Proper Rowing Machine Form: How to properly use a rowing machine

Pete Donohoe and Peter Donohoe

Not sure if 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, proper rowing form, and what to adjust to improve your split times and get even better results. 

We’ll discuss how to properly use a rowing machine, and 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

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:

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 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. 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 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 cross-train. 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, and strength training workouts you can stream right from your Hydrow or your phone using the Hydrow mobile app.

The indoor rowing stroke: A complete breakdown for beginners

There are four parts of the indoor rowing stroke. As you absorb 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 

After you’ve fully extended your legs, your core muscles and arms take over and guide your handle into the bottom of your sternum. 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, you  should draw the handle into the bottom of your sternum. 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 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 2: 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 – the phase in which your arms straighten, the upper body hinges forward, and your legs bend as you come back towards the front 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.

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 phase, but that doesn’t mean you should completely disengage your muscles. Strive for smooth, steady control.

Part 3: 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, ready 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. 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 forward from the hips to the 11 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, hamstrings, and core from the catch position, and firmly push 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 rowing machine form will help you build the stamina to last longer and feel stronger through your workout. 

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; 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 – especially if you’re prone to hyper-extension. Keep your movement both fluid and strong.

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.