Beginner's Guide to Rowing

Beginner's Guide to Rowing

Rowing is a great form of low impact aerobic exercise that will get your heart pumping and engages 86 percent of the muscles in your body (1). That’s right, rowing is a total body experience - tone your legs, core, arms, and more all while on the rowing machine. Your first time stepping onto a rower can be intimidating, but with a few tricks up your sleeves, you’ll be well on your way to perfecting your rowing form and acing your workouts.

The Rowing Machine (or Ergometer)

We offer a wide variety of types of rowers, and each provides a slightly different experience for users. The most popular types are water, fan, magnetic, and hydraulic rowers.

Fan rowers are likely what you’re most familiar with if you’ve ever used a rowing machine at the gym. As you pull on the handle, you spin the fan, and the air that pushes against the fan is your resistance. These rowers create a natural, smooth, and continuous rowing stroke that most rowers prefer when on an indoor rowing machine. While it’s not necessary to have adjustable resistance on a fan rower, you’ll find some of our rowers do have this option to keep challenging you as you get more fit in your fitness journey.

Water rowers typically involve a water tank with fan blades inside. Water rowing is designed to mimic rowing on the water, using the density of the water versus the speed at which you row to apply resistance. Rowing with a water rower feels incredibly smooth, and the relaxing flow of the water can be incredibly soothing to listen to during your workout.

Magnetic resistance rowers are great for those looking for something smooth and durable. The best thing about magnetic resistance is the adjustability. The ability to adjust your workout to your fitness level and goal for each workout can help personalize your experience and make your rower a tool that can be used as a part of a well-rounded fitness routine.

Hydraulic rowers are typically a different experience than many of our other rowers, as many of them do have an incline function, and they won’t have a handlebar with a strap but rather oars, or a different handlebar situation, that’s more directly connected to your rower. Because of this, your workouts and experience may look a little different than those using a regular rowing routine, but overall your posture and timing should be very similar.

The great news is no matter what type of rower you have, you’re going to get an awesome workout - burning tons of calories, increasing your cardiovascular strength and performance, and toning muscles in your entire body!

Getting Started

Getting the right set up on your rower is going to make a world of difference in the efficiency of your stroke and the power you’re able to generate while on your rower. Rowing with the correct form will also reduce your risk of injury! Because you’re getting your whole body involved in the action, rowing incorrectly can quickly lead to back pain. Starting slow and taking time to practice, learn the correct form, and get a feel for generating power when rowing is essential for the longevity and success of a solid rowing routine. Follow along with the simple tips below to get started!

1) Strap in

For most rowers, the set-up is pretty simple. You’ll want to begin by strapping into the footplates. Adjust the strap so that it sits on the widest part of your foot (right around the top of your shoelaces), this will keep you tightly strapped in while giving your ankle the range of motion it will need throughout your stroke.

A key part of rowing is pushing with power through your legs, and evenly into your heels against the footplates. It requires a good range of motion to keep your heels in contact with the footplate throughout your stroke. Sunny rowers are designed with swiveling footplates to accommodate users with a limited range of ankle mobility. This will help you easily keep your body in proper positioning whether you're new to rowing or advanced.

2) Rowing Form Basics

Your rowing form is incredibly important, without the proper setup and form throughout your stroke, you’ll lose out on a lot of potential power. Take your time to practice your form – odds are it’s not going to come immediately. In fact, it’s something I still regularly work on by practicing my drills, and being mindful throughout each rowing session I do, and this is me years into rowing (not regularly, but once every few weeks or so). Trust me when I say it gets easier as you go!

a) Catch

The start position is referred to as “the catch”. When you’re in the catch position, your arms should be reaching forward, your shins should be perpendicular to the ground, and your seat should come in close to your heels.

a lady is rowing

b) Drive

In each stroke, most of the power will come from your legs. Think about driving backward by pushing with power through your feet. You can practice this by doing “legs only” drills which are demonstrated in the below drills video.

a lady is rowing

Next, is your arms. Keep your grip on the handlebar gentle, we don’t want to waste our energy with a death grip. Pull the handle straight in, right above your belly button. Keep your shoulders up and back and squeeze your shoulder blades together on the back of your stroke.

a lady is rowing

Finally, your core – your core should be engaged as your torso gets involved in the movement. Lean back just a touch. We’re not talking about a huge range of motion, I like to think of it as shifting from 11 o’clock to 1 o’clock - it’s slight, but significant. Your core should never be underestimated during rowing as power through your extremities is going to originate through a strong and stable core.

a lady is rowing

Of course, in practice, all of this will look like one smooth motion like below.

a lady is rowing

c) Recovery

Your recovery is important, a good recovery will set you up for a successful next stroke. Recovery happens in the reverse order of your drive; so, first core, then arms, and finally legs to follow. Below you’ll see all of this put together.

a lady is rowing

It sounds like a lot at first, but if you continue to stay on it, thinking about not letting your arms extend over already bent knees, you’ll begin to get the hang of a good recovery. Because good mechanics and your form plays such a big role in rowing, you’ll constantly be thinking about your posture and form at first, but eventually, it will come like second nature. You’ll train through good posture and mechanics that will not only improve your rowing experience but your mechanics and posture throughout the rest of your day.

Put it all together with this rowing drills workout, which will help you break down your rowing stroke and practice key elements of your stroke, finished with some free time to practice putting it all together!

3) Stroke Rate

Once you’ve gotten the hang of your stroke, it’s time to put it into practice. Focus on your stroke rate, you can think of your stroke rate as similar to speed, or how many strokes you take in one minute. Start slow, practicing stroking at 16, 18, and 20 strokes per minute (SPM). It might feel painfully slow at first but generating speed doesn’t always mean rowing faster. Rowing efficiently requires powerful, consistent strokes, and learning how that feels from the start will make a world of difference when you move on to intermediate and hard workouts and actually start incorporating some real speed work into your training.

Rowing Workouts

Practice makes perfect! Hit the ground running with these rowing workouts designed to take your fitness to the next level. Follow along with our trainers as you develop speed, strength, and momentum. The more you practice your rowing, the more natural and efficient it will feel.

Beginner's Guide to Rowing Infographic
Beginner's Guide to Rowing Infographic


(1) “Physiological and Performance Effects of Low- versus Mixed-Intensity Rowing Training”. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 2008, Accessed 12 October, 2020.

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