How to Improve Your Rowing Technique

Have you ever watched somebody row well and felt frustrated that the meters — or the calories — seemed to fly by for them and not for you? Do you cringe when the workout of the day involves rowing? If you are nodding yes to either of these questions, keep reading. Understanding the rower, combined with better technique, can help you start turning your weakness into a strength – today.

Row, Row, Row Your Boat…

Regardless of damper setting, you have to apply greater force if you want your “boat” to go faster or accumulate more calories.

Obviously, jumping onto a Concept2 Rower is not the same as rowing a boat on the water. However, if you approach the rower as if it is a boat, you may be better able to change your technique accordingly. Do you see Olympic rowers jerking the oars unevenly, shorting their hips on the pull, or taking quick, furious strokes? The total opposite, actually, regardless of the type of boat or the number of people rowing. Concept2 Rowing explains:

Think of the Indoor Rower as your boat. If you row at low intensity you can row for a long time. To make the boat go faster you pull harder; and if you try to make the boat go very fast you will be exhausted in a short time. Air resistance on the flywheel fan works just like the water resistance on a boat.

Now that you are thinking in terms of a boat on the water, let’s examine the effect of the damper settings 1-10. In the lower numbers 1-4 the feel of the Indoor Rower is like a sleek racing shell. In the higher numbers 6-10 the feel is like a big, slow rowing boat. Either boat can be rowed hard; and as you try to make either boat go fast, you will need to apply more force. Making the sleek boat go fast requires you to apply your force more quickly; and when trying to make the big boat go fast you will feel a high force but at a slower speed of application.

Damper Settings

No doubt this is apparent if you have ever played with the damper setting on a machine. What, then, determines how much work you are doing (in meters, calories, or watts)?

As you are moving forward for your next stroke the monitor measures how much your flywheel is slowing down. It can determine precisely how sleek or slow your “boat” is by how much it slows down between strokes. It then uses this information to determine from the speed of the flywheel how much work you are doing. In this way your true effort is calculated regardless of damper setting.

Did you know? The ideal stroke rate is 22-26 strokes per minute (s/m).

If the flywheel hums along steadily due to your consistently smooth, strong pulls, you will produce more work. The ideal damper setting for every individual is different, but it should be where you achieve the highest output levels.

Breaking Down the Rowing Stroke

There are two components of the rowing stroke: the drive and the recovery.

The Recovery (Phase 1)
  • Extend your arms until they straighten.
  • Lean your upper body forward to the one o’clock position.
  • Once your hands and the oar handle have cleared your knees, allow your knees to bend and gradually slide the seat forward on the monorail.
The Catch (Position 1)
  • Arms are straight; head is neutral; shoulders are level and not hunched.
  • Upper body is at the one o’clock position—shoulders in front of hips.
  • Shins are vertical and not compressed beyond the perpendicular.
  • Balls of the feet are in full contact with the footplate.
The Drive (Phase 2)
  • With straight arms and while maintaining the position of the upper body at one o’clock, exert pressure on the foot plate and begin pushing with your legs.
  • As your legs approach straight, lean the upper body back to the eleven o’clock position and draw the hands back to the lower ribs in a straight line.
The Finish (Position 2)
  • Legs are extended and handle is held lightly at your lower ribs.
  • Upper body is at the eleven o’clock position—slightly reclined with good support from your core muscles.
  • Head is in a neutral position.
  • Neck and shoulders are relaxed, and arms are drawn past the body with flat wrists.

The drive is the work portion of the stroke; the recovery is the rest portion that prepares you for the next drive. The body movements of the recovery are essentially the reverse of the drive. Blend these movements into a smooth continuum to create the rowing stroke.

A good rowing cadence, or tempo, is 22-26 strokes per minute (abbreviated s/m on the monitor).

Rowing Video Demos

For the drive of the rowing stroke, mimic a horizontal power clean: drive with your legs through your heels, open your hips to full extension, and pull with your arms last.

Shane Farmer of CrossFit Rowing talks through the rowing stroke with Cody Burgener as his model at his home box,  CrossFit Invictus. He advises athletes to focus on three aspects of rowing:

  1. Drive: Engage your legs first, swing your back open, and pull your arms at the end into the finish position. He & Cody agree that as with power cleans, once the arms break, “the power ends!”
  2. Recovery: Because your legs are responsible for ~75% of the drive, they need 75% of the recovery, too. Be patient on the recovery and bend your knees last, after you have re-straightened your arms and leaned forward.
  3. Catch: This is the transition between the recovery back into the drive. Farmer advises thinking about the turnover “one inch” before the catch so your legs get ready to drive again.
In the simplest of terms, Jason Khalipa at CrossFit Santa Clara describes what good rowing should look like by comparing the rowing stroke to a sumo deadlift high pull and/or a power clean. He emphasizes a strong cadence (“hard drive…recover. hard drive…recover”) and thinking about moving in straight lines. In the drive, legs push back, hips open (while maintaining a straight back), arms finish; to recover, arms straighten, hips close, and knees bend last.

Avoiding Common Rowing Errors

Practice! From the finish position, try drilling arms-only rowing, then add in a hinge at the hips to practice body & arms rowing.

As with Olympic lifting, there are many different places within the rowing stroke that a technical error can occur — all of which lead to a loss or lessening of power and efficiency. Again, Concept2 Rowing provides a comprehensive list of fixable mistakes, sorted by body part:

Arms & hands

  • Over gripping the handle: Keep your wrists flat through the stroke with your hands comfortably wrapped around the handle.
  • Breaking arms at the catch: As Shane & Cody pointed out above, an early break means the power ends.
  • Chicken wing arms: Elbows should finish pointed straight back, not out to the sides, with shoulders in a relaxed (not hunched) position.


Your back should maintain a strong upright position throughout both parts of the stroke.

  • Lunging at the catch: To avoid this, establish the lean (torso at 1 o’clock) early in  your recovery, before the knees bend, and maintain it until the drive begins again.
  • Over-reaching at the catch: Your hands do not need to reach out excessively toward the flywheel in the catch position, as this causes your back to round and pulls your shoulders forward.
  • Lifting with the back at the catch: Press through the drive with your legs, then lean back after your hips open. Lifting with your back also makes the chain pull back unevenly, and you want a smooth, horizontal pull.
  • Excessive layback: Your torso does not need to go past 11 o’clock in the finish position.

A drill to correct some of these errors? As the recovery begins, pause with your arms straight and torso at 1 o’clock, then finish the recovery. Repeat for several strokes to establish a good back position.


  • Bending knees too early on recovery: This forces you to lift the chain to avoid hitting your knees; keep the chain level throughout both the drive and the recovery.
  • Rushing the slide: Instead of going too fast toward the catch, remember to straighten the arms, close the hips, THEN bend the knees. Rushing the slide implies an incorrect de-loading order.
  • Over compressing: This can happen at the catch — don’t let your shins go past vertical.
  • Shooting the slide: This is the equivalent of driving your legs back without taking your body with you (like raising your hips before your shoulders in a deadlift).

Two suggestions for avoiding these errors:

  1. Count your cadence out loud on the drive and then the recovery; the latter should take longer.
  2. Practice a legs only row (no pull) in order to feel the load order of legs first before the hips open.

Rowing Machine Review Tidbits: Getting “Down the Stream” Faster

Improve Your Fight Gone Bad score

The CrossFit Rowing Blog explains how he gets 20 points (or more) from rowing alone during Fight Gone Bad: To allow for the transition time of getting strapped into the rower, he moves from the push press early to get a full 60 seconds of rowing in (averaging 1500 calories or more) — which equates to 7 or 8 extra calories.

Getting into indoor rowing is great for CrossFit. To figure out which is the best rowing machine to choose, check out the rowing machine reviews here.

Original article from the now defunct website