Strength & Fitness

Rowing 101

Rowing. Some of you love it, some of you hate it (hopefully not too much lol). It’s the form of cardio that is most often programmed at our gym. While it might seem like a very simple exercise, there is definitely a right and a wrong way to do it.

Let’s go over the basics first.

Foot Placement & Strap Set-up

Sit down on the rower, and position the straps across the balls of your feet - tight enough so that your feet don’t move too much, yet still allow you to slide in and out during a workout.

Footplates should adjust so the widest part of the foot is even with the strap. This is important for the drive phase and pushing through the midfoot. This set-up will also adjust the angle of your hip when you come into the catch


In order to understand the correct form that athletes should be using when rowing, let’s break down the row into phases:

  1. Catch
  2. Drive & Extend
  3. Drive & Open
  4. Drive & Draw
  5. Finish
  6. Recovery

Great list - but what does all of that mean?

  1. The Catch

This is the first position you are in when rowing, as well as, the last when finishing each stroke. You want to sit on the rower with a strong, stiff back. You should be leaning forward slightly from neutral. Your arms should be straight, knees bent, and shins vertical. Imagine sitting up tall, that way you aren’t just using your back to “pull”.

A quick note on heel positioning: The goal should be to try keeping your heels down. A small amount of heel raise is normal, only as long as the drive phase is initiated by pushing through your midfoot, NOT the toes.

  1. Drive & Extend

The drive is initiated by pushing through your heels/midfoot to begin extending the knees. Rowing is primarily a leg-intensive exercise - not a “pull with your arms” exercise. Your arms should only be guiding the handle. Your torso should maintain the same angle as step 1 (slightly forward). 

The main focus here should be to drive through your heel/midfoot, not your toes.

  1. Drive & Open

When your knees are close to full extension, it’s time to begin opening the hips. Imagine you are doing a power clean: Hip drive and extension!! Keep those arms straight through this part of the pull as well.

  1. Drive & Draw

Okay, now you can use your arms. Once your legs are extended and hips are open, draw your arms back and bring the handle of the rower to your chest, or the bottom of your sternum. Ladies, think about pulling the handle to the bottom of your sports bra. Men, pretend you are wearing a sports bra and do the same thing. Your wrists should be in line with your forearms and draw your elbows back and close to the body - NOT up and wide. Like a push up, elbows in.

  1. Finish

This step is just a slight pause at the very end of the pull or draw. Your body should be leaning back slightly from neutral with your legs straight and the arms pulled in, with the handle at the bottom of your chest. 

  1. Recovery

This is the portion of the movement that takes us from the finish, back to the catch (starting position). This is done in the exact reverse order from the drive. Push your arms away, lean at the hip so your torsetorso moves forward, bend the knees, and draw your body back into the catch position.

An easy way to think about each of the steps is: Legs, hips, arms, arms, hips, legs. This follows each of the steps and you won’t find yourself skipping anything. 

Also, be sure not to re-bend your knees too soon. As you start your return forward, keep your knees straight until the handle is past your knees. Hinge at the hips, sit tall, and wait for the handle to pass before you rebend them. This is one of the most common mistakes I see. 


On the rower’s monitor, you’ll notice a box that displays S/M. This stands for strokes per minute and is a great way to help track your pace. I generally advise people to have a stroke rate between 22-28 per minute.

The other way to figure out your pacing is by looking at either your time/500m or calories/hour. This will give you a time or a power output that you are averaging with each pull. Plan a pace to do and stick with it. The harder you push with your legs and pull the handle, the further you will go. Moving your legs and arms faster doesn’t necessarily mean you will go “faster”. If anything, you will be expending way more energy than necessary. Rather, think “strong and steady wins the race.”

Damper Setting

Speaking of resistance, the sliding mechanism on the right side of the rower is the damper. This adjusts the amount of air that flows into the rower. The damper does not control the intensity or resistance. That is controlled by how much you use your body to move the handle or how hard you are pulling.

You should never set the rower’s damper as high as possible, no matter the workout. That might sound crazy to some of you, perhaps. 

It is true that a higher damper will increase the power of your pull - resulting in increased calorie and distance rates - but this will also equate to an increased amount of work needed to make each pull happen. That’s not very beneficial, especially in longer rowing workouts. This will result in you becoming fatigued much more quickly. 

The rower’s damper should be adjusted based on the drag factor. This can be looked at with several clicks of the buttons on the main menu. You can read more about that here if you want to mess around with it. 

But in general, a damper setting between 4-6 will be appropriate for any workout. 

So after reading all of that, where does your rowing form stand? Is it perfect, or do you have some things you need to adjust? Having the correct rowing form is especially important when it comes to the efficiency of your workouts. Give these tips a try and let us know if you have any other questions!

Matt Kaitchuck

Coach/OnBoarding Specialist