How to Use a Rowing Machine (Rowing for Beginners)

Rowing Machine Introduction

The rowing machines can be an intimidating piece of kit. Unlike the running machines or ellipticals, there’s more going on and it won’t come naturally to everyone. Despite that, it’s something that you should seriously consider incorporating into your workout routine. As we’ve mentioned in previous articles, rowing is an incredible, full-body workout which trains a whole host of muscle groups, whilst also being an amazing cardiovascular exercise.

If you want to lose fat, gain muscle and feel amazing at the same time, rowing is for you! Whether you are looking to use a rowing machine in the gym or add a rower to your home gym, this article will introduce to the piece of equipment, some of the terminology and concepts used by rowers and help you get to grips with the different parts of the rowing stroke (and some common mistakes that you should try and avoid!).

Indoor Rowing has Benefits

indoor rowing exercise benefits

As we mentioned above and in previous articles, rowing is an amazing full-body workout which has a wide range of benefits. It’s low-impact, meaning that the stress it places on joints is minimal when compared with something like road-running, it can be used as part of a HIIT (high-intensity-interval-training) workout to build strength and explosivity, or as part of LISS (low-intensity-steady-state-training) workout to burn calories and build cardiovascular capacity.

This combination of versatility, low-impact nature and full-body workout makes the rowing machine the king of the cardio jungle and something that serious athletes and committed amateurs alike should be paying attention to!

Bits of the Rowing Machine

Before we move on to how to use a rowing machine properly, it’d be good to introduce you to the machine you’re going to be using. Although there are a number of rowing machine brands which differ from one another, there are some consistent features which are common to all machines. It’s those which we’re going to address here.

  1. The footplate – No matter what brand of machine you’re using, there is going to be a footplate for you to step your feet into! You’ll want to set your feet so that the strap goes over the ball of your foot. This will allow you to have the most powerful stroke. It’s important to note here that your heel should be able to move and rise up when you take a rowing stroke.
  2. The handle (sometimes referred to as a bar) – This replaces the oar in a boat and is what you pull on to transfer force from you legs, through your body and into the machine. Your hands should be slightly less than shoulder width apart.
  3. The Rail (sometimes called monorail) – the central beam of the rower, which the seat slides back and forward over.
  4. The Display Monitor (sometimes called performance monitor) – this screen varies between brands of rowing machine, but it is what tells you how far or fast you’re going. The information displayed on these varies between brands and models.
  5. The Dampener – This is the piece of the rower which produces the resistance. This can come in the form of a fan (like the Concept2 Rowers), a water reservoir (for WaterRower machines) or a magnet dampener (like Hydrow rower). Regardless of the form of resistance that your machine uses, this is what you adjust to get a harder or an easier workout.

Indoor Rowing terminology

Try new things with rowing machine

Now you’re familiar with the parts of the rowing machine, I’m going to run through some of the rowing terminology that you might hear thrown around. This might seem overly complicated, but it’s worthwhile spending a bit of time understanding how rowing speed and force is measured, so that you can better understand whether you’re making progress.

  1. Split time – This refers to the time it takes to row 500 meters, also known as the “split per 500.” This will likely be shown prominently on your Display Monitor. If the number goes down, it means you’re going faster!
  2. Strokes Per Minute (SPM) – This is also called Stroke Rating and it’s exactly what it sounds like: the number of strokes you take per minute. A higher SPM doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going faster – you can also go faster by putting more power into each stroke.

The Four Parts of the Rowing Stroke

best rowing techniques

The rowing stroke is broken up into four distinct parts, down below is summary and to better understand, I recommend you to read our rowing techniques and tips.

  1. The Catch
    a. This is the start of the stroke:
    b. Our knees are bent and our shins are roughly vertical.
    c. Our body leans forward slightly to about a 1 o’clock position and our arms are straight
  2. The Drive
    a. As the name would suggest, this is where we’ll be driving and generating power for the stroke.
    b. The order in which we generate power is key:
    c. It should go legs first
    d. Then lean back with the body
    e. Then pull with the arms
  3. The Finish
    a. Our legs are extended and our body is leaning back slightly.
    b. The handle is about at our solar plexus.
    c. Our shoulders are down and our wrists are straight.
  4. The Recovery
    a. Just as we had a proper order for the Drive – legs, body, arms – we’ll have a proper order for the recovery by reversing it – arms, body, legs.
    b. Straighten the arms, then lean the body forward slightly, and finally bend the legs to head back to the Catch.

How to Add Rowing to Your Workout

rowing exercise improves Joint health and flexibility

A rowing machine can fit into our crossfit workout or regular cardio workout in all sorts of ways. If you want to give the rowing machine a whirl, including it as part of your warm-up wouldn’t be a bad idea. Since it’s a full-body exercise, it’s a great way to prep our body for the workout ahead. To warm up with the rower, aim for about 5-10 minutes at a steady pace. We can row:

  1. At the beginning or end of a workout routine.
  2. As part of interval (HIIT) or circuit training.
  3. For the entire workout itself.

Incorporate Rowing with HIIT, Circuit Training, and Stead State:

Interval Training

Interval training or HIIT is all about flipping between intensity. Going hard one moment, then resting another. So after your warm-up, you could row intensely for two minutes, rest or “paddle” for a minute or two, then back to intensity. A fun way to do this is to build up the duration and then pull it back with a “Meter Pyramid.”

To Row a Meter Pyramid:

  1. One minute of intensity, followed by one minute of paddle.
  2. Two minutes of intensity, followed by two minutes of paddle.
  3. Three minutes of intensity, followed by three minutes of paddle.
  4. Four minutes of intensity, followed by four minutes of paddle.
  5. Three minutes of intensity, followed by three minutes of paddle.
  6. Two minutes of intensity, followed by two minutes of paddle.
  7. One minute of intensity, followed by one minute of paddle.
  8. If you start this off with a 5-minute warm-up, it’ll take about 37 minutes.

Circuit Training

You could also mix in some other exercises as part of your rowing workout. Flipping between rowing and some bodyweight exercises, for example. We could aim for 3-4 circuits here, but even 1-2 is a great start. Here’s an example Row Machine Workout Circuit:

  1. Row for 500 meters
  2. 10 push-ups
  3. 10 bodyweight squats
  4. Repeat.

Steady State

This is just what it sounds like: rowing at a constant pace for a long(er) period of time. After you’ve warmed up effectively, find a pace that you can stay with and stay with it! A good frame of mind here would be about 50% of your effort, but don’t overthink this. Put on a good podcast or your favourite playlist, find a Stroke Rate you can maintain for 10-30 minutes (or longer, if you’re brave!), and get rowing.

rowing for beginners
How to use a rowing machine – a beginner’s guide

Sayed Hamed Hosseiny
Sayed Hamed Hosseiny

Hi, my name is Sayed Hamed Hosseiny. I am a professional health and fitness trainer with nearly 20 years of experience using ellipticals, rowing machines, and spin bikes. I also have my own EU-based Rock Fitness Pro fitness brand where I design, import and sell exercise equipment such as rowing machines and spin bikes. I and writers on my team also often receive fitness equipment to review and evaluate their functionalities and performance from tens of different exercise machines manufacturers. Fitness equipment tips, guides, reviews, and comparisons on this website are my opinion (and opinions of my fitness expert colleagues) based on tens of criteria. I never accept payment to write reviews of products or say positive things about fitness equipment products. If brands are interested to have me review their rowers, ellipticals, or spin bikes, they can get in touch with me via email provided on the contact page and send a sample of their product.