Common Rowing Mistakes – A Complete Guide

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The rowing machine, aka: “the erg,” has blown up in popularity in recent years and so many people are coming to the sport for the first time but the only problem is, most don’t actually know how to row so they are making tons of rowing mistakes. Mistakes aren’t only detrimental to performance but also puts people at risk of injury. The rowing machine is super low impact and people should not get hurt on it but they are. If you haven’t already, I would definitely check out my article How to Use a Rowing Machine and the accompanying video I made. That’s the best place to start but I only briefly covered 3 of the most common rowing machine mistakes in that article but there are more, so many more.

I was a nationally competitive rower for 20 years racing all over the US and Canada and have rowed with and been coached by Olympians and one world record holder.  I’ve rowed in boat houses with hundreds of crew members and I’ve worked out in enough gyms and Crossfit boxes to have seen the plethora of rowing technique that non-rowers attempt to use. 

My ultimate goal is to not only help you get the basics but also fine tune what you’re currently doing so you can row faster, be stronger and not get injured in the process.  I’ve compiled a comprehensive list of common mistakes people make while rowing on a rowing machine so you can work to improve your stroke as much as possible. I even used my currently detrained, soft, more for the lovin bod as a test subject for this article.

So let’s get you rowing stronger, faster and with less risk of injury, shall we?

Importance of Rowing Correctly

I feel like the people who could benefit most from this need the most convincing because they already use the rowing machine and do crazy hard workouts on it and think there is no room for improvement. Trust me, unless you learned from an actual seasoned rower, who also said your rowing stroke was perfection, there will be a thing or two below that will be applicable to you. But why care about rowing correctly? Well, using correct rowing form will:

  • Maximize stroke power – you’ll be faster
  • Maximize muscular efficiency – you’ll be stronger
  • Reduce injury – you’ll get to keep doing what you love longer

Maybe that’s not enough though and you want to see some quantitative proof. Fear not and continue reading.

Practical Application Test – bcs SCIENCE

I wanted to put this to a test so I could illustrate the performance difference with using the correct stroke versus rowing using the most common mistake I see, opening the back too early on the drive. Fine, or greatly, tuning the stroke can help everyone from newbs to those wishing to perform better at the Crossfit Games and everyone in between. While newbies aren’t and shouldn’t be concerned with splits and shaving seconds off an erg test, those humans focusing on performance will probably appreciate seeing some quantitative data.

(Warning – do not attempt to hold these splits on your own without ensuring you’re rowing correctly.)

How I Set Up the Rowing Test

  • I warmed up on the rowing machine for 10 minutes, mostly using a low stroke rate but applying even and connected pressure.  I did throw in some “Power 10’s” to get ready for a faster and stronger stroke.
  • I chose to row incorrectly FIRST, in the event someone might say, “but you were tired for your second test.”  I gave the incorrect technique this “advantage.”

Testing Rowing Technique

  1. Test #1 Incorrect Technique – All out as fast as I could 250 meter piece with opening the back too early on the drive.
  2. 4 minutes of recovery to get ready for the next test.
  3. Test #2 Correct Technique – All out, as fast as I could 250 meter piece using correct rowing form.

Why only 250m?  I KNOW rowing incorrectly puts me at risk of injuring myself so I didn’t want to go further to protect my body.

Results

  • Test #1 (incorrect form) – 250m
    • 54.9 seconds
    • 500m split = 1:49:8
    • Stroke Rate = 32
  • Test #2 (correct form) – 250m
    • 53.3 seconds
    • 500m split = 1:46:6
    • Stroke Rate = 33
  • Using correct rowing form I was able to finish the 250m 1.6 seconds faster. If I was to continue at that rate the 500m would be 3.2 seconds faster and over the course of a 2k test, which is a standard rowing test, would put me at 12.8 seconds faster, which is a wildly significant time difference in rowing. 
  • Anecdotally, after completing the first test, I spent all 4 minutes of rest laying on the floor stretching my lower back because it hurt!!  This was from opening it up too early on the drive and as I mentioned above, this is THE most common mistake I see.  I normally never have to stretch my back after getting off the rowing machine.

Common Rowing Mistakes – Videos

To help illustrate mistakes and to show how it would look when done correctly I have provided a series of videos below. Each video is numbered and in every mistake below it gives you a video to reference. Some mistakes were present in many videos, like the grip being too tight or the back opening too early on the drive, so on each video I don’t label *every* mistake in the caption, just the ones I haven’t highlighted in another video.  I tried to crop the video to just show the error(s) I wanted to point out but it wasn’t always possible. All videos were slowed down so you’re able to see the mistakes better, except the one where I’m illustrating “going up the slide too fast.”

Video 1

Frog Legs

Video 2

Grip too tight, wrist rotating & arms too close to body

Video 3

Opening back too soon, drops handle too low & over compression

Video 4

Start next stroke before one is done, early hinge, not upright at catch, knees outside arms & lunge at the catch

Video 5

Shoulders raised, too much neck, bending arms too early, super curved back

Video 6

Chain not parallel, hands too high, upward circle & leaning too far back

Video 7

Grip too narrow & rushing the slide

Video 8

Not using the legs

Video 9

Shooting your booty

Common Rowing Mistakes – Equipment Set Up

  • Foot stretchers are set too low
    • The strap over your feet should be at the base of your toes, not over the arch. You need access to full ankle and foot mobility and having the strap too close to the ankle doesn’t allow for proper heel lift.
  • Clothes too loose
    • If you wear a loose shirt or long baggy shorts your clothes can get stuck between the seat and the track.  You can also get the handle stuck in a shirt that’s too loose fitting.
  • Damper too high
    • The damper should be between 3 and 5 and never go above 5.  
    • The damper actually sets the drag and not resistance. You create your own resistance by how quickly you move through the drive.  To learn more about how to set the damper and setting drag I wrote a whole article about it!

Common Rowing Mistakes – Stroke Mechanics

To organize the mistakes of the stroke mechanics I split the errors up by the part of the stroke impacted.  There are a few things that can be wrong at any point in the stroke so I have those listed first. 

Entire Stroke

  • Shoulders raised – Video 5
    • Correct – Shoulders should be depressed or relaxed away from the ears.
  • Grip – Too tight – Video 2
    • Correct – let your thumb hang below the handle and lightly hold onto the handle w/ just the tops of your fingers.
  • Grip – Too narrow – Video 7
    • Correct – A good rule of thumb is to have the pinkies at the very outside edge of the handle.
  • Chain – Not parallel to the ground – Video 6
    • Correct – the chain should be parallel to the ground throughout the entire stroke. The handle should come into the body and move away from the body in one straight line. 
  • Neck – Too much movement – Video 5
    • The neck should stay in line with the spine and shouldn’t move around much, if at all.

Drive

  • Frog legs – Video 1
    • This can happen if your legs are parallel coming into the catch or outside your arms.  When you push off the foot stretchers you externally rotate your hips out and press your legs down, like a frog swimming through water.
    • Correct – Legs stay parallel to each other the entire time, including when pressing the feet into the stretcher and straightening the legs.
  • Shooting your butt – Video 9
    • Shooting your butt is when you press your feet into the stretchers and your booty goes back but the handle and your upper body stay relatively stationary.  Effectively, your legs are doing nothing and then your back takes it all.
    • Correct – When you push into the foot stretchers with your feet the rest of your body goes with the legs.  They don’t move in their own way, they just move along the slide with your legs.  It’ll feel like you’re “hanging” on the handle. 
  • Opening the back way too soon – Video 3
    • This is another way the back works harder than it needs and our oh so strong legs get forgotten.  Instead of pushing off the stretchers with your legs to initiate the force your back opens up and starts the drive.
    • Correct – Legs push off first and the back doesn’t start to move until the legs are nearly straight.
  • Bending the arms too early – Video 5
    • Arms don’t start to bend until after the back has come to its 15-30 degree position.
  • Not straightening the legs – Video 8
    • The legs are the strongest part of the body that we use in the rowing stroke.  If you do not fully straighten your legs, you’re not getting all you can from them, making your back take more of the work.

Finish

  • Bringing the hands in at the wrong height (too high/too low) – Video 6
    • Correct – The handle needs to come to just below your chest, not to your neck and not to your lap.
  • Making an upward circle with the handle – Video 6
    • Correct – For beginners, I advise to just bring the handle in to just below the chest and straight back out.  You can do a small, and I mean small, down and away but not up and away.  If you had an actual oar you’d just sink the oar deeper into the water and you definitely NEVER want to do that because then you’d get launched out of the boat in what we call “catching a crab.”
  • Leaning too far back or not leaning back enough – Video 6
    • If you lean too far back it places more undo stress on your core and if you don’t lean back at all, you’re missing the middle part of the stroke.  
    • Correct – Your back should lean back about 15-30 degrees 
  • Keeping the arms too close to the body – Video 2
    • Correct – This is when chicken winging is totally appropriate.  Your elbows should actually point away from the sides of your body, not point behind you.
  • Rotating the wrist – Video 2
    • Correct – The elbows will flare out but the wrists don’t flex or extend coming into the finish, they stay flat.

Recovery

  • Starting the recovery before the drive is even done and skipping the finish altogether – Video 4
    • There are a number of things in the stroke that are wrong to make this scenario possible. From what I’ve seen, it’s when someone isn’t pressing their legs down all the way and/or when they open their back too soon and the legs lag behind, allowing the possibility of the upper body finishing the stroke before the lower body does and while the legs are coming down, the arms are simultaneously moving away from the body.
    • Correct – Once the legs are down, you can open the back.  Once the back is reclined to about 15-30 degrees you can pull in the rest of the way with your arms.  
  • Hinging at the hip and/or bending the knees too early – Video 4
    • Repeat after me – arms > back > legs.  The back should not come forward until the arms are extended and the knees should not bend until the upper body pivots forward about 15-30 degrees
  • Super curved back – Video 5
    • If you look at footage of Olympic rowing events you’ll probably see some pretty curved backs and I’ll bet their coach still harps on them about it.  Now, the back shouldn’t be bone straight, there can be slight curvature but the goal is for the core to be active
  • Going too fast up the slide – Video 7
    • This is called “rushing the catch” or “rushing the slide” and it doesn’t have a huge detriment on the rowing machine, it can just really mess with the flow and since little care is taken in preparing for the catch, the power application can be whack.  Going quickly up the slide doesn’t make you row faster.  It’s a fast drive that makes you row faster and stronger and the recovery should be slower than the drive.  Rowing is hard, don’t cheat yourself out of what little break you get each stroke.
  • Drop the handle too low – Video 3
    • If you had an oar in a boat this would be called “skying the blade.”  It’s more unnecessary movement that doesn’t help your stroke and only wastes energy.  The chain should be parallel to the ground for the entire stroke.

Catch

  • Not having upright posture – Video 4
    • You may have started with a more upright posture during the recovery but once you get to the catch your core may have disengaged and you find yourself hunched over at the catch.  Make sure your core is activated the entire time.
  • Lunging for the catch w/ the upper body – Video 4
    • Once you get your body position during the recovery it does not move anymore.  When your knees are bent fully there isn’t any additional upper body movement towards the catch at the end.
  • Over Compression – Video 3
    • Shins should not go beyond perpendicular to the floor.  Doing so is a really weak position to push off the foot stretchers at the catch.
  • Knees outside the arms and not parallel to each other – Video 4
    • These will start to veer during the recovery but your knees need to stay between your arms.  Now I will say, as a person who has very long legs and a short torso, this can be hard for us.  We do not have the ideal rowing body, which is equal proportions or a torso that is longer, proportionally, than the legs.  I actually sit on a ½” cushion to raise myself up just a bit to help with this and just that little bit of extra height does allow me to come over the top of the stroke vs my legs looking like they are eating my entire body.

Conclusion

You just learned about all the mistakes people make while using the rowing machine and some may have been applicable to you. Now is a great time to take things slowly and retrain your muscle memory. It can take some time and definitely patience, to make adjustments, especially if you’ve been doing it incorrectly for a long time. The rowing machine is a terrific workout though so stick with it, maybe even go back to the basics, and then come back even stronger and faster than before!

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AUTHOR

As a highly disciplined competitive athlete for 35 years Jess is now working to find more balance, more fun and more ease in the way she moves her body. In building her home gym she's been able to integrate a lot of equipment that helps her find play and she hopes to inspire others to do the same. She is a former nationally competitive rower, Concept 2 CIRI and 500 RYT Yoga Teacher.