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  • Writer's pictureAmanda Painter Diver

How to Use The Rowing Machine: Proper Rowing Machine Form

Updated: Nov 20, 2023

How do you use a rowing machine? One of the most basic questions about rowing is how do you start? What is proper rowing machine form and technique? So let’s talk about how to row! This answer is actually straight out of my book, Beginner’s Guide to Indoor Rowing. If you want to grab your copy on Kindle or paperback it’s on Amazon. Hope this helps.

sitting on rowing machine with words "proper rowing technique explained"

Everyone always says to focus on form/technique. Well…it’s usually for a reason, even if it’s repetitive and annoying. I get it, I just want to jump into a workout and get moving. But at a certain point, I realized that I would rather not get injured and the best way to help prevent injuries is by focusing on form.

Rowing technique is one of those things that takes time, and therefore gets annoying. It often means moving slower or not adding weight as quickly as others around you (for weightlifting), but in the end, the person working on form is likely going to last longer without getting sidelined due to an injury. In fitness classes such as CrossFit, RushCycle, SoulCycle, Fitness Boot Camp, Orange Theory Fitness (OTF), and just working out in general, people often get hurt. Sometimes it’s because they push themselves a little more than their bodies might be ready for and sometimes it’s because they don’t focus on technique or just don’t know the proper technique for them. The “proper technique for them” part is important, and I recommend checking out this blog post for more info on why technique doesn’t need to be PERFECT, just perfect for you. Whatever the reason is, and there are many, let’s try and decrease your risk of getting an injury and not have rowing be the cause.

What is proper rowing machine form?

So now that we’ve established that I am a form guru, let me explain rowing form for you. I also highly recommend checking out my YouTube video on rowing machine technique, which is great for the visual learners.

Phases of the Rowing Stroke

There are four different phases of the rowing stroke: the catch, drive, finish, and recovery.6 Each part of the stroke has a purpose. As mentioned earlier, the rowing machine was designed for people who row on the water to be able to row off the water.2 So, the different parts of the stroke relate to things that are happening with the oar and how it goes in and out of the water. You can see the different parts of the rowing stroke in Figure 2.1.

Four stages of rowing machine demonstrated

The catch is the part at the front of the stroke when you are all cramped up and compressed. Your knees and hips are bent, your ankles are at their maximum bend (dorsiflexed), your arms are straight, and you feel like your stomach has nowhere to go, or maybe that’s just me since I have a belly. Either way, it’s the part at the front. To relate this to the water, it’s the part of the stroke where your oar has just been placed into the water and you are about to pull or push the oar through the water to move the boat.

Next is the drive. This is a really important part of the stroke. This is where lots of things can go “wrong”. This is the part of the stroke where you are pushing really hard with your big leg muscles to move the oar through the water so you can get the boat to move. On the rowing machine, it’s what affects the numbers on the screen to give you a split time (explained in Chapter 3) and tell you how much force you are applying. This is what makes you go faster. When I say faster, I mean if you are going 500 meters, it could take 3:30 or it could take 1:30. How hard you push with your legs and transmit the power through your legs to the machine affects these numbers. I will go over these numbers more in Chapter 3. But basically, it’s the part of the stroke where you do all the work. You want to push with your legs, really hard.

At the end of the drive is the finish, because you finished the stroke. In the water, this is where the oar comes out of the water. It’s the part where your knees are straight, hips more extended than before, core tight, and arms bent. You have finished moving the handle and are ready to start bringing the handle back to the front, the catch, position.

In order to get from the finish back to the catch, you have to go through the recovery phase of the rowing stroke. This part is called the recovery because it is when you get to recover and relax. It is also when you breathe and catch your breath from all the work you did in the drive phase of the stroke. However, this is also the part that many people aren’t able to control, and it ends up being really quick, and therefore not a recovery period. This is the part that we will spend a lot of time focusing on. The others make sense. Start in a position, push really hard, and end in a position. But the recovery is where all the finesse comes in. Learn how to master the recovery, and you are well on your way to rowing for longer periods of time and not hating the rowing machine.

You might be wondering how the recovery period, when you aren’t doing any work, can hold so much importance. Well, think of it this way. If you were to run a marathon, would you sprint the entire 26.2 miles, just as you would sprint a 100-meter dash? No! You would be so tired by the time you got to one mile that you would start walking the rest, or barely jogging. Rowing is the same concept and the part that controls that speed is the recovery. By going really quick on the recovery, you are essentially sprinting and by slowing down the recovery, you are learning to pace/jog. It’s all in the recovery. Say it with me, “it’s all in the recovery”.

So master the recovery, learn to row longer and therefore increase your stamina on the rowing machine. TADA! Well, if it’s that easy, why doesn’t everyone go really slowly? Well, why don’t you go slow? Because it’s hard to master that slowness! Even in college on a Division 1 Crew team, most people have trouble slowing down the recovery. So, you are NOT alone. But, now that you know the secret, I challenge you to learn the numbers and see how a slow recovery really can help you. One of the most common things people say in the facebook group is that they slowed down, and their numbers improved! You can watch a youtube video on the numbers here.

Beginner's Guide to Indoor Rowing Book Cover

If you found this helpful, you can grab a copy here for more info on how to adapt the rowing technique for you and common things to look for that might cue you into adaptations you might want to make to avoid getting hurt.

Instagram: @the.rowing.doc

You can also join our community of rowers!

Please remember, this is NOT medical advice, and is a forum. If you would like medical advice, please follow up with a healthcare provider or feel free to reach out to me and we can chat on how I might be able to help or help you find someone who can.

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