How To Use A Rowing Machine – A Comprehensive Guide

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You’ve noticed the rowing machine has become quite the craze and you’d like to jump on that bandwagon but just how do you use a rowing machine? Are there settings you need to know about? What about technique? Maybe you’ve tried it and thought, “wow this is too easy” or “omg, my back hurts” (answer… it’s NOT easy and your back shouldn’t hurt… you’re doing it wrong). Maybe you’ve been using the machine for awhile but feel like you could be more efficient and stronger? In this article I’ll provide comprehensive information about how to use the rowing machine, including how to row with correct technique, which is essential to reducing injury.

I’ve been a nationally competitive rower, training on rowing machines, since 1995.  I’ve been coached by and rowed with Olympians and a world record holder. I have won races like San Diego Crew Classic and medaled at Head of the Charles. My goal is to teach people how to use a rowing machine so they can row harder, better, faster, stronger and reduce risk of injury. (See what I did there… Daft Punk reference 🙂 ) 

I’ve seen tragically popular resources online created by personal trainers and other non-rowers. Yes, I can tell who isn’t a rower.  Tragic because a lot of the information is incomplete and, worse yet, WRONG. I wrote this comprehensive guide to set the record straight.

Why Correct Rowing Form is Important

Using correct rowing form will:

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

Rowing Terms

Before we dive into how to row correctly there are some important rowing terms to know:

  • Finish – The “end” of the stroke where the power finishes before transitioning into the…
  • Recovery – The section of the stroke where you’re still not under load but you’re sliding up the slide to the next phase which is the…
  • Catch – The moment you connect w/ the chain and the initial load on your muscles starts which takes you into the…
  • Drive – Where 85% of your body’s muscles engage as you push away and slide towards the… (Finish… rinse and repeat)

Parts of the Rowing Machine 

These are parts of a rowing machine you may not already be familiar with:

  1. Flywheel or Fan Cage – the round component at the front of the rowing machine that connects to the chain.  When pulling the chain, it engages the flywheel so it can move air.
  2. Damper – The lever attached to the Flywheel that controls the amount of air going to the flywheel. It affects the drag, NOT the resistance, which is a common misconception.  You can learn more about the damper and how it affects drag in this article.
  3. Chain/Strap – Connects the handle to the flywheel
  4. Foot Stretcher – Where you strap in both of your feet.
  5. Handle – The part of the machine you hold onto with your hands.

How to Set Up Your Rowing Machine

** In the video below I go over everything in detail, but in motion, so feel free to check that out! **

  1. Set the damper somewhere between 3 and 5 and do not go above 5.
  2. Sit on the seat and position the height and angle of the display so it’s easy for you to see. If you have a specific workout you want to do, this is when you’ll set that.
  3. Strap your feet into the foot stretcher.  
    • The straps should go over the base of your toes so you have full mobility of your ankle joint.
  4. Grab the handle and you’re ready to go!

How To Row

The main event you’ve all been waiting for!  If there is ONE mantra you take from this it’s “LEG… BACK… ARMS….. ARMS… BACK… LEGS.” The stroke breaks down into 4 separate components and they do not mash together. They do flow gracefully from one to the next but they don’t blend into one movement.  Also, I’m going to start explaining at the “finish” but you can also start at the “catch,” we rowers do both on the water.

Finish – 

  • Your core and back muscles activate keeping your back at approximately a 30 degree angle. 
  • Pull in the handle just below your chest and your fingers are hooks, holding onto it lightly.  This may be the most your thumb touches the handle, which isn’t much.
  • Your legs are fully extended aka: flat.
  • This is the most relaxed part of the stroke.

Recovery – (the arms > back > legs portion)

  • Your arms start to move in a straight line away from the body. This can be in the same line the handle came into your body OR you can do a wee half circle where you press down ever so slightly and then push the arms away. The latter makes the stroke even more fluid.
  • Once your arms are fully extended you start to bring your shoulders and back along for the ride. Make sure to keep your back, for the most part, straight and shoulders away from your ears.
  • Your upper body does not move again until the drive.
  • With your arms, shoulders and back forward NOW you bend your knees to slide the seat up towards the catch, making sure your knees stay between your arms.

Catch – 

  • Your knees are bent and inside your arms, your back is straight, your arms are extended and your heels lifted slightly off the foot stretcher. 
  • Hold onto the handle lightly with your fingers and do not use your thumbs.
  • This is your most compressed position where you’re like a little ball with arms.

Drive – (the legs > back > arms portion)

  • Press your feet into the foot stretchers.  While your legs are straightening make sure the handle comes with you.  
  • Once your knees are mostly straight, you then open up your back. Your back continues the momentum initiated by your legs.
  • Stop opening your back once it’s about a 30 degree angle. Then pull the handle towards your rib cage to just below your chest, elbows will flare out to the side.

During all phases of each stroke the chain should be in a straight line and as parallel to the ground as possible.

3 Most Common Rowing Machine Mistakes

Knee pain and lower back pain are the most reported injuries in experienced and elite rowers.  Risk of injury increases if correct technique is not used.  I am highlighting 3 of the top mistakes made on the rowing machine that lead to injury. This is not a complete list but you can find a more comprehensive list here.

# 1 – Setting the damper too high –

There is a common misconception that the higher the damper the better the workout and this is FALSE.  You create resistance on the machine by how fast and powerful you move through the drive. The more power you apply, the more resistance you create.  There is no need to set the damper above a 5.  Putting the damper on 10 puts a very high level of load on your back that is unnecessary and dangerous.  You won’t get stronger, you’ll get injured. So where should you set the damper?  In simple terms between 3 and 5 but a lot that goes into the setting the damper so check this article to learn more.

# 2 – Opening your back too early on the drive – 

This is the order of major muscle groups used in the rowing stroke from strongest to least strong: 

  • Legs
  • Core, including both back and abs
  • Arms

If you use your back too early in the stroke it will take on extra load, risking injury .  The drive starts with the powerful push of the legs off the foot stretchers. The back continues the momentum started by the legs, instead of creating the momentum.

# 3 – “Shooting Your Butt” – 

“Shooting your butt” means you push off the foot stretchers with your legs but your upper body doesn’t come along for the ride and just stays put. If you do this the first part of the drive will feel very easy because the legs don’t take much, if any, of the work. Your back will do most of the work, risking injury.

How to Retrain Muscle Memory

I’ve rowed millions of strokes using correct technique.  My muscle memory makes it more challenging for me to make the common rowing mistakes.  That means I have to slow down and think more to row wrong than to row right.  It also means that if my coach is trying to get me to make slight changes, it takes a ton of focus because my muscles do what they remember.

Your muscles may be programmed with the incorrect rowing stroke.  You will need to slow down, have patience and conscious thought to retrain your muscles.  It may feel frustrating at first, especially if you’ve been doing intense workouts. The effort will pay off though with stronger, more efficient strokes and less risk of injury.  With rowing, like most exercises, technique takes priority over power. In the video I kept the sound of the rowing machine because I want you to hear how little power I’m using. This is about retraining yourself so you can be a better rower. Power and speed aren’t even a consideration during the learning/relearning process.

With consistent practice this can take a week to retrain your muscles. It may take longer if you do not use the rowing machine often or if you choose to not focus on improving. I recommend video taping yourself and comparing your technique to mine. If they don’t match, slow down and make the appropriate adjustments. Remember… “arms > back > legs … legs > back > arms.”

Take it Back to Basics with the Pick Drill

“Basics” is almost a misnomer. Experienced and elite rowers STILL do these drills to fine tune aspects of the stroke. It’s also how newbies learn.

Hands/Arms Away

  • Start at the finish. Your back is at a 30 degree angle. Your legs are straight and core engaged. The handle is just below your chest and your fingers are lightly holding onto the handle.
  • Keep your core straight, engaged and immovable. Extend your arms away from your body and then bring them back to just below your chest
  • Repeat this for 20 strokes

Arms and Body

  • Start at the finish. Your back is at a 30 degree angle. Your legs are straight and core engaged. The handle is just below your chest and your fingers are lightly holding onto it.
  • Keep your core straight, engaged and immovable while you extend your arms away from your body.
  • When your arms are fully extended in front of you pivot forward at the hip. Bring your body forward, keeping your back relatively straight.
  • With your chest at a 30 degree angle start the drive by opening your back. Once your back is at 30 degree angle, bring the arms in with the handle just below your chest.
  • Repeat this for 20 strokes.  This can feel challenging on the back so make sure to engage your abs and be patient.  Take breaks if you feel it hurting or go back to doing arms away.

Full Stoke

  • When you feel comfortable with the separation of the stages of the stroke, integrate the legs.  Do slow, intentional strokes making sure you go, arms, back, legs, legs, back, arms.  You can even say that to yourself to help you remember.
  • Start with slow, very intentional and thoughful strokes. Gradually increase speed and power but only when you feel confident you’re going arms, back, legs on the recovery and legs, back and arms on the drive.  If you start to slip into the old pattern of movement, slow it back down.
  • If you get tired and you feel the technique slipping, take a break and come back to it in a few minutes to try again.

3 Top Benefits of The Rowing Machine

These are the top 3 benefits of using a rowing machine and for a full comprehensive list check this article: Benefits of the Rowing Machine.

  • The rowing machine works darn near all your body, 85% of your muscles, so you’ll get a true full body workout.  Off the erg cross training, like pilates, is great to work the other 15% of those muscles.
  • Rowing provides both a cardio workout AND strength workout.  Will it help you with your 1 rep max?  No, but your muscles will get stronger and your muscular endurance will improve.
  • Rowing is low impact so your joints will experience less stress. Well, as long as you use proper technique.

Rowing Machine Etiquette

Rowing machine etiquette ensures two things:

  • Others aren’t as affected by your rowing
  • Helps the rowing machine last longer

Etiquette Tip #1

  • You know that little handle holder near the foot stretchers?  Only use that to hold the handle before you actually start your workout.  Leaving it there can actually stretch out the chain.  When not rowing leave the handle against the machine.

Etiquette Tip #2

  • Do NOT, I repeat, do NOT let go of the handle and let it fly into the machine at the end of a workout (looking at you, crossfitters).  This reduces the life of the chain, the machine and can be dangerous if someone is nearby. I know the workouts can be brutal and you feel like dying and throwing up.  I, and countless other rowers, have thrown up off a rowing machine far too may times to count. Take that half a stroke up the slide to place the handle where it’s supposed to go before you lean over and hurl.   

Etiquette Tip #3

  • Wipe down the handle, seat and slide after you’re done.  Dust, sweat and random bits of who knows what, can accumulate while we’re actually using the machine. To ensure a smooth and non-bumpy ride for the next person, please wipe down the machine.  This is also part of basic, routine maintenance.
Lake Union Crew at 2015 Opening Day Regatta – Photo Copyright – Jessica Powell

Where You Can Take Your Rowing

  • The water!  The stroke on the rowing machine translates to the stroke you use in a boat on the water. Add in a myriad of complexities like working with others, using an actual oar, balancing a boat and only seeing where you’ve been and not where you’re going and that’s the glorious sport of rowing!
  • No local teams in your area or you don’t want to join a team BUT you have a competitive fire that needs quenched? Check out the Crash-Bs. The Crash-B’s are an indoor rowing machine competition using, exclusively, the Row Erg by Concept 2 .  Everyone from beginners to world record holders have participated and you can too!

What Next?

Congratulations, you now have all the information needed to know how to use a rowing machine.  Be patient with yourself and your efforts will pay off in a stronger and less injured you.

Be sure to check out these other articles to deepen your knowledge and progress even more.

Photo of 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.