The Rower: A Minute to Learn, A Lifetime to Master | Olympia Fitness + Performance
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Olympia Fitness + Performance

The Rower: A Minute to Learn, A Lifetime to Master

Rowing is a relatively simple form of exercise with a relatively simple stroke. The nuances of the stroke are what make this sport so incredible. My goal through this blog is not to create any rowing masters. My hope is that these tips allow you to use the rower in a more safe and effective way. By properly setting up the machine and performing the stroke, you can save yourself from aches, pains, and injuries that could come along with improper use. By understanding how to read the monitor, you will be able to get more out of your workouts.

If you feel lost on the rower, get random pains on the rower, or don’t feel like it’s a good workout, keep reading. This is for you. Below are five steps to improving your efforts on the rowing machine

1. Fix the Fan

This may be surprising to many, but the fan setting on the rower is NOT associated with intensity level or resistance. A higher number on the fan means that more air is being drawn into the fan. This requires more force to initiate the stroke and it slows the fan down more quickly, meaning that every stroke will require a higher amount of force. 

Higher requirements of force combined with fatigue or less than ideal rowing technique is a recipe for injury. Putting the fan at a higher level may make you feel like you’re doing more work, but you are just putting yourself in danger

In order to increase the intensity, you must take harder strokes by pushing harder into the footboard. There will be more on this later. 

The best place to set the fan varies depending on the machine, but anywhere between 3 and 5 is a good place to start.

2. Set Your Feet

The footboards can be adjusted depending on the size of your feet/shoes. The foot strap should tighten down around the widest portion of your foot. If your feet are too high, the strap will be low down on your foot. It may feel tough to get full range of motion in the beginning of your stroke because your knees are in the way. If your feet are too low, the strap will be too high up on your foot and you may feel like you’re going to slide out! When in doubt, #4 is a great setting for the majority of the general population using the rower!

3. Learn the Monitor

The rowing monitor has multiple settings and screens. To row for meters, all you need to do is sit down and start your strokes. The monitor will automatically begin recording. However, things can get more complicated. The three screens below show the different “Units” available on the rower. These can be scrolled through by clicking the “Units” button on the bottom left.

The top two boxes will always be the same. “Time” will be on the left, and “s/m” will be on the right. “S/M’ stands for “strokes per minute”. This is a great tool to help you pace yourself, which we’ll discuss later. 

The big box will always be your pace. In the first image, the screen is saying that if every stroke is like this one, it would take you 1 minute and 56 seconds to row 500 meters. The second image is saying that if every stroke is like this one, you would burn (about) 1080 calories in one hour. The third image is saying that the power behind that stroke was 227 watts. 

The small box below the pace changes depending on your unit. Sometimes it displays meters, total calories, or average watts/split pace. If you’re rowing for 8 calories, this box will be important to locate!

The first box below the big line shows your average pace or total number of meters traveled (depending on the unit).

The middle box in the bottom portion shows your actual split pace. Without changing the settings, the machine checks your split every 5 minutes. For competitive rowers, this is a great tool to ensure that they are rowing the same number of meters/calories/watts during every section of their workout. (Ex. If you rowed 1250 meters in the first 5 minutes and only 1000 meters in the last 5 minutes, your stamina needs some work!)

The bottom box will always tell you your “projected distance” in meters. By default, the machine tells you how far you would go in 30 minutes, but this changes if the monitor is programmed for a specific workout.

The only buttons you’ll need are the “Units” to change to calories for a specific workout, or “Menu” to reset the monitor back to zero!

4. Master the technique

The rowing stroke has 3 key positions:

  1. The Finish
  2. Body Forward
  3. The Catch

The finish is the position at the end of the stroke. Your legs should be fully extended, your back should be flat, your chest should be up, your shoulders should be slightly behind your hips, and the handle should be pulled into your body just below your chest, with your elbows out wide to the sides.

The body forward position is crucial for allowing the legs to do the work at the beginning of the stroke. From the finish, you should hinge at your hips to bring your shoulders slightly in front of your hips. The key here is maintaining a flat back and straight arms.

The catch is the beginning of the stroke. From the body forward position, the only thing left to do is bend the knees to control your way up to the top of the slide. At the catch, your ankles, knees, and hips are compressed as far as your body allows, your chest is tall, and your arms are straight. 

To get back to the finish from the catch, the progression goes: legs, body, arms. Jump off the footboard to straighten your legs. Use the momentum created by your legs to swing your body back. Guide the handle towards your body at the last moment of the stroke. 

5. Pace and Push Yourself

Earlier when breaking down the monitor, we talked about a few numbers that become more important now. First, the big “Pace” number in the middle of the screen. It’s the biggest number for a reason: it’s the most important measure of intensity (not the fan!). 

When on the calorie or watt screen, a higher number in that middle box means you’re working harder than a lower number (ex.1080 cal/h versus 850 cal/h or 227 watts versus 120 watts). With the time screen, it’s the exact opposite. A lower time indicates a higher intensity than a higher number (ex. 1:56 versus 2:12).

If you feel like you’re not getting very much out of the rowing machine when you sit down, try to lower your time number or raise your cal/watts number! We can accomplish this by jumping harder with your legs at the beginning of the stroke!

Another way to change the intensity is to change the number of strokes taken per minute. Generally, fewer strokes per minute is associated with a lower intensity, while many strokes per minute is associated with a higher intensity. 

When rowers row for long distances (10,000+ meters), they usually row around 18-20 strokes per minute. In short sprint distances, they will typically end up between 35-40 strokes per minute. 

If you notice that number is higher than 40, that indicates that you’re likely not getting all the way up to use your legs as hard as you can. If this is the case, a very high stroke rate will actually feel less intense than a slightly lower one. 

While the rower may seem intimidating, it’s actually a very simple tool for conditioning. Next time you’re in, ask me for a demo, and give it a try!

Katie Usher is Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist at Olympia Fitness and Performance. She recently graduated from the University of Rhode Island with degrees in Kinesiology and Psychology. While interning at Olympia, she found a love for helping athletes and general fitness clients push themselves to new levels in the gym, on the field, and in life. She is excited to continue setting clients on a path that allows them reach their goals.