How To Use A Rowing Machine

Photo: Courtesy of Row House.
Rowing might seem like a pastime that's only reserved for preppy college students or Olympians, but it's actually a surprisingly accessible, low-impact cardio workout. It's easy to learn the proper form for rowing — and you don't need a boat to do it.
Indoor rowing machines, or "ergs," are designed with a seat on a rail that travels back and forth, to simulate rowing on a boat, says Annie Mulgrew, program director at CityRow in New York City. On the machine itself, there's a monitor with two metrics that you'll need to keep track of while you row: speed, measured in strokes per minute (or SPM), and split time, which is a ratio of how many meters you can row in a period of time, and represents your stroke intensity, Mulgrew says.
Most gyms have ergs in the cardio room, and there are even boutique rowing classes popping up, at least in NYC, with CityRow and Row House joining the fitness fray. There's an art to rowing on a machine, and once you figure out the form it can feel as meditative as cruising through actual water.
"There's a common misconception that rowing is an upper-body focused exercise," Mulgrew says. "In actuality, rowing is a full-body exercise, in which the majority of the stroke or movement is powered by the lower body." Ahead, you'll find step-by-step instructions for how to use a rowing machine, according to Mulgrew and Dre Mihaylo, a manager at Row House. And once you have it mastered, there are two beginner workouts you can try on your own.
1 of 6
Step 1: Catch

This is the starting point of your stroke, and where the work is initiated. Although it's technically a resting position, you'll feel your legs and back fired up as you move through it between strokes.

How to: Sit down on the erg, place your feet in the straps, and hold onto the handle with both hands. Make sure the foot pedals are adjusted so that the strap runs along the base of your toes. Slide forward on the seat so that your butt is six to eight inches away from your heels. Your knees should be directly above your ankles, but your arms should be extended, with your elbows outside your knees. Keep your upper body hinged forward slightly from your hips, but don't round your shoulders.
2 of 6
Step 2: Drive

Your legs should initiate the power of your stroke during the drive, and it's technically the only part where you "apply work" to the machine. The harder you drive with your legs, the faster and more efficient your stroke will be.

How to: Press into the balls and heels of your feet, and drive your hips back so your legs straighten. Your upper body should stay forward until your legs are completely straight, and your arms should stay straight, but not locked, through the movement. Once your legs are straight, move your torso to an upright position.
3 of 6
Step 3: Finish

The finish is the last active step of the stroke, and you'll really feel it in your abs and back.

How to: At the end of the drive, your legs should be straight and your torso should be upright with arms extended out in front of you. Lean your torso back to a 45-degree angle (like you're reclining in a beach chair), keeping your core engaged. Then, bend your elbows so that the handlebars come to the base of your sternum. Your elbows should be relaxed and away from your body, and your shoulders should be open.
4 of 6
Step 4: Recovery

The last step of the row is to return to your starting position, but there's a specific way to do it: Move slow and controlled throughout the movement.

How to: From the finish, reverse the steps. Start by pushing your hands away from your body until your arms are extended, as if you were reaching for the front of the machine. Then, hinge your body forward from the reclined position, until you're at an 11 o'clock angle. Once your arms are straight and your body is forward, then you can gradually bend your knees and come forward on the slide.
5 of 6

Beginner Workout

This beginner rowing workout from Mihaylo is split up into five parts, and lasts 20 minutes. Here's how to do it:

Warmup: Begin with a "pick drill," in which you do 20 seconds of each of the four stroke steps. Start with an arms-only row, in which you sit tall on the erg, with your legs straight out in front of you, and pull your elbows back and down to hit the "finish" position of the stroke. Next, add your body, and hinge backwards as you pull the handle into "finish." Then, do a half slide, keeping the work you've done with your upper body, and adding a bend in your knees to drive your body back to the "finish" position. End with a full stroke that combines all those steps. Finish the warmup with one minute of a full stroke. It can be helpful to count as you row, and dedicate one count for the drive, and two counts for the recovery.

Power and Strength Pyramid: For the next portion of the workout, you'll alternate between "strong pressure" and "medium pressure" strokes for about six minutes. To measure your stroke pressure, look at your split time; there should be a 30-second difference between your strong pressure and medium pressure split times. Your stroke rate should stay under 24 SPM throughout. It's called a "pyramid" because you increase the number of strokes you do each round, and then end where you started. So, begin by doing 10 strokes strong pressure, then 10 strokes medium pressure, then 15 strokes at each intensity, then 20 strokes, then 15, and finally back to 10.

Timed Endurance Pyramid: Next, you'll do another pyramid, but instead of counting strokes, you'll keep track of time for about seven minutes. Keep your split time low for the "strong pressure" intervals, and let it go up 45 seconds higher for the "light pressure" portion. Trust us, you'll need the rest and recovery. Start with 30 seconds of "strong pressure" and then 30 seconds of "light pressure," then do 60 seconds, then 90, then back to 60, and end at 30 seconds.

Max Meters: Row as many meters as you can in four minutes. Keep your rhythm as consistent as possible, and aim to keep your split time under 2:30, and your stroke rate at 30 SPM.

Cool down: End with a one-minute row at a slow pace. Stretch your hamstrings, glutes, quads, abdominals, arms, and back for two minutes.
6 of 6

Speed Drills Workout

Once you've figured out the form and how to read the erg's monitor, you might want to try speed drills, Mulgrew says. Speed drills are effective because they provide a challenging physical workout, and can help you figure out the right intensity that you should be putting into each stroke, she says. Here's how to do one in just five minutes:

Row at a fast stroke rate of 28 SPM for one minute, then write down how far you've rowed. For the next four minutes, your goal is to row as far as you did for the first interval, but you're going to decrease your SPM (meaning you'll go faster) each minute. Provide more power each round to keep the distance consistent, and rest for 30 to 45 seconds between each round. So, start with one minute at 26 SPM, then do a minute at 24 SPM, then 22 SPM, and another round of 22 SPM.