Indoor rowers used to be some of the loneliest machines at the gym. The treadmills and ellipticals might quickly fill up, while the rowing ergometers would sit empty, gathering dust. But over the past decade, indoor rowing has grown far more popular, with gym-goers hopping into classes at boutique studios like Row House, and homebodies enjoying gamified rows on smart machines in their living rooms.
It’s no surprise: Rowing is a great total-body workout, engaging 86 percent of your muscles, and challenging your heart to an intense cardio session without putting much impact on your joints.
The only problem? The rowing machine can be super intimidating for beginners—and all too easy to use incorrectly. Many people don’t have much familiarity with rowing, so it’s easier to hop on a treadmill or exercise bike, and do a more intuitive movement. But if you’re intrigued by the machine and want to see what all the buzz is about, Liam Power, a six-time New York state champion rowing coach whose rowers have broken over 10 world records, shares his top tips for beginner rowers here.
3 common rowing machine mistakes
“The majority of mistakes I see have to do with improper form, whether it be from poor posture or a lack of understanding in regards to the biomechanics of taking a rowing stroke,” says Power. Fortunately, it doesn’t take much time or money to learn proper rowing technique. Most of the resources you need are already at your fingertips (well, that is, if your fingers are holding a smartphone).
Mistake 1: Improper form
Before you hop on an ergometer, it’s essential to learn the fundamentals of proper rowing technique. For starters, slouching or hunching over on the rowing machine won’t properly engage your core muscles. This not only makes your stroke less efficient, but it can also injure your back and shoulder muscles.
Another common form issue Power sees among beginners is not pushing hard enough on the drive portion (when you’re pressing back away from the machine). Many people think of rowing as an upper-body exercise, so they place too much emphasis on pulling on the handlebar, but most of your power will really come from pushing with your legs.
Even if you can’t afford coaching, Power says there are lots of great resources for beginner rowers online, such as videos on YouTube that can help you learn the basics, as well as advanced techniques once you get the hang of the machine. “Watch some videos that detail the intricacies of the rowing technique and try to commit as much of it to memory as possible,” he says.
The next thing to watch? Videos of yourself. “I would encourage beginners to film themselves rowing so they can go back and compare their form to the correct form. This is something even elite rowers do quite regularly,” says Power. “Even after you have mastered the stroke, it’s still possible to form bad habits.” Ask a friend to capture some footage for a minute, or prop your phone up nearby and hit record.
Mistake 2: Rowing at the wrong pace for you
Many beginners hop on an indoor rowing machine and simply go for it, only to tire out in just a few minutes. Instead, Power recommends reading up on pacing so you can get a feel for what would be a standard pace for someone your height, age, weight, and experience level.
“It would also be good to read up on the different cardio training zones and to get an understanding of how to train within each on a weekly basis, and why it’s important to do so,” he suggests.
Mistake 3: Not going in with a game plan
Power says another common mistake he sees beginners make is starting their session without a clear workout plan or goal in mind. “As a result, they don’t pace themselves correctly, which leads to poor technique and quitting early,” he says.
If you’re not sure where to start, look into some of the many free online training plans. “There are a ton of free plans that can be used by anyone in their own training,” says Power.
“The best coaches spend a lot more time coaching mindset rather than technique; again that’s something that can be found online for free,” he says. “Many of the popular rowing machine suppliers have whole sections of their websites dedicated to education—take advantage of it.”