If you follow me on Instagram or you’ve read my ABOUT MYTRIADDICTION page you already know that rowing was my primary sport for many years and that I’m a Concept II certified instructor. I hope this post provides you with some basic resources to help you get the most out of your cross-training on the rowing machine and not get hurt in the process.
As a former rowing coach and athlete, I say with certainty that rowing is an excellent cross-training exercise for all athletes. It’s a great way to get a full body workout, build strength and flexibility in many primary and auxiliary muscle groups, and has a very low risk of injury. However, before sitting down and powering through a workout on the erg it is important to understand the basics of the sport and the machine.
Rowing is very simple if you think about it in steps. These steps also correspond to major muscle groups, starting from the “catch,” or the start of the pull:
Legs – the largest and strongest muscle group
Back and core – the medium strength group
Arms – the weakest group in the rowing stroke
Your recovery, or movement to the next stroke, should consist of pushing your hands out fast and then moving your back followed by your legs at half the speed you did the pull.
The rowing stroke is designed around this sequence to generate power and prevent injury. If you think about it, if your legs and your back are working at the same time to make your body move in the same direction and one set of muscles is much larger and stronger you will overpower the weaker set, making them tired and ineffective – or in a worst case scenario you will pull or tear a muscle. This depends on the overall strength of the person using the machine, but the power isn’t the addition of the total strength of the two muscle groups. One always loses, and this can be seen using the power curve view on the machine. It should be a smooth line that shoots up at the start and slowly goes down over time.
What is difficult in rowing is the discipline to use proper technique to generate power and not go swimming. Luckily with a rowing machine you don’t need to worry about launching yourself into the water; however, you still need to row properly to be effective.
Many gyms and cross fit boxes these days have rowing machines but give no guidance on how to use them correctly. Many people set the fan damper at 10 thinking it’s primary purpose is for resistance and pull their heart out. I’ve even seen cases where they measure how fast someone can row 500m – which is a great test, but from a rowing perspective is effective only if you can hold that power for 2k or more. The 500m test should be less than 50 strokes if your rowing correctly.
The fan will give you an initial feel of resistance until you hit a certain power point and it free spins inside the casing. Because of this, the fan and damper are used to control how fast the fan slows down between strokes. For advanced users, you can also set the drag factor between two different machines for the same rowing experience in a competition. A good guide is to think of the fan setting as selecting your boat type. A setting of 4-5 is like a racing shell. A setting of 10 is a bathtub. When you pull your oar there is a maximum amount of water you can push but one boat keeps going and you have to work harder to maintain it’s speed. The other goes very slow.
A great way to think about rowing in the gym is that if you look like your working really hard, you’re probably doing it wrong. If you look in the mirror and look like you’re relaxed but feel your muscles burning from effort, you’re most likely rowing correctly.
If you have time I recommend checking out the Concept2 website for additional guidance on technique. The resources I’ve linked to below all originated with Concept 2 when I was a coach.
Follow this link to view a teaching presentation for an onsite clinic I held for new rowers. erg-clinic