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13 Rowing Mistakes You Could be Making (And How to Fix Them)

Image: WaterRower

Rowing is one of the best workouts you can give to your body. It’s one heck of a fat-burner, helping you incinerate as much as a whopping 800 calories per hour. It’s a full-body exercise that puts all your major muscle groups to work. Plus, it’s an amazing cardiovascular workout that can build stronger muscles at the same time.

But the rowing machine can be quite an enigma sometimes. You’d think you’ve got your form down pat, but you realize you’re doing something wrong when little nooks and crannies all over your body start to ache.


Rowing demands that you master the technique first. This allows you to make the most out of your exercise and prevent injury. But with rowing being so particular about your form, it’s not surprising why many people tend to get something wrong when they’re rowing for the first time.

But there’s no reason to worry about it. These beginner blunders are totally expected. And the best thing about them is that you can easily correct these mistakes all by yourself.

Mistake 1: You set the damper setting too high.

I have consistently discussed this issue in my reviews for the Concept2 Model D and Model E (and also a similar issue with the WaterRower rowing machines).

Many people tend to confuse the damper setting for the resistance setting and end up pushing the damper level all the way up to 10. You might think this will give you more resistance, when in fact, you’re simply ruining your chances of getting a good cardio workout before you can get it.

Solution: Start low and work your way upwards.

Rowing experts recommend that you begin with a damper setting of 3 to 5 first. On the WaterRower, beginners are advised to fill the water tank to level 15 to 17. This allows you to practice the perfect rowing technique while experiencing a resistance level that feels closest to rowing on real water.

The damper setting on the Concept2 does not actually adjust the resistance level. The same goes true for the water level in the WaterRower. In truth, these settings simulate the weight of the boat and crew if you were rowing on a real lake.

A higher damper setting means you’re rowing a barge – big, heavy and hard to tip over. A lower setting means you’re on a racing shell – small, light and will require you to do more strokes to get it moving. The barge will feel heavier on your body, making you feel tired faster than you normally would.

Mistake 2: You hunch your back.

When you’re sitting in front of a computer all day long, it’s not hard for you to make this mistake when you’re sitting on the rowing machine. Your back tends to automatically round itself, with your shoulders stooping forward and your head bowed.

This encourages poor posture and messes up your ability to transfer all your power to the stroke.

Solution: Keep your spine neutral.

Sit up straight, but take care not to flex your spine. Think of your vertebrae as being stacked right on top of the hips and one another.

To be able to do this, engage your ab muscles, relax your shoulders and keep them down away from your ears. Make sure your chin is up and your eyes are looking all the way forward.

If you’re not yet sure, practice rowing with your upper body only. Keep your legs and arms extended forward, then pivot forward to the 1 o’clock position from the hips, making sure to keep the spine neutral at all times. Then pivot back to the 11 o’clock position from your hips, just as you would when you’re doing a deadlift.

Mistake 3: You row with your arms too soon.

This is probably the most common mistake novice rowers make. When you sit on the rowing machine, it might feel natural for you to start moving your legs and arms at the same time. After all, won’t you get the most out of your workout when you move everything all at once?

Not really. You’re actually putting too much pressure on your upper body, and you run the risk of injury if you don’t correct yourself.

Solution: Think of rowing as a series of three smaller movements that flow into one another.

The biggest muscle group comes first, followed by the smaller ones.

First, push back from the footboard with your legs. Second, hinge backward from your hips, keeping your upper body straight. And third, pull your arms toward the second lowest rib, right below the sports bra if you’re a woman. Then reverse the order during the recovery phase (arms, core, legs).

A good way to practice this is to row without strapping your feet into the foot rests. If your feet keep lifting themselves off the footboard, you’ll know you’re not getting the order right.

Mistake 4: Your row with your arms, period.

People who have never sat on an indoor rower before tend to believe that rowing is purely an upper body workout. That’s why, when it’s their turn on a rowing machine, they end up driving all the power to their arms and shoulders, while neglecting to exercise the biggest muscle group of all: the legs.

If you keep doing this, your arms, shoulders and back will succumb to pressure, raising the odds of you sustaining an injury because of improper rowing technique.

Solution: Draw power from your legs.

The legs are where all the most powerful muscles are located, so it makes sense that you make the most out of them. Josh Crosby, founder of IndoRow, recommends that 60 percent of all the power that goes into a stroke should come from the legs, while the core and the arms contribute 20 percent each.

When you drive back from the footboard, make sure your arms are straight as you pull your legs out.

Mistake 5: You shoot your butt.

Also known as seat shooting or seat shoving, this mistake is all too common in people who move the seat too quickly that the rest of the body is left behind.

When you drive the legs back without thinking of connecting the movement of the legs to the arms, you’re “shooting” your butt back and leaving the upper body and arms unmoving. You’ll know you’re doing this when the angle of your body narrows down to far less than 90 degrees to the floor.

This forces your torso to make up for its lack of movement during the first half of the drive by jolting itself backward at the end of the drive. This can cause too much strain on your lower back.

Solution: Keep your core engaged.

The muscles in your core are responsible for keeping the movements in your legs and arms flow into one another. Keep your core muscles turned on during the entire stroke so that, whatever position you may find yourself in, your body remains strong and stable.

This way, your back remains in the same 1 o’clock angle as in the catch even as you drive your legs back. This also makes sure the handle moves in sync with the backward movement of your seat.

Mistake 6: You lean too far back.

If you force your upper body to work too early during the drive, you end up leaning too far back way past the 11 o’clock position at the end of the drive. If you notice your toes lifting off the footboard, or if you suddenly fall over into the rails, you’ll know you were exaggerating your torso movement.

Some rowers think doing this drives power to the stroke, but it’s actually more dangerous than you think. Not only does this weaken your stance, it also obviously puts you at high risk for injury.

Solution: Sit tall.

The key is to keep your spine neutral all throughout the stroke. You can only row as far back if you keep your spine stacked against your hips. If you’re an office worker and you keep forgetting this, practice rowing with your feet out of the foot rests. You’ll realize you won’t be able to lean very far back when you’re working to keep the balls of your feet down on the footboard.

Also, try squeezing your glutes when you hinge backward. This tends to keep you upright without falling over.

Mistake 7: Your grip is wrong.

Either you hold the handles too tight that you wear out the skin of your palms and end up with blisters, or you hold the handles too loose that you let go of them mid-stroke. Whichever way you go, it’s wrong.

Solution: Hold the handles firmly but gently.

Fold your fingers over then handle so that your second knuckles face forward. The thumb and the first knuckles should be comfortably tucked away under the handles.

However, don’t wrap your hands so tightly that you tear away the skins of your hands. If you’re prone to developing blisters, you can use a pair of soft plastic grips to keep your skin protected.

Also, keep your wrists straight to keep your wrists and forearms from cramps. If you’re not sure you’re doing this right, tape a pair of popsicle sticks over your wrists as you row. If you feel them pressing too much on your wrist, or if they pop off, it means your wrists are bent at an unnatural angle.

Mistake 8: You pull your elbows and shoulders up.

In this position, you look like a chicken flapping its wings upwards. You have your elbows poking up and out from your sides, while your shoulders are raised toward your ears, causing you to pull the handles to right below your chin.

Not only does this make you look funny on the rowing machine, it will also cause you to stoop over at the end of the drive.

Solution: Relax your elbows and shoulders.

When you pull with your arms, make sure your elbows move at a natural angle by pulling the handles to the bottom of your ribs. For the ladies, this is right below your sports bra. For the gentlemen, imagine wearing a sports bra. Right below that is where your arms should be at the end of the drive.

Also, think about pulling the shoulders down away from your ear and the shoulder blades being pushed together when you pull your arms.

Mistake 9: You stop at the end of the drive.

Just because the drive and recovery are two separate phases doesn’t mean they are two separate actions as well. Some people think it’s okay to rest for a second or two at the end of the drive.

What they don’t know is that when they “two-piece” the stroke into the first action and the second action, the back tends to slouch when they start the recovery phase.

Solution: Make the stroke one continuous, flowing movement of smaller movements.

Once you reach the end of the drive, continue moving. There is no stopping. If you need to rest, you can rest during the recovery phase but you have to keep moving.

Quickly move your hands and straighten your arms back out, hinge forward to the 1 o’clock position, and flow back into the catch position with your legs.

Mistake 10: Your strokes have a bad rhythm to them.

Sometimes, when you’re too caught up in your movements, you tend to rush into the next stroke without thinking of doing the current stroke properly. When you move forward in the recovery much faster than you move backward in the drive, you rush the stroke and you don’t get to go the full range of motion of doing a proper stroke.

You’ll know you’re rushing things when you bend your knees too soon at the recovery without giving time for your arms and upper body to go into position.

Solution: Keep a stroke ratio of 1:2.

The recovery phase is the resting phase. In a boat, the recovery phase is the time you give the boat to go the full distance it can go in a single stroke. On the WaterRower, the recovery phase gives time for the water in the tank to slow down before the next stroke. The same goes for the air flywheel of the Concept2.

Give yourself time to recover so you can gather all your power to explode into the drive phase once again. The recovery phase should take two times as much time as the drive phase, thus a 1:2 ratio.

If you’re having trouble slowing down, remember to bend your knees in recovery only after the arms have straightened and the handles have gone past your knees. Keep in mind the order of muscles involved: legs, core, arms for the drive, arms, core, legs for the recovery.

Mistake 11: You slam your butt into your heels.

When you’re engrossed in keeping up your speed, you can end up slamming your seat to the front of the rower. This causes the upper body to lurch forward, at the same time causing undue pressure on the knees.

Solution: Relax during the recovery phase.

Remember the stroke ratio of 1:2. The recovery phase should be focused and controlled, allowing you to stop pulling the seat forward when you’re supposed to. When your shins are vertical to the ground and your heels are starting to lift off the footboard, that’s when you know you’ve finished a stroke.

Mistake 12: You have a short stroke.

A short stroke prevents you from taking the maximum benefit out of your workout. Your strokes are short you are not reaching your full length and not drawing the handle all the way back at the end of the drive.

Often, rowers who get tired end up having short strokes. If the monitor shows you reaching high stroke rates while you’re rowing at a low intensity, typically anything above 26 spm at low intensity rowing, you’re most likely making short strokes.

Solution: Make the longest stroke possible.

It helps if you can use a marker on the top of your deck to help you make sure you’re reaching the full length of your stroke. Remember to keep your upper body upright even as you go for a longer stroke.

Mistake 13: You’re not breathing properly.

Who would’ve thought the most basic thing we humans do can even do you wrong, right? Most people actually don’t breathe properly, especially when they’re exercising. They might hold their breath in, breathe too fast, too slow, too shallow or too deep.

Either way, not breathing properly prevents the muscles from getting the oxygen they demand during heavy exercise, while exposing them to more carbon dioxide waste product.

Solution: Breathe from the diaphragm.

Diaphragmatic breathing is breathing fuller, deeper breaths. You should see your stomach rise and fall as you breathe, not your chest.

Breathe in deeply as you recover forward, breathe out fully as you drive back. The exhalation should always happen when you’re exerting effort. This prevents internal injuries, such as straining the blood vessel, as well as high blood pressure.

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