you’re rowing across a calm lake instead of working up a bucket of sweat at the gym or on your home rowing machine.

A 12-minute beginner rowing workout

For people familiar 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 high-quality work with less time or less 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
Minutes 9: 16 to 18 SPM
Minute 10: Active recovery
Minute 11: 16 to 18 SPM
Minute 12: Active recovery

Advantages of rowing machines

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

Regardless of whether you’re using a rowing machine primarily 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 out of your workout.

Frequently Asked Questions

What muscles does a rowing machine work?

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

Which is better – treadmill or rower?

Whether you’re rowing or running, you’re promised a great cardiovascular workout, but there are key differences between the two exercises. If your vision is compromised, or you want exercise that’s easy on the joints, rowing may be an ideal option for you, Hollis Tuttle, director of trainers at City Row and a former Mile High Club fitness instructor, tells Well+Good. He 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 gives your heart more of a workout. That said, “My advice to anyone trying to decide what workout to do is to focus on what they enjoy,” says Tuttle.

Is rowing hard on your knees?

One of the main advantages of the rowing machine is that it offers a low-impact workout—and, according to Tuttle, that means it can be ideal for those with hip and knee pain. 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 learning how to row properly even more important.

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