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Get your row on: How to use a rowing machine

Pop quiz: what is the most underutilized exercise that helps you build lean muscle tone in your legs, back, arms and core and gives you a great cardio workout?

It’s that neglected row machine catching dust by all the treadmills and elliptical trainers in your gym.

Rowing, or “erging” as it sometimes called is a great cardiovascular and strength-building exercise. It offers a smooth, low-impact workout for the whole body.

The adventuresome lot at the gym may try out the row machine, but many times not have the faintest clue of how to use it…let alone with proper form, unless they “rowed crew at an Ivy.”

Rowing Video 1


With proper technique, rowing will work all the major muscle groups of the core, arms, back and legs in a balanced manner. Not to mention help strengthen the muscles with the pulling motion, which most people neglect in favor of pushing exercises (i.e. Bench Press much?)

However, many people get confused on the technique of rowing. The tendency is to think the faster you move the seat back and forth, the better you are doing…similar to the faster you run on a treadmill the better workout you are getting, right? Wrong.

Picture yourself rowing in a boat…you only move the boat forward as you pull back on the oars. The oars react with the pressure exerted on them by pulling you along in the water, which moves you steadily along.

The same methodology applies to the row machine. You need to have a strong back pull and then a relaxed downstroke. This will allow you to row harder and faster, with less strokes needed, to get the same amount of work done.

Rowing Video 2


Let that last sentence sink in for a minute and then look at the example below: If you have two rowers, rower A and rower B, complete a 5 minute row at the same pace, but rower A averages 35 strokes per minute while rower B averages 22 strikes per minute, whom do you think will be more tired at the end of the 5 minute row?

Definitely rower A. They tired themselves out with 65 more strokes in 5 minutes than rower B, yet they completed the same distance at the same overall pace.

Wait, they did the same distance in the same amount of time? Yes! The key comes down to the max efficiency the rower is getting per stroke. In this case, rower B was more efficient in each of their strokes by generating more power per stroke.

So how do you become more efficient at rowing? Technique practice of course coupled with a thorough understanding of the four positions of the rowing stroke.

The proper rowing stroke consists of four phases

  1. The Drive
  2. The Finish
  3. The Recovery
  4. The Catch

Getting Started

  • Sit on the seat, strap your feet into the foot pads and grab the handles with an overhand grip.
  • Extend your arms straight toward the flywheel, and keep your wrists flat.
  • Slide forward on the seat until your shins are vertical.
  • Lean forward slightly at the hips.

The Drive Position


  • Begin the drive by extending your legs and pushing off against the foot pads.
  • Keep your core tight, arms straight and back firm as you transfer power to the handles.
  • As your knees straighten, gradually bend your arms and lean your upper body back. Finish with a slight backward lean.

The Finish Position


  • Bend your elbows and pull the handle into your abdomen.
  • Extend your legs.
  • Lean back slightly at the hips.

The Recovery Position


  • Extend your arms by straightening your elbows and returning the handle toward the flywheel.
  • Lean your upper body forward at the hips to follow the arms.
  • Gradually bend you knees and slide forward on the seat to the start position.

The Catch Position


  • Similar to the start position, extend your arms straight toward the flywheel and keep your wrists flat.
  • Slide forward on the seat until your shins are vertical.
  • Lean forward slightly at the hips.
  • You are ready to take the next stroke.

Need some great ideas for your next row workout that are not mundane and boring? Contact me personally at and I will be glad to share some with you.