If you’re new to rowing, getting on the machine can seem as daunting as the impending workout. You need to adjust your body and foot positions, as well as your resistance and the digital screen settings before starting. Once you master the setup, you’re primed to row on any rowing machine in less than a minute.
Keep reading for a full guide on how to set up a rowing machine. Not all rowing machines are created equal, but they’re all pretty similar. We focused on the Concept2 Indoor Rower—the perennial favorite of gyms and competitive athletes—and the WaterRower, a newer erg platform that uses water, rather than air, to generate resistance.
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- Sit down on the rower with your glutes toward the rear of the seat—so that the seat’s depression cradles the tailbone—and place your feet on the pedals. Tighten the straps as much as possible while maintain comfort. More on that below.
- Push back until your legs are straight, your quads are activated, and your arms are straight ahead holding the handle (see our rowing 101 guide for a more complete explanation of proper form).
- Now, figure out how far you should come forward towards the machine. The forward-most position is called the catch, named after the position in which your paddle would catch the water in a real boat, and it varies by an individual’s flexibility. “You want your knees almost into your chest, but they shouldn’t bounce off chest,” says Candice Kreck of Row Boss Indoor Rowing Fitness in Annapolis, Maryland. “Someone who’s pretty flexible is going to be able to reach all the way back to the flywheel. Someone who’s not that flexible might not reach all the way forward.”
- Keep your shoulders back to maintain a wide chest the entire time, Kreck says; you’re too far forward if your shoulders are caving inward. At catch position, you want your torso to be at a slightly forward-leaning position. If you’re too far forward you may overexert your upper body, while being too far back will rob you of power on the pull. In motion, the perfect catch should require little effort. You’re simply bracing your arms and torso and using your legs to accelerate the flywheel in a smooth, sweeping whoosh.
Once you’ve set your body position, turn your attention to the foot straps and foot stretchers (the adjustable pad into which you place your feet).
- Fasten the straps over the balls of your feet, and make sure your arms are just above your knees at the catch. “When your knees come up, you want to make sure that band (or chain) is straight the entire time,” Kreck says.
- The foot stretcher can be adjusted up or down. This will set the position of your feet. Generally speaking, longer shins require a lower stretcher position. If you can’t come all the way forward without pushing your kneecaps outward to avoid contact with your arms, you’ll want to lower the stretchers.
- Play with the different stretcher settings until you have just enough room to drive your forearms over your knees without making contact.
Setting Your Resistance
- Resistance is adjusted by changing the damper setting on a Concept2 (and most standard rowing machines). You’ll notice a handle next to the flywheel with settings 1-10. Changing the position of the handle alters the amount of air flowing into the flywheel. A “10” setting allows the most airflow and therefore the highest resistance. A “1” permits little airflow and minimizes resistance.
- Beginner rowers should start in the 3-5 range. Higher settings make for more strength-oriented workouts, which are more difficult to sustain and, therefore, yield less aerobic benefits. Note: The damper setting of any given rower is subject to the condition of the machine. Dust and dirt can clog up the pores in the mesh that covers the flywheel. An ill-maintained rower will yield less resistance at the same damper setting as compared to a clean machine. The rower’s drag factor is a metric that adjusts for this problem, which we’ll explain in the next section.
- WaterRowers don’t have a resistance adjustment. You simply row faster to generate more resistance, just like you would in a boat. “There’s a big erg on the front filled with water, connected to a band with a handle on it,” Kreck says. If you’re using a WaterRower, disregard this section.
Understanding the Display
- Both the WaterRower and Concept2 models display stroke rate, intensity or speed, distance, time, and calorie metrics. You’ll also become accustomed to seeing a 500-meter pace metric. “In rowing, things are broken down into how fast you would finish 500 meters, or your ‘split time’,” Kreck says.
- On the WaterRower, you can toggle between speed units of meters per second, miles per hour, 500- and 2,000-meter split times, watts, and calories per hour by pressing the up and down arrows on the monitor. Press the “units” button three times to toggle between distance unit options: meters, miles, kilometers, and strokes.
- On the Concept2, select “Just Row” on the top of the monitor for a quick-start workout. The display will show time, meters, strokes per minute, and 500-meter split time. Press “units” to switch from meters to pace, calories, or watts.
- The rower also comes equipped with five preset workouts, which you’ll find by pressing the “workouts” button on the right side of the display.
- Lastly, observe the Concept2’s drag factor. As we noted in the previous section, the drag factor is the most accurate way of calculating resistance, because it adjusts for variances in the flywheel air intake. At a level one resistance setting, the drag factor will be about 90. At a level 10 resistance, it will be about 220.
- On your first row, set the damper setting between 3-5 and start rowing. Adjust the handle as needed to provide a high quality aerobic session. You should be able to maintain 24 to 30 strokes per minute. Once you’re comfortable with the resistance setting that feels best, select “more options” from the main menu. Then, select “display drag factor.” Remember that number as your preferred drag factor. Use it to adjust machines to maintain the same resistance for future workouts.
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