Proper Rowing Machine Form: How to Row Correctly on a Rowing Machine

Pete Donohoe and Peter Donohoe

Not sure whether you’re rowing correctly and want to get the most out of your next rowing machine workout? Proper rowing machine form is important for many reasons.

In this article, you’ll learn how to correctly use a rowing machine, what proper rowing form looks like, and what to adjust to improve your split times and get even better results from your rowing workouts.

We’ll also discuss how to properly use a rowing machine and the four parts of the rowing stroke that you need to know about. Let’s dive in!

How to properly use a rowing machine for efficient, effective workouts

Many people first encounter rowing movements in resistance training or weight training as a way to target our back muscles. The act of rowing on a rowing machine is very different. It’s a full-body workout that, when done correctly, engages twice as much muscle mass as other cardio activities like running and cycling — an impressive 86% of major muscle groups. 

To hit all those muscle groups, you want to be sure you’re rowing with proper form throughout your workout. There are a few reasons you should care about having great form while you row: 

1. Good form leads to a more powerful rowing stroke

It’s exciting to get stronger over time, and great outdoor rowers obsess over their power input because it helps them propel across the water more quickly. One of the best ways to ensure you’re developing a stronger, more resilient stroke is to maintain quality form. 

2. Good rowing machine form leads to fewer injuries from overuse

Indoor rowing is one of the best and most low-impact workouts you can do. But, if your form is out of whack, you could be setting yourself up for unnecessary soreness or even an injury. 

After your workouts, you want to experience the “good” kind of sore that makes you feel accomplished — not the bad kind that leaves you feeling uncomfortable the next day. 

3. Good form works your mind, too

Studies on flow state have found that concentrating on small details actually makes it easier to slip into feelings of flow. Form reminders are some of the easiest ways to coach yourself in the moment and keep your brain engaged.

Rowing machine form improves further when you incorporate cross-training workouts into your routine, as you’ll think about and engage your muscles in a different way. 

That’s why Hydrow offers On The Mat workouts, an extensive library of yoga, pilates, mobility, strength training, and circuit workouts you can stream right from your Hydrow rowing machine or your phone using the Hydrow app.

The indoor rowing stroke: A complete breakdown for beginners

There are four parts of the indoor rowing stroke — the finish, the recovery, the catch, and the drive. These come into play in a 1-2-3-3-2-1 formation as you propel yourself backward on your rowing machine, then bring your body forward again. 

As you absorb each of these steps and think about them in future rowing workouts, you’ll develop a more efficient rowing technique that keeps you injury-free and feeling strong.

Part 1: The finish

As part of your rowing workout, you’ll begin each stroke with “the finish.” Extend your legs and draw your arms into your chest, keeping your shoulders behind your hips and your legs straight. 

Here are a few tips to improve your finish:

  • Visualize your shoulder blades coming together: Keep your core tight and channel the momentum you’ve created from your lower body into your upper body.

  • Don’t knock your teeth out: On a rowing machine, you  should draw the handle into your top two abs. It can be tempting to pull the handle up toward your neck for a smidge of additional distance or drama, but this extension wastes energy and doesn’t give you much extra “oomph.”

  • Don’t do the limbo: How low can you go?” is for weddings and luaus, not rowing. The lean back at the finish is slight; throughout the entire rowing stroke, your back should remain in a strong position. At the finish, visualize your back should be at 11 o’clock on a clock face.

Part 2: The recovery

Good news: In a rowing machine workout, you’re getting a built-in opportunity to rest during every single stroke. It’s short, but it’s there! This is known as the recovery — the phase in which your arms straighten, the core pivots forward, and your knees rise as you move toward the screen of your rowing machine. 

In a boat, this is the time when the oars have come out of the water and are moving through the air.

Here are some tips to recover like a champ:

  • Retrace your steps: In “1-2-3-3-2-1”, the “1-2-3” portion is the recovery. Let your arms extend first and be sure they pass over your knees when you rock your core over. Your forearms will thank you later!

  • Scan for tension: Relax your shoulders, unclench your jaw, and take a deep breath to keep oxygen flowing to your muscles.

  • Experiment with speed: Adjusting the duration of the recovery is one of the easiest ways to tinker with your rhythm, also known as strokes per minute. The way to control your speed is adjusting the time it takes for your knees to rise. Strive for smooth, steady control.

Part 3: The catch

Your third step — the catch — is a reversal of what you just did. Bring your knees down, rock your core back, and bring your arms back in. 

Many athletes new to indoor rowing workouts stop short on the catch, which cuts off the amount of power they’ll be able to produce in the rowing stroke. If you find yourself at a plateau for a certain split time or speed, it might be worth taking a closer look at your catch. 

Here’s what to keep in mind to maximize your catch: 

  • Your core should be engaged at the catch: Engage your core the way you would if you were bracing for a gut punch or holding a plank position on the ground. A strong core helps to stabilize your rowing stroke and give you better overall control. It’s essential in maintaining a solid connection between your legs and arms, and is the secret to maintaining power in the rowing stroke. 

  • Knees are bent and you want to hinge the core forward to the 1 o’clock position. As you hold onto that body position, you’ll feel your core working.

  • Arms are long and straight, but not overstretched: Everyone’s arm length is a little different, so exact positioning varies. If your shoulders begin to hunch forward, you’re overdoing it. 

Part 4: The drive

Time to sweat! You’ll engage your glutes, quads, and core from the catch position, and firmly push through your full foot to straighten your legs. This is known as the drive and is a critical part of the rowing stroke. 

In Hydrow’s Learn To Row series for new rowers, the 1-2-3-3-2-1 rhythm is taught to highlight the drive. Hydrow also offers Personal Coaching YouTube videos and Personal Coaching live sessions for you to schedule if you need more instruction.

The power of your rowing stroke comes from the drive, and having good rowing machine form will help you build the stamina to last longer and feel stronger through your workout. 

Here are some tips for a strong drive:

  • Keep your core engaged throughout the entire movement: If your core taps out, it becomes harder for your leg muscles to fully engage. 

  • Avoid leaning back too soon: Resist the urge to open your hips before your legs have fully extended. The front of your hip flexors shouldn’t see any daylight until your legs have straightened. Sometimes this timing takes practice!

  • Foot strap placement matters: A funky foot strap position makes it harder to push your heels into the footbeds during the drive. Your strap should go over the widest part of your shoe. Check out this video to cross-check your foot placement. 

  • Keep your knees soft: If you’re locking out your legs at the end, you’re overdoing it and putting unnecessary strain on your knee joints — especially if you’re prone to hyper-extension. Keep your movement both fluid and strong.

Putting it all together

If you’re just getting started, reading this all in one sitting might feel a little overwhelming. Don’t overthink it too much at the start! Research has found our brains learn and master new movements best by practicing and improving over a period of time. It may help to visualize yourself being out on the water with oars in your hands just as our Athletes are when leading Hyrow workouts. 

These same rowing stroke tips apply for all different types of rowing machine workouts. Whether you’re doing an easy row to log some meters, or challenging yourself to break records, every stroke you take will have these four components. See if you can identify each step as you row the next time you hop on your rowing machine for a workout. 

You now know what it takes to execute proper rowing machine form. Practice makes perfect, and it’s never a bad idea to revisit this information to keep yourself sharp. The next question many who are new to rowing will ask is, “How long should my rowing workout be?” 

Ten minutes? An hour? Somewhere in between? Well, it depends! Luckily, we’ve got the answer for you. To find out more, check out part 4 of our Complete Beginner’s Guide to Indoor Rowing, How long should you work out on a rowing machine? 

Peter Donohoe

Peter is our head strength and movement specialist. As an Olympian, conditioning coach, and corrective exercise specialist, Peter’s methodology continues to influence the movement of athletes from many sports. Join Peter for On the Mat workouts and benefit from increased mobility and enhanced performance.