7 rowing machine setup mistakes (and what to do instead)

Leanne Yenush

Not sure you’re rowing correctly on your Hydrow? Want to ensure your form is in tip-top shape and you’re getting the most out of each and every workout? In this blog, we’ll go through some of the most common rowing machine setup mistakes and how to fix them quickly and easily.

Why care about rowing form?

The quality form is the number one way to get faster and stronger on a rowing machine. You’ll also be able to get more out of every workout, whether your goal is to burn calories, build endurance, or increase speed. When you’re using correct form, rowing engages the majority of muscles in your body and is one of the best minute-for-minute workouts you can do.

Rowing is a low-impact workout, which means it’s a great and safe exercise option that will have little to no impact on your joints. That being said, if your form is incorrect, you might be overexerting certain muscle groups, which can lead to strain and imbalance over time. Making form a priority will not only keep you injury-free; it will also help you get faster and break new records! 

Here are a few of the most common rowing machine setup mistakes we see at Hydrow and how to correct them.

Rowing machine setup mistakes and how to fix them

#1: Rowing only with your arms

In resistance training with weights or dumbbells, rows isolate your back muscles and biceps. In rowing, however, your back and arms account for only about 20% of the total power generated in a rowing stroke. In contrast, the muscles of your legs contribute 60% of the power. Core engagement is responsible for the remaining 20%. 

If you’re trying to row faster just by pulling the handle a bit harder, you won’t see much improvement. Instead, focus on the drive: The part of the rowing stroke in which you press through your heels, straighten your legs, and push yourself away from the screen. This action turns on the muscles of your legs, which have some of the largest and most powerful muscle groups in the body. 

When you first start the drive, the handle will resist your pull. We want this! This resistance is the equivalent of moving your oars through the water in outdoor rowing, and working through it creates momentum. Keep your core and upper body engaged and angled forward throughout, but focus on the legs first until they straighten before bringing your arms and back muscles into the picture.

#2: Pulling with your arms too early

Good rowing requires a bit of timing. Often, newer athletes will attempt to straighten their legs and pull with their arms at the same time to create as much power as possible on the drive. This actually wastes energy and leaves you with nothing to do when you get to the finish, the part of the rowing stroke in which you’re at the back of the rowing machine. 

Instead, keep your upper body engaged, but let your legs run the show for the first part of the stroke. When your legs are nearly straight, pass off the momentum you’ve created to your upper body; squeeze your core, grip your handle, and activate the muscles of your upper and middle back. This timing tweak can help smooth out your stroke and lower your split time.

#3: Bending your knees too early on the recovery

The recovery is actually the part of the stroke in which your legs get a much-needed break. If you bend your knees too soon, you’re actually missing out on some of this built-in rest and will tire yourself out more quickly.

As you complete the finish, keep your legs straight for a moment and let the pull of the handle bring your arms forward and bring your core into an 11 o’clock angle toward the screen. The way we teach this at Hydrow is that your hands or handle shouldn’t have to manoeuvre around your knees to make their way back; if they do, your knees are coming up too early. Take that extra split-second break during the recovery and your next stroke will be that much stronger.

#4: Collapsing your chest forward

In an effort to go faster, it can be easy to let posture go to the wayside as you row. You actually want lots of length and a nice long spine throughout all four parts of the rowing stroke. The most common reason for slouching shoulders is letting your arms go too far forward at the catch (The part of the rowing stroke in which you’re closest to the screen).

To overcome this, remember that your chest is looking up and forward throughout the rowing stroke. Keep your collarbones proudly shining upward and let your neck be long and loose. A tall upper body will also give you more space to breathe, which will come in handy during some of those higher-intensity drive workouts.

#5: Rushing the drive

Some athletes try to move through the drive as fast as possible. While a quick drive is important as you increase your rhythm, or strokes per minute, the magic of the drive is to connect with the resistance your handle is giving to you, then press through your heels to power yourself backward on the seat. Think intensity and connection more than speed.

A great benefit of Hydrow is that all you have to do to nail your rhythm is row in sync with the Athlete on your screen. Mimic their movements as you go and your rhythm will be spot-on each and every time.

#6: Leaning too far back in the finish

It can be tempting to add some drama and lean back a lot at the end of the finish to lengthen your overall stroke. While length can be good in most parts of the rowing stroke, recreating The Matrix at the back of your rowing machine won’t add much to your overall power. You’ll also need to use your core a lot to stabilise, but this core engagement won’t actually contribute to more speed, power, or efficiency.

Instead, visualise 11 o’clock and one o’clock on a clock face, and keep your upper body angles within that range throughout your entire rowing stroke. This will help you focus on using legs and core strength to power yourself backward, which will both improve your form and give you a better, sweatier overall workout.

#7: Leading with your butt on the drive

In an effort to gain momentum during the drive, some athletes will shoot their butt back in an effort to more quickly straighten their legs. When you do this, you end up putting unnecessary strain on your low back as it compensates for misaligned form.

Instead, keep your torso close to your thighs during the catch with your core at 11 o’clock, then drive from your heels first to create movement and momentum. Your upper body stays engaged to help pull against the resistance of your handle, but the majority of the upper body effort doesn’t take place until your legs are mostly extended.

Rowing machine form has its own unique learning curve, but the good news is that you work on your technique with each and every stroke. Now, you can avoid rowing machine setup mistakes. Hydrow’s Athletes give you form cues before, during, and after your workouts to ensure you’re totally set up for success; learn more about our setup here.