Helpful Tips

How To Use A Rowing Machine – A Beginner’s Guide To Rowing

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As people are stranded at their homes and are looking for ways to exercise without going to a gym, rowing machines have emerged as a surprisingly good way to workout your whole body without putting too much strain on your joints. Learning how to use a rowing machine, however, might be a bit challenging at first, mainly due to the fact that people aren’t used to the rowing motion that much. That creates certain mistakes and risks of injuries. This is why, in this article, we will go over some of the basics, teach you how to row from start to finish, and give you a few examples of the most common mistakes you might be doing.

If you want to find out more about rowers, head over to my guide on some of the best rowing machines for this year! Now, let’s start with some basic terminology that will introduce you to the various movements, parts, and metrics of a rower…

Rowing Terms

With rowing, there are two main terms that you need to be really familiar with. Those are:

  • Your strokes per minute – The amount of strokes you do per every minute of rowing represents your strokes per minute. They are an important metric, especially for beginners. Aim for something between 25 and 35. Remember to not go for speed but rather for power – that is the true sense of the rowing exercise.
  • Split times – The split time is the time it takes you to complete a 1/3 mile. The goal as a beginner here should be doing it in under 2:10 minutes. Anything below 2 minutes, in the beginning, is awesome! If you want to go even faster, try increasing your power output rather than your pumping speed. The energy that your rower displays (in Watts) are directly representative of your rowing power.

Additionally, each rowing stroke you do comprises of 4 different stages:

  1. Catch – the catch is where you prepare your body for the next rowing motion
  2. Drive – this is the stroke part that generates all the power
  3. Finish – this is also sometimes referred to as “the release” and is representative of the end of your stroke
  4. Recovery – The recovery is the period in which you slide back to your initial catch position.

In terms of the rowing machine itself, there are just a few important parts that are frequently mentioned. Those are the flywheel, the oar, footplates, and a few others. The flywheel is the wheel with blades on it that create resistance when you row. Flywheels create their resistance by either being submerged in water tanks, have a magnetic brake, or using air resistance. The oar is the handle or bar of the rowing machine. The footplates are where you strap your legs in. All of these elements are designed to replicate the feeling of real rowing out in the water.

How to Row Step-by-step

Even if rowing isn’t too strenuous on your body, it can be challenging at first, so the most important thing you need to be doing before each workout is warming up properly. Stretch your whole body before getting on the rowing machine. Dynamic stretching is even better as it also raises your body temperature. Now, let’s get into the rowing itself. The whole process consists of 5 steps:

  • Getting on the rower
  • Setting up the workout
  • The Catch
  • The Drive
  • The Recovery
  • Post-workout recovery

Getting on the rower

Sitting down on your rower for the first time might seem a bit weird since you aren’t used to such a workout machine. Still, make sure your seat is properly set up (height-wise) and you are comfortable. Strap your legs to the legplates and get to the second part.

Setting up the workout

Setting up your workout mainly consists of adjusting the resistance of the flywheel. There are some rowing machines that have different rowing modes meant to replicate real-world conditions as closely as possible. Furthermore, you can choose between high-intensity workouts, aerobic ones, or others.

The Catch

The catch is the starting position in rowing. Bend your knees by getting your seat closer to the base. Catch the oar and pull it to your body while keeping your arms fully extended. Engage your core muscles and prepare yourself for your first row!

The Drive

Determined young woman

The drive is a complex movement that uses your legs, your arms, your core muscles, and your back muscles. Start by pushing your body off the footplate. Use your leg’s strength to perform that first movement while keeping your body and arms unengaged at this moment. Do this until your legs are fully extended and your feet are flat on the footplates.

Next, bend backward at your waist to support the upper body lean you are about to do. Lean back and pull the oar towards your upper abdomen or lower part of the chest. Use your back muscles when pulling. Your neck, shoulders, and biceps shouldn’t be relaxed at this point. Pull the elbows towards the back when you pull the oar as close to your chest as you can. This certain position is what we call “the finish” since it marks the end of the drive and the transition to the recovery.

Keep your wrists straight throughout the whole drive and into the recovery.

The Recovery

The recovery is often neglected as a step but is equally important as the drive. Here, you can make mistakes such as the scorpion move which is typical for beginners. All you have to do here is reverse the order of movements you performed in the drive. Extend your arms forward by starting with extending your elbows. Push the handle away from your chest in a straight line. Hinge your upper body forward until it is upright and with a straight back. Then bend your legs while keeping your core muscles engaged and your upper body stationary. Now, you are back in the catch position.

I’ve seen some beginners let go of the oar once they are done working out and this is extremely dangerous for your rowing machine since the cable will snap it back and that might break something.

Post-workout recovery

Always remember to stretch and cool down your body slowly after an intensive workout. Now is the time for a fat-burning post-workout meal as well as a protein shake to refuel your body with its building blocks for your muscles.

If you’re wondering whether sweating too much helps you burn more calories, head over to my full article on that topic! Now, let’s go through some of the most common mistakes beginners do when they first start rowing…

Common Rowing Mistakes

Despite it being a straight-forward exercise, there are quite a few mistakes that beginners tend to do. While those aren’t fatal, they might ruin your long-term workout posture and will be hard to eradicate once you are used to doing them. This is why identifying and removing mistakes at the very beginning is recommended. The common mistakes are:

  • Hunching your back – This is very easy to identify and correct. Just keep an upright posture throughout the 4 rowing stages. The easiest way to keep a straight back is by using your core and taking deep breaths. That will help your back muscles do all the pulling rather than your shoulders.
  • Raising your arms too high – Speaking of shoulders, beginners tend to engage them far too much resulting in the oar getting too high when you pull. Keep the oar position below your chest or at your upper stomach.
  • Making a circular (scorpion) motion when rowing – The scorpion motion is one of the most common mistakes. On the return, if you bend the knees before the arms become fully extended, you will be forced to lift up the oar and go above the bent knees, resulting in a circular/scorpion motion.
  • Letting your knees move to the side – If you are too relaxed during the rowing, your legs will fall to the sides. Use your inner thigh muscles to keep them in a parallel position.
  • Holding the oar too tightly – The easiest way to avoid the death grip is by not wrapping your thumbs around the oar. Rather, just grip it with your 4 fingers and relax your grip and let the back to the pulling work.

How To Practice A Good Form

Practicing your rowing form can be done by doing two very simple exercises – leg isolations and arm isolations.

Leg isolations consist of leg movement only. Extend your arms holding the oar and lock them in that position. Then engage your core, strengthen your back, and push backward with your legs only. Arm isolations follow a similar principle. Push all the way back with your legs and lock them in that extended position. Pull the oar towards your chest using your arms only and bend your elbows so that the oar touches your upper stomach. When you have the oar under your chest, hold it for a brief moment by using your back muscles rather than your biceps or shoulders.

When you’re used to both of these actions, try combining them to perform a single row from start to finish. The easiest way to identify issues with your form is by filming yourself while rowing and then watching the video in slow-motion. That will show you all of the little mistakes that you’re doing.


When you learn how to use a rowing machine you will encounter a lot of weird obstacles mainly because your body isn’t used to the rowing motion. This is why we dissect the row into four different parts and analyze them individually. Furthermore, try avoiding most of the beginner’s mistakes such as holding the oar too tightly, pulling it too high, and others. Practice your form and remember that this is a long journey, not a short one, and we’ve all started from where you are right now.