Rowing Machine Technique for Beginners - Our 3-Step Guide

Rowing Machine Technique for Beginners - Our 3-Step Guide

Daragh McCarthy
14 minute read

Welcome to our guide to indoor rowing technique for beginners. Whether you've never tried indoor rowing before or you're looking to improve and start building speed through proper rowing machine form, this article is for you. We will lay out how to learn the basics of indoor rowing technique and how to improve it, how to choose a suitable training program for your level, as well as learning some insider tips.

Throughout this article, we hope to give you the confidence to take the first step and see if indoor rowing is for you. If you prefer to train socially, take a friend with you and learn together. Let's go!

Why Indoor Rowing could be for you

Indoor rowing is a growing sport with a wide range of in-person and online communities for you to join. The benefits of indoor rowing for beginners include:

  • A full-body workout perfect for building fitness, weight-loss or cross-training
  • An activity with varying levels of intensity which can conveniently fit in your schedule
  • A sport that is suitable for all ages and abilities

Learn indoor rowing in 3 steps

When you start out in a new activity you want to ensure you master the basics and it's really beneficial to learn proper rowing machine form early so that you get the most from it.  We've got 3 simple steps to get you up and running and quickly master rowing machine technique for beginners.

1 - Let's start with the basics

You've seen people row before either at the gym or online, but you're not sure how to start or what to do. No need to worry, we will explain the basics of the rowing stroke and proper rowing machine form and you will find that the movements will become easier with practice.

The first step is to find a rowing machine. Many gyms these days will have rowing machines which you can use, you could see if there is a local rowing club in your area or you might have bought one for yourself! Once you find your spot and make your way to the rower, it's time to get set-up.

The two most important areas for getting ready to row are your foot position and the damper setting. 

Foot Position

Make sure to adjust the height of your shoes in the footplate of the rowing machine so that your are in a comfortable position.  The straps should go across roughly the widest part of your foot, near the bottom of your laces. If your shoes are too high, your knees may feel like they are getting in your way as you roll up the slide on the seat. 

Damper Setting

If your machine has a damper setting, we suggest selecting a medium to low level.  For example on a concept 2 rower we'd recommend putting the damper lever to between 3 and 5 out of 10.  The damper setting changes the way the the rowing stroke feels, a lower value feels easier and a higher value feels like harder work. Note that many machines, such as a WaterRower do not have a damper setting and instead you control the intensity of the session by how hard you push with your legs.  Over time you will start to get a feel for these types of settings, but it's good to start with it in a low-middling position so it's not too easy, nor too hard and you can focus on your beginners rowing machine technique.

Fundamentals of Proper Rowing Machine Form

All set? You're now ready to watch this video of Coach Johan Quie explaining the basic technique of the rowing stroke. 

Coach Johan Quie talks though the basics of the rowing stroke, and a common technique gotcha

As Johan explains, the essence of the stroke is that you start the DRIVE phase by driving with the legs, then introduce the arms and then the body.  The recovery phase is the reverse, ARMS, then BODY, then LEGS.  If you can get this sequence correct it will go a long way to giving you proper rowing form!

Johan's top tip for beginners is that in the recovery phase, you keep your knees down until after the handle has passed them. This single tip will differentiate you from many rowers who have not learned correct rowing machine form!

Beginner Rowing Workout

As a way to put your newly learned rowing technique into practice you should try a suitable beginner rowing workout.  To let you concentrate on technique we recommend keeping the workout simple and straightforward.

One option to get started is to download the asensei app from the Apple Appstore today and try the 'MEET YOUR COACH' free trial workout with two time Olympic Gold medallist Eric Murray.  Eric will row along with you in the workout, warming you up, giving you tips, cues and challenges that are perfect for reinforcing proper rowing machine technique.  You'll be given regular cues and reminders so all you need to do is row and listen, everything else is taken care of, allowing you to really focus on the session.

Alternatively you can perform a similar row yourself, the MEET YOUR COACH beginner rowing workout is relatively simple in structure, you'll just need to be mindful of your form as you row and keep track of time yourself. 

MEET YOUR COACH Beginner Workout Structure:

  • Warmup - 5-6 minutes, starting very gently and always remembering good rowing form.
  • Workout - 15 minutes continuous rowing, but breaking it up into shorter segments.
    • 12 minutes at 20 strokes per minute, don't try and work too hard in this section, focus on remembering the correct sequences for the drive (legs, body arms) and the recovery (arms, body legs) at all times. For example you may wish to alternate between 3 minutes being mindful about the drive then 3 minutes with an emphasis on the recovery sequence.  
    • Finish with 3 minutes at 24spm, pushing harder with the legs. Try to make your split time (how fast you are 'travelling') a few seconds faster than in the first 12 minutes.
  • Cooldown - 3-4 minutes of gentle rowing to ease off the legs.

Consolidate Your Rowing Technique

As part of our rowing machine technique for beginners guide, we recommend consolidating your learnings with a training program which involves shorter sessions at low stroke rates with plenty of rest periods. At asensei, we’re committed to perfect practice and have created a comprehensive indoor rowing training regime that covers all abilities and fitness levels.

In the asensei app, we have a program called MASTER THE BASICS for beginners who want to master the fundamentals of indoor rowing. This type of program will allow you to focus on practising good technique to build muscle memory and avoid injuries. After a few sessions, you will start to notice that the basic movements will become easier and natural. At the beginning, you don't need to work hard to see results. If it feels too difficult, it probably is. Feel free to take a break, lower your intensity and find a pace that you can maintain comfortably.

Check out Our favorite indoor rowing programs article to find out more about all the programs we offer in the app.

2 - It's time to improve and build speed

You're now familiar with indoor rowing and you're starting to master the basics of the rowing stroke. The next step is to watch and learn from rowers with the correct technique. We recommend following along with two-time Olympic gold medalist Eric Murray during his weekly livestreams on the asensei YouTube channel. If you are tight for time, join in for his warm-ups which feature drills and exercises for you try out. You would be surprised how quickly your technique will improve with mindful practice over just 10 minutes. Our favourite warm-up exercise for beginners is called the pick drill which you can find below.


Our favourite exercise for beginners - the pick drill

Row alongside Master Trainer Clare Holman from British Rowing, as she introduces the pick drill as part of a warmup in the new EMBARK: Start rowing with Waterrower program.  The pick drill is a great way to improve rowing machine technique for beginners and improving rowers alike.

Coach Clare Holman from British Rowing uses the pickdrill as part of a short warmup.

  1. Sit back in the finish position on the rowing machine. Your legs should be straight, shoulders tall and behind your hips, handle held at the bottom of your rib cage. Extend your arms away from you while keeping your shoulders fixed behind the hips and the legs flat.
  2. Pull the handle to your chest while pressing your feet against the foot stretcher. You should think about having a loose grip on the handle. One way to achive this relaxation is to focus on pulling using your elbows instead of your hands. This can allow you to have a firm, strong finish while avoiding a tight grip on the handle.
  3. After 10-20 strokes, you can integrate the body swing by reaching forward after your arms extended, using your hips. You should reach as far as you feel comfortable without hunching over. The reason we use the body swing during the rowing stroke is to create a longer and more powerful rowing stroke.
  4. After 10-20 strokes of arms and body rowing, you can begin to row full strokes using the arms, body, legs on the recovery and then the legs, body, arms on the drive. The focus of this drill is to learn to correct sequencing on the recovery (arms, body, slide).

Want to learn more? 

Members can check out our 'Drills and Skills' program in the asensei app. It has collection of standalone drills and technique tips to help you become a better rower. If you want to practice Johan's pause from finish drill, a pick drill, learn about the rowing machine setup, practice your sprint starts, try a metronome, hear some 2km racing tips, or any number of other drills then give this a try.

3 - Training smart, not hard

At this stage in your progression, chances are you've learned how to do the fundamental movements of the rowing stroke, change rates in a workout and maybe even raced a 2000m test! Our recommended tip is to train smart, not hard. As you progress, your fitness will allow you to train more often so it is important to look after body to avoid injuries or burnout. It's time to include a stretching routine into your workout. In the video below, Master Trainer Clare Holman introduces her top 3 stretches for indoor rowing from the EMBARK: Start rowing with Waterrower program. Stretch your hamstrings, hips and quadriceps, all while sitting on your erg! You will benefit from increased flexibility and a greater understanding of your body. Remember, recovery is equally important as training. Take the time to let your body rest between sessions and ensure you eat soon after your work to refuel your muscles.

Coach Clare Holman demonstrates 3 essential stretches for indoor rowers. 

I've rowed for the past couple of weeks/months and now I want to get faster.

This is a popular question we receive at asensei from our members. You've rowed long enough to have an idea of what you're enjoying and which goals you're pushing for. You might be training to beat your personal best over a particular distance or you simply like the small rewards from a practice session. Whichever it may be, our experience is that good form is free speed.

Focus on improving your technique first and you will unlock speed you didn't know you had. As you progress, you can incorporate different stroke rates between 18spm-26spm in the first few weeks, rising to 30spm later on. Changing rates will challenge you to maintain good technique and find a new rhythm at each step up.

We recommend a training program which involves a coach to guide your practice. It could be an in-person trainer at your local gym, or online in the form of a mobile app such asensei. A coach will personalise your practice to suit your ability, letting you focus on one improvement at a time.

When using the asensei app, you’re entering a world where proper training matters and good form is free speed. The asensei app walks you through each program, coaching you and charting your progression whilst taking care of all the nitty gritty so you don't need to - no more fiddling with spreadsheets, programming the monitor or manually calculating target times. 

Summary

This beginner's guide for indoor rowing is designed to be revisited as you progress with your training. We've provided an explanation of proper rowing machine technique and ways to get started, recommendations for improving your rowing form, selecting a training program for your level and also shared a range of insider tips to help you along the way. Good luck!

Frequently Asked Questions for Beginners

As a beginner you may want to learn more about indoor rowing, the terminology and proper rowing machine technique, so we've got a few more useful snippets of information for you below.

I'm confused by some of the rowing jargon, how do I learn more?

Indoor rowing has a language of its own, people tend to use abbreviations, slang, nicknames and jargon, which can be confusing.  So if you don't know your adaptive from your ergo, or you are confused by AMRAP or shooting the slide then you should check out our Indoor Rowing Glossary - it's filled with fun facts and tips as well as explanations.

I'm sold, I want to begin Indoor Rowing at Home, where do I start?

Want to get started with indoor rowing at home, not sure where to begin?  If you’re considering an indoor rowing machine for home use, from selecting a rowing machine, to purchase, to setting up at home and of course to getting started on your first at-home workouts then you might want to read Indoor rowing at home: the essential guide 

How do I Continue to Develop Proper Rowing Technique?

We hope this article gave you a good start, but it's important that you continue to learn and practice proper rowing machine form.  As coach Johan likes to say, Good Form is Free Speed and you can find out more in our Ultimate Guide which explains how different aspects of rowing machine technique, particularly the CATCH at the front of the stroke and the FINISH at the end (of course), can help to improve your performance.  Before you know it you'll be getting envious glances in the gym as you effortlessly row!

DOWNLOAD ASENSEI TODAY

Rowing is better in the asensei app.  If you want to improve your technique you will find drills and skills and real-time tips as you row.  You will have all the key stats displayed on screen during your session, you will have asensei set you personalized goals, you won't need to program the machine or take note of your results, asensei does it all. 

The app also features a curated selection of livestream workouts, with personalised goal setting and tracking in the (RE)LIVE program. 

Eric Murray asensei Rowing Coaching

asensei is FREE to download and with no commitment you can trial the first 3 workouts in the (RE)COMMIT program and also workouts from MASTER THE BASICS, (RE)FOCUS, SWEAT FACTORY and BE A DARK HORSE.

All you need is an iPhone and access to an asensei Compatible rowing machine from Concept 2, WaterRower or FluidRower with a bluetooth capable monitor.

download asensei from the appstore

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