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September 06, 2020 10 min read

The act of rowing has been with us for millennia—whether on raiding Viking ships or winning gold in the Olympics. But as we’ve learned more recently, the rowing movement isn’t just good for raiding or athletic achievement; it also provides a terrific way with which to condition and strengthen our bodies.

The rowing machine isn’t just amazing for growing aerobic and cardiovascular capacity, but it’s also a movement that activates every single major muscle group in our bodies. That’s right—not only can it get you jacked, but it’ll also burn enough fat to get you shredded. But as with most beneficial and complex movements, form becomes increasingly important else we risk injury. 

So, while you might not be rowing a Viking ship into a raid or rowing in the Olympics for gold anytime soon, read on to find out how to properly perform this useful exercise on the indoor rowing machine.

The Cardio Workout Benefits

The rowing machine (also known as the ergometer) is above all a piece of aerobic training equipment. As much as some of us hate cardio, the benefits that it bestows are many, and it's worth including in your training routine no matter what your goals are. 

Doing regular aerobic exercises will lead to things such as a stronger immune system, better endurance, improved sleep, and the endorphins released can improve your mood as well. The rowing machine is an excellent way to raise your heart rate, and you can easily adjust the difficulty with the damper on the machine. 

But the big benefit with the rowing machine—especially if you’re looking to get shredded—is the fat loss. If you’re looking for a chiseled six-pack, you’re going to want to get your body fat percentage under control, and the rower is one of the best ways to do that. Burning an average of 600 calories an hour, it’s one of the most efficient ways to burn fat. 

The rowing machine also has the added benefit of being very low impact. Especially if you’re heavier or have had a previous injury in one of your lower body joints, then running or jump roping is probably not for you. The high impact nature of such cardio exercises can sometimes lead to more harm than good, which can make losing weight more difficult. 

The rowing machine side steps that since your body is put in a low impact and natural position. The one point of contention might be the lower back, but that risk is minimized if one keeps the proper form throughout the movement.

Full Body Benefits with the Rowing Workout

While the cardiovascular benefits should already make this a worthy exercise to include in your training routine, there’s plenty of other benefits for the rest of your body.

For one, the rowing machine is great at building strength in pretty much every part of your body. In terms of the upper body, rowing develops the rhomboids, traps, and lats, helping to improve posture and reducing the chance of back pain. Furthermore, your biceps, forearms, and pecs should also feel a bit of the burn.

And the rowing machine hits your lower body even harder. The main muscles involved are the quads which give you the initial push-off, but the calves and glutes are also engaged to a significant degree. Developing your lower body has wider repercussions, and not just for developing a nicer ass.

For one, strong legs will improve your flexibility and mobility. This can be beneficial when looking at bread-and-butter lifts such as the deadlift and squat. By also improving your flexibility, the rowing machine will develop your range of motion which will in turn help you in getting the most out of your lifts. 

And since the rowing machine also engages your core throughout the entire motion, you’ll be building that chiseled six-pack while you’re burning the fat to show it off all in one exercise. The fact that a stronger core will help you in almost every functional and athletic feat is just the cherry on top. 

If you’re not too keen on leaving gains on the table, the rowing machine should be a serious consideration when planning your workout routine. 

Lastly, it’s a good exercise to do at home. While the initial investment into a rowing machine might be a bit pricey (still not that high, however), it’ll get paid back in dividends with how you look and feel afterward. For those times it might be difficult to get into the gym, and too cold to go for a run outside, the rowing machine is a perfect addition to any gym-goers home. 

Familiarizing Yourself with Rowing

Each rower you use might be different, but they all work generally the same so it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with how things work.

If your rower has a screen, there will probably be some valuable information on it. One of these is your strokes per minute—and as the term suggests, it’ll tell you how many strokes you’re doing every 60 seconds. Keep in mind that you don’t necessarily want to be going over 30 strokes per minute, since there should be a greater focus on power rather than speed (or flinging your body forwards and back). 

You’ll also probably see your split time somewhere on the screen. That’s the amount of time it takes you to row 500 meters, or about a third of a mile. Try to aim for 2 minutes or less, but don’t just try pumping your arms faster. The name of the game is pushing out with more power.

Along with the above information, you’ll also probably be able to see how long you’ve been rowing and how far you’ve gone.

The rower should also have some sort of damper where you can adjust how “heavy” the rowing feels like. It’s equivalent to gears on a bike, and you want to keep this in a range that’s challenging but doesn’t feel like rowing through honey. For many machines, a range between 3 and 5 is most similar to the feeling of rowing over water—which is why it’s recommended, at least for newbies. 

The Four Steps of Rowing Technique 

When it comes to the rowing machine, there are only four main steps that you have to take into account. However, the setup is just as important.

You want to slide your feet into the foot plates so the strap can go over the base of your big toe. Make sure that the straps are well adjusted, and your feet fit tightly into them. You’ll then want to slightly move forward in the seat, inching your butt forward. Hold the handle—not gripping too tightly—with an overhand grip. 

Rowing has four phases that take you throughout the motion. There’s the starting position, the transition, the position that you’re meant to end in, and then a phase which takes you back to the beginning. These are the four rowing motions:

  • The Catch: With the catch position you want to be sitting tall in the seat. Your arms should be straight in front of you while flexing the ankles and knees. Keep your shins at about a vertical angle from the floor. You then want to engage your lats, pulling your shoulders down while engaging the core muscles. Slightly lean forward (your shoulders in front of the hips); this will help to protect the lower back—but make sure you keep it tall and straight. This will put you in a good position to begin the row with your legs.
  • The Drive: The movement is initiated by your legs pushing against the foot plates. During this, your core should remain braced. Once the legs lock out in the drive, hinge the hips and lean your torso back about 45-degrees. This is then followed by your arms pulling the handle towards the torso—aim for a few inches above your belly button. The core should be engaged along with the legs, then followed by the hips, the shoulders, and finally the arms.
  • The Finish: Keeping your core muscles engaged and your entire body taught, this is the “top” of the movement. Your body should be braced as your knees are locked out. The torso will be at about an 11 o’clock positioning and the elbows will be back with the handle pulled into the base of your sternum. This is the position opposite to the catch phase.
  • The Recovery: This is the reversal of all the movements done up until this point. You should move back your body following the same path you took to get to the finish. This means extending the arms, hinging the hips forward so the torso goes over the legs, and then finally bend the knees. This phase will be about half the speed of the initial movement in the drive; this will allow your muscles to prepare for the next stroke.

Common Rowing Mistakes 

The rowing machine is generally a simple piece of equipment to use, but its simplicity can be deceptive. While the motion itself is relatively “common sense”, there are several ways that you can stray when it comes to doing the exercise incorrectly.

These can lead to things such as not the right muscles being activated, minimized power output, lessened gains, and potentially even injuries. It’s therefore important to keep these things in mind when hitting up the rowing machine the first few times.

With that said, don’t be intimidated by trying it out! Chances are your body will go into the natural flow of things, with the correct joints and muscles hinging and activating at the correct time. These are, however, key points to keep in mind in order to maintain the perfect form—and reap the greatest gains. 

Setting Up Good Rowing Form 

You want to make sure that you’re maintaining the proper sitting posture throughout the entire movement. It starts at the beginning, however.

Begin by choosing a good position on the damper setting; keep in mind your athletic level and your comfort level on the rowing machine.

As we mentioned above, settings between 3 and 5 will usually be the most closely associated with rowing through actual water and are therefore recommended. However, you also don’t want to be going way too low in terms of tension. There should be a focus on power rather than pure speed; flailing back and forth on an easy setting won’t help your gains.

Furthermore, don’t allow your back to curve, but also don’t let your hips roll forward. Your torso should be stacked directly on top of the hips. You can work on this by only practicing the second part of the drive portion of the row, with your hips hinging after the legs straighten. Keep in mind where the seat is underneath you. 

Your grip is also an often-overlooked aspect which a lot of people do poorly. For one, don’t grip it too tightly. A simple overhand grip will do, and it’s not necessary to hook your thumbs underneath like with a pull-up bar (but there’s nothing wrong with this either). To mediate this, you can try placing your hands on the outsides of the bar and letting your pinky fingers relax while wrapping the thumb over top.

The top of your wrist should also remain in a flat plane. It shouldn’t be rolled to the outside since this can cause unnecessary stress and lead to injuries over time. Practicing with an overhand grip (including your thumbs) can help you get that flat-wrist grip.

Going Through the Motions

It’s true that there’s a measure of speed and explosiveness with the rowing machine, but you also don’t want to be overdoing it to the point where it becomes detrimental to the exercise.

For example, when you’re coming back into the starting position during the recovery, you don’t want to be zooming back into position. This will throw off the entire sequence of movement since your seat will be slamming into the rowing machine—making it more difficult to maintain proper seating and ruining the groove of the motions. Remember; arms, hips, torso, and then knees. Bending the knees too soon is a common issue when it comes to moving too fast.

If you’re looking to fix this specific issue, it can be helpful to not do the straps over your feet. Once you don’t have that point of support, it’ll be much more difficult to pull yourself back into the machine. However, going too fast can also be seen going the other way. 

If you're shooting your butt back every time, your upper body is going to have to awkwardly play catch-up with the rest of you. Not only will this make your row stroke more inefficient, but you’ll also be putting yourself at risk of injury. Keeping your core braced throughout the push—especially the abdominals—will help with keeping your upper body in tune with the lower body.

Rowing Stroke Form

When it comes to your body’s positioning, one of the worst things you can do is round your back. Like we mentioned above, this usually means you’re not properly engaging your core muscles throughout the exercise. This will reduce your power output while also decreasing stability and can potentially lead to injuries. 

It might also mean that you’re letting your shoulders do too much of the pulling. Engaging your core while pulling your shoulders back and down should fix this issue. Focus on form rather than going fast.  

Furthermore, avoid doing a scooping motion when you’re pulling back. This usually means that you’re bending your knees before the arms are fully extended back, forcing your arms to go up in order to avoid hitting your legs on the oar. This leads to the mistake of raising your arms too high. 

Having your arms pull the cable up to your chin means you’re going to be expending much more energy than is really necessary, without much to show for it. Allow the oar to come up just above your belly button. Keeping your elbows bent over 90-degrees at the top of the movement and forearms even with the rib cage will help fix this problem.

When it comes down to your lower body, make sure that your knees are flopping over to the sides. Keeping your inner thigh muscles and hip flexors engaged will help to prevent this, but it might be also useful to think of “zipping” up your legs as you push up and down. 

Putting it All Together for a Great Workout

While this much information on improper form might make it seem that the rowing machine is easy to mess up, just keep in mind the proper order of operations: 

  • Arms
  • Hips
  • Torso
  • Knees

Putting the 4 phases together and focusing on engaging your core will get you most (if not all) of the way there. And if there’s something to brush up on, you’re armed with all the knowledge of proper technique. 

With a consistent and proper rowing machine workout, you’ll be turbocharging your gains, developing strength, and looking damn good in no time.