7 Best Tips For Your Rowing Machine Grip
Updated: Jan 2
Ever wonder why you might be getting some elbow, forearm, or wrist pain with rowing?
Or ever wonder why you get calluses from rowing?
You aren't ALONE!
How you hold a rowing machine handle can really impact your rowing! So we're going to go over my top 6 tips to help you avoid those aches and pains and things you might want to consider if you are buying a new machine or looking to replace your handle. How you hold the handle is one of those things you might not think too much about. However, it tells you so much about your rowing and it can lead to a lot of rowing injuries that aren't necessary, and yet it's something SO SIMPLE to work on and fix!
1. Where are your hands on the handle?
One of the first things you do when you get on the rower and being rowing is grab the handle. Have you ever thoughts about where your grip is on the handle? Are your hands towards the ends of the handle, towards the insides of the handle, or somewhere in the middle? Have you ever thought about that? If not...you should!
Where you hold the handle can really effect the rest of your stroke. For instance, when you squat, try putting your feet close together and squatting. Then put your feet shoulder width or farther apart and try squatting. One of those was most likely easier than the other. It's a similar concept when it comes to the rowing machine handle. If you put your hands towards the edges of the handle, it is more likely closer to being in line with your shoulders than when you grip close to the middle or close of the chain or band. However, this does vary from machine to machine as different companies and machines have different handles. Some are ergonomic, some are longer, and so forth. For instance, the Concept2 model D and E have a standard handle that is 19" long with slight 10° ergonomic bend. This is usually closer to being shoulder width than the Water Rower. For example, the Water Rower home/studio series models come with a standard 17" handle, which is 2" shorter than the Concept2. However, on other models they have an even shorter length handle, and you can purchase the 17" upgrade and switch it out. If you can get your hands to be in line with your shoulders, you will end up putting less strain on your upper back, shoulders, and possible other areas as well depending on your rowing technique.
When your hands are less than shoulder width apart, that little bit of extra inward angle you are putting on your arms can take a toll. For example, if you've ever tried to sit and hold your legs together beyond that "natural feeling" position they naturally go to, that's the same concept of what you are doing to your arms when you force them inwards when rowing. After a while, your legs get tired so you might cross your feet to keep your legs close together, well, for your arms, there isn't much you can do and you might not even realize it's happening because it's such a small thing and smaller muscles than in your legs.
So next time you jump on the rower, pay attention to where your hands are. Here's a YouTube video explaining it a little more and how it can impact your wrist or elbow pain with rowing too.
2. Are you over gripping "death-gripping" the handle?
Death gripping the rowing machine handle is really common, but what does it actually mean? It means that you are holding the handle tighter than you might realize when you are rowing. A lot of people also think that rowing is an upper body sport, so they hold the handle a little tighter than they might need to, which allows them to use their upper body more than might be needed for the rowing stroke. So when it comes to rowing, it's not the same as a bent over row, or a general weight-lifting row. Rowing on the rowing machine is more of a lower body activity, and if you want to learn more about that, check out this video on rowing technique.
To make sure you aren't death gripping, try just using your fingertips to make contact with the handle. This is going to feel awkward at first, and you might feel like you are going to lose the handle, but give it a shot.
If your grip is too tight, it can lead to more blisters, and blisters in places they ideally "shouldn't be", like in your palms. Not only that, but when we death grip the handle, it makes it so our hands don't move much, so when you pull your arms closer to your body, you might be placing more stress on your wrists, forearms, elbows, or even you shoulders and might not notice it's all because of your grip.
3. Thumb on top or bottom?
This is one of those things that people try to adjust to make them grip the handle less, however as you may know, my goal is to help you learn to adapt the rowing machine for you and your body. Because of that, my answer to this is...it depends. There really is no right or wrong way in terms of if your thumbs should be on top of the handle or on the bottom. This is because it depends on your body structure/anatomy, your possible injury history, and where you are pulling the handle to when rowing. So the biggest thing is to actually find what's comfortable for you and go with that. Some people, including myself, even switch it up on longer rows. If I'm rowing a half marathon, I might do a couple thousand meters in a different position just for variety and changing things up.
When you have your thumb on top, pay attention to what your wrist, elbow, and shoulder might be doing versus your thumb being on the bottom. For some people it makes them rotate at their shoulders because they might not have enough mobility in their thumbs or wrists.
Checkout the small video showing how if you naturally want to move your thumb up and down, how your body might react. For me, you can see one hand it okay, the other wants to move more. Granted this isn't perfect as I'm not actually holding something, so the handle wouldn't actually allow some of that movement, but it gets the idea across and shows how someone might compensate in other ways during the rowing stroke because of such a small thing. So try your thumb in both and see what's more comfortable for you.
4. Ergonomic Rowing Machine Handles
So in the first point, I mentioned the length of the rowing machine handles and how it can impact where you might be gripping the handle. Well, I also included some links to the most common and easiest ways you might be able to upgrade your handle, so check that out first. But...some machines like the Concept2, come with an ergonomic handle, with a 10° bend in it. This is to put your wrists in a more neutral position. So that's the first step, point those handles so that bend points downward and it can help. Also feel free to upgrade if you want. If you still aren't happy with what's out there, you can actually make your own handle and make it the length you want and with the grip you want. It's on my "to do" list and if you do it, please feel free to share! I'd love to be able to spread the word. There are also different types of setups you could make for a rowing handle, so keep that in mind and feel free to reach out if you need some idea help.
5. Should you wear gloves when rowing?
This is a really common question that I get and once again...there really isn't a perfect answer. Sorry! First, the blisters you are getting can actually tell you if youre over gripping or holding the handle in a less than optimal place. So look at that first, second, calluses are just part of rowing. Usually they end up being pretty small and manageable once you get past the blister stage. So I usually recommend people pay attention to their blisters first so you can see if you need work on your rowing technique first. Then if it's still an issue for you, gloves can totally work. But I don't usually recommend people get gloves right away because you might be covering up a technique issue that you are better off addressing from the start. But again, even with great technique, calluses are part of the sport. Just like guitar places build calluses on their fingers, rowers are similar, just in a different spot. Wear it as a badge of honor. However, if you do want some gloves, there are a lot of posts in my facebook group with people recommending gloves. Just join and search "gloves" and you might find one that works for you!
If you want to know a little more about managing the calluses and blisters and what to do, checkout this youtube video on calluses.
6. Should your palms face up or down on the rowing machine handle?
Finally a question where the answer isn't IT DEPENDS! haha. If you have your palms facing up, you are very likely to be overusing all of your upper body muscles, and it's very difficult to keep a light grip, which will increase all those blisters. If you have your palms down, it's a more natural position for your arms. Think about when you sit with your hands on a table or on your lap. Are your palms facing up or down? Most people will say facing down, so grip the rowing machine handle with those palms facing down and your arms will be a little happier.
7. Pay attention to the first stroke!
This is the secret rowing machine handle grip tip that no one mentions and yet is so important I made a video just for it! People often complain of wrist or forearm pain when they start paying attention to the grip position on the handle, and we talked about all the basics in this blog post, but the one that is less commonly mentioned is all about the first stroke!
Have you ever noticed that the first stroke sometimes feels really difficult? Well, if we can engage our shoulder muscles, take the pressure off our forearms and grip, it ends up relating to almost all the strokes if you pay attention to it on each stroke. This one is a little hard to explain in writing, so watch the video for more info!
It's also important to note that sometimes it's difficult for us to setup everything nicely for that first stroke. I recommend checking out this article on the upper body muscles used when rowing and what to do for your shoulder, especially if you are struggling to engage the shoulders or still struggling with wrist or forearm pain after looking at all the above mentioned things.
I hope that helps you out and found this information useful.
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