Your Rowing Machine Technique Guide

exercising in a gym on a rowing machine

There is a rowing machine technique types to try. If you’re planning on using a rowing machine anytime soon, your technique can mean the difference between a stronger body and a weaker back. Rowing machines are often the source of many exercise-related injuries. Users that fail to know the proper technique are usually the cause of the injury.

Rowing machines appear to be dangerously intuitive.

Opening your first rowing machine and setting it up? It can be easy to skip the manual and go straight to pulling. After all, how hard can it be to pull a rope and slide backward?

While the operation of a rowing machine can appear initially to be so simple, the truth is this… Without the proper precautions—you can seriously injure yourself with improper technique. Lower back injuries and knee injuries are reported in rowers, even on a professional level.

The external elements of injury are limited. By using a machine properly that does not mean that the risk goes away entirely.

We will be going over the initial rowing machine techniques performed by first-time rowers, common issues you may experience, before finally laying out the precise technique you need to be using whenever you mount the machine. With the right rowing machine technique, you can gain the most out of this upper body machine without the risk of chronic pain.

Beginner’s Problems

Beginners will often hop right onto the machine without first understanding the components of the product they’ve purchased or are otherwise using. Understanding the anatomy of a rowing machine better helps to understand better why posturing is paramount when using the machine.

For instance, most rowing machines are adjustable and will allow you to vary the level of resistance you’ll feel when pulling back on the bar. The adjustment to this level of resistance, known as the dampener, is the key to successful rowing.

The dampener allows you to focus on building up the right form while still feeling a bit of the resistance that the machine can offer. Once a rower has become adjusted to the right technique or wants more resistance to better cement their method the dampener can be adjusted and the workout difficulty increase.

All too often, first-time operators will (falsely) equivocate the settings on the dampener with the level of difficulty of the machine, and thus, provide a more effective workout. To be clear: just because you are rowing on the most resistant setting of the dampener does not mean that you will be afforded the best benefits.

If anything, rowing with poor technique on a rowing machine’s most resistant setting will increase the risk of injury exponentially.

for beginners learning rowing machine technique

Image: Public Domain, Johnteslade~commonswiki, via Wikimedia

Things to remember for Beginner in Rowing Machine Technique

The other problem with the approach of a first-time rower is a fundamental misunderstanding of what a rowing machine can afford you. The rowing machine is designed for endurance training not speed. Since rowing remains an Olympic sport and a popular one at that, people tend to see the point of rowing as crossing some sort of imaginary finish line.

Increasing speed when beginning, and especially before proper technique sets in, will severely undercut your posture and will often hurt your body far more than it will help. When using a rowing machine, focus on the minutes of the workout rather than the number of repetitions. This simple mindset shift will allow you to focus on the form and not the function.

Finally, the biggest problems that beginners face is not knowing what order to perform the movements in. Even worse, performing the movements simultaneously. Many will glance at an online video and see the basic rowing machine technique needed but fail to recognize that each motion needs to be performed simultaneously.

We’ll be going over the techniques and order of the correct way to work out on a rowing machine a little later on.

While not knowing the rowing machine technique and simply pulling the bar is bad. Committing improper technique to muscle memory is even worse. The most common (and dangerous) incorrect technique performed, even by those who regularly use rowing machines, is the legs-first method.

Rowing Legs-First

use rowing machine technique

Image: Public Domain in the United States, U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 3rd Class Andrew Geraci, via Wikimedia

Rowing legs-first is usually a technique that even confident rowers develop over time. It’s a natural tendency of the body to take the strain off of the muscles we’re trying to work out and rely on the naturally powerful legs to maneuver the machine. This comes with many problems.

First, rowing legs-first fundamentally shifts the full-body workout of a rowing machine to a leg workout. As a leg workout alone, the rowing machine is simply inferior to other options. In many ways, you’re nullifying the entire point of a rowing machine by rowing legs-first.

Second, rowing in this manner will force your back to hyperextend in directions that aren’t natural in posturing. This can be difficult on your lumbar which is forcing itself behind the body instead of right under it. Over time, this can develop into serious problems with spinal fluid retention.

Rowing legs-first gives more strain on your body. It forces you to use muscle groups you were not intending to use by the machine to ensure that you are pulling the bar back the “correct” amount. In general, those who row legs-first are the first to give up on the rowing machine. They find a lack of results, when in reality, it is the technique that is harming them.

The Correct Rowing Machine Technique

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We’ve gone over just about every way to operate a rowing machine incorrectly. Let’s break down the correct technique step by step.

The initial resting position is the same as most would initially take. Keep your feet strapped in and resting on the foot bar. Keep your legs bent and close to perpendicular to the floor, and your posture straight and leaned slightly forward. Focus on relaxing your shoulders and maintaining total neutrality in this starting position. Remember to keep your arms fully extended.

Next, we need to initiate the range of motion one at a time, starting with the legs. We’re well aware that this may seem counterintuitive to the warning about rowing legs-first. Just remember that the legs-first technique’s problem is that the legs force the lumbar spine behind the rest of the body. When driving with the legs, you want to make sure your body moves back in tandem with them.

While pushing back with your legs, keep your body leaned slightly forward. Keep your arms locked out in front of you until your legs have fully extended. Tilt back so that your legs are not in directly in front of you. Finally, the stroke completed by pulling the ball with your arms and finishing the pull close to the chest.

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