A fitness trainer explains how to get our form right on the rowing machine, for the ultimate full-body workout.
After months of lockdown, gyms were finally allowed to reopen from 25 July (with a few Covid-friendly caveats, of course). Many have since opened their doors again to members, and fitness fans have been able to return to their favourite workouts, no longer having to keep fit at home and run in the rain.
Now that gyms are back, so is access to our favourite equipment. The rowing machine, which once upon a time used to go under-appreciated and unused by many, has recently been recognised for the excellent full-body workout it can offer. It works muscles in your upper and lower body, back and core, adding up to an impressive, all-round workout.
But because rowing machines engage so many muscles throughout your body, things can go wrong if you don’t have your form right. We asked an expert for her advice on how to use a rowing machine correctly, so that you can reap all of the benefits this piece of equipment has to offer.
The benefits of rowing
Héloïse Nangle is a fitness trainer and the COO of Core Collective, and she believes that rowing is one of the most beneficial forms of exercise you can do. “It develops a combination of strength and cardiovascular fitness that, when performed correctly, will get strength and fitness advances in record time”.
Rowing works nine major muscle groups: “quads, hamstrings, glutes, lats, core, shoulders, triceps, back and biceps”, and each stroke should be “60% lower body, 20% core, and 20% upper body”. In other words, while muscles are engaged elsewhere, it is the muscles of the lower body that should be doing most of the work. Get this right, and your whole body will experience the benefits.
Mastering your rowing technique
Whether you’re just starting out or you want to work on your technique, Héloïse says that it’s important to “take your time, master the basics, and then you can up the pace”. She also emphasises that you should never be influenced by what someone else is doing, and to just focus on your own form and progress, “because everyone is at a different stage in their fitness journey”.
1. Push, don’t pull
When rowing, it can be tempting to pull the handles as hard as you can, working your arms as much as – if not more than – your lower body. But, according to Héloïse your arms should only be responsible “for 10% of your force with indoor rowing”.
Rather than letting your arms do all the work, “you need to learn to drive through your legs, fully harnessing that force and utilising your quads, hamstrings and glutes”. Try and “have your weight evenly distributed through your whole foot”, too, to really help you maximise the power in your legs. Make sure you keep your arms straight for as long as you can while driving through your legs, and then let them follow.
2. Watch your posture
It’s important to sit upright on a rowing machine, because “when the back rounds excessively at the front of the stroke, it then tends to extend at the back of the stroke”. This is a problem because, as Héloïse explains, “your spine flexes under the load, and it does it every time you take a stroke”. Not only is this not great for your back, but it also means you are unlikely to get the best times and speed you can during your workout.
To ensure you maintain good posture, sit tall on the rowing machine and keep your back in this position throughout. This will require good core engagement. You should also make sure you “do not overreach at the start of the stroke, and always maintain a light grip with thumbs under the handles”, according to Héloïse.
3. Utilise your hips
Good hip action is crucial to successful indoor rowing technique, because it helps to create more power. Héloïse says that, “if you want to get the most out of your hips, you need to close them (with good posture) and then as you’re pushing the rower away, you need to aggressively swing your hips open as you’re driving through the legs”. She likens this to the technique you would use for a kettlebell swing.
Héloïse recommends really slowing it down while you work on this part of your technique, so that you can “work on creating energy at a lower stroke rate”, with a “big drive and slower return”. Once you have this down, “the legs and hips then work together to create a strong, connected, accelerating push off the machine, giving you that force you are after”.
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