Why form matters in rowing

Pete Donohoe and Peter Donohoe

Do you ever see people rave about rowing workouts that kicked their butts? Are you wondering why you’re not getting the sweaty, shirt-drenching rowing workout people swear by? 

In this article, we’ll go over why form is so important in rowing – and how small tweaks could help you break records in your next rowing workout.

Rowing workouts: Why they sometimes feel easy at first

Rowing is considered to be one of the most challenging sports around. To get the most out of your rowing workouts, however, you need to engage different muscle groups properly and at the right time.

A common misconception with rowing is that it’s powered mainly by the muscles of your back, similar to doing “rows” with weights in a gym. As it turns out, rowing is a total-body workout; when done correctly, the muscles of your upper body, lower body, and midsection are all used to increase power and evenly distribute effort.

Rowing is a resistance training workout, which means that your body meets and works through resistance on every stroke to create power. This power is measured in watts, and on a rowing machine is usually measured as your split, which is how long it will take you to row 500 meters (Basically, your speed.)

Without getting into physics too much, know that the higher your watts, the more power you’re generating. If you’re not working against resistance and creating power, you won’t get much of a workout! 


Sometimes we think we’re moving the right body part at the right time, but actually aren’t. Proprioception refers to how well your body is aware of itself as it moves through space. If a movement is new, there is often a learning curve. 

Why does this matter? In rowing, it can be easy to hop on, do the movements, and feel like you’re crushing – but not seeing much sweat. Perhaps your stroke count is really high and you feel like you’re hitting a ceiling with regard to how fast you can go, or you finish a workout and didn’t feel much while others are drenched. At Hydrow, we have a Learn To Row series to set you off on the right foot from day one. 

Turning on the right muscles at the right time in rowing takes practice. But trust us: It is absolutely worth it. Here are some reasons why you want to dial in your form. 

Rowing workouts: Why form matters

Better form ensures you engage the right muscles

Rowing isn’t just about what muscles you engage – it’s also about when you engage them. The rowing stroke has four different phases, and different muscle groups are engaged in each phase. As a refresher, the four parts of the rowing stroke are:

  • The finish, in which you pull the handles toward your sternum as your legs remain fully extended,

  • The recovery, in which you extend your arms, rebend your knees, and move toward the front of your rower,

  • The catch, in which you bring your belly toward your thighs and engage your core, and 

  • The drive, in which you press your heels into the footbeds and engage your legs to power through the next stroke.

In rowing, the majority of power is generated during the drive. Your hamstrings, quads, and glutes all light up, and since these are some of the largest muscles in your body, activating them translates to a higher total calorie burn as well.

For more information on the different parts of the rowing stroke, check out this article.

Better form creates more power and endurance

As we mentioned before, power on a rowing machine is measured in watts, and most rowing machines give you the option to toggle over and see how many watts you’re generating as you workout. The more watts you generate, the more power you’re producing on your rowing machine.

We want to generate lots of power, but we also want to do it efficiently so that we don’t burn ourselves out early on in our workouts. Rowing form is a lifelong process, but with each little tweak you make, your body will become increasingly efficient and more capable of producing the results you’re looking for.

Better form ensures you’re getting a total-body workout

In our current busy lifestyles, saving time is more valuable than ever. That’s why rowing is such a great option: It’s a total body workout, and 20 minutes is often all you need to glean the benefits of rowing. Our Director of Exercise Research and Innovation Dr. Kristin Haraldsdottir talks about why 20-minute workouts are a sweet spot in this post.

Rowing works the majority of muscle groups in your body, but to get that effect you want to ensure you’re rowing correctly. The good news is that you get plenty of chances in every workout to practice these form cues: There’s only one rowing stroke you need to worry about mastering.

How Hydrow helps you perfect your form and get a better workout

What’s important to remember about form in rowing (or in any sport) is that it takes practice and continued application. It’s also important to keep yourself inspired and engaged as you develop your form – that’s where Hydrow comes in.

At Hydrow, our world-class Athletes are doing the workout with you every step of the way. Whether it be during a challenging set or intervals or a relaxing cool-down, you’ll be coached on form throughout each workout (And maybe hear a good story or two along the way).

  • During a workout filmed in Miami, Nick coached members on hand placement and leg engagement.

  • During a workout filmed in Savannah, Sera Moon coached members on keeping the shoulders and chest open.

  • And during a workout filmed in Boston, Aquil coached members to generate power and max effort while holding a steady 26 strokes per minute for five minutes. (This is our 5-minute baseline assessment row, and doing it helps you determine your pace windows for future workouts.)

Here are a few other reasons why rowing on Hydrow will help you take your rowing form to the next level.

Training camps

If you’re looking for a structured way to improve over time and measure your progress, Hydrow’s training camps are a great option. These camps prescribe two to four predetermined workouts per week for a period of three to six weeks, and focus on developing your overall fitness and endurance over time.

Interactive social features

On both the Hydrow dashboard and the Hydrow app, you can cheer on your fellow rowers, like and comment on their recent workouts, and even follow peers or create teams or groups. Find your crew and hold them close! You can also invite fellow rowers to do an on-demand workout with you with our new invitations feature.

Hydrow also has a private Facebook group for members to connect off the machine. Ask questions, get advice from your fellow rowers, and celebrate recent milestones. Being in a community often gives you a motivational boost and keeps you inspired.

New workouts every week

In every workout, our Hydrow Athletes share pearls of wisdom about rowing form and what they like to do personally to keep themselves moving efficiently. With a library of over 2,000 workouts, you’ll never run out of classes to take and old cues explained in new ways to help you row at your best. 

Rowing is a form-based workout, but that doesn’t mean it has to be complicated. Hop on, let our Athletes guide you through your workout, and you’ll find yourself beginning to master the small tweaks that lead to big gains. Click here to learn more about what Hydrow has to offer, and we’ll see you on the water!

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.