Rowing Machine Form: How to row correctly on a rowing machine

Pete Donohoe

Unsure about your rowing machine form? Want to get the most out of your first or next rowing machine workout? In this article, we’ll review how to properly use a rowing machine, correct rowing form, and what to adjust to improve your split times and get even better results. 

We’ll go over the proper rowing machine form as well as the four parts of the rowing stroke – the catch, the drive, the finish, and the recovery – using beginner-friendly language. Let’s dive in!

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

For many of us, we 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. In fact, it’s a full-body workout that, when done correctly, engages twice as much muscle mass as other activities like running and cycling. Rowing really can be an all-in-one workout if you want it to be!

To hit all those muscle groups, you want to be sure your rowing machine form is good throughout your workout. Here are a few reasons to care about having great form while you row:

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 output 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. 

Good form leads to fewer injuries from overuse. Indoor rowing is one of the best and most low-impact workouts you can do. If your form is way out of whack, however, you could be setting yourself up for unnecessary soreness or even an injury. We want the good kind of sore that makes you feel accomplished, not the bad kind that leaves you feeling uncomfortable the next day.

Good form makes you think – but not too much. 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.

Form improves further when you cross-train because you think about and engage your muscles in a different way. That’s why Hydrow offers On The Mat workouts, which are a library of yoga, pilates, and strength training workouts you can stream right from your Hydrow. The 22-inch HD touch screen pans 25 degrees to the left or right, making off-machine instruction a breeze.

The indoor rowing stroke: A complete breakdown for beginners

There are four different parts of the indoor rowing stroke; let’s now go through each in detail. As you absorb these different steps and think about them in future rowing workouts, you’ll develop a more efficient rowing technique that builds strength and keeps you injury-free. 

Part 1: The catch

Imagine you are rowing in a real boat with oars in each hand. Your knees are bent, your chest is forward, and your oars are behind you and about to dip down and “catch” the water. This is known as the catch. 

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 plateau-ing at a certain split time or speed, it might be worth taking a closer look at your catch. 

Here’s what to keep in mind:

- Your core is already engaged in 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 stabilise your rowing stroke and give you better overall control. - Knees are bent and you want to lean forward slightly. You’re not doing a cannonball, but visualising that shape may help you bring your chest closer toward your thighs, which further turns on your core muscles. - 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 2: The drive

Let’s sweat! From the catch, engage your glutes and hamstrings and firmly drive through your heels 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 users, the 1-2-3-3-2-1 rhythm is taught in the second video and highlights the drive.

Imagine yourself trying to push the rowing machine forward away from your body. On a boat, this drive is what helps you move the oars through the water, propelling yourself forward. 

The power of your rowing stroke comes from the drive, and having good form will make you last longer and feel stronger in your workout. Here’s what to keep in mind:

- Keep your core engaged throughout the movement. If your core taps out, it becomes harder for your leg muscles to fully engage. Keep your core rock-solid throughout the drive. - 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; this timing sometimes takes practice. Bend your arms and pull the handle into your chest last. - 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; a quick video on how to cross-check your placement is here. - 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. Keep your movement both fluid and strong.

Part 3: The finish 

After you’ve fully extended your legs, your back muscles and arms take over and guide your handle into the bottom of your ribs. This is called the finish, and this subtle muscle engagement helps you take advantage of all that leg power you’ve just created.

Here are a few tips to improve your finish:

- Visualise 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, men should bring the handle to their chest and women should aim to bring the handle just below their chest. 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. - Also don’t do the limbo. “How low can you go?” is for weddings and luaus, not rowing. The lean back at the end of the finish is slight at most; throughout the entire rowing stroke, your spine should remain pretty upright. Visualise staying between 11 o’clock and 1 o’clock on a clock face.

Part 4: The recovery

Good news: In a rowing machine workout, you’re getting a built-in moment of rest after every single stroke. It’s short, but it’s there! This is known as the recovery, and it’s the phase in which your arms straighten, the upper body leans forward, and your legs bend as you come back forward towards the screen; in a boat, this is the time in which the oars have come out of the water and are moving through the air.

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 straighten first, then re-bend your knees. Your forearms will thank you later. - Scan for tension. Relax your shoulders, unclench your jaw, and take deep breaths to keep oxygen flowing to your muscles. - Experiment with speed. Adjusting the length of the recovery is one of the easiest ways to tinker with your rhythm, also known as strokes per minute. It’s called the recovery, but that doesn’t mean you should completely check out. Strive for smooth, steady control.

Putting it all together

If you’re just getting started, reading this all in one sitting can feel a little overwhelming. Don’t overthink it too much at the start! Rowing machine form can be difficult, especially for new rowers. Research has found our brains learn and master new movements best by practicing and improving over a period of time. It may help to visualise yourself being out on the water with oars in your hands just as our athletes are when teaching live classes. 

The good news is that 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 4 components. See if you can identify each step as you row the next time you hop on for a workout. 

Boom! You now know what it takes to get your rowing form squeaky clean. But how long should your rowing workout actually be? 

Ten minutes? An hour? Something in between? 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? – right here.