You’ve just bought a rowing machine… what next?

First of all – congratulations on your purchase of what in my opinion is the greatest piece of cardio equipment a person can own!

Now you are wondering where to start.. In the early days I would advise concentrating on a couple of things:

  • Form/ Technique
  • Base endurance
  • Progress tracking
  • Flexibility


Rowing with correct technique is key for being able to put the most power possible into each stroke, being able to maintain this and ensuring you minimise risk of injury. The main thing that helps understand the stroke is to think of which muscles generate the power – an old coach of mine estimates it to be along the lines of:

  • Legs – 65%
  • Lower back – 20%
  • Upper back – 10%
  • Arms – 5%

I like this video for seeing a stroke broken down in visual form – he makes it sound simple, and that’s because it is! You just need to work on co-ordination. I’ll break the stroke down into two parts – the drive and the recovery.

The Drive

Starting at the front, from a side on view you want to imagine that your body is at about 1 o clock angle. Given this is where you will start the stroke, you need to be in a strong position – have a neutral spine, sit up, hold your core tight and have balance in your feet.

When you take the stroke, it is key that you don’t fire off your legs and move the seat without moving the handle – this is wasted energy. You want to imagine that the handle is only moving at the start when the seat is moving.

Opening the back – you want to wait until you have almost got the legs flat before you start opening out, at this point you still have your arms locked out, and then once the legs are flat and you are opening the back (to about 11 o clock angle) you can then bring the arms in to finish the stoke.

For the stoke, you want to imagine that you are accelerating the handle the whole time so don’t jab it too hard at the start and then slow down, you want to really work on building power throughout the stoke.

The Recovery

Now that you’ve taken the stoke, you want to use the recovery (moving back to the start) to again be done efficiently and with poise to allow you to take in oxygen and get ready for the next stroke.

The recovery is essentially done in reverse – from the back of the stroke you want to move the arms back to fully extended, lean from your 11 o clock back to 1 o clock and then start breaking the legs. On the body rock is it essential that you do this from the hips, not the back. You want a completely neutral spine and not to be hunched. It should feel like you are sitting on a different part of your glutes as you rock over.

As you are breaking your knees and coming back to the front, you want to ensure your body is already in the position you want it to be at the front – don’t leave it too late and lean forwards at the front, this is again wasted effort and that all adds up in tests or long sessions.

Putting it together

Once you have a good grasp of both aspects of the stroke you want to turn it into a fluent stroke that you can repeat over and over. If you imagine that a stroke takes 3 seconds (imagine rowing at 20 strokes a minute) then the drive should take 1 second and the recover should take 2 seconds. This will help you find your rhythm.

There are drills you can do to build a stronger stroke, but I will do a further post on advanced technique and drills you can do.

Base Endurance

Whilst it is always tempting to get on and smash it – you will be setting yourself up well by spending your first 6-8 weeks focussing on longer sessions where you really bed in correct technique. I am a strong believer in taking breaks during long sessions to stretch/ take on water/ regroup but it is important to get the miles in!

I would suggest breaking down all initial sessions by time intervals – and I think 20 minutes is best to do so. I personally like a session like the below but to start you can do 2 x 20 mins before moving to a longer session.


3 x 20 minutes @ 18-20 strokes per minute with 3 minute break between each.


Stroke rate – if you want to row for a long period of time, you need to keep the rate low and you still have the opportunity to take really powerful strokes and take time to recover before the next one.

Heart rate – I really advocate using a HR monitor and you want to try and keep yourself around 65% of your max to ensure that you are not doing to much

On long sessions on the rowing machine, hydration is paramount. Check my post Powerade vs Gatorade for some thoughts about best hydration strategies.

Building experience of powerful strokes at low rate will mean that when you step up to high rate the speed will really show!

Progress Tracking

Something I see a lot of is people trying to do a 2km row too often. Either they are trying to improve their time weekly, or they are doing it after a gym session. If you are doing a 2k test properly, you shouldn’t be able to do anything else in the gym afterwards!

There are 3 tests I advocate for doing to measure progress:

  1. 30 @ 20 test. This is 30 minutes at a max stroke rate of 20. In here you want to measure your total distance. I would advocate doing this every 2-3 weeks to test the progress of your power and endurance.
  2. 2km test. This is an ‘all out’ test of speed over the typical rowing distance. You should do this no more than once every 6 weeks to allow time to build enough progress to beat it the next time. Aim to keep your stroke rate at a minimum of 32.
  3. 5km test. This is similar to the 2k test but over a longer distance and with a greater need to pace yourself. I would aim to keep stroke rate around 28-32 depending how well you can do this.


So much of the stroke is influenced by the flexibility of your hips and hamstrings. Do not neglect this aspect and spend time afterwards stretching properly – I fully recommend a foam roller to help you with this. Check out this post for a few thoughts on foam rollers.

Hopefully this gives a good flavour of the technique to row with, and some sessions to start off with.

Happy rowing!

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