Are You Using Your Rower Effectively? How-To Guide

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Knowing how to use a rower is not all about use of common sense as some people may perceive and neither is it purchasing a rowing machine and mounting on it as you proceed to rowing. Though it is a natural motion that can be understood so quickly, it is also a continuous learning and following of the instructions daily. For an effective workout, with the aim of strengthening your muscles or full cardio, you need to use the rower correctly. The body should also move in a correct sequence. By doing this, you will have worked out successfully and safely. Some effects such as back pains, knee or joint pains may be as a result of poor workouts.

Common mistakes made

Before proceeding on the proper way of using the rower, let me begin with the most common mistakes people make. There are several of them but I’ll highlight on these common ones;

  • Failure to check on the settings.

Before starting over, it is advisable that you check on the settings (i.e. damper settings)and adjust them to the right point. This is especially beneficial when working out at a gym where everyone administers their own settings basing on preference. The rowing machine may be set at a high setting making it so heavier and thus exhausting the muscles before performing a reasonable workout. For beginners, a lower setting between 2 and 3 is best.

  • Moving your legs and arms at the same time

The order of rowing starts with the legs first, the core and hamstrings and finally the arms and back.

  • Engaging only specific muscles

Rowing is not an arm workout but a full body workout involving all the muscles from the head to the toe. All muscle groups should therefore be involved in the workout. Precisely, the leg should take about 60% of your body movement while the core and the arms should equally take the remaining portion in that order.

  • Bending your back

This habit feels so much comfortable but should be strictly avoided. Hunching your back will only bring you a pain effect at the end. It is important that you back is maintained at a straight posture.

The Considerations when Beginning

  • Before doing anything else, you have to ensure that the rowing machine is set at the lowest resistance level. All the settings should be set to the minimal.
  • Ensure that your feet are secured on the pads with straps pressing tightly against them. This will prevent them from moving around or sliding on the foot plate. Most rowing machines have adjustable straps that will enable you to tie them over the joint of your big toes. This property ensures that your toes bend comfortably when pushing balls of feet.
  • Your hands should grip the handle lightly but securely. You don’t have to use so much force on it but you also have to ensure that your hands don’t slide off while rowing. A death grip creates tension on the forearms.

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Rowing strokes

The catch

  • The arms should be straight; the head is neutral and the shoulders level. The knees should bend until the body is near to the handle.
  • The upper body leans forward from the hip while the back maintains a straight posture.
  • Vertical shin (the thicker bone of the leg between the knee and the ankle) positioned perpendicularly.

The drive

  • The first step is pressing the foot plate with your leg muscles, swing your back in a vertical position and add the arm pull.
  • Move the hands to and from the flywheel in a straight line.
  • Shoulders are low and relaxed while the arm and torso are in the original position.

The finish

  • Slightly lean back your upper body (assuming 45˚ angle), with the support of the core muscles.
  • Extend your legs and grip the handle lightly below your ribs.
  • The grip should be relaxed while the wrists are flat and low with the shoulders.

The recovery

  • Bend your elbows and pull the handle until it touches below your chest. Don’t raise your arms too high because you’ll be using more energy than it is necessary.
  • Straighten your hands by extending your arms and then lean from the hips towards the flywheel (This step is reverse of the sequence i.e. arms, core and then legs).
  • Bend your knees with ease and slide the seat forward on the monorail. This step should be gradual.
  • Your stroke is done and therefore you can return to the catch position for the next stroke. The shoulders should remain relaxed while the shin vertical.

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You should keep on practicing your stroke slowly and gradually at a low resistance till you master it. The sequence that guides you from the catch stroke to the finish stroke is; legs, core and then arms respectively. At the final or recovery stroke, the reverse happens i.e. arms, core and then legs. For as long as you maintain a straight back, relaxed shoulders and vertical shin, you will at no point have back pains, knee or joint problems due to using the rower.


As a fitness and Crossfit coach, I get to use rowers almost every day. If you have any questions, please reach me at I coach people in their homes and condos in the Toronto Area, as well help them set up home gyms, choose which equipment to buy, and provide nutrition and exercise programs.