Mastering the Rowing Machine: A Comprehensive Guide

The rowing machine has evolved from its ancient maritime origins into a staple fitness tool known for its ability to deliver a comprehensive, low-impact workout. Originally used as a means of transportation and competitive sport, rowing became an essential fitness regimen due to its remarkable capacity to engage multiple muscle groups simultaneously. This Muscle and Motion comprehensive guide will help you understand the proper rowing form, the mechanics involved, and common mistakes to avoid.


The anatomy of a rowing stroke

A proper rowing stroke consists of two main phases: the drive (work phase) and the recovery (rest phase), which prepares you for the next drive. Each component is integral to executing an effective and fluid motion:


1. The catch (starting position)

  • Sit on the rowing machine seat and secure your feet on the footplates.
  • Grasp the handle with both hands and arms extended, and keep your wrists flat.
  • Slide forward on the seat until your shins are vertical. Hinge slightly forward at the hips, keeping your back straight.

2. The drive

  • Initiate the stroke by pressing down with your legs.
  • As your legs extend, pivot your back from a slightly forward lean to a slightly backward angle.
  • Conclude the drive by pulling the handle toward your lower ribs with your arms, maintaining relaxed shoulders.

3. The finish (end of the stroke)

  • The upper back is slightly leaning backward, with the core muscles engaged. 
  • The legs are extended, and the handle is held lightly below your ribs while your shoulders and grip are relaxed.

4. The recovery

  • The movements during the recovery are essentially the reverse of the drive. These movements should flow smoothly to create the rowing stroke.
  • Start with straightening your arms, then hinge from the hips towards the flywheel.
  • Once your hands are past your knees, bend your legs and slide the seat forward.
  • Return to the catch position with relaxed shoulders and vertical shins for the next stroke.

Why use a rowing machine?

Incorporating a rowing machine into your fitness regimen offers a multitude of benefits:

  • Aerobic training: Rowing machines are an excellent way to enhance your aerobic capacity and cardiovascular fitness. They can build endurance through long, steady workouts or boost short, high-intensity aerobic fitness.
  • Low-Impact exercise: Rowing is ideal for those seeking effective exercise without the high impact on joints typical of other activities like running. This is an excellent choice for people with a lot of impact training who are looking to improve their aerobic capacity with less stress on their joints or those recovering from injury.
  • Versatility in workouts: A rowing machine is effective for standalone sessions and versatile enough to be included in different training scenarios. It’s particularly beneficial in HIIT circuits, where it can vary intensity and provide high and low exertion intervals.
  • Engages multiple muscle groups: Unlike other aerobic exercises such as running or cycling, rowings simultaneously target the legs, arms, back, and core, providing an efficient full-body workout.


Which muscles work during a rowing machine?

Rowing on a machine is a dynamic exercise that involves a complex interplay of various muscle groups, making it an effective full-body workout. Here’s a breakdown of how these muscles contribute to the rowing stroke:

1. The drive phase

  • Leg muscles: The initial movement is powered by the legs. The quadriceps extend the knees, while the gluteus maximus and hamstrings extend the hips, providing a strong push off the footplates.
  • Calf muscles: The soleus and gastrocnemius muscles engage to plantar flex the ankles, adding to the power of the drive.

2. The pull phase

  • Upper back and shoulders: As the rower pulls the handle towards the chest, the latissimus dorsi and teres major muscles extend the shoulders. The rhomboids and trapezius muscles work to retract and stabilize the scapula.
  • Arms: The pulling action is supported by the biceps, brachialis, and brachioradialis, which flex the elbows. The forearm muscles also play a crucial role in stabilizing the handle throughout the motion.

3. Core engagement:

  • Spinal support: The erector spinae muscles extend the spine slightly, aiding in the transition from the leg drive to the arm pull. This helps maintain a strong and stable posture throughout the stroke.
  • Overall stability: The core muscles, including the abdominals and obliques, are continuously engaged to stabilize the torso, ensuring each stroke is smooth and effective.


Understanding the coordinated effort of these muscles helps optimize the rowing technique and underscores the efficiency of rowing as a comprehensive exercise that stimulates muscular development and enhances cardiovascular health.


Common rowing machine mistakes to avoid

1. Bending elbows too early and overusing elbow flexors

Many rowers make the mistake of bending their elbows too early during the rowing stroke and relying heavily on their elbow flexors for power. However, proper rowing technique should harness the strength of your legs and back, which are significantly more powerful muscle groups. Overreliance on your elbow flexors diminishes stroke efficiency and leads to premature fatigue.


To improve your technique:

  • Keep your arms fully extended during the drive phase.
  • Focus on pushing with your legs first.
  • Only bend your elbows once you’ve hinged at the hips and started leaning your torso backward.


Following this sequence will ensure you maximize your rowing power and achieve efficiency.


2. Bending the knees too early during recovery

Another frequent error is bending the knees too early during the recovery phase. If you flex your knees prematurely, your hands will be obstructed and not able to move smoothly over them. This action is akin to trying to row with a barrier in front of your hands.

Premature knee flexion disrupts the flow of the recovery phase, hindering proper setup for the next stroke and leading to faster fatigue.


For an efficient technique:

  • Wait until your hands have fully cleared the space above your knees before flexing them.
  • This ensures your movements remain smooth and coordinated, improving overall efficiency.

By addressing these common mistakes, you can refine your rowing form for more consistent and effective performance.


In summary, rowing is a powerful, low-impact workout that engages multiple muscle groups for a comprehensive fitness experience. By mastering the correct form, understanding the mechanics of each stroke, and steering clear of common mistakes, you can fully harness the rowing machine’s potential and make significant strides toward your fitness goals!


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At Muscle and Motion, we believe that knowledge is power, and understanding the ‘why’ behind any exercise is essential for your long-term success.
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Uriah Turkel B.P.T
Uriah Turkel B.P.T
Uriah Turkel B.P.T, graduated from Ariel University School of Health Sciences, Physiotherapy Department. Uriah works as a content creator specialist at Muscle and Motion, his areas of expertise are anatomy, kinesiology, sports rehabilitation, gait analysis, rheumatology, and pain neuroscience. During his first degree, he conducted research on treatment methods for chronic ankle instability and the effects of Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES) on Peroneal Muscle Function in the Neuromuscular & Human Performance Lab. Currently, he is pursuing a Master of Science at the same lab, researching cognitive and gait decline during aging.