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Rowing Machine Mechanics: The Stroke

Updated: Aug 17, 2023

Rowing machines have become increasingly popular in health clubs and gyms over the past few years, and for good reason. Rowing machines give you a low-impact full-body workout unique from other cardio exercises that can wear and tear on your joints.

September's movement of the month from our newsletter is the rowing stroke! In the rowing world, the practice of this movement for warming up is called a "pick drill," which involves isolating each stage of the stroke and then combining them in a fluid motion. Utilizing pick drills, I'm going to break down each stage of the stroke to demonstrate proper technique when performing this exercise.

man using the rowing machine at a gym

Rowing Technique

Get in the starting position

Sit down on the seat and place your feet on the footplate while bending your knees. Strap your feet in if you feel the need to do so and grab the handle attached to the cord.

Adjust your grip

Grab the handle and use an overhand grip so that your palms are touching it. Make sure your hands are wide enough apart that both pinkies are at the respective ends of the handle.

Correct your posture

Sit with your back and shoulders straight while tightening your core at the same time. You don't want to row with a hunched posture, so engaging your core will keep your posture straight. Now it's time to learn the stages of the rowing stroke!

The 4 Stages of Rowing

Before you start rowing, it's important to know the four stages of the stroke.

1. Catch

  • This is the ready or starting phase; your back is straight and your shins are vertical to the ground, with your shoulders slightly ahead of your hips.

catch rowing phase

2. Drive

  • This is a transitional phase, where you extend the knees pushing the seat back to fully extend your legs in a quick motion. While you are extending your legs, follow with your body and use your arms to pull the handle all the way to your torso, leaning slightly back. Repeat "legs, body, arms" to yourself if that helps to get the tempo.

drive rowing stroke

3. Finish

  • You are in the finishing phase of the stroke, which is where you land at the end of the drive phase. Your legs are extended, the handle is pulled to your torso, and you are leaning backward.

finish drive stroke

4. Recovery

  • The recovery sequence is the opposite of the drive, almost as if you were moving in reverse. Let go of your arms, then the body, then the legs to return to the starting position. Repeat "arms, body, legs" to yourself if that helps to get the tempo right.

recovery rowing stroke

Rowing Mechanics

Before you dive straight into this movement, it's a good idea to do some warm-up drills to work on sequence and tempo, as well as get used to the machine.

Arm sequence

Start at the finish of the stroke and work on the arm sequence. Your legs will be fully extended while your arms are doing the stroke motions to practice isolated movements. Start with the handle at your sternum and return your hands nice and slow into the recovery phase, going slightly past your knees. Hit the catch and then drive straight back quickly, making sure to keep your back straight and not move the rest of your body.

Incorporate the body

Now incorporate the body into the movement by bending forward into the recovery following your arms, and then falling back into the drive with your body while your arms follow. Repeat to yourself, "arms body, body arms" to get the tempo right.

Get the legs involved with a half-slide

Practicing a half-slide motion by not bringing your feet all the way in will help you warm up for the rowing stroke. In a slow and steady motion, drive by pushing back with your legs, following with your body, and pulling your arms to your chest, think "legs, body, arms." Go into recovery by doing the opposite, think "arms, body, legs," but remember you don't need to bring your feet all the way in yet.

Full slide

Now, bring it all together! Bring all of the elements together to quickly drive your legs, body, and arms backward, and recover slowly by bringing your arms, body, and legs forward, catching yourself at the front of the machine.

rowing stroke full slide

Want to watch the full instructional video?

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Scott Ryan, BS, CSCS, CF-L1, CF-W, BFRC is a professional coach who specializes in Applied Functional Science, Strength and Conditioning, CrossFit L1, and Olympic Lifting. He attended New England College in New Hampshire obtaining a bachelor's degree in Kinesiology with an emphasis on Biomechanics. He has a passion for injury prevention and coaching, as he was a collegiate athlete who suffered sports injuries. His goal is to get athletes back to optimal shape as well as prevent future injuries.

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