5 Common Rowing Machine Mistakes Beginners Make

To reap the full power and endurance benefits of the rowing machine, learn how to avoid common beginner mistakes.

For actual rowers, "gently down the stream" is definitely not part of the vocabulary. What is in their lingo, however, is the word "erg"—short for ergometer, a.k.a. a rowing machine.

Rowing is a low-impact, full-body exercise that builds endurance, strength and power. Just because that old rowing machine in a dusty corner of your gym looks bizarre (or a tad intimidating) doesn't mean you should forgo its heart-pumping, calorie-torching benefits. However, if you hop on the erg with no idea what you're doing, you will not reap those full benefits and you could risk injuring yourself.

"I think a lot of beginners aren't necessarily given the chance to learn to move their body in the most efficient way, and instead it's more of just an immediate attempt to get the best score they can," says two-time World Champion and Olympic rower Sarah Hendershot. "I would say, be OK with slowing things down in the beginning and really engraining the right habits to move your body in the correct way."

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Below are 5 common mistakes novices make on the rowing machine, and simple ways to correct them.  Once you have your erg form corrected, check out the video above to learn a Rowing Interval workout. 

1. Rowing With Your Arms Only

Among the most common misconceptions about rowing is that it's all about the arms. It's the exact opposite. With proper form, about 60 to 70 percent of the power you generate comes from your legs. 

2. Rounding Your Back

You would never want to hunch your back during a Squat or a Deadlift. Likewise, you want to keep your shoulders down and back and your spine in an upright, neutral posture as you go through the rowing stroke.

Engage your core so you're in a strong, supported position. If it helps, think of your upper body as the hand of a clock. Ideally, it's in a 1 o'clock position at "the catch" (the point at which your oar would be catching in the water) and an 11 o'clock position at the finish. 

3. Mixing Up the Sequence of Movements

If you're firing your arms at the same time as your legs, leaning back before your legs have finished pushing, or not bringing your arms back out until after your legs are bent at the catch, you could be putting more strain on your upper body and back than necessary.

Focus on pushing with the legs first, hinging your upper body slightly backwards, then pulling your arms into your chest at the bottom of your  ribcage.

Go through the same order in reverse on the recovery portion of the stroke—arms away, rocking upper body forward, then bending your legs into position to begin the next stroke.

Learning the fundamentals requires you to break down the stroke into its components, but once you've done this, you should think of the stroke as a single natural movement, like a well executed rep in a compound exercise. Once you get the hang of it, your stroke should become entirely fluid.

Hendershot advocates applying movements like the Back Squat and the Deadlift to rowing. She says, "Those two movements are really comparable to the way that you row. Or a Clean, even. It's like you're trying to pick up a weight from the ground and use your body's momentum to raise it up into the air. And it's the exact same idea when you're rowing."

4. Setting the Damper Too High

The lever on the side of the erg's flywheel controls the flow of air into the cage. Many people set this number to 10, because logically it will be more challenging. At a higher setting, however, you risk compromising your form and exhausting your muscles before you can get in a solid workout.

Depending on the terrain, you probably wouldn't set your bicycle gear to make pedaling as hard as possible. In actuality on the water, competitive rowers don't paddle a heavy canoe. They propel a narrow, lightweight vessel.

Even Olympic rowers compete on the erg at a damper setting of around 3 to 5.  Resistance on this lower setting is more like rowing on the water. The "real challenge," according to the people at Concept 2 rowers, "is to accelerate the flywheel . . . where power must be applied, such as in a sleek, fast rowing shell."

5. Going Too Fast

If your seat bangs against the front of the slide with every stroke, or if you go so fast that you don't get full range of motion, you might want to slow things down.  Just because you're rowing at 32 strokes per minute doesn't mean you're producing more power or moving the boat faster than someone rowing at a slightly slower, more controlled rate. 

Establish a rhythm. Technically, the ratio of your stroke should be 1:2 (drive, recovery), expending maximum energy then relaxing before taking your next stroke.

Hendershot says, "The concept is learning how to turn those muscles on and off at the right timing in order to actually create the biggest output. And that's where you're going to become most successful. Slow things down, let technique be the primary focus, and the number will come later."

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