How to Use a Rowing Machine

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on July 12, 2022
5 min read

A rowing machine (or rower machine) mimics the actions of rowing and is great for a total body workout. A rowing machine provides a low-impact cardiovascular workout that improves your aerobic fitness. It also strengthens muscles and tones your entire body. 

Rowing machines are simple to use and available at many gyms. Because a rowing machine is more versatile to transport than a treadmill or elliptical, it’s also a flexible workout option. 

A rowing machine can be used indoors to simulate the actions of rowing. On one end of the machine, there’s a seat and a foot bar with straps to secure your feet. The handle is attached with a cable to the flywheel at the front of the machine. Since a rowing machine weighs significantly less than a treadmill or an elliptical, you can easily move it around your home.

A rowing machine provides both an aerobic and strength workout. It’s also a low-impact exercise, making it great for people who want to avoid overstressing their joints. You can use a rowing machine as your full workout or incorporate it alongside other exercises. For example, it can be used as part of a circuit in high-intensity interval training (HIIT). 

There are four phases to the rowing stroke: catch, drive, finish, and recovery. Each phase requires a different set of muscles to complete the movement. Follow these steps to perform one proper rowing stroke:

  1. Catch phase. Begin seated with your feet strapped into the platform and your hands holding onto the handlebar. Glide the seat forward so your shins are perpendicular to the ground. Keep your arms straight and your upper body leaning slightly forward from the hips. 
  2. Drive phase. Drive through your heels and push against the platform with your legs. Move your upper body into a vertical position and pull your arms back in a straight line from the flywheel. 
  3. Finish phase. Engage your core muscles to continue moving your upper body back. Fully extend your legs and keep the handlebar right below your ribs. 
  4. Recovery phase. Extend your arms over your legs and lean forward from your hips toward the flywheel. When your hands are past your knees, bend your knees and gradually slide the seat forward, back to the catch position. 

There are many different ways to incorporate a rowing machine into your workouts. Rowing workouts can be measured in terms of elapsed time, distance (usually measured in meters), or the number of strokes. Rowing workouts can also be incorporated into HIIT classes.

Rowing machines typically have a resistance setting between 1 and 10. The higher the number, the more resistance you will feel. Before your workout, make sure to set the resistance to the appropriate level. Warm up by doing five minutes of easy rowing while paying close attention to your form. Finish each rowing workout with three to five minutes of easy rowing to cool down.

If you’re trying the rowing machine for the first time, start with five to 10 minutes of work at a time. When you’re more comfortable with using the rowing machine, start increasing your workout by three to five minutes each time, up to 30 minutes.

You may also try workouts called pyramids. In this type of workout, you do intervals of work followed by an easy recovery phase. Each work interval increases in time, distance, or number of strokes until you hit your maximum. At that point, you decrease with each interval until you return to where you started.

Rowing machines provide a total body workout. The leg drive works your quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes. Then you activate your back and core muscles to stabilize your trunk and complete the drive backwards. At the same time, you use your trapezius, lats, and biceps to pull the handle towards your body.

Rowing machine muscles worked include the following:

  • Trapezius. This muscle starts at your neck and goes across your shoulders, extending to a "V" shape in your lower back. It helps you move your body, raise your arms, and have good posture.
  • Latissimus dorsi (lats). This is the largest muscle in the upper part of your body. It starts below the shoulder blades and extends to the lower spine. Your lats help you extend and rotate your shoulder and arm.
  • Biceps. This is a large, thick muscle on the anterior of the upper arm. It's made up of a short head and a long head. This muscle helps rotate your forearm and hand so that the palm is able to face upwards.
  • Abdominals. These muscles are located in front of the body between the ribs and the pelvis. Their main function is to support the trunk and make movement possible. They also help hold organs in place.
  • Obliques. These muscles are located on each side of the abdominal muscles. They work together to help twist the trunk.
  • Quadriceps. This group of muscles is located at the front of your thigh. They allow you to flex your hip to squat or sit and to extend the knee.
  • Hamstrings. This group of muscles runs down the back of the thigh, starting at the hip to just below the knee. They allow you to extend your hip to move your leg behind your body. They also let you bend your knee to perform a squat.
  • Gluteals. This group of muscles makes up the buttock area. They help you extend and rotate the thigh. These muscles make it possible to do movements like rising from a sitting position, straightening from a bending position, walking upstairs or on a hill, and running.

There are many benefits to using a rowing machine, including:

  • Improved aerobic and muscle strength. Indoor rowing helps improve muscular strength and cardiovascular endurance. The repetitive motion of the rowing stroke puts your muscles under stress to help your muscle fibers grow stronger. You also work your muscles and lungs to utilize oxygen effectively.
  • Improved muscle and joint mobility. Rowing is a low-impact exercise that reduces the amount of stress put on your joints compared to other cardiovascular exercises. It also requires a wide range of motion that helps increase flexibility and minimize stiffness of your joints.
  • Promotes Healthy Body Composition. Rowing is predominantly an aerobic sport that helps to burn calories efficiently.
  • Reduced stress. The consistent and rhythmic motion of the rowing stroke has a calming effect that can help reduce stress.

Rowing is a total body workout that requires groups of muscles to work smoothly together to achieve a proper rowing stroke. As such, it’s important to pay attention to the engagement of these muscles at each phase of the rowing motion. Improper form can lead to issues in your hips, back, and shoulders.

Make sure to keep your knees straight and neutral throughout the movement. Keep them from bowing out to the sides, which can lead to hip issues. When extending your leg during the pulling back motion, make sure to keep a slight bend at the knees and refrain from locking up your knees.

Throughout the stroke, always keep your shoulders back and your head straight like you’re balancing a book on your head. Don’t round your shoulders or lean your head down.