How to Row on The Rowing Machine

rowing machine

Most people gravitate toward familiar activities such as running and biking for cardiovascular activity. But if you’re discounting rowing because you’ve never participated in the sport or tried the machine—or you’re afraid it’s complicated—we’ve got you covered!

Rowing is a fantastic way to mix up your cardio. The motion involves nine major muscle groups, an incredible range of motion—which helps open up our notorious tight spots—while simultaneously strengthening many of our muscles that tend to be overstretched from poor posture! As if that wasn’t enough reason to give it a shot, the activity is fairly low impact while providing a wide variety of intensity options. It may take a few tries to catch onto the proper technique, but if you remember a few key steps, you’ll be on your way in no time. Watch this video to see a demo.

Getting Set

Begin by adjusting the foot plates so the strap is over the widest part of your foot. It’s important to secure the straps and experiment with what feels right for you. Placement of your foot is the most important step to generating power and keeping your ankles, knees, and hips feeling good throughout the process.

The Key Rowing Steps

1. The Catch

Begin by bending your knees, hinging forward at the hips, with straight arms reaching out past your feet. You want to have good posture, so be sure to keep your head neutral (straight and no jutting forward) and avoid rounding your shoulders. Your grip should be light on the handle, with neutral wrists (no flexing or extending).

2. The Drive

Your legs initiate the rowing movement. Begin by exploding through the legs, while continuing to lean forward with straight arms. Once your legs are straight, hinge at the hips. Keep your back straight and engage your core as you lean back slightly. Finally, bend your elbows and row the handle in toward your midsection (toward the bottom of your lower ribs). Be sure to pull the handle in a vertical motion and maintain the best posture possible (long spine, relaxed shoulders, neutral head and neck) throughout the drive.

3. The Recovery

After a slight pause (the finish), reverse the actions of the drive. Release your arms back to straight, hinge at the hips moving your torso forward over your thighs, then bend your knees to come back into the catch position. The hardest part with the recovery is keeping your legs straight long enough to release the row and lean forward with your torso. The recovery should take twice as long as the drive (one count for the drive and two for the recovery).

More Rowing Machine Tips

1. Remember the Order

  • Drive: Legs – Core – Arms
  • Recovery: Arms – Core – Legs

2. Remember the Power Distribution

  • Legs: 60%
  • Core: 20%
  • Arms: 20%

3. Remember the Timing

  • Drive: 1 count
  • Recovery: 2 counts

Common Rowing Terms

Stroke Rate: The number of strokes you complete in one minute. A stroke is one full cycle of drive, finish, and recovery. Stroke rates typically seen in cardiovascular workouts range from 24 strokes/minute to 30+ strokes/minute. Keep in mind, the faster the stroke rate does not always equal the better performance! Rowing is a combination of power and speed.

Split Time: A common measure of pace is the 500-meter split. This simply means how fast you could row 500 meters given your current stroke rate and power. Think of it this way: Runners talk about how fast they can run a mile and a rower talks about how fast they can row 500 meters. The smaller the number, the shorter the time, and the faster you are going!

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Shannon Fable, 2013 IDEA and 2006 ACE Instructor of the Year, is the VP of Fitness Programming for the FIT4MOM® franchise. For more than two decades, she has helped impressive brands such as Anytime Fitness, Schwinn®, Power Systems, ACE, Silver Sneakers, and BOSU® as a fitness business and programming consultant. An experienced educator, freelance writer, and certified Book Yourself Solid® Business Coach, she helps fitness entrepreneurs navigate the industry and make more money. Fable serves as Vice Chair of the ACE Board of Directors and is the founder and co-owner of GroupEx PRO®, a cloud-based group fitness management tool.