1. Home
  2. /
  3. Training
  4. /


Improve your rowing technique and get the most out of the Rowing Ergometer.

The Rowing Ergometer is an easily accessible and low impact cardio machine that can be found in almost every gym as it is simple and safe to use. Most of the time you jump on and go hard and fast without paying much attention to your rowing technique. But do you get to the end of your interval absolutely puffed out? Or feeling like you’re putting all of this “effort” in but not really getting anywhere?

As with anything you do in the gym, technique is key. Good rowing technique will ensure you find that sweet spot between power and speed, where you know you can last the distance whatever your working interval may be.



The beauty of the Row Erg is that there is a lack of complicated moving parts to customise it for a good fit. The footrests are the only part you need to pay attention to. The footrests connect you to the ergometer so that you can operate as one unit. This is one of the most important and most often overlooked aspects of setting up for better rowing technique.

Footrest height

You may have noticed the adjustable numbered settings on the stretcher of the footrests which can be customised for your comfort. It may take some trial and error but once you have found the setting that works best for you, remember it so that your set up each time is quick and easy.

A general rule of thumb is the longer your shins are, the lower your feet need to be to the ground while ensuring the foot straps line up over the ball of your foot. If your feet are too high, you may find you are limited to how far forward you can reach the handlebar to the flywheel in preparation for each subsequent stroke. This will result in a shallower stroke covering less distance, and a little too much stretch in the ankles in the “catch” position (read on for position definitions). On the other hand if your feet are too low, you may be able to reach further to the flywheel however you will be over-compressing your legs on the recovery of each stroke (i.e. your bum comes too close to your ankles in the “catch”) and as a consequence you will be unable to get a decent leg drive with your strokes.

At the catch position, you ideally want your knees to be comfortably close to your armpits. Exceptions to this may be a lack of flexibility, or your “spare tyre” getting in the way, in which case go for lower feet positioning. As mentioned earlier, it’s all about trial and error!

Foot straps

These are the parts of the footrest that secure the rower to your body. They are especially important in the “finish” position of each stroke where you have pulled the handlebars to the torso, the glutes and quads are contracted, and you are slightly leaning back (called “layback”). Tightened foot straps allow for a more secure layback, anchoring you down so that you can effectively stabilise this layback position with strongly engaged abdominal muscles. Strong abs here will protect your lower back, and anchored feet will protect your abs.

Make the straps tight, but don’t cut off your circulation. A bit of freedom in the forefoot is okay, flapping around like fish-out-of-water is not.


Final piece of your set up is the handlebar. For most people, having the hands closest to the edges provides the most comfort without putting the wrists under repeated over-compression. Your hand position should allow your wrists to remain straight the entire time throughout each stage of the stroke. Also, don’t be lazy – use your thumbs and wrap them around. But also, no need for a vice grip – keep the grip relaxed enough that your forearms aren’t the first body part to let you down.



Now that you are strapped in, lets break down the phases and positions of a stroke. Each stroke can simply be broken down into 4 phases: the drive, the finish position, the recovery and the catch position.

The Drive

This is the actual “work” portion of your stroke where you go hard and fast. Using your whole foot, start by pushing into the footrest with a strong leg drive while keeping your arms straight. You should be aiming to straighten your legs first with your torso coming to an upright position before you think about what your arms should be doing. Once the handlebars have come into line with your knees, you start to bend the elbows and add the “pull” component, pulling the handlebars in a straight line towards your sternum or lower ribs and ending up in the “finish” position. Remember to keep the shoulders relaxed throughout.

The Finish

This is the position you end up in after you have completed the drive. Your legs are fully extended, your elbows are wide to keep the handlebars at the sternum/lower ribs, and you are in a slight “layback” position where the torso is leaning back, and your abdominal muscles are supporting you. Note, this layback position should take you only into a slight lean of the torso – no need to lay right back placing excess strain on the abdominals and lower back.

The Recovery

This is the resting portion of your stroke that returns you to the “catch” or starting position in preparation for your next stroke. It is essentially a complete reverse of the drive and should be sequenced as such. Before the legs do anything, extend your arms first until the handlebars are back in line with the knees and the torso is back to upright. Only then should you lean forward from the hips and bend your knees to slide back down the rail, heading towards the catch position.

Remember this is your recovery and ideally should take twice as long as your drive.

The Catch

This is both your starting and ending position for each stroke where the handlebars are at their closest position to the flywheel. In this position your knees are bent and your shins are as close to vertical as comfortable. Your heels may lift and this is fine, as long as you think about placing them back into contact with the footrests once you begin your next drive. Your upper body is long through the spine (including the head staying neutral) but leaning forward from the hips. And finally your arms are straight, and your shoulders are still remaining pretty relaxed.



Now that you know the four phases, the goal is to smooth each phase out to blur into one another, creating a solid and reliable rhythm for your rowing strokes. And although there is a LOT to think about with each phase, as long as you remember the basics of good positioning that will keep you safe from injury, I’m going to share with you my favourite simple way I coach the stroke with my clients.

Repeat after me:


  • LEGS – legs first initiate the drive, straightening out until the hands are in line with the knees.
  • ARMS – then the arms start to bend, to initiate the pull and end in the finish position.
  • ARMS – now to reverse the movement, you start the recovery phase with arms reaching forward first until they are in line with the knees.
  • LEGS – now you are ready to finish the recovery to end in the catch position by bending through the legs and leaning forward from the hips.

Now repeat again: “LEGS, ARMS, ARMS, LEGS”.

My first suggestion is to repeat this little mantra as you segment the stroke into the 4 parts of movement. Once you are confident you have the sequence timing down pat, then start to smooth the segments out. And now you are ready to add power to the drive phase.

The damper

The damper is the lever on the flywheel that can be set to a value from 1-10. It controls how much air flows into the flywheel cage. A higher setting of up to 10 allows more air in which slows the flywheel down quicker on the recovery. This means you need to put in more effort to accelerate it on each stroke. A lower setting allows less air in which makes it easier to accelerate.

A common misconception is that the 1-10 values affect the resistance or intensity on the machine and makes for a “harder” workout. The reality is that it affects how the rowing feels and can be compared to gears on a bike. The intensity of your row is actually determined by how hard you pull and how much you use your legs. Whichever setting you choose, the harder you pull the more resistance you will feel.

“Think about rowing on the water. Regardless of whether you are rowing in a sleek racing shell, or in a big, slow row boat, you will need to increase your intensity and apply more force to make either boat go faster. The difference is in how it feels to make the different boats go fast. Making a sleek boat go fast requires you to apply your force more quickly. Making the slow boat go fast also requires more force, but the speed at which you apply the force will be slower over the course of the rowing stroke. At a damper setting of 1–4, the indoor rower feels like a sleek racing shell; at the higher numbers, the indoor rower feels like a slow rowboat. Regardless of the setting, you will need to increase your effort to increase your intensity.” – Concept 2

So, depending on what your workout entails or your interval times, some experimentation will help you find the optimal damper setting. In general, a lower setting is better for an aerobic-type workout, while a higher setting will require more strength and may exhaust your muscles a little too much which will be a negative effect for longer distances.

And if you just want to be told what to do, a happy medium of between 4-6 is a great starting point.

Quick release for your feet

This is so insanely simple – learn it once and use it forever. All you need to do is hook your thumb underneath the foot strap buckle (on the side closest to the rower) and lift it upwards and sideways away from the rower. Simultaneously lift your toes off the foot rest. The strength of your feet lifting the strap paired with the thumb pulling on the buckle will easily slide the strap loose. Give yourself enough room with the strap to then slide your foot north of the footrest, lift your heel to clear the part that secures your heel in place, then lift out and Bob is your uncle.

Ellen Wong, Senior Performance Coach and ION Community Manager

Share This

Related Posts