My club has a rowing machine. The staff does not instruct anyone on how to use the machine, so, I'd like to know the right way to use the machine, and, how to get an effective workout. By effective, I mean one that stresses my whole body and my heart.
As an avid rower with over 4 million meters logged, and, a member of a rowing club, I've been asked this question often. I often see it in the clubs I've trained at. Club members use the rower incorrectly and almost to the point of risk of injury because the vast majority of the staff have little to no experience with the rowing machine. For the purposes of this answer, I'll be describing the usage of the Concept2 rowing machine, or, ergometer.
The first thing to understand is that rowing, for the most part, is not a pulling movement. The majority of the rowing stroke does not involve “pulling”. The rowing stroke is divided into 4 parts: the Catch, Drive, Finish and Recovery. Each has a distinct purpose and movement.
How it works...
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.
The important thing to remember is to drive with the legs first. The arms are not drawn into the body (“pull”) until the legs are down and the upper body is about 10 degrees past vertical. The recovery starts with the arms and back moving away from the body while keeping the legs down. Think of pivoting over your hips until your shoulders are past the hips. This allows the handle (and chain) to move in a continuous horizontal motion without adjusting to avoid striking the knees. If the chain moves up or down during the recovery, you are releasing the legs too soon. Releasing the legs too soon will force your hands up to avoid crashing into your knees. Please view this video for the basics of the rowing stroke.
An effective workout can be achieved by utilizing the machine damper and performance monitor. You'll often see someone setting the damper all the way forward to the “10” position thinking that it adjusts the resistance/intensity. It does not. It simply controls the air flow into the fly wheel. The higher the number, the faster the wheel slows down, and, the more work that is required to accelerate it on the next stroke. Intensity is actually a result of how much you use your legs, back and arms during the stroke. A typical damper setting for a beginner is 3 to 5.
The performance monitor provides the functionality to monitor your work load and its effects on your heart rate. It provides the ability to design several types of rowing “pieces”. A rowing “piece” is the work to be undertaken during a prescribed time or distance. You can set the monitor to provide feedback on several metrics including strokes per minute, heart rate, overall distance, average time, etc. With the monitor you can set up just about any type of rowing experience including high intensity intervals, or low and steady work. Utilizing the damper and performance monitor with correct form will provide you with an effective overall body workout.