Overlooked and Underappreciated: How to Use the Rowing Machine

The rowing machine can be intimidating, but once you get the hang of it, it's an effective way to spice up your cardio routine. But while the rowing machine, also called an ergometer, is a calorie buster (about 280 calories in 30 minutes for an 130-pound woman) and a good leg and core workout, improper form can lead to back injuries if you're not careful. Read on for our tips on proper rowing form.

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Before you start, there are a few things to note about using the rowing machine. Make sure you wear formfitting clothes, otherwise you risk getting fabric caught in it while working out. Don't set the resistance too high — experienced rowers generally use the rowing machine at 3-5 during their workouts, so setting the machine at 2 or 3 is perfect for a beginner. Keep your strokes per minute somewhere in the low- to mid-20s as well.

There are different ways to measure your workout, so use the change display button on your machine to track your strokes per minute, calories burned, kilometers traveled, or your split (how many minutes it takes you to travel 500 meters).

Beginning Position

  1. For your first row, set the resistance low while you figure out your form, then slowly ramp it up on subsequent rows.
  2. Secure your feet on the pads with the straps tight enough so your feet don't move around as you slide.
  3. Bring your knees up and slide to the top of the machine. Grab the handle using an overhand grip, but don't hold too tightly.
  4. Pull the handle with you as you slide to the end of the machine. Your legs should be straight, but knees should still have a slight bend in them so they aren't locked. Lean back slightly and pull your hands up to your chest, holding the handle so it is right below your breasts, with elbows pointing down against your sides. This is the position where you should begin your workout, and it's also your ending position once you complete a full stroke (see below).
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The Catch

  1. Move your arms out first, followed by your upper body. Your back should always stay straight, not slumped, with shoulders back and abs engaged as you follow through. As your arms extend out, your upper body position will go from slightly angled back to slightly angled forward.
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  1. As your arms extend and body leans forward, slide your body forward on the seat by bending your legs. Once you are at the top of the machine, your arms will be fully extended and legs will be bent (see below). This part of the stroke is called the catch.
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The Drive

  1. To slide back to your finish position, push off with your feet first, so that your legs straighten but your arms are still extended and your body is still slightly leaning forward (see below). The drive is the part of the workout that mimics pulling the oars out of the water and propelling the boat forward, so it's this part that works your leg and core muscles the most.
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  1. As you continue to push through with your legs, move your upper body so that you begin to lean back (see below).
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  1. The last part of your body to return to finish position are your arms; as your upper body angles back, pull the handle and bend your arms so that the handle ends up back to touching the front of your chest, just like how you started (see below). Don't grip the handle too hard; the power should be through your legs, and using too much force while pulling the cable can cause hand blisters as well as back problems.
  2. Continue practicing your stroke slowly and at low resistance until you get the hang of it! It can be helpful to break the moves down into a sequence of what should move first: "arms-body-legs" as you pull up to the top of the machine and "legs-body-arms" as you push back.
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