How to Use a Rowing Machine

How to Use a Rowing Machine Even if You’re a Total Beginner

Learn how to get set up, nail your form, and the most important metrics to track.

By Alyssa SybertzAugust 18, 2023


If you’ve ever suspiciously eyed the one or two rowing machines tucked into the corner of the cardio area at your gym, you’re not alone. These machines often seem more intimidating and difficult to climb onto than an elliptical or a treadmill, primarily because not everyone knows how to use it.

What do the numbers on the screen mean? Do I need to set anything up? Am I going to look silly? These questions and more tend to plague non-rowers, whether they are faced with a rowing machine in the gym or one at home like the Peloton Row. Here, we’re breaking down everything you need to know about how to use a rowing machine so you can confidently and successfully take advantage of this incredibly efficient total-body workout.

Dialing in Your Rowing Machine Settings 

Before you pick up the handle and start rowing, there are a few things you need to set up on the machine itself to position yourself for success. 

Position Your Feet 

Every rowing machine is going to have adjustable footplates, which is where you strap in your feet at the front of the rower. “The ideal footplate position should allow for the strap to be secure over the widest part of your shoe,” explains Peloton Row instructor Katie Wang. This will allow your heels to come up a little (if needed based on your flexibility) when you’re at the catch, or the front part of the stroke, while keeping the balls of your feet securely pressed onto the footplate the entire time.

“Most people can make two different footplate settings work, so I like to say when in doubt pull the footplate a little lower,” Katie adds. This will likely be more comfortable for you as well. 

Choose Your Resistance 

Whether or not you need to set your resistance ahead of time is going to vary based on the rower you use. Some rowing machines, including most that you would find in a gym or other public setting, have a damper on the front of the machine that determines the resistance that you’ll want to position before you begin rowing. “I recommend keeping your damper between a 3 and 5 for the best workout,” suggests Katie. “It's a common misconception that the higher the damper setting the harder the workout, but that's not the case. What I love about rowing is at the end of the day we are creating the intensity and resistance by the power of our stroke. So the harder we row, the more resistance we will feel even at those lower dampers.” 

Another boon: Keeping your damper lower will allow you to maintain proper form as you start to row at higher stroke rates (or move faster up and down the slide), which will minimize your risk of injury as well as engage all the proper muscles so you can achieve that total body workout. 

Rowing machines without a damper are even easier to use—simply clock how the resistance works before you begin. With the Peloton Row and some other rowers, such as water rowers, your resistance is based on the power and effort you put in. Still others have buttons on the handle that allow you to adjust the resistance during your workout. 

Set Your Workout Goals 

This is another step you may or may not need to do depending on the machine you are using. On the Peloton Row, you’ll set your pace target before you begin your workout. On others, you can set the length of your rowing session or workout structure, such as how many intervals you want to complete and how long each interval and each rest should be.

Proper Rowing Machine Form

Rowing for Beginners

No matter the machine you’re rowing on, your stroke will always follow the same four stages

The Catch

This is the start of the stroke, when your body is compressed at the front of the slide. Your arms are extended, the handle is loose in your hands, your knees are bent and your heels are slightly lifted. “If you find yourself falling into the trap of pulling with your upper body, try getting your shins close to parallel at the catch to create greater force with your lower body in your stroke,” Katie suggests. 

The Drive 

The most important thing you can remember through the drive is the order of muscles you’ll engage—legs, core, arms. First, you press your heels down and drive back with your legs. Next, you swing your upper body back using your core. Finally, you pull the handle to your lower chest with your arms (pulling with the arms too early is one of the most common rowing mistakes). This sequence will take you to the next stage. 

The Finish

Just as the catch is the front end, the finish is the back end of the stroke. Your legs are straight (or almost straight), your body is leaning back slightly, your shoulders are pressed down, and the handle is pulled in just below your chest. 

The Recovery 

To return to the catch, you’ll reverse your order of operations from the drive. “Let your arms cross over the knees and pull your body forward before your legs start to bend,” says Katie. Also important to remember: No matter how quickly you are rowing or how high your stroke rate, the recovery should always take twice as long as the drive. This should help you stay relaxed and rhythmic, which Katie says is one of her keys to rowing with proper form. “Truly try to go with the flow,” she urges. “Sometimes our best strokes happen when we aren't stressing too much about the form or the metrics and instead fall into the rhythm of the workout.” 

The Rowing Machine Screen, Explained

While the screen on each rowing machine is going to be a little different, there are a few metrics that you’ll see on every single one that you can use to guide your workouts. Here are the biggest ones to know. 

Stroke Rate

On the Peloton Row, this number is identified as “Strokes.” Other machines may indicate this as “SPM,”t or strokes per minute. One stroke is considered moving from the catch to the finish and back to the catch again. Your stroke rate will likely range from 18 to 36 during your workout. The higher your stroke rate, the more quickly you are moving up and down the slide of the rowing machine. However, rowing at a high stroke rate (which is considered anything above 30 SPM) does not necessarily mean you are “rowing faster” in the same way as moving your legs faster means that you are running faster. The speed at which you are rowing is actually measured by your pace. 


This is the number that’s followed by “/500M”. Think of it like the speed your boat would be moving if you were rowing on the water. This metric, which you’ll also hear rowers refer to as split, is expressed as the number of minutes it would take you to row the boat 500 meters; the lower your pace number, the faster you are rowing/moving your boat. As mentioned above, rowing at a higher stroke rate does not always equate to a faster pace. Instead, your pace is determined by how powerful your drive is and your ability to replicate that power at a consistent stroke rate over an extended period of time. 

Distance Rowed 

Measured in meters, this is the total distance you’ve rowed over the course of a workout. If you’re rowing to improve your endurance, you likely want to row a couple thousand meters in a session. For an interval training workout, you’ll likely row between 50 and 500 meters in a single interval. 

Time Elapsed 

This one is pretty self-explanatory; it’s how long you’ve been rowing. 

Additional Metrics on the Peloton Row 

Along with the metrics above, there are a few others that you’ll see on the screen of the Peloton Row. There’s your output, measured in watts, which is how much power you generate with each stroke. There’s your total output, the total power you generate over the course of a class, which determines your place on the Leaderboard. The calorie number will give you a general idea of how many calories you have burned throughout a class (you can also hide this number).

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Getting Started with Rowing Machine Workouts

Ready to incorporate rowing into your fitness regimen? Peloton Row classes are available to Peloton App One and Peloton App+ Members in addition to Peloton Row owners, it’s easier than ever! Here are some of Katie’s tips to help you get started.

Give Yourself Time to Adjust 

“Many of us are blessed to have walked or biked in our lifetime but rowing is a new way for a lot of us to move our bodies. So remember it may take some time to get into the flow of things,” says Katie. If you’re sore in new places after your first few sessions, don’t be discouraged; you’re likely just using new muscles that you haven’t used in conjunction with one another before.

One way to adjust to rowing faster is to try out classes with different instructors. “Each instructor and class type offers a different perspective towards the workout and diversifying your class type will only help you master the mind-muscle connection in your stroke faster,” Katie says. 

Focus on Pace 

If you’re using the Peloton App to do a Row class on a different rowing machine, Katie suggests paying the most attention to your pace number. “Instructors will reference four pace intensities, Easy, Moderate, Challenging, and Max,” she says. “As the paces get more intense you want your pace or split number to be lower.” The changes in your pace as you move from one intensity to another will likely be just a few seconds, while the difference from your Easy pace and your Max pace will probably be 30 or fewer seconds, so don’t expect drastic changes in your number. 

Once you have a handle on your pace, you can try to sync your stroke rate. “Instructors will also call out ranges for the stroke rate,” Katie says. If you’re new to rowing, start by trying to stick to the lower end of the stroke rate range and maintaining a consistent rate as opposed to starting on the high end and bouncing around within the range. The ability to drive with the same amount of power every single stroke is what is going to improve your pace as well as your rowing in general.

Mix It In 

Depending on the class you take or the structure of your rowing machine workout, rowing can be a sprint workout, an endurance training session, or a way to strengthen your muscles. “Rowing also pairs beautifully with strength training, so I recommend incorporating it into your strength days or checking out one of mine or Adrian's Row Bootcamps and see how it can amplify your strength workout,” suggests Katie. Change up the type of workout you do on your rower to see what feels best and what you find to be the most fun way to use the rowing machine.

One of the best parts about rowing is that it is a low-impact workout, so it can remain a part of your workout regimen whether you’re training for a race or competition, need something easy on your joints, or are trying to improve your fitness. No matter what brings you to rowing, we have a feeling that once you start it will remain a staple in your rotation for a long time.

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