As early as the 4th century BCE, rowing machines have been a great way to boost stamina and conditioning while focusing on strength and improving recovery in individual muscle groups.
Today, rowers look a little different than they did twenty-five centuries ago, which means they can be somewhat intimidating for new gym-goers and professional exercise aficionados alike.
However, the benefits of using a rower on a regular basis are strong enough to outweigh any concerns. And with a little research, you’ll be able to hit the gym and start reaping some of those health benefits in your daily workout routine.
How To Use A Rower With Proper Form
While a rowing machine can offer a great workout for most of the major muscle groups within your body, it also presents the opportunity for some pretty damaging injuries, too.
Because a rowing machine is such a high-intensity machine and provides such an intense, concentrated workout, any small injuries can quickly be exacerbated and leave you stranded on the sidelines for a lot longer than is either practical or preferable.
As a rule, if you’re just starting out at the gym or just starting out on a rowing machine, you may want to consider inviting a buddy along to help you check your form and technique and just help you reach your fitness goals in general. Even if you’re an old gym-going pro, it certainly can’t hurt to have a workout partner to keep you on your toes.
Taking the time to double-check your form before starting a new workout regime can go a long way towards making sure that you don’t have to lose any valuable time to an avoidable injury.
Positioning and Setup
Posture is key for a good rowing machine technique. You want to keep your shoulders low and relaxed, your back straight, and your grip loose.
Especially as your workout progresses, you may be tempted to tense up—hunching your shoulders and curving your spine—but this can lead to greater back pain and risk of injury.
Keep your stance loose, but strap your feet snugly into the footrests so that you won’t have to worry about slipping free during your workout. At the fullest extension, you should still have a slight bend in your knees, so get a little bit closer to the footrests to accommodate this.
In regards to tension and time, it’s best to start with low tension and work your way up to a stricter level, and the same principle is true for time. Start with a level that’s comfortable for you and go from there!
The stroke or drive of the rowing machine is the “away” phase—the phase of the cycle where you drive away from the footrests and extend most of the muscles in your body. Remember to keep your arms and spine loose and fluid, and use the legs to drive your motion.
The key sequence to keep in mind is Legs, Back, Arms:
- Legs: push with your legs first, keeping the rest of your body relaxed until your legs have reached their fullest extension.
- Back: as your legs reach an almost or completely straight position, lean back slightly so that your torso is at a reclined angle while your back is still straight.
- Arms: finally, bend at the elbows to pull the handle towards your chest, still maintaining a lengthened grip and relaxed stance overall.
In a traditional setting, the catch would be the part of the rowing cycle in which the rower’s oars hit the water. It serves as the pause between the stroke or drive and the finish and starts each cycle over again at the top.
When using a rowing machine, obviously there aren’t any oars or water to help you mark your place, but the catch still serves as a momentary rest between cycles and a place to check your posture before continuing.
On a rowing machine, the catch should be the forward-most point of your rowing cycle. Your shins should be vertical, your hands should be over your feet, and your whole body is coiled, ready to push away into the stroke or drive.
When rowing, rowing team members will use a sudden shrugging motion to drive the oar forward. Doing so lends extra power and energy to their drive/stroke.
Finish and Recovery
The recovery is the contraction of the rowing machine—the stage where you pull towards the footrest—and serves as nearly the exact opposite of the stroke in terms of muscle movements.
The sequence to remember during the recovery is Arms, Back, Legs:
- Arms: straighten your arms, pushing the handle down towards your feet without hyper-extending your elbows, so that your arms are fully extended but still loose.
- Back: bend slightly forward, reversing the angle from the stroke, so that your torso is leaning over your upper legs while your back is still straight and relatively relaxed.
- Legs: bend your legs at the knee. Your feet are still strapped to the machine, so this should pull you and your seat closer towards the base of the machine. Stay loose and relaxed, shrug your shoulder and start again!
Putting It All Together
Common Mistakes To Avoid
A lot of the issues that crop up when using a rowing machine for the first time come from a fear of looking silly. Some of the steps in the rowing process can feel counter-intuitive at first, and you may have to fight your natural instinct to switch some of the steps or go at it in reverse.
However, as mentioned above, because a rowing machine works so many different muscles within your body, it can be dangerous to use incorrectly. A bad or improper rowing machine form can have major repercussions on your body as a whole, not just on your arms and legs.
As a result, it’s very important that you follow the form outlined above and take the time to check and make sure that you’re not falling prey to some of the more common mistakes. These mistakes include, but are not limited to the following flaws:
Forgetting to Check the Settings
We’ll talk more about damper settings and resistance below, but it’s important to start at a place where you feel comfortable. If you have the tension on your rowing machine set too high, you will strain your body beyond what it can handle on your first few repetitions alone and even more so later.
Similarly, make sure you adjust the seat to a proper position and that your feet are firmly fastened into their straps. If you push too far out on your drive, you run the risk of hyper-extending your knees and hurting your legs.
If your feet are not securely fastened in the footrests, you’ll lose some of the power during the drive and the recovery. Once that power is lost, you may find yourself trying to make up for it by reverting to an improper form, which will hurt your back, legs, and arms in the long run.
Hunching Your Back
We’ve all heard the old moving-day advice of “lift with your legs, not with your back”. The same principle holds true when using a rowing machine. If you hunch your back during either the recovery or the drive, you’re taking some of the pressure off of your legs and transferring it directly to your spine.
While the angle of your torso is an important part of the rowing cycle, leaning forward and backward should be mostly a way of generating momentum, rather than the main source of your power. Instead, most of the strength in your cycle should come from the combined efforts of your arms and legs, bracketed and controlled by the movement of your back.
Hunching your back will sap the power from your stroke and leave you feeling stiff and sore long after your workout has ended and everything else has gone back to normal.
Only Using Your Arms
While using your back alone to power your rowing technique is a sure recipe for disaster, you can’t rely solely on your arms, either.
Similar to the above entry, rowing with just your arms will put an unfair amount of stress on the muscles in your arms and upper body. This common mistake is a little trickier, because it may feel like you’re rowing correctly. However, this higher level of strain can lead to some pretty severe injuries in your biceps and triceps that will keep you from improving your overall condition.
When in doubt, you should let your legs take more of the work during the rowing cycle. Ideally, your arms and legs should be working together to take equal amounts of stress, but your legs will generally be able to handle a little bit of extra stress, while your arms almost certainly will not.
Techniques To Row Faster
As a general rule, practice makes perfect when it comes to rowing. The more time you put in, the better you’ll be. However, if you’re looking for small adjustments to boost your speed:
- Let It Go: don’t grip up on the handle, but keep a loose, relaxed grip throughout your drive.
Remember Your Sequence: remember the arms, legs, and back sequence until it becomes second nature in each stroke.
- Keep It Straight: don’t let the seat wobble as you push back from the footrests. Your arms and legs should all be straight, and your knees should point up at all times.
- Breathe It In: exhale on your drive, inhale on your recovery, and use the extra rhythm to drive your motion.
Smooth and Steady: imagine you’re on the water: the smoother the better. This will help you keep your movements swift and strong.
The average stroke rate is between 18 and 34 strokes per minute. If you’re taller, you’ll probably hit fewer strokes per minute, and if you’re shorter, you’ll probably be somewhere on the higher end of that range.
While stroke rate is important for gauging your speed and conditioning, the number of strokes per minute is less important than the form and control you exhibit throughout your workout. If you find yourself clocking fewer strokes per minute as you work on getting your form perfect, that’s okay! Better to be slow and safe than to rush and risk injury.
Damper Settings (Resistance)
The damper settings on a rower machine determine how much resistance you have to row against. Most rowing machines feature adjustable fans or vents that let you set the resistance of your machine, which will increase the difficulty of any workout.
In general, you should start with lower resistance. Once you’ve gotten a feel for the way the machine works and the way you should be moving, you can increase the resistance to give yourself more of a challenge.
One thing to remember is that a higher resistance will probably take more time. You may not be able to move as quickly through your workout set. Take your time, get used to the increased resistance and how it translates to your form and technique, and then adjust the resistance until you feel comfortable rowing against it.
Benefits Of An Indoor Rowing Machine
One of the reasons that rowing machines have been such enduring fixtures at every workout spot is fairly simple: they provide a lot of benefits! Between the individual muscle groups and the boost to your overall stamina and conditioning, a rower can be a great way to improve your health and quality of life in a way that will benefit your everyday life.
At the most basic level, rowing is a cardio workout. Because it stresses multiple muscle groups and requires a lot of coordinated muscle strength, rowing can be a very intense workout that can leave you feeling winded the first few times you hit the machine.
Over time, however, once you get used to the full-body strain, you’ll be able to enjoy the general cardio benefits that come from any high-intensity workout.
Studies show that using a rowing machine for just half an hour a day can burn between two and three hundred calories. That makes it comparable to running at top speed for the same amount of time, but without the incredibly damaging strain on your legs and joints.
Overall, rowing for even half an hour a day can boost your heart health and improve your general conditioning. That way you’ll be able to tackle tougher workouts with each day that passes!
Specific muscle groups targeted by rowers are a lot more diverse. Because a rower uses the whole body for a workout set, the muscle groups impacted are equally wide-ranging, which means that a few hours per week on a rowing machine can help you sculpt and condition more of your major muscle groups than nearly any other type of workout equipment. The main muscle groups targeted include, but are not limited to:
The deltoid muscle is often referred to as the “common” shoulder muscle. It makes up the rounded part of the shoulder and controls most of the movement of the arm. Even though the deltoid is usually treated as a single muscle, it’s actually made up of three separate sets of muscle fiber that work together to articulate shoulder and arm movement. In addition to controlling arm movement, the deltoid also helps correct posture, as it controls the set of the shoulders and chest.
A rowing machine helps you refine your deltoid muscles by working on the pulling movement of rowing.
More specifically, because the pulling motion of using the rowing machine allows your shoulders to complete almost a full rotation, a rower can target all three muscle groups within the shoulder.
This allows for greater definition and control over muscle movement, especially as you get more used to using the rower daily.
The bicep is a long, two-headed muscle that controls the bending and contraction of the arm. The contraction of the muscle’s long head is actually responsible for giving all muscles their name!
The ancient Romans thought that the bulge of the biceps underneath the skin looked like the back of a mouse and dubbed the shifting tissue “musculus”, or “little mouse”.
Nowadays, we know that the bicep is one of several muscles responsible for arm and upper body strength, and a lot of workout regimes tend to focus on that muscle group in particular.
Again, the pulling motion of the rower machine (sometimes referred to as the recovery of the stroke) uses a lot of arm strength for proper rowing machine technique. As a result, the repetitive expansion and contraction of the bicep can quickly build up the strength of that muscle.
If you’re looking to boost arm strength and muscle definition, a rower is a great way to isolate your biceps for a high-burn workout.
If the biceps work the front of the arm, then the triceps work the back of the arm. The triceps brachii is a three-headed muscle (the tri- to the double-headed biceps’ bi-) that controls the movement of the lower arm, stabilizes the elbow when writing or performing other fine-motor tasks, and providing the catapult motion necessary for throwing objects.
Like the biceps, the triceps control the extension and contraction of the arm and provide the strength that you’ll need to push or pull heavy objects.
It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that the same pushing and pulling motion present in the stroke and recovery of a rowing machine should be so highly beneficial for working the triceps.
As you push back against the rower in the quick, snapping “pull-back” move, you’ll be working your biceps and triceps. A rower is a great way to isolate the muscles on your upper and lower arms and provide the strength and definition you want!
Usually referred to as simply “the glutes”, the gluteus maximus is a thick, coarse muscle that provides much of the strength of the torso and legs. Compared to nearly every other species, human beings have the strongest hip muscles, which allows for our upright posture and nearly-unparalleled endurance while walking.
The gluteus maximus supports the hips and the torso, moves and rotates the upper legs, and helps the hips and thighs return to alignment after a sudden shift in direction or position.
When using a rowing machine, the glutes help during the “push-back” portion of the workout as well as during the contraction of the stroke. The strength of the lower back and upper legs plays a key role in providing the power movement necessary to work a rowing machine.
While rowers are great for working out the upper body, they can also help you tighten and sculpt lower muscles like the gluteus maximus.
Like the gluteus maximus, the quadriceps are usually referred to more informally as simply “the quads”. Technically a group of muscles rather than a single large muscle, the quadriceps are four major muscles on the upper leg that work together to extend the knee, flex the hip, and swing the leg forward in any sudden motion.
Walking, running, jumping, squatting, and lunging are all actions that depend upon the quadriceps for power and control, and the four muscles in the group play a pretty major role in nearly every physical activity we undertake on a daily basis.
Because much of the drive behind a rowing machine comes from the bending and rapid straightening of the knees, the quadriceps are an important muscle group in any workout regime.
A rower can strengthen your thighs and upper leg muscles, which in turn will build up your strength as you go about your everyday life.
Similar to the above entry, the hamstrings are not actually a single muscle, but rather a group of muscles that must fulfill several requirements in order to be considered a “true” hamstring. Some of those requirements deal with where the muscle must originate and where it must end, but the most important requirement is that the muscle aid in flexing the knee joint and extending the hip. As a result, the muscles that operate the back of the thigh are often referred to as hamstrings, even though they may not fit all of the technical requirements.
Because the hamstrings work to open the hips and flex the knees, they work with the quadriceps to contract the leg and provide some of the power and drive that is so important for nearly all physical activities.
When using a rower, the hamstrings lend the strength to push back and away during the recovery phase. However, as hamstrings are also prone to injury, it’s important to make sure that you’re exercising proper rowing machine form to avoid hurting your legs.
Finally, despite its name, the calf muscle is actually made up of two major muscles that are responsible for flexing and moving the heel as well as stabilizing the lower leg during motion.
The gastrocnemius is the larger of the two muscles and forms the bulge that you can see under the skin when you flex your lower leg, while the soleus is a smaller muscle that lies underneath the gastrocnemius and provides more tension and strength. Both muscles attach to the Achilles tendon, which attaches in turn to the bones of the heel and allows you to lift your heel to run and walk.
As you use a rowing machine, you need to keep your feet braced flat against the machine, which means that your calf muscles will give you some of the push and pull you need for a clean, snappy recovery.
Grounding your heels against the machine will let you push off quickly and powerfully and let you get the full workout from your time on the rower.
That’s A Wrap!
Whether you know your local workout spot like the back of your hand or you’re just getting started on the whole gym routine, a rowing machine can go a long way towards improving your conditioning, muscle strength, and overall fitness.
With just a little bit of practice, you’ll be able to reap the benefits of a rower without having to worry about straining any muscles or hurting your back.
Your rowing machine form can make or break your workout regime and with a little work, provides the perfect tool under your belt in your quest for a newer, healthier you!