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how to use a rowing machine - man on rower

How To Use A Rowing Machine & The Mistakes To Avoid

That moment when you look at a rower and wonder how it’s done. That’s the moment we’re here to save you from. When it comes to learning how to use a rowing machine, it’s actually a very intuitive movement. Yes, there are some things to learn but they’re simple once you do it a few times. 

Below we’ll show you how to use a rowing machine the right way and the most common mistakes to avoid. 

Important Definitions: 

Below, we’ll talk about form. But some of the words used might not be familiar. So here are the definitions real quick: 

Split Time 

Split time is how long it takes you to row 500 meters. 

Strokes Per Minute 

This is the number of times you row in a minute. This number should not be super high because rowing is all about powerful, efficient strokes. 


The beginning of your movement. This is where your knees are closest to your chest and you’re holding your arms out in front of you gripping the handle. 


This is where you push out from the rower bringing the handle towards your low chest and driving your body back to the end of the rail. 


This is the fully extended point of the rowing motion. Your legs are straight (slight bend), leaning back slightly, and the handle is just below your chest/ribs. 


The movement back towards the rower to start the process again. Your arms are out, you’re leaning forward bending at the hips, and your knees are bending up toward your chest. 

The Entire Process

The Catch

Starting at the top of the machine, your knees should be up by your chest, your arms are straight out holding the handle, shins perpendicular to the floor, and you want to be hinged at the hips. Aim to keep your back straight and your shoulders should be relaxed. 

At this point, you’re “catching” the resistance of the rower. It’s the starting point. 

The Drive

This is where you “drive” back using the power of your legs. You’ll push out from the foot-plates until your legs are about halfway extended. As your legs are extending, you hinge back at the hips and lean back. Your arms should be straight in line with the flywheel.

The Finish

As you’re reaching the top of the movement, your torso should be leaned back, legs nearly straight and you’re drawing your arms in towards the bottom of your rib cage. You’ve finished when you’re fully at the top and the handle is just below your ribs. Your elbows will be just slightly out from your sides. 

The Recovery

Now you execute the recovery and move back to the top of the machine. To do this, you reverse the movement. From the top, you extend your arms straight out from your body so that they’re in-line with the flywheel. Then hinge forward at your hips and bring your legs back up. 

After a few reps, you’ll become comfortable with the motion and the whole thing will become fluid. You shouldn’t need to stop at the top or bottom of the motion until you’re finished with your workout. 

Rowing Tips 

Avoid Bringing The Handle Too High 

One thing to avoid is bringing the handle up high on your chest. It’s relatively common to see new rowers bring the bar up to their chest or even higher up by their collar bones. If you do this, you’ll burn your back muscles out and run the risk of injuring yourself. 

Instead, you want to stay relaxed through the movement, maintain a gentle grip, and keep your shoulders low. When you reach the top of the movement (the finish), the handle should be just below your ribs with your wrists straight. 


On the recovery, it’s important that you extend your arms straight out before bending your legs. If you forget to do this, you’ll have to raise the handle in an awkward scooping motion to avoid hitting your knees. If you find yourself doing this, start slower and get your form down first. 

Flaring your knees

If you’re lacking in flexibility, you may find yourself flaring your knees out to the sides or bringing them in when you’re in the catch position. This puts your knees in a compromised position and puts you in a weaker position for the drive. Instead, flex the muscles of your inner thighs to keep your knees in-line with your hips. 

Gripping Too Hard

You shouldn’t need to white knuckle on the bar. Gripping too tight is going to burn your arms and grip strength out too quickly. It could also be a sign that your form is off and you’re using your arms too much. Instead, maintain a relatively relaxed grip with your hands wide on the handle (out towards the end). 


When it comes to using a rowing machine, there’s so much terminology that it can get confusing in a hurry. However, it only takes a few minutes to get the motion down. 

When you first start, just take the time to go through the motions until you can confidently perform 10 full reps without any hiccups. 

After that, you can increase your resistance and start putting in work. If you find yourself returning to bad form or making any of the mistakes above (scooping, flaring, etc.) then slow down, get your form in, and get back to it. Rowing is an exceptionally good workout that tones your muscles, burns tons of calories, it’s low impact so don’t let the terminology scare you away.