The 5 Rowing Machine Mistakes You Don’t Know You’re Making

Row, row, row sounds like the start to a spiritless medley used to pass time when you were a kid—but the refrain can also serve as a cue to one of the toughest, most efficient workouts you can take on in the gym.

The rowing machine (also known as an ergometer, or ERG) can give you the pulse-pounding, heart pumping benefits of a high-level cardio routine within a format that will challenge your whole body. Since you’re forced to use both your upper and lower body in tandem to row the right way (more on that in just a moment), you’ll probably feel like you get more out of a short rowing session than you might on a long run.

The problem is, not everyone knows how to row. The machines don’t really have a common practical equivalent outside the gym like stationary or spin bikes have with common road bicycles (unless you live on the water or gave crew a shot in college), so the proper form isn’t as accessible for more general exercisers. As functional fitness activities like CrossFit gain popularity, rowers are popping up in more gyms than ever–but those types of workouts are far too often concerned about producing as much power on the machine as quickly as possible, not necessarily on rowing the right way.

To help you overcome potential pulling pitfalls, MH talked to Bryan Volpenhein, a three-time member of the U.S. Olympic rowing team and gold medalist, to walk through some of the most common mistakes beginner rowers make.

Are you ready to get rowing? Check out some of the best options to get a machine for your own home gym, then put this expertise into practice.

Master Your Rowing Form

1. The Catch: Sit with your legs bent and feet in the stirrups so your shins are almost 90 degrees to the floor. Fully extend your arms to grab the handle and lean your body forward so your shoulders come just in front of your hips. Keep your back flat and your core engaged.

2. The Drive: Maintain a straight back, tight core, and locked arms and then drive your legs back until they are just about straight. Once they are, hinge from your hips and lean your torso backward. As your torso reaches a 90-degree angle with the floor, begin to pull with your arms by bending at the elbows.

3. The Finish: Here your legs should be straight, your elbows bent, and you should pull the handle to your lower chest. Your arms should be slightly away from your ribcage, but not flared out to the sides. Maintain a strong core and a straight back.

4. The Recovery: “This is a mirror image of the drive,” says Volpenheim. The arms begin to straighten. When they are almost fully extended, the torso hinges forward from the hips. Maintaining a straight back and tight core, the knees begin to bend once the handle passes over them.

Manage These 5 Common Rowing Mistakes

The Problem: You Row in the Wrong Order

On the drive portion of the stroke, guys usually use their bodies or their arms too soon. “This is probably the most common mistake I see,” says Volpenheim.

Fix it: Think of the sequence as working your way from your big muscle groups to the smaller ones, says Volpenheim. You want the large muscles in your legs to do most of the work. He suggests rowing without strapping your feet into the machine. If you can’t keep your feet in contact with the footholds, something is out of order, says Volpenheim.

The Problem: You “Shoot Your Seat”

It’s more common than you think. “This is where your seat moves and your legs extend but nothing else moves,” says Volpenheim. It delivers a major blow to your explosive power and momentum.

Fix it: “The handle should move at the same time as your seat,” says Volpenheim. Try focusing on the first half of your drive. Sit in the catch position—with your knees bent, back straight, and core tight—and extend your knees half way. Make sure the handle travels at the same rate as your seat.

The Problem: You Pull With Too Much Torso

Leaning your torso too far past a 90-degree angle with the floor puts your back in a weak position. “I see this a lot because most guys want their power readout to jump up, but it actually puts you at risk for injury,” according to Volpenheim. You should try to stay as close to 90 degrees as possible.

Fix it: Row without strapping your feet into the machine. Only hinge your torso as far as you can without your feet breaking contact. You can also try squeezing your glutes at the final phase of the arm pull to keep you more upright, he says.

The Problem: You Don’t Sit Like You Should

It seems so simple, but if you don’t sit correctly, you sabotage your power. “I see a lot of people row with their backs curved and their hips rolled forward—I call this rowing behind your hips,” says Volpenheim.

Fix it: “Think of your torso as stacked right on top of your hips,” says Volpenheim. Try practicing rowing with only your torso. With your legs and arms extended, hinge backward and forward from the hips, he suggests. By isolating the second part of the drive phase—when your torso hinges after your legs straighten—you can focus on feeling the seat move under you.

The Problem: You Don’t Have a Good Grip

Most guys hold the handle only with the first knuckles of their fingers or hold the handle with an underhand grip.

Fix it: Your fingers should wrap around the handle so your second knuckles face forward with your thumbs on the underside of the handle. The top of your wrist should also be completely flat, and not rolled to the outside. To improve your grip, try rowing with an overhand grasp and your thumbs on top of the handle to strengthen your fingers. Or tape a Popsicle stick to your wrists to remind yourself to keep them flat, he says. If you feel pressure from the stick or if it pops off, that means your wrists are bending too much.

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