When an experienced person uses a rowing machine, it’s almost a thing of beauty — a continuous rhythm, their whole body moving back and forth continuously as the numbers on the screen rise higher and higher. So why, when you get on, does it feel immediately impossible, and also your back hurts?
There is a learning curve to the rowing machine (also called an erg), but you can master it — probably more quickly than you think. It’s also common to note the damper setting and assume it works the same way as the resistance setting on any other cardio machine, but that’s not exactly the case. But once you’ve fixed your technique and learned where to set the damper, and soon you’ll be sliding along rhythmically yourself.
Push with your legs, then pull with your arms
The biggest technique mistake most of us make is to grab the handle and immediately yoink with our arms. After all, the point is to row it toward us, right? Not really. The first thing you need to do, after you’ve gotten the handle in your hands, is to push with your legs. This is the part of the movement where you need to apply the most force, and conveniently, your legs are home to your biggest muscles. You power into the stroke by treating this initial phase almost like a squat.
Then you can get your upper body into it. Once your legs are mostly straight, lean back from the hips; only then should you pull with your arms. So the sequence goes:
- Push with the legs
- Lean back a little
- Pull with the arms
If you’re used to doing cable rows or barbell rows in your strength training, that pulling motion is similar to the last step here. You can use your usual cues, but only after completing the first two steps.
Once you’ve done all three parts of the stroke, you’ll be leaning back with legs straight and the handle at your chest. What now? Just reverse the movement:
- Allow your arms to straighten out
- Return your torso to its upright position
- Bend the legs and slide your butt back to the starting position.
Just repeat to yourself: “Legs-back-arms, arms-back-legs.” Once you get that basic rhythm, you can look up videos on the finer points of technique, like these from Concept2.
Leave the damper on #4
On other cardio machines, you usually have at least two ways to adjust the difficulty (say, incline and speed, or resistance and cadence) and you’ll generally be fiddling with them throughout your workout. On a rowing machine, though, there is one big lever that controls the damper, and you’re best off setting it to number 4 (out of 10) and leaving it there.
That’s because it’s not really a resistance setting, even though a lot of people mistake it for one. It may make more sense to think of it as being like the resistance of the water if you were in a real rowboat or rowing shell. You don’t get a harder workout by moving your boat to a lake made of, I don’t know, mercury. You stay on the water and you either row faster or push harder.
At a higher setting, it’s hard to get the flywheel spinning, and the flywheel also slows down more before the next stroke. Concept2 compares rowing at a high damper setting (above 5 or so) to rowing a clunky rowboat: you need to push harder, and can’t easily get into a continuous rhythm. You can do it if you want a more strength-based workout, in the same way that runners can focus on strength by doing sprints up a steep hill. But it’s not the way you would expect to do most of your training.
To drive the point home, Concept2 surveyed Olympic rowers on what settings they actually use. Rather than damper number, serious rowers tend to look up their “drag factor” (which you can find from the little screen on the rowing machine) and adjust the damper as needed to get the drag factor they want. But the settings they described typically correlate to a damper setting of around 3 to 5, so 4 is a safe bet.
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