Ready Set Row: A Beginners Guide to Rowing

by Dr. Kayleigh Melroy, DPT, OCS

Summer is coming up fast, and right now, everyone is looking for fun and effective ways to get better results while working out. So while you're hitting the gym add some variation to your workout and learn how to row. Not only is rowing a great way to get on the water, but its also one of the best ways to burn calories, build muscles, and get a total body workout.

The best way to test out your rowing skills, and learn the right techniques is by starting at the gym on the rowing machine. Though not a perfect replica of what rowing or kayaking on the water is like, the rowing machine allows you to work on rowing form while strengthening the muscles you’ll need outside. It's also a great way to strengthen your legs and core! So, next time you finish up on the treadmill, or after your cycling class, head on over to the rowing machines and see just how great you feel after a few minutes working out.

If you’re new to rowing or want to make sure you’re using the correct form, check out my tips to learn more about body placement, machine set up, what your rowing form should look like, and how your form might change between the gym and on the water. 

Start slow. When you’re starting out, going slower and with a lower resistance on the bike wheel will help you solidify and lock in good form. Aim for the resistance to be set between 4 and 5, at the most. Remember that form is what matters the most - going fast using the wrong form will leave you injured, not stronger.

Foot placement is important. You should have the strap wrapped tightly around your shoe, and your foot should be placed so that you’re pushing off on the ball of your foot (not the toes, and not the heel).

From the Catch to the Recovery

The rowing stroke is all about your legs and core. In the gym on a rowing machine, you should be thinking about always keeping your back in a straight line from your low back to your neck – no hunching over or arching your back throughout the stroke. 

Eventually, the stroke will feel and look fluid, instead of like the discrete steps outlined below. But as you’re learning, you can break these into discrete movements while you train your muscles, mind, and body to move the right way.

#1 You’ll start with your knees bent, with the seat pulling you forward. Let your knees and legs compress as much as you can without pain. Your back should be slightly angled forward with your arms straight and your shoulders down and relaxed. You can lift your hands slightly to stay out of the way of your bending legs. This part of the rowing movement is called the catch. (when taking to the water this will be the moment your paddle first hits the water)

#2 Now, it’s time to complete what’s called the drive, or when the paddle moves against the water and you drive your vessel forward. Most of this work should be done by your legs. Keeping your arms straight, strongly and steadily pushing with your legs. Then lean back until your back is perpendicular to the ground.

#3 Lean back, while keeping your back straight, then pull the handle toward you, squeezing your shoulder blades together and bringing the handle to your chest. This is called the finish

#4 Start the recovery. Still leaning back, drop your handles to just below your chest and then relax your arms back out so they’re straight. Finally, lean forward so your back is perpendicular to the ground again. Do not let the chain slap up and down as this makes for a messy and inefficient stroke.

Back to start

Now finish the recovery by returning to start again, bending your legs and leaning your back slightly forward until you’re back at the starting position again.

Tips for success in the gym:

  • If your wrist starts to hurt, try wrapping your thumb around the top of the bar with all your fingers, instead of around the bottom.

  • Always try and keep a light grip on the bar.

  • Don’t try to overreach with your arms when your legs are fully bent – this can hurt your shoulders. Keep your shoulders relaxed.

  • If your knees start to hurt when your legs are fully bent, you may be bending them too much. Try to bend them a little less to reduce the stress on your knees.

In the water

When you take your new skills to the water, try the following tips to ensure success!

  • Make sure you lean straight back at the finish, not to the left or right, as this will throw off the balance of the boat.

  • Keep even pressure between both legs

  • Pull the oar handle to the height of your mid sternum during the drive followed by a small downward hook motion as you extend your arms during the recovery. Pulling the oar handle in too high will cause the blade to dig in too deep in the water. Pulling the oar handle in too low may cause you to "wash out" or not get the blade far enough in the water.

  • Make sure you put outward pressure in the oarlocks to prevent the oar from slipping in and out of the oarlock during the stroke.

- Learn more about Dr. Kayleigh Melroy, DPT, OCS

- Click here to learn more about what physical therapy is and what it can do to help you. If you are still not sure if physical therapy is what you need request an appointment to speak with a physical therapist about your concerns

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