How to Use a Rowing Machine

Woman using a rowing machine in her garage
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The rowing machine is an excellent choice for getting a great cardio workout while working the entire body. It's low impact, which is perfect for exercisers with joint issues and, if done properly, you can get a great workout with little risk of injury.

Rowing works almost every muscle group including the legs, arms, back, and core while building endurance in the heart and lungs. In fact, one study published in TRENDS in Sport Sciences suggests that we use up to 70% of our muscle mass while rowing. You can see why if you look at the motion which starts from your ankles and moves all the way to your hands with each row.

Many people shy away from rowing machines at the gym, unsure of how to use them or how to get a good workout. Some also think the rowing machine is only for the upper body but, make no mistake, your legs work just as hard during rowing workouts.


  • It's a no-impact exercise, which is easy on the joints and great 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.
  • You build muscle while working on your cardio.
  • It can improve your flexibility.

How to Use the Rowing Machine

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

The Rowing Motion

  • The Catch - This is the beginning of the movement where you're sitting tall on the rowing machine with your arms straight, back upright, knees and ankles flexed. From this position, use your lats to pull your shoulders down and brace your core. This will help protect your lower back.
  • The Drive - The Drive has a specific order of body movements. You begin the Drive 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, about a few inches above your belly button.
  • The Finish - To finish the move, you do the same movement, only in reverse order. You extend the arms, hinge the hips forward, bring the torso over the legs and then bend the knees so you're back at the Catch phase.

Think of it as legs, hips, core, arms, then go back down the ladder on the way back.

Common Mistakes

Some of the most common errors include:

  • Not using 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.
  • Bending the knees first during the Finish - When you follow the proper order of the Finish - 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

The other great thing about the rowing machine is that it's easy to create a variety of workouts that target all the 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.

You may also need to familiarize yourself with the screen of your rower. Each rowing machine will have a different screen, but the basic things to pay attention to include:

  • How much time you've been rowing.
  • Your split time - Or how long it takes to row 500 meters.
  • The distance you've gone in meters.
  • Strokes per minute - How many strokes you do per minute really depends on the type of rowing machine you're using and your fitness level.

Sample Workout

The following workout 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.

  • 5 Minutes: Warm up at an easy pace, using an easy, rhythmic stroke to get your heart rate up and at around 3-4 on this Perceived Exertion Scale (PE).
  • 300 Meters: Now, increase your strokes per minute to bring your pace up to a moderate intensity. That's a Level 5 or 6 in perceived exertion or just slightly out of breath.
  • 2 Minutes: Slow it 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.
  • 300 Meters: Once again, increase your strokes per minute to get back to that moderate pace for 300 meters.
  • 2 Minutes: Once again, slow down to catch your breath.
  • 300 Meters: For this last stretch, increase your strokes per minute even more to work at a Level 7 perceived exertion.
  • 5 Minutes: Cool down at an easy pace and end your workout with a stretch.

You can also create your own workouts. Set your goals by distance, time and/or intensity. Here are more ideas for rowing machine workouts.

Who Shouldn't Use Rowing Machines

The rowing machine isn't for everyone. Make sure you check with your doctor first if you have any sort of lower back pain or injury. Using the rowing machine can exacerbate the problem or even cause further injury.

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Article Sources

  1. Ogurkowska M, Kawalek K, Zygmanska M. Biomechanical characteristics of rowing. Trends in Sport Sciences. 2015;2(22):61-69.

  2. Rowing for fitness: meet the gym’s latest superstar. International Sports Sciences Association. 2019.

  3. Mateo A. How to use a rowing machine as a killer cross-training tool. Runners World. 2019.

  4. Flood J, Simpson C. The Complete Guide to Indoor Rowing. A&C Black. 2012.

  5. How to strengthen your core with rowing. Aaptiv. 

  6. Rowing. American Academy of Pediatrics. 2012.

  7. 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.

  8. Training Advice. British Rowing.

Additional Reading

  • MACGORZATA O, KRZYSZTOF K, MAGDALENA Z. Biomechanical characteristics of rowing. TRENDS in Sport Sciences. 2015;2(22):61-69.