Once relegated to the back of the gym, the rowing machine is experiencing a surge in popularity — so much so that there are now entire boutique studios devoted to it and its awesome total-body benefits.
But the machine can be intimidating at first. Do I lead with legs or arms? Should my shoulders feel sore? And why do my feet keep slipping out of the straps?
You’re not alone. The most important thing to remember is: “It’s about power, not speed,” says Melody Davi, manager of instructor operations at SLT. If you walk out of a rowing class with a sore back, you’re doing it wrong, Davi says.
Instead, focus on using your lower-body powerhouse muscles — glutes, hamstrings, quads — to push yourself out and then gently glide back in. Before we dive into more technique, here are two terms that will help guide your workout:
Strokes per minute
This is how many times you row (stroke) in 1 minute. Keep this number at 30 or less, Davi says. Remember: It’s about power, not just flinging your body back and forth.
This is the amount of time it takes to row 500 meters (or a third of a mile). Aim for 2 minutes or less. To increase your pace, push out with more power — don’t just pump your arms faster.
1. Try leg isolations
Start by holding the oar with arms extended, knees bent, and weight on the balls of your feet. This position is called “the catch.”
With your back straight and core engaged, push back using only your legs, rolling through your feet so they’re flat when your legs are extended. Keep your arms extended throughout.
2. Add arm isolations
After you’ve gotten used to pushing with your lower body, practice arm isolations. With legs straight, pull the oar toward your chest. Bend your elbows out to the sides and touch the oar just under your chest.
Hold the oar lightly (more on that below) and use your upper back (not shoulders or biceps) to pull the oar toward you. Engage the same muscles as you do for a bent-over row.
3. Bring it all together
With your back straight, core engaged, and balls of your feet firmly in the straps, push back first with the lower body, then use your upper back to pull hands toward your chest. Release your arms toward the base and bend your knees to glide back to starting position. Think: legs, arms, arms, legs.
Here’s another tip: Take one beat to push out and two beats to glide back, Davi says. In other words, your move back should be twice as fast as your return to starting position.
Mistake No. 1: You hunch your back
This usually means you’re letting your shoulders do all the work.
The fix: Start with perfect posture.
In catch, push your shoulders back (to open chest) and down (so there’s no tension around your neck). Keep back your straight by engaging your core and breathing deeply. Trust us, it’s hard to take deep breaths when you’ve got bad posture.
Mistake No. 2: You make a scooping motion as you row
If you bend your knees before your arms are fully extended on the return, you’ll need to make this scooping motion to avoid hitting your legs with the oar. Rowing is a chain reaction, so one poor form choice can lead to another. Like this next one…
Mistake No. 3: You raise your arms too high
Don’t decapitate yourself with the oar! Pulling the oar all the way up to your chin isn’t just bad form, it probably means you’re using more energy than what’s necessary, Davi says.
The fix: Bring oar to rest just below your chest.
Use upper-back muscles to pull the oar toward your chest. At the end of each row, elbows should be bent more than 90 degrees and forearms should be even with your rib cage.
Mistake No. 4: You let your knees drop to the side
We love relaxing, but letting your knees flop wide is a bit much for a workout. It likely means you’re not engaging inner thigh muscles or activating your hip flexors.
The fix: Finish with your knees in line with your hips.
Use your inner thighs to keep those knees close together or think about zipping up your legs as you push away and glide in.
Another fix: Put the strap over your big toe joint.
A second way to keep your knees from flopping is to strap in your feet correctly. The adjustable strap goes over the joint at the base of your big toes. Toes should bend comfortably so you’re able to push off the balls of your feet.
Mistake No. 5: You have a death grip on the oar
Hey there, let’s chill out. We know you’re excited, but there’s no need to wrap your thumbs around the oar or hang on as if it’s a pull-up bar. Chances are a grip like this will create unnecessary tension in your forearms.
The fix: Hold the oar with three fingers.
Place your hands on the outside of the oar (not the center). Float your pinky fingers off the end and rest your thumbs on top; don’t wrap them around. Hold the oar with the first, middle, and ring fingers of each hand.
Every time you pull back, remember to use your upper back, not shoulders and biceps. This will help take the pressure off your hands.
Now that you’ve perfected your form and understand the basic terminology for rowing, take it up a notch and do Melody’s rowing workout here.
You’ll perform moves both on and off the rowing machine to keep things interesting and intense. Expect planks, lunges, and squats (among others) for a total-body workout. It will effectively target and strengthen all the muscles you need to bring serious power into your rowing sessions.
Special thanks to Melody Davi, who modeled perfect rowing form for us. Davi wears a C9 by Champion top, Lorna Jane leggings, and her own Nike sneakers.