How to Use a Rowing Machine to Get the Most Out of It
Mixing up cardio machines can help make your workouts more interesting, and the rower is one of the best ways to give your muscular and cardiovascular systems a workout that’s both low-impact and high-intensity.
But, properly using a rowing machine (also called an ergometer) isn’t as simple as jumping on it and pulling the handle as hard as you can — knowing the proper form will help you prevent injury and get maximum results.
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Proper Rowing Machine Form
“Those new to rowing or just beginning a fitness routine will want to focus on getting comfortable with the basics of rowing technique, learning the correct body positioning, and how to increase and decrease their intensity via speed and power,” says Annie Mulgrew, VP and founding instructor of CITYROW.
“Moving through the stroke [pulling back on the rower] is called the drive,” Mulgrew says. “It’s the only phase in which you apply work to the machine.”
When starting out on the rower, visualize three basic stages for the drive phase. Also, try to imagine you’re making a fluid transition of power from your lower body to your torso to your upper body.
- Sit upright in the rowing machine in the “catch” position: feet in the stirrups, knees bent, shins as vertical as possible, and arms straight in front of you, grasping the handlebar.
- Keeping your arms and back straight, and your core engaged, extend your legs — without locking your knees.
- Once your legs are straight, lean your torso back 45 degrees, and bend your elbows, bringing the handlebar to the base of your sternum.
After completing the drive phase, sliding forward to the catch position — called the recovery phase — follows the opposite flow. You move your arms, then your torso, then your legs.
- Straighten your arms as if reaching toward the front of the machine.
- Once your arms are straight, allow your torso to follow, bringing it upright.
- Then bend your knees and return to the catch position.
Beginner Rowing Tips
You’ll get the most out of rowing’s benefits while minimizing its hazards by exercising patience, too.
“Beginners should start with ‘steady state’ rowing workouts, in which you go as hard as you can for a set amount of time,” says Trevor Thieme, CSCS, director of fitness and nutrition content at Openfit.
“Once you master proper rowing technique and build a solid fitness foundation, you can move on to intervals, in which you alternate between periods of all-out effort and active rest.”
3 Common Rowing Form Mistakes
These gaffes in execution can plague rowers of all experience levels.
1. Pulling too soon
Yanking back on the handlebar before your legs have fully extended can cause a significant loss of power and place undue tension on your upper body, says Mulgrew. “The pull of the handlebar is only 10 percent of the stroke, so it should only take 10 percent of the effort.”
How to fix it: Make sure that your legs and hips have extended to the complete extent of the movement before pulling the handlebar toward your chest. You want to keep the majority of the work of the stroke in your legs and hips.
2. Hunching your back
Hunching or rounding usually means that you haven’t engaged your core, which decreases stability, reduces power, and increases the risk of injury.
How to fix it: Slow down and focus on your form, making sure to keep your back “flat” (i.e., not arched or hunched) and core engaged (imagine someone is about to punch you in the gut). Maintain that posture and engagement for the duration of your workout.
3. Rushing the slide
This simply means that you’re pulling yourself back to the catch, or starting position, too fast. Doing this can throw off the whole sequence, making the exercise less efficient and more likely to cause an injury.
How to fix it: One easy solution is to practice the sequence without locking your feet in the stirrups — that makes it much harder to pull yourself back too quickly. Another way is to let your knees come up in a relaxed and natural manner, following your hands back as the handle retracts.
Benefits of Rowing
What looks on the surface like a simple movement is actually an effective, full-body, endurance- and strength-building workout.
1. Taxes major muscles
Pushing from the catch to the drive engages all of the muscles in your legs, primarily your quadriceps, as well as your core as you keep your torso upright.
When you finish the stroke, pulling the handlebar engages many of the muscles in your upper body, including your biceps, shoulder muscles, rhomboids, and traps. All in all, it works about 75 percent of the muscles in your body!
2. Helps burn fat
Activating all of these muscle groups not only increase your calorie burn as you work out, but also helps you build more metabolically-active (i.e. fat-burning) tissue. It also amplifies the “afterburn effect,” which is the amount of calories you burn post-workout as your body recovers.
“Rowing is a true total-body workout, engaging muscles from head to toe in continuous movement,” says Thieme. “To meet the energy demands of all of those muscles, your cardiorespiratory system has to shift into overdrive.” This all-over exertion during a strenuous rowing session can torch about 300 calories in 30 minutes for a 155-pound person.
3. Keeps impact low
You’re not pounding on your body when sitting and smoothly rowing through a workout (using proper form, of course!). Compared to running, especially on roads, you’re exerting minimal stress on your joints and bones.