We asked both a former national team rower and our very own certified trainer, Ergatta's Chris Chang, for the best advice on how to learn and improve rowing form. They developed the ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Rowing Form, where they break down the essentials of rowing technique into simple, easy to follow steps. Plus, you’ll find guided exercises and video examples after each step to help you practice what you’ve learned on your own rowing machine.
Intro to Rowing Form
Rowing is an amazing low-impact, full-body workout that requires the use of your legs, back, core, arms and more. Keeping track of all of these moving pieces can be daunting, but at Ergatta, we encourage new rowers to focus on the 3 main components of the rowing stroke, the legs, body, and arms. These three components are grouped into two sequences, the Drive and the Recovery. First, we’ll provide a deeper understanding of the 3 components and the two sequences of the rowing stroke. Then, we will tell you exactly how to practice your rowing form and sharpen your technique, using a combination of Isolation and Integration Pick Drills.
3 Main Components of Rowing Form: Legs, Body, Arms
Let’s dive into the three components of Rowing Form: the legs, body, and arms.
Rowing is primarily a leg workout. We humans have naturally strong legs, so the push of our legs generates much more force than the pull of the body and arms. Roughly 60% of your rowing force is powered through the leg drive alone and the body makes up the next 30% of the power. The arms themselves do not generate much force, just the last 10%. However, the extra distance the arms provide lengthens your rowing stroke and adds speed to your “boat”.
Before we cover the technique behind each of the three components, the first step is always to get set-up on your rower. Make sure you have some water nearby to stay hydrated, get comfortably seated, strap your feet in, and grab the handle with both hands. Start with your knees bent, lean your body forward with a tall and neutral spine, and hold the arms extended at the front of your rower. This position at the front of the rower, exemplified by Chris, is known as the “Catch” position. If you need a bit more guidance on the initial set-up, check out our video here.
Now, for the technique behind the three main components of the rowing stroke.
Legs - The first component of the rowing stroke is your legs. Starting from the catch position, push hard through your heels to drive the seat back until your knees are fully extended. Your body should remain leaning forward with a tall and neutral spine, and your arms should remain straight during the leg drive.
Tip - Make sure to fully-extend your legs before beginning the other stages of the Rowing Stroke to get the most power.
Try It Now! - Try an Isolation Pick Drill with legs only for 10 strokes. Rowing with your legs only, driving hard through your heels into the foot plate until your legs are fully extended. Generate as much force as you can without moving your torso and arm positions.
Body - The second step of the rowing stroke is the body. Once the legs are fully extended and straight, swing your torso from an 11 o’clock position (a slight lean forward) to a 1 o'clock position (a slight lean back) by hinging forward and backwards at the hips. Keep your core engaged to stabilize your torso and maintain a straight line from the hips to the shoulders. Your legs and arms should remain fully extended and unchanged throughout the body swing.
Tip - The swing movement of the torso is coming from your hips. Imagine a door where your hips are the hinges and your torso is the door itself. The door itself should be solid, but the hinges are what allow it to move.
Try It Now! - Try an Isolation Pick Drill with body only for 10 strokes. Rowing with your body (torso) only, think about hinging from the hips, while maintaining a tall, neutral posture.
Arms - The final drive of the rowing stroke is the arms. Quickly pull the handle towards your chest with your hands, then immediately extend your hands forward to recover the straight arm position. The legs should be fully extended with the knees straight and the body should be leaned back towards 1 o’clock with a tall, neutral spine.
Tip - Aim to pull the handle towards your sternum, your elbows should be at a 45% angle from the body.
Try It Now! - Try an Isolation Pick Drill with arms only for 10 strokes. The aim is not to generate all of your force from your arms (that’s what the legs are for), focus instead on speed. Pull the handle towards your chest and quickly return it to the fully extended arm position. In this drill, the legs should be fully extended with the knees straight and the body should be leaned back towards 1 o’clock with a tall, neutral spine.
Continue to work on the motions in isolation to get a feel for each of the 3 core components of rowing form. Focus your practice on areas that feel particularly difficult until it feels more natural.
Two Rowing Sequences: The Drive and The Recovery
There are two sequences within a complete rowing stroke, the Drive and the Recovery, both are made up of the 3 core components; legs, body, and arms.
The Drive (legs, body, arms) is the sequence where you produce the force of your rowing stroke. A quick review of the Drive:
Fully extend the legs, pushing through the heels until the knees are straight.
Swing the torso from 11 o’clock to 1 o’clock hinging at the hips.
Pull the arms to the chest quickly
The Recovery (arms, body, legs) is the reverse sequence, where you return to the front of the rower to the Catch position. At the beginning of The Recovery you should be starting where the Drive phase finished. Your legs should be straight and extended, your upper body leaned back to a 1 o’clock position with a tall, neutral spine, and your arms pulled to your chest. Then,
Release the arms to an extended, straight position over the legs
Hinge forward at the hips forward returning to the 11 o’clock position
Bend at the knees allowing your body to move toward the front of the rower to the catch position
Remember, it is important in both the Drive and the Recovery to complete each component of a sequence after finishing the prior to maintain proper rowing form.
Putting It All Together - The Complete Rowing Stroke
The ultimate goal of the rowing stroke is to accelerate the handle from start to finish, smoothly transitioning from one step to the next. If you pause between each step it will kill the momentum that you’re building. Once you feel good about practicing the individual components of the rowing stroke in the Isolation Drills, it’s time to start putting them together with Integration Pick Drills. These drills will help you master your transitions and practice your rowing form in sequence.
Tip - As a beginner, think about the rowing stroke as a 3-stage rocket, where each stage breaks off and the next stage kicks into gear. The most important part of this process is that the next stage of propulsion does not begin until the prior stage has reached its full potential. The same principle applies to proper rowing form. If your body starts to swing too soon your legs will not be able to drive their full potential power. Similarly with your arms, once your elbows bend they can no longer effectively transfer the force from your legs and body. Generate as much force with each component prior to transitioning to the next driver in the sequence to get the most efficiency out of your rowing stroke. This will make rowing feel much easier in the long run and help you improve your endurance over time.
Try it now! - Practice Your Rowing Form With The Reverse Pick Drill
If you’re ready to practice your new skills and improve your rowing form, put it all together with this Integration Drill called the Reverse Pick Drill. The Reverse Pick Drill builds on the Isolation Drills you practiced early, integrating them together to form a complete stroke. This should be a staple in your warm-ups before each workout to help prepare your body and to hone your rowing form over time.
Start with set 1, legs only, then in each consecutive set, you’ll add on an additional element, to practice the correct sequencing. If you get confused, don’t worry, watch the Reverse Pick Drill to get a closer look!
Set 1: Legs Only for 10 reps - Just like the isolation drill you practiced previously, complete 10 reps with just your legs. Fully extend your legs, pushing through the heels, return by bending the knees and moving back to the starting position. Once completed, continue right into the next set. These are designed to flow into one another so that you can practice the sequencing and transitions as well.
Set 2: Legs and Body Only for 10 Reps - After legs only, you will keep rowing, but adding in the body. Follow the same steps for legs as in the previous set, then add the body swing from the hips, 11 to 1 and 1 to 11, while keeping the arms straight. Once you finish these 10 reps, roll right into your final set.
Set 3: Legs, Body, and Arms for 10 Reps - After legs and body only, add in the last step. Quickly draw the handle towards your chest. Then, release the arms to a straight position, swing the torso from 1 o’clock to 11 o’clock. Lastly bend the knees to return to the starting, catch position. These are now full rowing strokes with correct rowing form.
The Reverse Pick Drill is commonly practiced by beginners just starting out all the way up to Olympians warming up for a practice or race. Practice this as often as you would like and make this part of your warm-up routine. By doing this you’ll reinforce the right mechanics of rowing form — setting yourself up for long-term success and avoiding injury along the way.
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