How to Use a Rowing Machine

Women using rowing machine

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The rowing machine is an excellent choice for a great cardio workout that works the entire body. It's low-impact, which is perfect for exercisers with joint issues. If done properly, using the rowing machine can help you get a great workout with little risk of injury.

Rowing also works almost every muscle group, including the legs, arms, back, and core, while building endurance in the heart and lungs. Yet, many people shy away from rowing machines at the gym, unsure of how to use them or how to get a good workout.

Some people also think the rowing machine is only for the upper body. But make no mistake, your legs work hard during rowing workouts too. Here is what you need to know about rowing machines including how to use them.

Benefits of the Rowing Machine

Research published in the journal Trends in Sport Sciences suggests that people may use up to 70% of their muscle mass while rowing. If you look at the motion, you can see why this is a total body movement that starts from your ankles and moves all the way up through your body to your hands with each row. Consider the many advantages of incorporating a rowing machine into your workouts.

Advantages of Rowing

  • It's low impact, so it's easy on the joints
  • It's good cross-training for other activities.
  • It works the entire body.
  • It improves core strength.
  • It's easy to use.
  • It takes up less space than other machines, which is great for the home exerciser.
  • It builds muscle while also being a cardio workout.
  • It can improve flexibility.

Using the Rowing Machine

The key to rowing is to understand the motion and the different positions you're in when rowing. It's easy to use the bad form if you haven't had any instruction, making for a clumsy workout and the possibility of injury.

You may also need to familiarize yourself with the screen of your rower. Each rowing machine will have a different screen, but basically you will want to pay attention to how much time you have been rowing, your split time, the distance you have gone, and your strokes per minute.

The Rowing Motion

The rowing motion has four phases from beginning to end: a starting position, a transition, an ending position, and then another transition back to the start.

Step 1: Catch

Sit tall on the rowing machine with your arms straight, back upright, and knees and ankles flexed so that your shins are roughly vertical. From this position, use your lats to pull your shoulders down and brace your core. This engagement will help protect your lower back. Then lean forward slightly, keeping your back tall.

Step 2: Drive

Begin by pushing with your legs, while still bracing and contracting your core. When your legs are straight, hinge at the hips and lean back to about 45 degrees. The last movement is from your arms as you pull the handle towards your torso, a few inches above your belly button. Note the order of body movements: legs, core, hips and shoulders, arms.

Step 3: Finish

This is the resting position opposite the catch position—although you won't rest here for long. Legs are long, shoulders and back are leaning away from the legs, hands (and handle) are pulled in toward the body, and elbows are tucked in toward the torso.

Step 4: Recover

Now do the drive movements in reverse order to return to the catch position. Extend the arms, hinge the hips forward to bring the torso over the legs, then bend the knees.

Common Rowing Machine Mistakes

Most of the common errors on the rowing machine are related to improper form. Here are some ways you can avoid making some of the more common mistakes when using a rowing machine.

Failing to Use Your Core During the Drive

Before you push back with your legs, make sure your core is engaged. Otherwise, you end up doing the movement through your hips instead of your legs.

Rounding Through the Back

Another problem is rounding through the back and slumping forward, placing stress on the back and shoulders. Instead, try sitting tall with your spin in a neutral position. You also can focus on engaging your abdominal muscles or core to ensure you have good posture while rowing.

Bending the Knees First During Recovery

When you follow the proper order of the recovery movement (arms, hips, torso, and then knees), you're able to get into a solid rhythm. Bending the knees first changes the timing of the move and the effectiveness.

Rowing Machine Workouts

It's easy to use the rowing machine to create a variety of workouts targeting all the body's energy systems. If you're a beginner, start with about 10 minutes of rowing, gradually adding time each week as you get used to the movement. You can do it alone or add it on at the end of your regular cardio workout.

If you need some help getting started, here is an easy-to-follow rowing workout that is great for beginners. It's short and allows you to focus on your form while staying at a moderate intensity so you can get a feel for the machine.

You can also create your own workouts. Set your goals by distance, time, and/or intensity.

Sample Rowing Workout

  1. Warm-up (5 minutes): Warm up at an easy pace for 5 minutes, using an easy, rhythmic stroke to get your heart rate up. You should be at around 3 to 4 on the perceived exertion scale (PE).
  2. 300 meters: Now, increase your strokes per minute to bring your pace up to moderate intensity. That's a Level 5 or 6 in perceived exertion or just slightly out of breath. Complete 300 meters at this pace.
  3. Recovery (2 minutes): Slow down and catch your breath by reducing your strokes per minute. You may even need to rest completely or just use your legs to go back and forth to recover.
  4. 300 meters: Increase your strokes per minute to get back to that moderate pace for 300 meters.
  5. Recovery (2 minutes): Once again, slow down to catch your breath.
  6. 300 meters: For this last stretch, increase your strokes per minute even more to work at a level 7 perceived exertion.
  7. Cool-down (5 minutes): Cool down at an easy pace and end your workout with a stretch.

Who Shouldn't Use Rowing Machines

The rowing machine isn't for everyone. Make sure you check with a healthcare provider first if you have any sort of lower back pain or injury. Scientific research has found that if you've previously experienced a lumbar spine injury, a rowing machine may exacerbate the problem or even cause further injury.

Researchers determined that rowers who have lower back pain or injury have a less efficient core movement and a magnified back rotation while performing the exercise. This, in turn, can lead to exacerbated lower back problems.

A Word from Verywell

Before beginning any new workout program, including rowing, speak to a healthcare provider. If you have any previous lower back injuries or are experiencing pain, take extra precautions and ensure you're following proper form while on the rowing machine. And if your provider indicates that rowing may not be right for you, try something else. There are a lot of options when it comes to fitness.

5 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Ogurkowska M, Kawalek K, Zygmanska M. Biomechanical characteristics of rowing. Trends Sport Sci. 2015;2(22):61-69.

  2. Šarabon N, Kozinc Ž, Babič J, Marković G. Effect of rowing ergometer compliance on biomechanical and physiological indicators during simulated 2,000-metre race. J Sports Sci Med. 2019;18(2):264-270. PMID:31191096

  3. American Academy of Pediatrics. Rowing.

  4. Flood J. Complete Guide to Indoor Rowing. Bloomsbury Publishing USA; 2019.

  5. Nugent FJ, Vinther A, McGregor A, Thornton JS, Wilkie K, Wilson F. The relationship between rowing-related low back pain and rowing biomechanics: a systematic review. Br J Sports Med. Published online January 4, 2021:bjsports-2020-102533. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2020-102533

By Paige Waehner, CPT
Paige Waehner is a certified personal trainer, author of the "Guide to Become a Personal Trainer," and co-author of "The Buzz on Exercise & Fitness."