Your Complete Guide To Getting More From Your Rowing Workouts


Your Complete Guide To Getting More From Your Rowing Workouts

The indoor rower is booming in popularity, but there’s more to it than simply hopping on and going hell for leather. Elite Trainer Tim Joseph helps you get to grips with the technique and lays down the workouts that will fire up your fitness

The rowing machine is a painful piece of kit. It’s a total body workout that taxes muscles and lungs in equal measure. But, once the lactic acid flushes away, the rower reels in a sweaty sense of accomplishment like no other. Which explains why so many are adding it to their cardio day arsenal.

Indoor rowing proffers many benefits that can be delivered in short, efficient workouts. These include:

  • Improved cardio fitness: Rowing improves oxygen delivery to your working muscles to increase your overall stamina.
  • Improved strength endurance: This helps you to produce powerful movements over an extended period of time.
  • Its low impact: By reducing stress on the body you lower the risk of injury.
  • Lower body, upper body and core muscles are recruited: Most CV machines require just the lower body.

The one drawback is that it keeps the user in a seated position. Most of us spend way too much time sat down, and exercise presents a good opportunity to get out of that position. But don’t be put off, you can offset this by adding mobility work to your session and allowing time to stretch out hip flexors and loosen off tight lower back muscles.

Now let’s get down to the nuts and bolts. To make your workout efficient and (slightly) more comfortable, first we need to acquaint you with the kit.


Set Up For Success

Foot straps – The length of the footplate should be adjusted in accordance with the size of your feet, so slide it up or down, and peg it so that the foot strap crosses over the ball of the foot. This ensures the foot stays in contact with the plate on completion of the stroke, and that the toes can flex at the start of the stroke.

Damper settings – The lever at the side of the flywheel adjusts the damper, which dictates the amount of air able to circulate. The more that is let out, the quicker the fan will spin and the more power you’ll require to get it moving again. Set the resistance high when you’re doing short intervals to work on power, but when you’re locked in for endurance set it low. This will help you to keep pulling with perfect form for the whole workout.

Understand and set the monitor – As with any training, tracking your performance will help motivate your session, and quantify your results. The monitor gives detailed feedback on each stroke so you can adjust the speed and power of your movement to stay on track.

Two important parameters to keep an eye on are:

  • /500m. This tells you how powerfully you are pulling the handle, and is a time related figure that reveals how long it would take you to complete 500m if you continued pulling that hard. A great pace setter when you’re gunning for a solid 5K.
  • Or strokes per minute, which tells you how quickly you’re pulling. Obviously it doesn’t take power into account and fast times come down to how quickly the flywheel moves, not how quickly you move back and forth. Use this to keep an eye on form. If it’s going up, chances are your techniques turned into a choppy incomplete stroke. Rein it in and aim for around 24-30spm.

Perfect Your Pulling Technique

Now you’re on and sitting relatively comfortably, the next cue is to concentrate on technique. Yes, you can just pull as fast and as hard as you can. But do that sat next to a competent rower and the stats don’t lie. You’re sunk. Invest time in getting it right. Here I outline the three most common mistakes of each phase and how to fix them.


Arms & Hands

Over gripping the handle – The handle should be held in the fingers with the wrist straight and thumbs underneath. This will preserve your grip strength. Common error is to hold the handle too tightly in the palms with wrist flexed, this may feel more secure but it is inefficient and will result in forearm fatigue, reducing your pulling power over time.

Breaking the arms at the catch – That’s the beginning of the pull, by the way. For efficient transfer of power from the legs into the handle, the arms should be kept straight when you initiate the stroke. Starting the stroke by bending the arms will result in tension being picked up in the biceps and they will fatigue earlier than necessary.

High elbows at the finish – This is a sign of incorrect movement of your shoulder blades, which should come together and downwards when performing any rowing movement. This engages your back muscles to max out the power of your stroke. Having the elbows out wide will also lead to hunching of the shoulders and over stressing of your upper back around your neck.



Lunging forward to catch – This puts your body in an inefficient position to drive from at the start of the stroke, too much forward flexion will mean that the force your generate at the beginning of your stroke is from your lower back, can overwork that area. Aim to correct body angle as you slide in and position your torso at 1 o’clock (leaning slightly forward) at the catch.

Initiating the stroke with back extension – This will also lead to excessive use of the lower back. The hip angle should remain fixed at the start of the stroke with power coming from the leg drive, and the back should then shift from 1 to 11 o’clock, only extending after the legs initiate the stroke.

Excessive layback – The correct body angle to finish the stroke on is for the torso to stay at 11oclock. Excessive lean may earn you an extra couple of inches in stroke length but the strain in your lower back will make you fatigue more quickly.



Bending the knees too early in the recovery – This is the most common error, and it will mean your knees get in the way of the returning handle. This makes the stroke indirect and inefficient. Instead, fold forward at the hips and straighten the arms allowing the handle to pass your knees before they bend and pull back in.

Over compressing – Don’t try to slide the seat too close to your heels at the catch, otherwise your legs will be in an inefficient position and you’ll lose power from your drive. Don’t let your shin angle pass past vertical and you’ll still be able to engage enough leg muscle to push through the next rep.

Bumshooting – Another extremely common error is where the hips shoot back when driving from the catch without taking your upper body – and therefore the handle – with you. This means power from the leg drive will be lost and you’ll have to drag the handle using your back and arms. Remember each pull is a total body exercise – move back as one.

And with the mastercalss complete, now it’s time to sweat. Pick from one of the workouts below and hit a new peak of stamina within weeks.


Put It Into Practice

2,000m time trial. – This is the be all and end all for rowers, and a person’s ability on a rower is measured by their 2k time. It’s also the distance used in indoor and outdoor rowing competitions.

Quick set up for it can be found in ‘standard list’ on the console, and finding the correct pace may take a few attempts. Chipping away at your 2k best will ensure your rowing workouts remain motivated, and your conditioning continually improves.

Beginner target – <8min

Intermediate/Advanced – <7min

Olympian – <6min


Intervals – Indoor rowing enables you to generate extremely high intensity levels with minimal injury risk and so it’s ideal for interval training. Work / rest durations can be varied to suit the physical adaptations you require, a ‘classic’ can be found in the standard list.

Work – 500m

Rest – 1min


Try x5 of these for a short sharp cardio finisher.

Beginner target – <1.55m each interval

Intermediate/Advanced – <1.40m

Olympian – <1.25m


Mother of all Rowing Challenges!!

Workout A – 6x2min intervals with 1min rest.

Workout B – 1min sprint.

Workout C – 13min.


Complete all three workouts within 1 hour.

As a guide do A at the start, B on 30mins, C on 40mins.

To calculate your score the distance of the three workouts are added together with B multiplied by 10. A + (Bx10) + C = Total distance.

This is an awesome challenge because it tests a variety of energy systems all in the one workout, and to excel you need to be able to clear lactate well (A), produce good power over short distances (B) and have good aerobic capacity and muscular endurance (C). Aim high. Or low, should we say.


Beginner target – >8km

Intermed/adv – >10km

Olympian – >12km.




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