Are there rowers in your gym or training facility?

If there are rowers (ergs) in your gym, how many are there? Who's using them, and how? Whatever your training goals, rowing can be an integral part of every session. Rowing will enhance a functional training program, helping to build general strength and cardio fitness. If you're cross-training for cycling or other sports, rowing will maximize core stability and activate muscles needed to compete at your best. For powerlifting, or hypertrophy and bodybuilding, rowing for power will augment your weight training. Rowing is gaining popularity. Rowing is incorporated into CrossFit WODs (In CrossFit lingo, ""Workout Of The Day""). But even if the indoor rower is used regularly, the erg is usually the most misunderstood equipment in training facilities. And many trainers are untrained in rowing coaching, having no idea how to train an effective, efficient stroke. 

Gym members often use the erg to warm up, or sometimes as the cardio portion of a training session, but it can be a much more integral part of your program.

Personal trainers may not have rowing experience or a coaching certification, so they may not be prepared to help clients make the most of rowing. Gym members may be yanking the handle, throwing the body back, reaching too far forward, back rounded, knees popping up, with the chain going up and over the knees. Rowing with impaired mechanics isn't very effective, so at the least it won't be very worthwhile in training, and at worst it may lead to injury. As a trainer you can learn the efficient, effective, safe, and fun way to maximize your time on the rowing machine and provide coaching for your clients!

I've been told, ""Your arms look great. Rowing is a great arm workout!""

Arms are only about 20% of the stroke. The remaining 80% is mostly legs and hips, plus core (anterior and posterior). Approximately 90% of the muscles in the body are utilized in every stroke, and each stroke replicates the most essential human movements. The intensity (leg drive), plus speed (stroke rate, spm) of each stroke is controlled by the person on the erg, and each stroke generates power. Remember the formula in physics class? Mass x Velocity = POWER. Everyone, at any training level, at any age, and for cross training any sport from cyclists to powerlifters can benefit from effective rowing as a tool to gain strength, and build cardiovascular fitness.

So how can you learn to row, and to train clients?

The Concept2 rower is the most popular in the world. The website offers training tips and videos, and you can search for a certified coach in your area. You can learn on your own of course, but coaching really helps! Whatever type of rowing machine you find at your facility, all have the components in common: a rail, seat, stretchers and straps (for feet), handle, chain, and some form of resistance. It's easy to learn to row, but like learning to play the piano, you'll need to learn the basics first. You learn the notes of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, then chords, and with practice you'll play concertos. Your rowing will also improve continually with practice! Anyone can learn to row.

The basics - learn a rowing stroke that's efficient and effective.

The rowing stroke is a deadlift, with a high pull, done again and again. Like learning to lift, use the biggest, strongest muscles to do the work (hips and legs), not the back, and avoid doing too much too soon. It's unlikely that you would be injured rowing, but best to build gradually, learn to control the stroke rate, being intentional and consistent. Parts of the stroke: Catch, leg drive, finish, recovery - all flow together in a smooth, continuous movement.


  • Focus on consistency in stroke rate, a steady pace (split and spm), and an effective leg drive.¬†Learn to keep a slow, steady stroke rate to develop strength (16-18 spm).
  • Many untrained rowers shoot for a high stroke rate, rowing super fast, often in circuit programs¬†where members run to the rower to do their ""fastest"" time, without focusing on the intensity of¬†the leg drive at all. Rowing fast without intensity would be like riding a bike in the easiest gear,¬†spinning the legs but not really going anywhere. First, focus on the intensity of the leg drive, with¬†a steady stroke rate of between 16-18, then add velocity (spm, stroke rate).
  • The rowing stroke is a deadlift. Like a deadlift, the chain should move in a straight line, so the¬†knees should be down as the handle passes them moving forward to the catch. Keep the back¬†straight, and hinge at the hips, using the simple mantra for the order of the parts of the stroke,¬†""hips, knees, knees, hips.""
  • Allow the handle and chain to move in a clean line beginning with the catch, and back to the¬†finish with the handle at the sternum. With each stroke, drive through the feet, then legs, glutes,¬†and finally pull the handle, moving smoothly, then engage the core into the lay back at the finish,¬†moving smoothly forward through recovery, to the catch again.
  • Breathe! Exhale on the leg drive. 2 exhales are ok too!

So what about that dial on the side of the fan?

""If I set it up higher up to 10, isn't a better workout""? Nope. You've gotten on the rower at the gym and you've seen the damper setting at 10. That's the damper - which opens and closes from 1-10, allowing air to flow into the fan. The higher the setting, the harder it will be to row. It would be like riding a bike in the hardest gear. Not efficient, and you'd tire out really soon. Pro rowers, collegiate, and Olympians train most of the time between 3-5 on the damper. The higher settings may be used in training for sprints, which you might need only about 10% of your own, or you clients' training. Keep your damper at around 3-5 for you and everyone you train. It's the ""feel of water.""

Trainers - how you can utilize rowing in an effective strength and cardio program.

  • Rowing is a full-body workout, engaging most of the muscles of the body with every stroke.¬†BUT- rowing is a bilateral motion, meaning that 2 legs are used together, so it's important to¬†include unilateral, single leg exercises in your own and your clients' programs. In addition, rowing is a linear (sagittal plane) movement, so in programing, add lateral (frontal plane)¬†exercises, as well as rotational (transverse plane), and stabilization exercises for a complete¬†and effective program.
  • Rowing is great for high intensity interval training (HIIT), plus strength training.¬†A slow stroke rate (18 spm or even less), with a strong leg drive will develop strength, muscular¬†endurance, and cardio. Gradually include drills with faster stroke rates.

Get creative and have fun!