Row, Row, Row Your Machine

Back in my undergrad days I competed on the club rowing team for a couple of years. It was one of the best experiences of my life! Rowing is definitely one of the most challenging sports out there! We not only competed on the water, but on the indoor ergometers (ergs) as well. Here’s a pic from my glory days:


Nowadays you’ll find me on the erg as a tool to improve my fitness, though I aspire to get back on the water someday! I decided to write this piece on rowing technique because I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen gym goers hop on the erg and start rowing without the slightest idea of how to set themselves up and row correctly. Hopefully this will increase your knowledge on use of the erg!

Before we talk about technique let’s talk about proper set up on the machine:

This is not crazy complicated. You sit on the machine with your butt in a comfortable position and feet in the foot stretchers. Proper placement for your feet in the foot stretchers should generally have the strap over the ball of your foot. If foot placement is incorrect, this can lead to improper technique. For more information on foot position check out this article.

As far as the damper setting is concerned, this is going to depend on you. A setting between 1-4 simulates rowing in a racing shell, while higher numbers would more simulate a slow row boat. You could also think of using lower settings for aerobic workouts and higher settings for strength workouts. While most people associate this setting with resistance or intensity, this is not correct. The resistance and/or intensity is associated with how hard you pull, regardless of where the damper is set. In general, if the damper is set too high you will exhaust your muscles quickly, which then leads to a sacrifice in technique and/or inability to finish the workout. I generally tend to keep my damper set around a 3-4. For more information on damper settings check out this article.

Lastly, I’ll touch briefly on intensity. When the performance monitor screen is set on meters the big number in the middle of the screen is what you’ll focus on to monitor your intensity. This number is also the pace and is given per 500m. Up in the right hand corner is the stroke rating or the number of strokes per minute. These 2 values are independent of each other as you can increase intensity while staying at the same stroke rating. As far as what you’re looking for those values to be will depend on the workout you are doing. To give you an idea, when I was a novice rower competing at the indoor championships I rowed 2000m at roughly a 2:05 pace with a stroke rating around 27-28 spm to win 3rd place with a time of 8:03. Here’s a nice video goes a bit more in depth on rowing intensity.

There are 4 parts to the technique:

The Drive: This is the working portion of the stroke. The drive is initiated by pushing through the legs, then swinging through with the back, and finally pulling with the arms.

The Finish: This is the position at the end of the drive. The legs are extended and the upper back should be leaning back slightly with tension in the core. The shoulders should be neutral (no shrugging) and grip relaxed with flat wrists and the handle right around the bra line.

The Recovery: This immediately follows the finish. Extend the arms first before leaning forward from the hips. Once you’ve cleared your knees, then slide the seat forward returning to the catch.

The Catch: This is the position you’ll be in prior to starting another drive. The arms are extended, head is in neutral, and shoulders are neutral (no shrugging). The upper body is leaning forward from the hips with the shoulders in front of the hips. The shins are vertical and the heels may lift as needed.

In simple terms I like to think of it this way:

On the drive: legs, back, arms

On the recovery: arms, back, legs

Click here for a helpful technique video by Concept2, maker of the rowing erg and ski erg.

I can’t tell you how many times I heard our rowing coach say “it’s like riding a bike”, but he was absolutely right. Once you get the technique down it comes quite natural. As with most exercises, I highly encourage practicing the technique as much as possible until you have a good handle on it before trying to ramp up intensity. Hope you found this helpful!

Until next time, happy rowing!






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