Just how do you row properly?
In this quick start guide you’ll learn all the essential tips needed to row safely and without injury at home.
We’re huge rowing fans here at Home Gym Experts. It’s been one of my personal favourite forms of getting in shape and losing weight for many years.
But the fact is that to get the most out of your rowing and to avoid pulling a muscle, there’s a few essential things you need to know. Unlike other home exercise machines, like an elliptical or running machine, there’s a number of ways you can sabotage your rowing.
Why do you need to ‘learn’ to row?
While you can hop on to a rowing machine and have a good go at it, and probably not end up in hospital, it’s well worth spending a bit of time learning a bit about how to do it properly. Rowing with proper form from the start has the following benefits:
- It will prevent bad habits creeping in
- Keep your back muscles safe and healthy
- Stop you strain muscles that shouldn’t be used
- Build up core strength and work the correct muscle groups
- Train better, harder and longer
- Get more benefit from less work (Now you’re talking!)
I’ve seen all kinds of rowers in the past, from people who look like they haven’t got any bones in their body, to people who look like the haven’t got any joints in their body. If they’d just learn a few basics, their rowing machine training would be transformed.
You can also get some professional coaching for your rowing with machines that connect to services like iFit. See the awesome NordicTrack RW-850 in action here.
The two main movements in rowing
There’s two main parts to the rowing exercise:
- The drive – This is the rowing stroke part of the action. You pull back the bar (oar?), which pulls against the resistance as you slide backwards along the rowing track. This is the tough part where you’ll do most of the work.
- The recovery – This is the more easy-going part of rowing. It’s the rest portion of the movement where you’ll slide forwards and return the bar to it’s starting position, preparing for the next stroke.
Whether you’re using a water resistance rower, air rower, or any other kind of machine, these tips all apply to you. The machine can vary, but the way you use it will remain the same.
Main positions in a rowing movement
Within those two main phase of rowing, you’ve also got a number of ‘positions’ to master. These are certain points of the movement which aren’t anything complicated. They’re just four main places where it’s important to keep and eye on your body posture.
We’ll go over these and break them down individually in a second, but for now, here’s the four major positions you need to be aware of and practice:
Release & Recovery
So let’s check out each of these positions in more depth, with some speedy points on how to do each one correctly.
1) The catch
The catch is the start of the row, where you’re forwards. Just before you begin to pull back. This is a really important position to get right and will make a big difference to your training on the rower.
- Arms should be extended and straight
- Shoulders should be relaxed to avoid wasting energy
- Your back should be neutral and flat
- Not curved backwards or forwards
- Bend at the hips to the 11 O’clock position
- The hips should be behind the shoulders
2) The Drive
In this phase of your rowing stroke, you’re driving backwards along the track, engaging your muscles and doing the hard work part of the rowing exercise.
- Start by pushing with your legs
- Keep the rest of your body in the position from the Catch
- As you move backwards, lean back so that you finish with your back at 1 O’clock
- Hips follow legs
- The arms are the last part of the movement, pulling the bar up to your chest
3) The Finish
The third part of the rowing movement is the position at the end of the drive. It’s an important one to practice and check your form is good here.
- The back is at 1 O’clock
- Nice and straight, not arched
- Arms are finally pulled up to chest
- They’re the final muscle group to be used
- Not leaning too far back
- Legs straight
4) The Release and Recovery
The final part of the rowing stroke brings us back to the starting position, ready to drive off and loop back into the exercise. It’s the chill part, but don’t just flop forwards. Keep that structure too.
- Start by relaxing the arms and letting them slide forwards
- But not flop down
- Keep the rest of your body in the same position
- Move back to the catch
- Move swing forwards at the hips
- Then bend at the knees
- Your hips swing back to the 11 O’clock position
- Keep your spine straight, but not curved forwards or backwards
Pause and get back into the catch position again.
Related: Can rowing by my only exercise?
Crushing bad rowing habits
Whether you’ve been rowing as long as an old sea captain, or you’re yet to find your ‘sea legs’, picking up on bad habits is a huge way you can improve your rowing sessions and get more out of them. But how do you know if you’re doing it right? It’s not like you can see whether your back is straight.
Here’s some quick ideas to check how your rowing form looks:
- Take a video – You’re in the comfort of your living room, or home gym. Set your camera down and do a few strokes. Play it back and compare it to some of the videos on youtube. Pause it, check your catch, your stroke.
- Grab a mirror – While most people in commercial gyms might be checking out their biceps in those big mirrors, they’re also pretty hand for checking your form while exercising. If your home gym hasn’t got a mirror, it might be an idea to get one in there. If you’re in the living room, use a reflective surface like your TV, or borrow a little mirror from another room to check your form.
- Get someone to check your form – If you’re sharing the running machine, why not literally watch each other’s back? See some of the videos below so you know what to look out for and then check your partners form. Sounds like a silly idea, I know, but it’s a quick and easy way to get free rowing coaching.
Practice the different positions
While it might seem like a waste of time, one of the best ways to really get good at rowing is to practice the main positions on their own, checking your body is just right and building that muscle memory up.
Practicing good rowing structure while you row is a bit overwhelming at first, so it’s helpful to get into the catch position and check your back and all the other points mentioned above. Your body will thank you later!
Top 4 Cardinal Sins when using a rowing machine
So lets dive in and look at some of the rowing crimes that are rife out there in gym world. Don’t feel bad if you’re doing any of these – everyone has to learn how to row.
Moving too much at the hips
I used to do this all the time. You only need to pivot a little bit at the hips. If you move your body between say 11 o’clock and 1 o’clock on a clock. Yes, as little as that. If you’re moving any more than that, you’re likely bending forwards too much, or leaning back too much.
Using the foot-straps as a crutch
This stealth mistake creeps in easily and is tricky to get rid of. I mean why wouldn’t you use the foot straps to pull yourself forwards like a jet plane? Well, relying too much on them means you’re risking strain to your upper legs and you won’t be developing the core muscles you could be.
Sliding too far forwards
While it makes a satisfying click to slide the seat all the way forwards on the recovery part of the stroke, if you’re doing this, you’re sliding too far forwards.
The front half of your track shouldn’t have much wear on it at all, and your knees should never full bend so your thighs touch your calves. If your knees bed to 45 degrees, that’s all they need.
Over-reaching AKA Banana Back!
Those poor spines! Keeping your back straight when rowing is one of the best tips you can get about how to get better at rowing. Keep an ‘eye’ on what you’re doing at the end of the recovery. Try not to over reach or curve your spine forwards in a C shape.
Knees too far in or too far out
The correct position for your knees when rowing is in between your elbows, but not pinched together. And definitely not on the outside of your elbows, with your legs splayed open picnic style. Learning to keep your knees in the right place will stop you losing power and energy in your stroke.
Summing up and quick takeaways
Main things to remember if you want to level up your rowing
- Don’t let your rowing movement blend into each other
- Learn each part of the movement and don’t let each one blend into each other with no form or structure.
- Look out for bad habits
What are some good videos on how to row?
Youtube is literally packed with videos about rowing from home. And getting a visual guide makes it easy to understand how to row. Here’s some that might help you improve your form and show your rower who’s the boss!
This first video has pretty much everything you need to know about good rowing form as well as a nifty way you can break it down and practice each part.
Next up is a recommended watch for anyone looking to get rid of bad habits. It covers what they are, and some simple things you can practice to eliminate them.
New to rowing? Forget the books and websites, this mini course on Youtube doesn’t take long to watch and is literally packed with rowing tips for beginners, or anyone looking for a good refresher:
Rowing resources and further reading
- Wikipedia has a seriously in-depth article on the different parts of a rowing stroke here.