6 Rowing Machine Mistakes (And Tips to Fix Them)

6 Rowing Machine Mistakes (And How to Fix Them)
Photo: Pond5

Not sure how to work out on a rowing machine without looking like a total fish out of water? It’s easy to make mistakes when using a rower, officially known as an “ergometer,” the first couple of times. But you’d be crazy to avoid the machine altogether out of sheer embarrassment. Rowing can burn up to 800 calories an hour and is extremely effective in working your whole body from head to toe. Quads, hamstrings, back, abdominals, arms, shoulders and calves are all used in the rowing stroke. Depending on how you train, you can increase your aerobic fitness or focus on building muscle strength and explosive power.

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Rowing’s efficiency and effectiveness, plus its reputation for being a low-impact workout for all ages and body types, has made it increasingly popular in gyms and fitness studios across the U.S. CrossFitters are getting on board with rowing, too. Numerous boxes incorporate the rower into WODs (Workout of the Day), and there are several CrossFit Games rowing events.

Row Like A Pro: Technique 101

“Learning to row has often been made way too complicated and intimidating,” says Josh Crosby, rowing world champion and co-creator of the IndoRow machine and ShockWave, an Equinox class that combines rowing with circuit training. To simplify the exercise and help you learn the stroke, Crosby and Patrick Larcom, head coach at Renegade Rowing and coach at CrossFit Boston, share the lowdown on the best ways to correct common newbie mistakes. Use these expert tips to confidently strap in and get your heart racing!

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Mistake #1: Forgetting to check the damper setting.

Lots of newbies will sit down and not adjust the damper setting, the lever on the side of the air-resistant flywheel on a Concept II rower. If the lever is on a higher setting, the rowing machine will feel more like a heavy rowboat and might exhaust your muscles too early in the workout.

The fix: Practice your form before you set your sights high. “The damper setting is like gears on a bicycle,” says Larcom. The higher the gear, the heavier the feel on the body. He recommends starting somewhere between a three and a five, if you’re new to rowing. (It’s most similar to the feel of being on water.)

Mistake #2: Rowing with only your arms.

You’ve seen rowers with built upper bodies, so you’re ready to pull the handle with all your might, right? Wrong! Putting too much pressure on your arms, shoulders and back can cause serious injury to your body.

The fix: “Roughly 60 percent of your power should come from pushing with the legs, 20 percent from bracing the core and 20 percent from pulling with the arms,” says Crosby. It’s important to use the power of your legs for each stroke by pushing against the panel (foot stretcher) where your feet are strapped in.

RELATED: 3 Rowing Workouts to Get Strong and Lean

Mistake #3: Mixing up the order of operations.

Firing the arms and legs at the same time might feel like the right thing to do when you sit down. But if you’re all systems go, you’ll put unnecessary strain on your upper body.

rowing on Make A Gif
GIF: Renegade Rowing’s Pat Larcom on a Concept II

The fix: There’s a three-step process to the rowing stroke. Focus on pushing with the legs first. Next, pivot backward at the hips so your shoulders pass your pelvis (you should be in a slight lay back). Then, pull the arms into your chest. A good target for your hands, according to Larcom, is “where you would bench press or the bottom of the sports bra,” below your ribs. Once your hands are pulled into your chest, reverse the order to go back to starting position, and repeat.

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Mistake #4: Hunching your back during the stroke.

If you’ve got a bad habit of rounding your back when concentrating at a desk, odds are good that your body will naturally assume that same position when you sit down at a rower.

The fix: “You want to sit tall with a stacked posture,” says Larcom.  He recommends focusing on “turning on” your abdominal muscles, or engaging your core. Also relax your shoulders so they are pulled back and down. Your spine should always be in neutral.

Mistake #5: Banging your butt into your heels or rushing.

You’re in the zone, taking strokes as fast as possible towards your imaginary finish line. Problem is, your seat keeps slamming into the front of the rower and your body is jerking forward uncontrollably.

The fix: To regain control, pay attention to timing of your strokes. According to Crosby, the stroke’s ratio should be a 1:2 count. That means your body should expend lots of energy quickly at the drive, when the legs are pushing and arms are pulling. The second half of the stroke should be more relaxed and controlled. Having a calm and collected recovery will prevent your seat from smashing frantically into the front of the rower.

RELATED: The 10-Minute Rowing Workout This Olympian Swears By

Mistake #6: Shooting your butt out and having to jerk your upper body back.

If your legs are pushing quickly and causing your rear to shoot out ahead of the rest of you, your upper body will have to awkwardly catch up. Doing extra work to jerk your top half around will make your stroke less efficient, and can cause injury.

The fix: “Make sure your abs are turned on, so the hands and feet stay connected,” says Larcom. He stresses that engaging the core is key to smoothly connecting the movements of the upper and lower body. For efficient rowing, you want to be able to stop at any point during the stroke and be in a “strong position.” That means your entire body has a deliberate and controlled posture with key muscles activated.

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Originally published March 2014. Updated December 2016.

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