9 Biggest Rowing Machine Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

There is a big learning curve in learning how to row efficiently, so here are some mistakes you should watch out for.

Rowing is one of the most effective total-body cardio exercises that exist. However, it’s also one of the most technically advanced, requiring a learning curve that is steeper than other cardio room options.

As a result, it’s easy to negate some of the benefits of this great exercise with bad technique. 

So, here are the 9 most common rowing machine mistakes and important drills to help you correct them. 

Rowing Stroke Explained

First, let’s brush up on rowing lingo.

As explained by Start Rowing, the rowing stroke has 4 phases, the catch, the drive, the finish, and the recovery.

  • The Catch: The catch is our starting position. Remember to lean slightly forward keeping your back straight, core tight and grip handle loose. You want to be in a powerful but relaxed position.
  • Your shins should be as close to vertical as possible whilst remaining comfortable. Make sure your shoulders are in front of your hips and do not tighten up around the neck, head, and shoulders. Fully extend the arms and engage your lat muscles.
  • This is the best positioning to allow you to generate a large amount of power to move into the drive phase.
Partner WODSource: Courtsey fo CrossFit Inc.
  • The Drive: Drive the legs up and extend at knees by pushing your heels into the foot pedals. Slide along the rail, swinging the body back using your hips, and start pulling the handle in a straight line towards your chest just as your hands cross over your knees.
  • You’ll find the seat and handle move simultaneously in a synchronized rhythm. This helps create a smooth rowing motion. 
  • As you might expect, this will be the most demanding part of the movement but try and stay relaxed throughout. A good cue is to look at the shoulders. They should be low, not hunched up by your ears.
build your engine with periodisationSource: Courtesy of CrossFit Inc.
  • The Finish: The finish is the final positioning of the body at the end of the stroke. At this phase the torso will be leaning back slightly, your legs will be extended, elbows tucked in towards the torso and back behind the body, with the handle lightly pulled in below the rib cage.
  • This position is held for a brief moment before reversing the movement and entering the recovery phase.
crossfit class doing rowing workoutsSource: Photo courtesy of CrossFit Inc.
  • The Recovery: The recovery phase is the most relaxed part of the movement and as the name suggests allows for a moment of recovery.
  • Extend the arms and use your core to lean forward, gradually allowing the seat to glide forwards along the rail. Bend the knees once the hands have cleared them and keep moving forward until you are once back in the catch position.
  • You are now set up for your next stroke.

9 Biggest Rowing Machine Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

1: Over Gripping

A common mistake that many newbie rowers make is to over grip the rower handle and squeeze it too tightly. This causes undue tension and strain through the arms and shoulders.

Your fingers should be comfortably wrapped around the grip with the thumbs underneath. Your wrists should also stay flat throughout the entire stroke cycle. 

2: Breaking the Arms in the Catch

Another common beginner mistake is to bend the arms in the catch position, which is the first part of the stroke where you are in the ready position and about to go into the drive. You should be sitting up tall while your arms should be straight in this position, shins vertical, shoulders in front of your hips, and heels slightly lifted.

Do not bend your arms in the catch as straight arms are more effective at connecting the handle to the leg drive. The arm pull will come later in the drive. 

You should also avoid sticking your arms out to the side in the finish position of the drive. Instead, draw the elbows past the body and keep the shoulders relaxed rather than hunched. 

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Here is a drill you can practice to avoid this…

  • Body & Arms Rowing Drill: To practice the correct use of your arms when rowing, perform a body and arms rowing drill. To perform this drill, keep your legs extended and row with just your back and arms. Concentrate on initiating the pull with your back (latissimus dorsi) muscles before you bend your arms.

You can check this rowing technique guide by Start Rowing to see this drill in action. 

3: Lunging At the Catch

Lunging forward just before the catch position is a bad habit that will overstrain your lower back and negate lat involvement. 

You can avoid this lunge tendency by maintaining a proper forward lean upper body position early in the recovery sequence before bending your knees. Your shoulders should be in front of your hips before you move into full compression. 

4: Overreaching at the Catch

Another bad habit that some rowers develop in the catch position is reaching too far forward. Doing so puts you in an ergonomically compromised position. Think of your upper body positions in terms of a clock face. In the catch position, you should be at one o’clock with your shoulders in front of your hips. 

5: Lifting With your Back in the Catch Position

Lifting with the shoulders or back in the catch as you transition to the drive is a common mistake made by beginner rowers. You should initiate the drive with your legs first and then use the back to follow through. This will be a far better utilisation of your energy and will engage your more powerful glutes and quads rather than overstressing the shoulders and arms.

6: Excessive Layback

Leaning back too far on the drive is another common problem among newbies. Doing so is very inefficient. It also places too much strain on the erector spinae muscles.

Think again of your torso in terms of a clock face. You should not exceed the eleven o’clock position at the end of the drive. 


Here is a drill to help achieve the proper back involvement while rowing …

At the finish of the drive, extend your arms and set your forward lean. Then pause before sliding forward. Row each stroke with a pause, concentrating on not going beyond the one o’clock position on the drive. Repeat for 10 rows.

7: Bending the Knees too Early

The most common lower body mistake is bending the knees too early on in the recovery. When you do this, your arms will have to row higher than they should or move in an arc. When you delay the knee bend, though, you will able to keep the chain level in a horizontal line throughout the drive. 

As your arms extend, your body should swing to allow the handle to clear the knees before your knees bend. If you rush the forward slide, this will not happen and you won’t be able to establish a proper rhythm. 

A key to preventing early knee bend is to pause slightly in the recovery position to breathe and set up the right position for the drive. 

8: Over Compressing on the Recovery

Over compressing on the recovery involves sliding too far forward on the catch. This is very inefficient and will leak energy that should be used more productively. 

Your shins should not move beyond vertical when your legs are compressed. In the catch position, your knees should be directly above your ankles. Your shins should also be vertical.

9: Shooting the Slide

Shooting the slide involves allowing the legs to shoot back before the torso and handle catch up. This is another bad habit that will negatively affect your lower back.

Your legs and back should overlap. As the legs are used up, add the body to maintain the speed of the handle. 

The following drills will help you to correctly use your legs in the rowing motion …

  • Ratio Drill: As you row, count out loud to develop a balance between the speed of the drive and the speed of the recovery. You should spend a little more time on the recovery than on the drive.
  • Legs Only Drill: In this drill, you concentrate on the first half of the drive which involves leg extension. You do not change the position of the upper body. 
woman training hard on indoor rowing machineSource: Courtesy of CrossFit Inc.

Become a better rower

Rowing is not a natural action like walking or running. As a result, you need to pay attention to your technique to get the most of your time on the rower. In this article, we’ve identified the 9 most common mistakes made by novice rowers and shown you what you need to do to overcome them. 

I recommend incorporating each of the drills mentioned here as part of your warm-up. As well as ingraining the correct technique, this will also remind you of what to be aware of as you row. 

You can also record your rowing so that you can watch yourself and check off your form points, making corrections as needed. 

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