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 a great cardio workout that works the entire body. It's low impact which is perfect for exercisers with joint issues. 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.

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.

Research published in the journal 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 up through your body to your hands with each row.

Benefits

Consider the many advantages of incorporating a rowing machine into your workouts.

  • It's a low-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

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—which can make for a clumsy workout and the possibility of injury.

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.

  • Catch: This is the beginning of the movement. Sit tall on the rowing machine with your arms straight, back upright, 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 will help protect your lower back. Then lean forward slightly, keeping your back tall.
  • 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 specific order of body movements: Legs, core, hips and shoulders, arms.
  • 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.
  • 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.

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 (this depends on the type of rowing machine you're using and your fitness level)

Common Rowing Machine Mistakes

Most of the common errors on the rowing machine are related to improper form.

  • 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 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.

Sample Workout

This easy-to-follow rowing workout 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.

  • Warm up (5 minutes): Warm up at an easy pace for five minutes, using an easy, rhythmic stroke to get your heart rate up and at around 3 to 4 on this perceived exertion scale (PE).
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 300 meters: Increase your strokes per minute to get back to that moderate pace for 300 meters.
  • Recovery (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.
  • Cool down (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.

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

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