5 Common Rowing Mistakes

Emily Beers


Vancouver, Canada



The rowing machine looks simple and less intimidating than others—a machine anyone can use—and it is.


As a former university rower, I’ll admit it’s one of the easier sports to pick up, as there’s literally just one skill involved. And while on-the-water rowing is definitely more complex, the Concept2 ergometer (rowing machine) literally gets you doing the same thing over and over again.



Though simple in theory, if you haven’t been taught the one skill (the rowing stroke) properly, it’s easy to butcher it and make all sorts of crazy mistakes. Truth be told, when I walk into a gym and see someone rowing, nine times out of 10 I have to stop myself from cringing.


Rowing Basics

Before I get into the five most common mistakes I see on a daily basis, let’s get some simple terminology down:


  1. The Catch: This is the portion of the stroke where, if you were in a boat, you’d place the oar into the water. It’s essentially the start of the stroke, where you’re sitting up tall (hopefully with good posture) and your handle is close to the cage of the machine, just as you’re getting ready to drive your legs down hard.
  2. The Finish: As the name says, the finish is the end of the stroke. If you were in a boat, your oar would come out of the water at this point. At the finish, your spine should be neutral and you should be leaning back a bit (not laying flat like many people I see) and your handle should be pulled in right to your chest a couple of inches below your nipple.
  3. The Drive: This is the exertion part of the stroke, where you’re driving from the catch position to the finish position—when you’re pushing your legs down, then opening your body—and pulling the handle to your chest.
  4. The Recovery: This is the part of the stoke where you travel from the finish back to the catch. It begins by straightening your arms back out, swinging your body forward until your shoulders are in front of your hips, and then bending your legs and bringing your body back up to the catch position. Like the name says, you essentially do have a moment to recovery during this phase of the stroke.


Ok, now to the common mistakes.


1. Bending Your Knees Too Early on the Recovery

The first thing that should happen when you reach the finish is your hands and arms should move back to the position they came from, and then your body should follow by swinging your body until your shoulders are back in front of your hips.


Often, though, I see people bending their knees before their arms or body swings forward. What ends up happening then is the handle hits your knees as you continue to move back to the catch, stopping the handle from moving in a linear way, which is what we want.



Often when I tell people to correct this, they shoot their arms out too fast as they’re in a rush to clear their knees. Don’t be in a rush. Hold your knees straight as you straighten out your arms at the same speed you pulled into your chest. And then wait for your body to swing forward, and then start bending your knees to make your way back to the catch.


Check out the video where the first three strokes are done incorrectly, and the next three strokes are done correctly.



2. Rushing the Recovery

Usually, people speed up the recovery as they get closer to the catch, which is the exact opposite of what you want (in rowing, we call it rushing the top quarter of the slide).




Your recovery should actually slow down as you move back into the catch. As you’re getting closer to the catch, almost think about consciously resisting the urge to speed up by using your hamstrings to control the stroke rate.



3. Pausing At the Finish

This might actually be the most common mistake.


People want to catch their breath, so they pause for a second or two at the finish. This essentially stops the boat (or in this case the machine), causing your power to drop significantly.



Instead, as soon as you pull your hands to your chest, start moving them back out again at the same speed they came in.



4. High Stroke Rate

Rowing is all about efficiency. Just because you're stroking at a high rate, like 32 strokes per minute, doesn't mean you’re moving the boat fast. The best rowers know how to row with a lot of power at a low stroke rate (i.e. efficiency in action).


For the purposes of a novice rower, as a general rule, the only time you should ever be stroking at 32-plus strokes per minute is if you’re going for a 500-meter all-out sprint.


For a novice rower, I would generally recommend doing a 2km piece at around a 28 strokes per minute (max 30), and a 5km piece at around a 26. Similarly, if you’re rowing in a multi-modal conditioning workout (let's say 3 rounds of a 500 meter row, 25 walls balls, and 15 burpees) try to keep your stroke rate between a 24 and a 26.


Eventually, as you become more proficient, you will be able to row at a higher stroke rate, but it’s important to learn to row well at a lower stroke rate first.



5. Early Arm Bend

As you drive from the catch, your arms should stay straight until after you have cleared your knees with the handle and you’re about to change your back angle and start leaning back. If you can see or feel that your arms are bent before or as you pass your knees with the handle, you know you’re bending too soon.



One final mistake is simply not having a clue how to pace yourself for a 500-meter row versus a 2km row or a 5km row.

See more about: , , , , , , , , ,
Breaking Muscle Newsletter

Breaking Muscle Newsletter

Get updates and special offers delivered directly to your inbox.