How to use the rowing machine | tips on form and a workout too

The only organized sport I’ve ever participated in was crew. (I train for the sport of life!)

Way back when I ‘manned’ the number two seat in an eight woman boat. Despite despising the 5 am workouts, I enjoyed the time spent on the water, the camaraderie of the group and the weekend regattas/48-hour long parties.

Women's 8 crew

This is a stock image. Back when I rowed we didn’t have digital cameras to capture action shots.

Because spring training began long before the lake thawed, I also learned how to use the rowing machine.

Lately, I’ve been re-visiting my youth; turns out that the rowing machine is one of the few forms of cardio training that doesn’t aggravate my Achilles tendonitis. In addition to being a great cardio workout, rowing is also a fantastic, whole-body strength workout. Legs, butt, arms, back and core are all required to work together to move the ‘boat’ through the water.

People new to the rowing machine often complain of a sore back; both lower and upper back pain can be caused by improper form.

In addition to giving them a program to strengthen their mid-section (check out this challenging core workout), I also spend considerable time on technique, explaining the three phases of the stroke and reminding them of what the various movements are supposed to be simulating (funny how most people forget that the handle they’re holding represents an oar which must be moved efficiently through the water to propel the boat forward).

Improve your own form using the (blurry iPhone) photos and tips below.

How to use the rowing machine

Set yourself up for success:

  1. Choose your resistance level. Most rowing machines have a ‘fly’ wheel with a dial for changing resistance. If you’re new to rowing, set the resistance between 3 and 5. Work on form before increasing resistance to avoid putting excess strain on your lower back.
  2. Find a comfortable position on the seat. Make sure you’re centred and that the seat slides easily from back to front.
  3. Place your feet in the stirrups. Adjust the foot plates so that the straps cross your foot midway between your ankle and toes. Ensure that the straps are done up tightly to prevent your feet from slipping as you start to row.
  4. Reach forward and grab the handle with palms facing down and hands approximately shoulder width apart. Keep your grip on the handle relaxed to avoid forearm fatigue.

how to use the rowing machine

Phase 1: The Catch

  1. Begin with the seat close to the fly wheel, hinged forward from the hips and arms outstretched in front.
  2. Knees will be in line with your ankles with your shins perpendicular to the floor.
  3. Your back will be nearly straight, with a slight forward lean at the top.
how to use the rowing machine

The Catch

Phase 2: The Drive

  1. Press through your heels to push the seat backwards, straightening your legs as you do so.
  2. Keep your arms extended until your knees are about half way down. At this point, start pulling the handle back towards your body.
  3. Once legs are extended fully (knees will be soft, never locked), continue pulling handle towards your body (between lower ribs and navel), elbows driving backwards and slightly out to the sides, shoulders staying down away from your ears.
  4. Keeping your back straight, lean back slightly to finish the stroke.
  5. Wrists should remain straight at all times.

Phase 3: The Recovery

  1. From the ‘legs outstretched’ position, straighten arms and reach them forwards.
  2. Once the handle has reached your knees, bend legs so that the ‘slide’ moves forward as well.
  3. Return to starting position, with arms fully outstretched and hips hinged forward.
how to use the rowing machine


Imagine you’re on the water:

  1. Focus on increasing the length of your stroke; reach forward and lean back farther to move the boat through the water more quickly.
  2. Aim to keep the chain parallel to the floor throughout your stroke. Doing so increases the efficiency of the movement and just feels more professional!
  3. Keep your eyes forward. Not only will it minimize upper back and neck fatigue, lateral movements as small as the turning of one oarswoman’s head can throw off the balance of the boat.
  4. Don’t slow down until you’re past the finish line! Races are often won or lost by mere inches!

I love to finish my strength training sessions with cardio intervals on the rowing machine. Try the following program below for a great, full body workout (and a ‘finisher’ to boot)!

How to use the rowing machine

If you liked this video and/or plan on trying the workout, please ‘like’, ‘pin’ and ‘share’!

Are you a rowing machine fan?

Ever rowed in a ‘real’ boat?



  1. I HAD NO IDEA YOU DID CREW (she shouts).
    this is such a great post as Im the woman who always walked right past the rowing machine with NO CLUE whether it was “good” or not….
    Miz recently posted…Personal first aid kits (Bay Area redo).My Profile

  2. So cool that you rowed back “in the day!”
    Back in college and my coaching days, I used the rowing machine on occasion – it has been years since I’ve tried it out. Your workout and all the tips are awesome!!
    Kim recently posted…AutopilotMy Profile

    • Thanks Kim! You should give it a try again. Such a refreshing change from all the other cardio machines!

  3. Like Miz, no idea you were a crew person!!! WOW! I am not a rowing machine fan BUT there may be a day I need to use it – pls no Achilles strain – hugs to you & glad you are better! 🙂

    Reallt wonderful & in depth post on this AND the link to core work – LOVE!!!!!
    Jody – Fit at 55 recently posted…Gratitude Monday, Cookies, A New Adventure, Labor DayMy Profile

    • Good to know that I still have secrets 😉
      I like rowing too, because it’s such a different cardio workout than the treadmill, the elliptical or the bike. A lot more upper body involvement (which is admittedly, my favourite to work)

  4. I used one of these for the first time about a year ago. I was so strong for the first 30 seconds. And then, depression set in.

    I see the value in them absolutely — a whole different kind of conditioning!
    Contemplative Fitness recently posted…Minimal-list…My Profile

    • Yes! Easy to row like stink for 30 s, not so easy to keep it up! (Same thing when you’re in a boat, but even worse if you slow down and the person in front of you doesn’t…)

  5. Great post! I tried using that machine a couple of years ago and had no clue if I was doing it right. Glad I will know what to do once my damn knee is better. I do love you blurred facial expressions in these pictures 🙂

    • Ha, ha! That’s just because I was moving so fast!
      But seriously, you may find rowing not as painful on the knee as running or cycling. There’s very little torque and absolutely no impact. Let’s remember this for when that knee is feeling better!

  6. I did crew, too! But I have only used a rowing machine a few times… Great post!

  7. Thanks Tamara! This is so appropriate, I just talked about Rowing today in my post! Love to row, but I stink at it (for now at least!)
    Taylor @ LiftingRevolution recently posted…The 5 Most Underrated Exercises In Fitness HistoryMy Profile

  8. sooo glad you posted this! I just started rowing last year, took me a while to figure out the right way!

  9. I love the rowing machine! I remember using an ancient one my parents had in their basement for a while when I was a teenager – I was really out of shape back then! I show most of my clients how to use the rowing machine since it is such a great total-body workout 🙂
    Sarah @ Fit Betty recently posted…Why I Am Letting GoMy Profile

  10. First of all, thanks for the article! As a real water rower, rowing machine is THE way to go when I can’t row “for real”.
    But let me tell you, even if I manage to go out and row, I feel the need of using my Concept2 even for 30 minutes a day.
    It’s relaxing and rewarding at the same time, actually the same feeling that real rowing gives me!
    Good tips on cardio intervals on the rowing machine… an effective way to get fit!
    thank you

  11. Hi! Long time lurker first time commenter. I rowed too! After I ‘retired’ from elite rowing it took me over a year to consider even getting back on the good old erg after years of torture. I had to change the settings so I couldn’t tell how hard I was going – I’d try to keep my old splits which was just a disaster. Now I use the rowing machine occasionally but I can’t ‘plan’ it for my session. I have to decide on the spot to row otherwise I start getting anxious as I drive to the gym! And I still get my heart beating faster as I drive into the regatta centre.

  12. Rowing Machine is very good for doing workout. It helps to reduce calory , fat, wight loss, I use rowing machine to do workout, It don’t take enough time. If we do daily it can be very short time. It is very easy & simple. I would like to thanks to admin to provide this nice tips about using rowing machine.


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