How To Use A Rowing Machine – The Correct Way

Rowing is a great way to work out. It’s low impact so it’s easy on your joints and it’s a full-body workout, so it makes excellent use of your time. Rowing is also a superior cardiovascular and fat-burning exercise (1).

However, to enjoy all the benefits rowing has to offer, you must use your rowing machine correctly. In addition to making your workouts more effective, using your rower the right way will also make your workouts safer and more comfortable. If you haven’t purchased your own rowing machine, read our detailed reviews here. 

How To Use A Rowing Machine

Setting it Up

There aren’t too many things to adjust on a rowing machine. This makes them very easy to use. There are three main things you’ll need to adjust before you start rowing.

1. Set The Resistance

Man using a rowing machine in a gymMost rowing machines offer a range of resistance settings so that you can work out at the right level of intensity for your current fitness level.

Usually numbered for easy reference, different rowers use different resistance or braking systems.

Some rowers use large fans while others rely on electromagnetic resistance. Cheaper rowers have adjustable hydraulic arms and cylinders while a few rowers use sealed water canisters.

If you are new to rowing, set the resistance level quite low; you can always increase it later. It’s better to start off too easy and finish your workout feeling good than set it too high and exhaust yourself. In most cases, you’ll need to stop and get off your rower to change resistance levels.

2. Set The Performance Monitor

Rowing machines are usually fitted with small computers called performance monitors. woman using a rowing machine and man in background using one alsoThe number of functions available depends on the rower you are using but most display things like speed, distance, time, calories, and strokes per minute.

Set your monitor so that you can see the functions that interest you most.

You may also be able to set a countdown timer or workout distance.

In most cases, you won’t be able to reach the performance monitor once you start exercising, so make sure you set it up before you begin your workout.

3. Adjust The Foot Straps

Rman using a rowing machineowers have foot straps to keep your feet securely connected to your rower’s footplates. These straps should be snug but not too tight.

If they are too tight, you could cut off the circulation to your feet, and that will be painful.

The straps should go around the broadest part of your foot, so adjust the footplates accordingly.

Once you’ve set up your rower, you are ready to start your workout.

How To Use Correctly

Rowing with proper technique will make your workout smoother, easier, and more comfortable. Learning to row to easy, but it may take you a few workouts to master. Be patient and practice; you’ll soon be rowing like a pro!

  1. Place your feet on the footplates and tighten the foot straps. Make sure the straps are across the broadest part of your feet.
  1. Grab the rowing handle with an overhand grip. Wrap your thumbs around the handle for comfort and security.
  1. With your arms straight and roughly level with the floor, slide forward as far as you comfortably can. Sit up straight and look straight ahead.
  1. Without leaning back, push with your legs and drive yourself backward. As the handle passes over your knees, bend your arms and pull it into your abdomen. End your stroke with your legs straight, your arms bent, and your torso more-or-less upright.
  1. To return to the starting position, extend your arms, and then bend your legs. Slide forward smoothly.
  1. Breathe in as you slide forward and out as you push backward.

Couple on rowing machines in the gym

Common Rowing Mistakes

With practice, rowing should become second nature. You won’t even have to think about it! However, initially, you may make a few common rowing mistakes. It’s easier to fix these problems when they are new than ignore them and allow them to turn into bad habits. Look out for these mistakes and fix them as soon as you can.

1. Using Your Arms Too Much, Too Soon

Your legs are much bigger and stronger than your arms. Using your arms more than your legs will quickly tire you out. Begin each stroke with a powerful leg push. Only pull with your arms to finish each stroke.

Remember, for every stroke, starting with your legs bent and arms straight, you should follow this movement sequence:


2. Rounding Your Lower Back

A rounded lower back is a weak lower back that is prone to injury. Rowing machines do not have back supports, so it’s up to you to sit upright. You’ll need to use your core muscles!

Try not to round your back when you move forward or lean back excessively when you move backward. Instead, do your best to sit up and look straight ahead. This will minimize the stress on your lower back, making your workout safer and more comfortable.

3. Keep Your Arms Level With The Floor

The shortest distance between any two points is a straight line. In rowing, that means keeping your arms level with the floor and pulling the handle into your mid-abdomen and not your chest.

If your arms are higher or lower than this, you are wasting energy and could increase your risk of injury. Make sure you keep your wrists straight too.

4. Rowing Too Fast

Rowing too fast makes it harder to use proper technique. Your rowing speed should be slow and steady – about 28-32 strokes per minute for most people. If you feel like you need to go faster to get a good workout, increase the intensity level, so you have more resistance to work against.

5. Using A Shortened Range Of Motion

To get the most from rowing, each stroke should be as long as your flexibility allows. In other words, slide as far forward as you can, extending your arms fully as you do so, and then extend your legs fully, pulling the handle into your abdomen.

Anything less than a full stroke will reduce the effectiveness of your workout. Do not try and increase your range of motion by rounding your lower back or letting your knees drop outward; that is a recipe for injury.

Video Guide

Bottom Line

Rowing machines are ideal for home use. No other workout machine provides such an effective, full-body workout. Unlike running on a treadmill, which can be hard on your joints, rowing is a very low impact activity. This makes it very joint-friendly. That is an important consideration if you are exercising for weight loss.

Rowers are also relatively quiet in use. Models with fans can get a little noisy when you start rowing hard, but hydraulic and electromagnetic rowing machines are all-but silent in use.

If there is a downside to rowing, it is that you need to use the right technique to get a good, safe workout. Exercise spin bikes are undeniably easier to use, but they only work your legs. Rowing is a full-body activity that makes it a superior calorie burner.

However, rowing also requires more coordination. With a little time and practice, almost anyone can learn to row and, once you do, it’s a skill you’ll never forget. Looking for a fun, effective workout that you’ll never grow out of? Consider a rowing machine!


  1. Ka-Young Shin, et al. 2015. Effects of Indoor Rowing Exercise on the Body Composition and the Scoliosis of Visually Impaired People: A Preliminary Study

Patrick Dale is an ex-British Royal Marine and owner and lecturer for a fitness qualifications company. In addition to training prospective personal trainers, Patrick has also authored three fitness and exercise books, dozens of e-books, thousands of articles, and several fitness videos.

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