Rowing is one of those sports that produces a lot of data, and it can be easy to get lost in all of the metrics when you’re new to the sport and trying to improve your fitness.
Two questions I’m often asked by people new to rowing is, “What does strokes per minute mean?” or “Hey, I’m rowing at 35 strokes per minute — why isn’t my split lower?”
The simple answer is that people often conflate strokes per minute (SPM) with speed — and while it’s true that you can usually go faster at a higher stroke rate, you can also go slower at a higher stroke rate. This is why it’s so important to understand how strokes per minute factor into any rowing workout, be it on your rowing machine or on the water.
What does strokes per minute mean?
To begin, let’s define strokes per minute. The rowing stroke consists of a sequence of body movements, which are usually characterized as “legs, body, arms, arms, body, legs.” If you think of this sequence as a single stroke, then your SPM is the number of strokes you take in a single minute.
Why are strokes per minute (SPM) an important metric to measure?
Rowing is a sport in which your body produces the load for the resistance created by your rowing machine. Whether your rower uses air, water, or an electromagnetic brake (like the Hydrow), you will need to actively produce that load to go faster.
Basically, the harder you pull on the handle of your rowing machine, the faster you will go. That’s why having a higher rowing strokes per minute doesn’t necessarily mean you are going faster — you just need to pull harder!
How to improve your strokes per minute when rowing
If you’re looking to focus on improving your strokes per minute during your rowing workouts, let’s talk about a drill that will help you get the most out of your SPM and lead to a great experience on your rower.
Again, you go faster on your rower by pulling harder, so what happens when you pull harder and faster? Higher strokes per minute! The goal of this drill is to help you gain an intuitive understanding of what it feels like to pull both hard and fast.
Improve your rower strokes per minute with this drill
One of the best ways to use strokes per minute to improve your speed or split over 500 meters is to do a drill I like to call 30/30/30. It’s a great way to get your heart rate up and become more efficient at higher strokes per minute.
First, start rowing at a 24 SPM for 30 seconds, making sure you’re at a comfortable effort level.
After 30 seconds, drop your SPM to 20 and maintain the same 500 meter split.
In the last 30 seconds, drop your SPM to 18 and try to maintain the same 500 meter split.
Take a two- to three-minute break, then do this again.
After doing this drill a few times, it should get easier to maintain a lower 500 meter split at a lower stroke per minute because you will have more powerful strokes.
So, now when you’re going to do a cardio workout, you should be able to get your target heart rate at a lower SPM, and when you’re doing a HIIT workout, you’ll be able to get lower splits at higher strokes per minute.
Looking to get into rowing?
If you're interested in learning more about the rowing world and investing in an indoor rower for your home gym, be sure to check out Hydrow. We offer the ultimate immersive rowing experience with our library of over 4,000 workouts that transport you to the most beautiful waterways on earth.