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Indoor Rowing: The Ultimate Guide

Indoor Rowing: The Ultimate Guide


21 minute read

Indoor rowing is a fantastic and accessible sport and universally renowned as one of the most effective aerobic training tools. A typical rowing stroke is a full-body workout, demanding action from 86% of your muscles across your legs, arms, core and back. The rise of at-home training, driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, has contributed in turn to a 27% increase in people beginning their indoor rowing journey, purchasing machines and setting them up in garages, gardens, kitchens and back-rooms. Not only does indoor rowing condition all your key muscle groups and enable weight loss in half the time that a run or cycle would, it is high-intensity without impacting joints – it works your lungs and does not usually lead to longer-term damage to your knees, ankles and hips.

The benefits of indoor rowing are numerous as demonstrated by the growing number of people getting involved with the sport. However, it is only truly transformative when practiced properly with correct form, reliable equipment, a structured training plan and good guidance.

That is why asensei chose to make rowing our keynote sport. asensei is an app for indoor rowing that allows athletes to join coaching programs created and delivered by world-class coaches, but be guided, monitored and corrected through these programs by your very own personal coach; asensei. We believe the workout or class you take part in should change in real-time, according to your practice and performance. From studio fitness for the masses, to personal instruction for the individual.

In the following, we will guide you through the process of getting started on your indoor rowing machine.  If there is any terminology that you are unfamiliar with, you may want to refer to our Indoor Rowing Glossary, which also features great insights, interesting facts and links to further reading.

The ultimate guide indoor rowing

1. Where can I buy a rowing machine?

As a market grows, so do its key players. Indoor rowing is no different and the past five years have given rise to a wealth of new names who provide variants on the ergometer theme. When it comes to indoor rowing, the original is as popular as ever. Concept2 were founded in 1976 and have grown from a provider of indoor equipment for the hardcore rowing community to stocking most public gyms and workout spaces worldwide with their machines. Their models are typically selected for international competitions and that means they are always compatible with the latest software and virtual training tools. They’re built by rowers for rowers, which means the design and delivery of the machine is ideal for a simulation of the on-water experience.

Head to Concept2’s website and you’ll be redirected to their local dealerships. You can also pick up the machines on marketplaces like Amazon. Should you be looking to compete in certified indoor rowing events, a Concept2 is typically what you’ll need. If, however, you want to opt for something a little more stylish, that might look more at home in your home living areas, we’d suggest looking seriously at either a WaterRower or a FluidRower.  These machines use water to create resistance, which has the benefit of being more quiet and both manufacturers offer a wide range of viable and elegant alternatives, but are sometimes a little pricier. The emergence of Peloton has also led to several insurgent indoor rowing brands (Hydrow, Aviron, CityRow Go, Ergatta) springing up and offering machines with streaming workouts – but you need to sign on via a monthly subscription.

With asensei, you can purchase a machine and leverage our interactive and comprehensive training plans via Bluetooth on an existing Apple iOS device (phones, tablets), giving you an even better-connected coaching experience.

2. Rowing Machine Set-Up

So, you’ve taken delivery of your shiny new indoor rowing machine – what next? There are several things to pay attention to when setting up an erg, as detailed below. 

Foot Position

Rowing machines will generally allow you to adjust the position of the footplates and there will be a strap to hold your feet in position.  Normally you want to adjust the footplates so that the straps go across approximately the widest part of your foot - which will be round about the bottom part of your laces.  This means that your heels can move when you reach the Catch position (see below) and allows your legs to be roughly vertical 

Resistance and Drag Factor

Resistance on a rowing machine is determined by how much effort you put into moving the handle, which allows you to vary the intensity level of each workout.  The harder you pull the more resistance you will feel.  

Some rowing machines (although not all) allow you to adjust how the rowing machines feels in a similar way to the gears on a bike.  

For example on a Concept2, the flywheel at the end of the machine is what turns when you move the handle and you can adjust the feel by moving the damper lever on the right-hand-side up and down.  Moving the damper lever up allows more air into the flywheel and means you have to work harder to turn the flywheel (and it will slow down more quickly between strokes), while moving it down makes it easier to turn the flywheel.  Each machine can behave subtly differently, due to things like dust in the flywheel, elevation, air temperature, so the Concept 2 Performance Monitor measures how much the flywheel slows down on each stroke and calculates your DRAG FACTOR which is a consistent metric across all Concept 2 rowing machines and allows them to measure your performance consistently and accurately - allowing things like rankings and world records possible.  

To view your Drag Factor you have to use the Concept 2 Performance Monitor and navigate to Display Drag Factor.  You'll need to row a few strokes and the machine will show the current drag factor.  We’d typically recommend a Drag Factor of around 125-130 which for most machines will be between 7 and 8 on the damper lever. Pull on the handle for a couple of strokes and watch the number change on-screen. Adjust the damper lever to find the appropriate on-screen number.  The most important thing is that you find a setting that is comfortable for you.  

On a FluidRower machine there are ways to adjust the resistance through their twin-tank water resistance technology, but on a WaterRower this isn't possible and the variation in intensity comes only from the work that you put into moving the handle.

Monitor optimization

On a rowing machine monitor (or console), there are several ways to track your progress whilst rowing - number of calories burned, number of watts generated, split time, distance rowed, strokes per minute.  Many of these metrics will be fairly self explanatory, but the split time is a rowing specific metric and is really helpful for understanding your progress – it tracks how fast you are going by showing how long it would take you to cover 500m at your current speed. Over time you'll become familiar with the concept and it will help you to pace your workouts.  International rowers might be looking at a number between 1:20 (1 minute 20 seconds) and 1:30 for a 2000m piece but most of us will find our own pace that we are comfortable with. If you’re new to the sport, the asensei app can help to determine the ideal pace (split time) for you and will set you appropriate targets as you progress. We will go on to explain why split times are important later in this piece.

Selecting Workouts

Rowing machines such as the Concept2 machines give you the option to setup a basic rowing distance/time (2000m, 5000m, 30 minutes etc.) workout but you can also customize this to suit your preferred length of time. Be aware that 5000m on the rowing machine for a complete beginner is probably 25 minutes of exercise (if averaging a 2:30 split).  It's also possible to configure some monitors to give you more complex workouts made up of time/distance intervals and rest periods. 

Programming the performance monitors this way can be very fiddly and being able to setup a workout is still only half the battle; one of the biggest barriers when working out on an indoor rowing machine is knowing which workout to do and when to do it.  This is where an app such as asensei can be helpful since it will recommend you a new workout every time you open the app, without the hassle of programming the monitor manually, and it will guide you through training programs that help you meet your goals.  It will also ensure that you are set challenging but attainable goals while you train.  There's more about rowing workouts themselves later in this article.

3. How To Perfect The Rowing Stroke – The Basics

The machine is set up, you’ve selected your workout and you’re just about ready to begin your journey as an indoor rower. Although rowing is often publicized as a sport that relies primarily on strength and physiological capabilities, there is a lot of technique involved that, when mastered, can make your life easier and your exertion more efficient. Good form is free speed. The rowing stroke can be split simply into two parts – drive (also called the active phase) and recovery. The drive is when you’re travelling from the front of the machine to the back (from the catch to the finish) and engaging your muscles to turn the flywheel. Recovery is when you’re travelling back up towards the flywheel or tank and there is no resistance.

In rowing, there is a sequence of events that should happen whilst taking a stroke and it is important to remember the order. As you take a stroke, you should engage your LEGS first – they’re the strongest muscles in your body and should be responsible for taking most of the load. As your legs travel back, your back and torso (BODY) should follow and only then do your shoulders and ARMS start their journey. All of this should happen in quick succession over the course of a second or two, but the sequencing will mean you’re optimizing the strongest components of your body properly. On the recovery, the opposite order should occur – your arms  move first followed by your body and then your legs (your arms should ideally be straightened and over your knees before they begin to bend).

Find out more

If you download the asensei free trial, the first two lessons of Olympic Champion Eric Murray’s (RE)COMMIT program will help you learn the correct stroke sequence. You can row along with him as many times as you wish to perfect the technique and set yourself up for success. For paying members of asensei, the British Rowing MASTER THE BASICS program will also support you in learning the stroke as will the numerous dedicated technique drills in DRILLS AND SKILLS.

You may also wish to read this great article which is ideal for beginners and intermediates who want practical ways to learn and improve their technique: Rowing Machine Technique for Beginners - Our 3-Step Guide

4. How To Perfect The Rowing Stroke – The Catch and The Finish

The rowing stroke is often summarized as CATCH - DRIVE - FINISH - RECOVERY.  The two ends of the indoor rowing stroke are commonly known as the Catch and the Finish. The Catch occurs as you’re about to take a stroke and the handle is as close to the monitor and flywheel as it ever will be. The Finish (yep, you guessed it) happens at the completion of the stroke, when your body is essentially sitting upright at the back of the machine.

For the Catch, it is important to keep your back as straight as you can. Your shins should be at a 90-degree angle and your arms outstretched and ready to pull on the handle.  Because this is one of the key components of the indoor rowing stroke asensei have written a detailed guide that outlines the essence of the Indoor Rowing Catch, featuring example drills, to help you practice and perfect your technique.

For the Finish, try not to let your body and back slump – rowing is tiring, and it can be tempting to slouch. You can make life a lot easier for yourself by embodying good technique. At the finish, the handle should be between your ribs and abdominal muscles and your legs should be straight. Once you feel you’re in that position, you can begin your next journey down the slide.  For a more in-depth understanding of the Finish and improvement drills, check out asensei's essential guide to the Finish position.

Find out more

The asensei (RE)COMMIT training program led by double Olympic Champion Eric Murray can help you gain an understanding of the overall stroke in a practical and easy to follow manner.  The MASTER THE BASICS program from asensei and British Rowing is also a great way to understand the fundamentals of indoor rowing.  The insights we share in this section can help you fine-tune either end of the stroke. If you use the asensei learn to row programs, you will also gain access to a collection of drills that break the stroke down into manageable chunks and isolate the specific technique required to maximize efficiency and form.

5. Rowing Split Time – Why Does It Matter?

Think of your split time as how fast you’re going. It measures how long it will take you to cover 500m at the pace/effort you’re currently exerting – the lower the number, the faster you’re going. As you repeat workouts you enjoy, remember to track the split time and try to get a lower average number each time you take to the machine. For instance, if you’re trying to row 2000m and your split time reads 2:00 (2 minutes), it will take you 8 minutes to finish the 2000m at the pace you’re currently travelling at.

Becoming familiar with split time is an important part of indoor rowing, it enables you to pace yourself correctly for the distance you are rowing and can be used to set targets for you when you are trying to improve.  For example in the video below you can see 5000m World Record holder Tom George of the Great Britain Rowing Team explain how to pace a 2000m race.  

World 5000m record holder Tom George shares advice on pacing a 2000m race

The pace you row at will vary based upon many factors; your fitness, physiology, age, technique and the time or distance you aim to row are all factors.  And while a world record split for the classic 2000m distance is an incredible 1:35 for women and 1:24 for men, most of us will be considerably slower so the key is to find out what works for you.  The asensei app can help as it will set appropriate, personalized, split time targets and track the split times for every segment of your workout. It calculates what you can and should be aiming for based on past performances and potential.

6. Rowing Strokes Per Minute – Why Does It Matter?

The STROKE RATE is the number of complete rowing strokes per minute that you are taking - this is measured in Strokes Per Minute (SPM) on your rowing machine display. Many people fall into the trap of believing that the higher the stroke rate (i.e. the higher the number of strokes you are taking per minute) then the faster you must be going. While it's broadly true, this theory only works if an appropriate level of power is being applied during the active phase of the stroke. 

For beginners it is best to learn to row at a lower stroke rate (typically between 18 and 22SPM) so that you have more time between strokes to master the technique. Competitive rowers often train at 20SPM for longer periods of time and only really transition to row at higher strokes per minute when they’re taking on races or shorter pieces of work. If you’re unable to go fast at a low stroke rate (i.e. if your split time suffers disproportionately as your stroke rate drops), it is because you have not yet applied the fundamentals of an efficient stroke to your practice. For beginners it can be difficult to track both stroke rate and split time simultaneously so asensei takes care of this for you – our app understands what stroke rate is optimal in workouts, displays a coach rowing at the correct stroke rate and prompts you to adjust rate if you are struggling to maintain your stroke rate. 

asensei app target rowing strokes per minute

The asensei app showing your target rowing strokes per minute (stroke rate)

A common type of workout in rowing is a stroke ladder, where you start rowing at a low stroke rate, such as 20SPM and periodically increase stroke rate, often by 2SPM, moving up to 22SPM, then 24SPM and 26SPM; some workouts will even go as high as 30 or 32SPM. This type of progression can help beginners to understand how their pace (split times) changes when rowing at different strokes per minute. As your technique improves, through training with a coaching app like asensei, you should start to be able to produce more efficient speed at low stroke rates but also be able to switch to higher strokes per minute when you need to go even faster on the rowing machine.

7. Workouts

If you ask any rower for their favorite indoor rowing machine workout, they will probably all give you different answers. The international benchmark for indoor rowing competition is typically 2000m – the fastest rowers in the world complete this distance in around five and a half minutes on the men’s side and six and a half minutes on the women’s side. An average competitive rower would probably be around 45 seconds to a minute slower for each gender. If you’re new to the sport, 2000m is a good way to map your progress. If you have purchased a Concept2, leverage their Online Logbook to pace yourself against people with similar ability.

The asensei (RE)COMMIT program, led by Eric Murray, is a six-week interactive training cycle that will help you to complete your first 2000m and then help you shave off seconds and, hopefully, minutes as you repeat the training and get fitter, stronger and faster.

Other workouts that rowers typically complete on the indoor rowing machine include longer, low-rate pieces (30 minutes at Rate 20, 10000m at Rate 18, 2x6km at Rate 20, 5000m at Rate 26), sometimes known as steady-state or UT2 sessions.  To add variety to workouts they will often be broken up into segments at different stroke rates, such as ladder drills (increasing stroke rates over time) and pyramid drills (stroke rates increase then decrease).  Shorter, higher-intensity workouts (10x500m at Rate 28-32, 6 sets of 30-second intervals) are sometimes referred to as High Intensity Interval Training or HIIT rowing workouts.  A good coach will ensure that there is variety in your training to avoid monotony and keep your body adapting rather than have you performing the same session over and over.

asensei + Eric Murray also offer a more demanding (RE)FOCUS program that allows you to build towards longer distances such as 6000m or 5000m and gives you a platform to potentially enter your first indoor rowing competition.  This features a range of different workout types, from steady state to high intensity and builds up your fitness over 12 weeks.

Find out more

Because everyone is different, with different goals, we've put together a list of our favorite indoor rowing workout plans to help you find which indoor rowing training program works for you.

8. Injury Prevention

Although rowing is commonly acknowledged as a sport that can shed weight, build muscle and improve cardiovascular fitness without unnecessarily causing lasting joint-based/muscular issues, it is important to qualify that proper technique and training are the only way to achieve this balance. Common rowing injuries include lumbar back discomfort, knee pain and wrist tension. With asensei’s beginning rowing programs, you can ensure that your tutelage comes from the very best and is personalized for your body and aims. Not only can we provide a platform for improvement but the skills and technique you learn via an asensei program will help to protect your body from unwanted injury and help you achieve your personal goals, be those losing weight, gaining strength or learning to row.

If you’re serious about pursuing rowing as more than just a casual hobby, we should also stress that cross-training remains a large part of a typical rower’s regime.  This can take many forms, you might consider strengthening your core via abdominal-based workouts and practicing yoga to increase flexibility and conditioning of key muscle groups. Lifting weights – provided you have experience in the gym and know what you’re doing – can also help drive down your split times.  Stretch after every workout, particularly the muscles groups most involved with indoor rowing i.e. your glutes and lower back. The asensei DRILLS AND SKILLS program offers mobility workouts and stretching regimes whilst our complimentary DARK HORSE OFF-ERG program guides you through the best body weight workouts.

Find out more

A good warmup will get your heart pumping, exercise all major muscle groups, help your joints loosen up and as a result help prevent injury - but did you know that a great indoor rowing warmup can help you improve performance and perhaps even set you up to beat your personal best? Here are Seven Tips for the Perfect Indoor Rowing Warmup

We discuss the pros and cons of cross-training for rowing, covering circuit-training, cycling, running, cross-country skiing and more in a related article Exercises that complement rowing

Conclusion

So, you’ve made it. You should now be able to take on an indoor rowing workout. From studio fitness for the masses to personal instruction for the individual, the technology and connected coaching that asensei brings to your home gym can enable you to learn from the best and set yourself up for long-term accomplishment in a sport that gives a lot back.

The wonderful world of indoor rowing is growing in popularity. At asensei, we spotted this trend and realized the awesome potential of rowing when coached properly. Our commitment to perfect practice and mastering the fundamentals of a sport tally perfectly with the technical and physical demands of indoor rowing and that is why we’ve developed the optimal training system created by rowers for rowers of all abilities.

Keep your eyes peeled for future articles around the indoor rowing ecosystem and reach out via support@asensei.com if you have specific questions around any of the topics in this article or any asensei product or program.

TRY ASENSEI TODAY FOR FREE!

Rowing is better in the asensei app.  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 nor take note of your results, asensei does it all. 

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.

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