How to Use a Rowing Machine – the Techniques and Stages

It’s a fact that many people don’t know how to use a rowing machine properly, they think they do but often find out they’re wrong once they start using one. If not careful, that can have serious consequences.

It’s sad and very unfair in many ways that rowing machines aren’t seen as particularly sexy when it comes to exercise equipment. It’s probably because of a few reasons, but a lot of people don’t really understand them or how to use them properly. It could even be due to the fact that you have to sit on them and if using it in the gym people “tower” over you if they’re standing nearby. Sounds daft, but it could have some affect.

The first known use of a rowing machine was in 4BC when an Athenian admiral used them to train new oarsmen so they had some knowledge before tackling rowing the warships. As for using a rower to exercise, it was in the mid 1880’s when it really started, but the first patent for a rowing machine with hydraulic resistance was issued in 1872. The popularity of them took off in a big way during the 1950’s and 1960’s. Today, as already mentioned, popularity is somewhat limited compared to other types of exercise equipment.

When considering home exercise equipment, even depending on the amount of space you have, the poor old rowing machine isn’t normally first choice. This is a bit of a shame as they are a very good all-body exerciser. They’re great as a cardio, strengthening or weight loss machine. Unfortunately this all-round flexibility is often overlooked.


Before Asking How, Ask Why


How do you use a rowing machine? The first thing is to decide on is what’s the reason for you to want one? Do you need to strengthen up, to compliment another sports activity, are you looking to lose weight or is it just a general overall fitness and tone up you want? It’s important to consider this as it will make a difference to the way you work out.

Like any exercise, rowing can seem tedious at times. It’s easy to put it off until next time or find an excuse why you can’t do it today. You need to think about the end results, not how difficult it is getting to it.

Focus on how much better you’ll look and feel after you’ve lost weight or have toned up. Only think of the achievement and not the bit in between now and getting there. Believe me that will make a difference.

It might also help if you can row in front of the TV or with the radio on, you may even listen to music via headphones to make the time seem to pass more quickly. This will help with getting through “now”, but keep the long-term result at the front of your mind. You have a reason for doing it, don’t lose sight of that.


How to Use a Rowing Machine to Get Results


Having said you should focus on the end results (which you should), you must also set short term goals otherwise there’s a danger the long-term goal may seem overwhelming and out of reach. There is a formula of how to use a rowing machine and it’s very straightforward but may vary a little depending on the kind of work out you choose – our article, How to Pick a Rowing Work Out might help you with that.

One of the most important things is to not just climb on board and row. Think about it, would you start weight lifting by picking up (or more likely trying to pick up) the first weights you come across without checking how heavy they are or whether they are a good starting point for you? If you did, it could cause considerable damage to you.

It’s the same with using a rowing machine, apart from the warming up exercises, you need to start off slowly and build from there. Try to go a little further each time, beating your previous best. That way you achieve something regularly whilst still keeping your eye on the end game.

Remember there are different ways to row, for example there’s high intensity interval training. Put simply, it’s where you alternate between short bursts of intense and slower rowing. This can have beneficial effects and is particularly good for calorie burning. One of the biggest advantages of rowing over other exercises though, is the fact it’s also one of the best cardio exercises.


Technique and Stages


The technique used is similar to rowing in water, but with a slight difference. Although not too important, perhaps we should mention wearing the right clothes. Just make sure you don’t wear anything that might get caught up in the machine.

Make sure you have the foot straps firmly around your feet. If they’re too loose it might affect you as you bend your legs, making your foot slip off the footrest. They need to be secure as the legs form the most important part of the rowing process.

You should also make sure you’re sitting in the seat squarely and properly. If the seat has a back to it, sit as far back as possible. You need to keep your back as straight as possible and if you’re not positioned in the seat properly this tends to make you arch your back.

Whichever rowing work out you use, there are four stages to the process:


The Catch

Your feet are strapped to the footrests, you’re sitting correctly in the seat and you move until your knees are bent with the shins upright. Arms should be outstretched and level, you should lean slightly forward while keeping your back straight.


The Drive or Slide

Begin to straighten your legs while moving your body slightly backwards to make the legs work even harder. Once the legs are straight, pull the handle towards the chest. Make sure they come up to about the height of your nipples and keep your arms as level to the floor as possible.


The Finish

This where the legs are completely flat with the shoulders leaning back a little, arms pulled up to the chest and the back still upright.


The Recovery

You slide back in reverse order to return to the start so that you can begin the next stroke.



Just Get Started


This all looks very complicated, but the reality is that once you go through it a couple of times, it comes naturally and you don’t realise you’re doing it. It’s important though, to keep your back as straight as possible at all times because if you hunch up, which is very common, you can cause some damage.

Another mistake people often make is that they put too much pressure on the arms, shoulders and back which can also cause problems. Whilst the muscles from these areas do get plenty of tension, most of the pressure should be on the legs, around 60% of it.

If you’re unsure which rower would be best for you, our article on the best home rowing machine should help to give you an idea. Remember, the cheapest isn’t always the best.

So there you have it, how to use a rowing machine correctly, effectively and safely. These instructions are, of course, only a general guide, if you have a medical condition or are unsure of what’s best for you, always seek professional advice. You should always follow the instruction manual that comes with your rowing machine, or better still seek advice from a qualified trainer.