How to Use the Rowing Machine in 10 Easy Steps
Rowing is a great full body workout and most gyms or clubs have a rowing machine (a.k.a. ergometer, or “erg”) for members to use. I love seeing people use the machine, but 9 times out of 10 I have to prevent myself from being “that guy” and offering my 200 cents. My hopes are that these 10 steps will break down the stroke in a way that will allow you to get the fantastic workout you should be getting on the erg.
Step 1: “The Finish”
This is technically where the stroke ends and where the recovery begins. You want to be sitting up with a slight lean back at about a 100-120 degree angle with your legs, which should be flat. Your hands should be in at your lower chest and your elbows should be up.
Note: keep your back straight, always.
Step 2: Arms Out
The first thing you want to do out of the finish is bring your hands out from your chest. It doesn’t necessarily need to be straight out; there can be a slight drop in the hands or a “swooping” motion.
Note: the back does not move.
Step 3: Forward Lean
This is where the back comes in. Your back has been at that 100-120 degree angle with your legs. Now – still keeping your back straight and arms in the position you left them in Step 2 – you want to now pivot forward on the hips to what we can call a 60-80 degree angle. Your hands should be passed your knees at this point. These angles vary of course with your flexibility so start out closer to 80/100 degree angles with proper technique and a straight back.
Note: the legs stay flat.
Step 4: Bend Knees & Slide Forward
This is where the legs come in. Keeping your back and arms in the same position you left them in Step 3, start lifting your knees and progressing smoothly up the slide. Make sure you are not letting your hips slide passed your shoulder plane; maintain that body position forward.
Also, the knees stay square to your body and close together; this does not change throughout the stroke. The reason for this is the same reason you jump with your knees shoulder width apart; you do not jump with your knees angled out because you wouldnt generate as much power and it is not as friendly to your hips and joints.
Note: the angle of your back does not change.
Step 5: “The Catch”
This is technically where the drive begins and the recovery stops. On the water this is where your blade will enter the water. You should not be crashing into this position; you should have been progressing smoothly up the slide and allowing yourself to slow down just before the catch. You also want to make sure you are not “lunging” into the catch; do not drop the shoulders or throw the hands forward at all – maintain that body position. On the water lunging or rushing into the catch will cause the shell to pause for a moment. On land we just want to take care of our body by allowing it to work through smooth motions and transitions.
Note: the angle of your back does not change.
Step 6: Press With the Legs
To start the drive, you want to press with the legs and only the legs. Nothing else is changing or being used; your back remains at the same angle and your arms are still out straight. When the drive with legs is over and they are back to their flat position, your hands should still be passed you knees.
I do want to make a point here by saying the legs do most of the work in the drive. A lot of people have told me, “Rowing must be a great workout for your arms.” My response is not quite; sure there is some resistance when you start bringing your arms in (in Step 8), but throughout Step 6 the arms are getting an isometric workout by “hanging” on the oar/ handle.
Note: the angle of your back does not change. Keep the weight on the heels.
Step 7: Lean Back
After driving with the legs bring that 60-70 degree angle I mentioned earlier back to 110-120. No other movement happens here; just pivot on the hips.
Note: your arms should still be straight out.
Step 8: Follow Through With the Arms
To finish off the stroke, follow through by bringing the arms back into the lower chest and keeping your elbows up and out. You should not be smashing your hands into your chest or dropping them down; it will do you no good on or off the water. On the water you will cause the shell to “porpoise,” or dive into the water. On land it’s really just a waste of energy and will probably bruise your sternum. It is a follow through of the stroke, so finish it off smoothly.
Note: you should be at the finish, or Step 1.
Step 9: “The Finish”
Now we are back to where we started, or rather where we “finish.” See Step 1 if you need to refresh your memory on the finish.
Step 10: Repeat
These steps are meant to help you separate the different parts of the stroke and the order they come in. I know that laying it out like this makes it seem robotic, but you want your transitions to be smooth. Think of the power application during the drive as a bell curve. You don’t just explode at the catch (like we’ve said, be nice to your body); you build into the power and it should peak when the legs are about halfway through Step 6. As you get closer to the finish you want to take the power down to the point where the follow through (or Step 8) seems effortless.
To help you understand this concept, try rowing with your feet out of the foot stretcher to warm up. If you are not tapering down on the power towards the end, your feet will come off the stretcher. You want to keep the weight on the heels as often as possible.
I sincerely hope this helps you better understand how to use the rowing machine. It is fantastic workout if you are using it properly and my hope is that you can strap in during your next workout and get what you should out of it.