Indoor rowing classes have become quite popular in recent years, with studios popping up across the U.S. There are some pretty good reasons for that: Rowing is a killer workout, and it’s relatively low-impact, meaning it puts less pressure on your ankles, knees, and hips than some other cardio workouts, says Nick Karwoski, a nationally ranked triathlete, rowing enthusiast, and trainer for Hydrow.
Rowing is also a total-body sport that can get your heart rate sky-high while challenging many different muscle groups. “From pushing off with your feet to the explosive press of your legs to the final upper-body pullback, all these movements start with an engaged core and midsection. Even 10 minutes of rowing can strengthen your core unlike any other sport,” he explains.
Yet going into a first class of anything can be tough, especially when it’s a high-intensity workout or training that involves machines you’ve never used before. In order to get the full benefits of this strength and cardiovascular workout, here’s what you need to know before taking a seat.
1. Wear clothes that won’t get in the way of rowing.
Your best bet would be either compression gear or anything relatively formfitting. Baggy sweatpants could weigh you down or interfere with your motion on the machine. “I recommend wearing compression-style bottoms to prevent any clothing snags in the wheels of the seat,” says Karwoski.
As for shoes, go with a cross-training sneaker that’s not heavily cushioned or bulky. “I recommend wearing more of a cross-training shoe, so you don’t have a ton of lift in your heel. Because you aren’t pounding the pavement, you don’t need to have as much support as a running shoe,” says Dustin Hogue, certified personal trainer and director of interval at Studio Three in Chicago.
2. Check your resistance settings.
Just like an indoor cycling bike, rowing machines have settings that allow you to increase or decrease resistance to make it easier or more difficult to row. “Throw it up to the highest setting and it’ll feel like you’re rowing through sludge and make it hard to generate momentum. The minimum setting will feel like there’s no resistance at all,” says Karwoski.
Throughout a rowing class, the instructor will likely be explicit about when to tweak the resistance levels, depending on the intervals in the workout, cueing you to change it a specific number or explaining how it should feel so that you can choose the resistance accordingly.
A rowing machine that’s powered by a wheel will have a lever or knob that’s numbered from 1 to 10, with 1 being the lowest resistance and 10 being the highest. When you change the setting, it changes how much air flows into the internal wheel (the more air, the more resistance you have to work against). If you’re using a water rower (some newer boutique studios have them), there won’t be a resistance setting. Resistance changes depending on how fast or slow you’re rowing, so you’ll likely need to do some trial and error to get a feel for how it works.
If you’re unsure how to change the resistance or what a certain resistance level should feel like in terms of effort, ask the instructor to help.
3. Maintain proper posture.
Not only will good posture help protect you from strain and injury, it will also help you generate power properly. Sit tall, relax your shoulders, and keep your core engaged. “When rowing, think about the same things when holding a plank: Your spine is long and your abs are tight. Without proper posture, you’ll experience lower-back pain,” explains Hogue.
Also, make sure your butt is toward the front edge of the set, which will help you maintain good posture, adds Karwoski. If you’re having lower-back pain, double-check your posture and make sure you are holding your abs in tight, says Hogue. Hunching and rounding your shoulders forward can also cause discomfort in your upper back, so pay attention to that, too.
4. There actually is a correct way to strap your feet in.
“You want the ball of your foot touching up against the platform of the foot pad with the strap across the widest part of your foot. The strap being across the widest part of the foot is important to allow for proper ankle flexion when you slide back and forth,” says Hogue. If the strap is too far up by your toes, your shins could cramp up, he explains, and this can lead to pain and potentially injury.
“You want to be able to drive through your whole foot [rather than] push off your toes,” Hogue adds. Once your feet are properly secure, sit tall, grab your handle, and off you go.
5. Pay attention to how you grip the handle.
You should hold the handlebar (with your palms facing down) firmly, but not like you’re holding on for dear life. Try to keep your forearms relaxed, says Karwoski. If you grip too tightly, you’ll probably tire out your forearms quickly.
When sitting up with nice posture and holding the handle bar out straight, try to keep the bar at that level as consistently as possible. Then, focus on steady strokes.
6. Aim for full strokes and a steady rhythm.
Now for the fun part: learning to actually execute the rowing motion.
Your rowing motion “should be smooth and consistent,” says Hogue. “A key way to think about rowing is that each stroke is 60 percent legs, 20 percent core, and 20 percent arms. If you’re rowing right, you should feel your glutes, lats, and scapula muscles engage with each stroke,” he adds.
Start with your knees bent, weight in the balls of your feet, butt by your heels, arms extended and gripping the handle. Whenever you are in this knees-bent position (called the catch), you want your arms to reach just beyond your feet, says Hogue. You should be sitting tall, torso leaning slightly forward. Then, roll your feet so you are pushing with your entire, flat foot and extend your legs, sliding your butt back and pulling the handle toward your chest. When your legs are fully extended in the stroke, lean your torso back just enough to feel your abs engaged, and you’ll have perfect motion, Hogue says. Then, bend your knees and bring your body forward to return to the starting position.
To go with a steady rhythm, you want to use strokes that cover the full distance of the row. It takes practice to get into the rhythm, so don’t be worried if you don’t get it right away. “The stroke should be a one-count exhale when you’re going backward. For your catch forward, inhale for two counts. Think: power, recovery, recovery,” Hogue says.
Throughout the entire row, you want the handlebar line to stay parallel to the machine. Pull the handlebar straight back toward your body so that it’s in line with the middle of your chest, where the top of your ribs meet your sternum. Your elbows will graze your rib cage as you pull back, Hogue says.
7. Think about generating power from your legs.
Although your arms are helping you out, your legs are doing most of the work in a rowing workout. And that’s why your legs and butt will totally be on fire. “At the start of the stroke, your calves, hamstrings and glutes are loaded up. As the legs start to press, the body generates momentum for the body and arms to finish carrying through,” says Karwoski.
At the end of about 10 minutes, you’ll probably feel a good burn on your butt, your legs, and your core, he says. (In addition to feeling out of breath, of course.)
In general, rowing is an excellent form or cardio and lower-body strengthening that targets the major posterior muscles, which often get neglected, says Hogue. Rowing is a full-body movement, but those muscles are doing the brunt of the work.
8. Most classes will include intervals of higher and lower intensity.
Think of a rowing class as a HIIT class, just lower impact. “Rowing is an efficient workout that can be accomplished in a short amount of time. Generally, you are either going for time or for distance [where you] see how fast you can get your meters done or see how far you can go in a specific amount of time,” says Hogue.
“Rowing workouts are typically interval based. The classic rowing interval is 500 meters mainly because it’s 1:45 to 2:30 minutes, which is a reasonable amount of time to push yourself and be able to replicate after a minute of resting,” says Karwoski.
Some workouts may also be based on number of strokes, Karwoski says. For example, the instructor may tell you to do 10, 20 or 30 strokes as hard as you can before you stop and recover. You may also get off the rower and do other workouts as recovery, like lunges, squats, and planks. “You can also do more endurance-based workouts by repeating intervals over 1,000 meters or over 3 to 4 minutes long with recovery,” he says. These will focus more on longer, steady strokes rather than faster “sprints” for extra cardio.
9. You might be sore after your first couple classes.
If you’re new to rowing, you’re bound to feel sore after your first class (or even after a few classes). Delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is really common when you’re doing a brand-new workout and challenging your muscles in ways they aren’t used to.
While there’s unfortunately no way to cure DOMS, can try to ease the tightness with some foam rolling or do some easy cardio to improve circulation in the area and give your recovery a little boost, says Karwoski.
You can take a brisk walk, head to the treadmill for a jog, or try some yoga and stretching—all of which will help you find a bit of relief as you wait for your muscles to recover and the soreness to subside.
10. Make sure you rest and recover between rowing workouts.
If you got a killer workout, it’s tempting to want to repeat it again and again as often as you can. But remember that rest and recovery are crucial for improving fitness and avoiding injury. “It’s always good to alternate harder and easier workouts into your week,” Karwoski says. “I would not recommend going max effort more than two days in a row. Your body needs to recover, especially when using all your muscles,” he adds.
When you do go back, try to get better. “To get the most of your rowing experience, track your progress and remember your milestones. How long does it take you to row 500 meters? How many meters can you row in 60 seconds? Challenge yourself to get your distance done quicker and row more meters in one minute,” says Hogue. This will make post-workout soreness lighter with time and you’ll get more out of each workout, he says.