Rowing machines are a very effective means to get a thorough cardiovascular workout. But for all its virtues, rowing can be hard to master, and improper technique may reduce your joy over that great cardiovascular health profile by giving you a trashed back in return.
It doesn’t seem like such a simple machine would require you to think so much. A seat, footrest, handle, chain, flywheel. Just yank the handle and slide your body back and forth, right? Wrong. As with any exercise, you need to use proper form or you will minimize your benefits, and possibly injure yourself.
First thing’s first, though. Before you even get on a rowing machine, ask yourself a couple questions.
First, do you have back problems or circulatory problems? If so, talk to a physician before you start a rowing program. For people with weak backs, rowing may not be the right exercise to pursue. On the other hand, because proper rowing involves little strain on the back, it is often prescribed by doctors for people with low back and disk problems.
Second, have you done any stretching exercises for your lower back? No? Step away from the machine, get back on the mat, and do the stretches first.
Now that you’ve planted your gluteus maximus on the seat of the rowing machine, it’s time to go for that “flawless form.”
Put in the simplest terms, you will lean back from your hips while pushing backward with your legs and torso. You will bend your arms as you pull on the handle of the rowing machine, completing the motion when your elbows pass just behind your chest and the handle is roughly an inch away from your stomach. Then you will return to the starting position and do it all over again. Your spine will remain straight throughout this process.
But just to make sure you’ve got it all down pat, let’s break it down into more detailed chunks:
Step 1: Put your feet into the footrests, and make sure the strap is over the ball of your foot. This will help ensure that your foot bends properly. Your heel should remain firmly in place.
Step 2: Grab the handles, with your shins vertical and body pressed up against the legs. Your arms should be straight but relaxed. Then, push backward through your feet, keeping the chain or cable straight as you do so.
Step 3: As you’re moving backward and your legs extend, use your arms to pull the handle in, close to your stomach, and generally just above the belly button. Don’t arch your back backward and don’t bend backward from the hips as you pull the handle toward you. Your limbs should work smoothly and in tandem here as the legs push and the arms pull. A good way to make sure your back is doing just the right amount of work is to try to push your shoulder blades together as you move backward, pushing your chest forward at the same time.
Step 4: As you complete the stroke, your legs should be almost (but not quite) locked and your spine lengthened and straight. You will lean back slightly, but not too much. Your forearms should be horizontal and your elbows behind your chest.
Step 5: Slide forward and let your arms straighten as your knees bend, keeping the cable or chain straight as it retracts.
One of the biggest tip-offs that you’ve done something seriously wrong is if you have pulled the handle back and your arms are still extended in front of you.
A few other tips to keep in mind:
- Don’t lean back too far; and make sure you move your body far enough forward as you go through the range of motion.
- Don’t put too much of your back into the exercise; remember that your arms and legs are supposed to do a good amount of the work here.
- Exhale while you’re pulling; inhale as you return to the starting position.
- Avoid dropping your chin to your chest; keeping your head up will help you breathe more easily and properly.
With all of this to think about, why bother with rowing? For one thing, this is one of the only exercises that makes you use all four of your limbs at the same time, which makes your calorie-burning all the more efficient. Also, it works for all the major muscle groups (back, torso, arms, and legs), whereas many other forms of cardiovascular training focus mostly or exclusively on muscles toward the front of the body.
Not to mention that the heart and lung benefits from rowing can be just as good as running. Finally, because there are no heavy “pounding” movements like those you see in running and jogging, there’s less wear and tear on your joints than many other cardiovascular routines.
So, don’t give up on choosing the rowing machine just because it takes a little work, because that extra work can make your workout that much better.