9 Common Rowing Machine Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

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Rowing Machine Mistakes

As an experienced rower and fitness professional, I’ve spent countless hours on the rowing machine, honing my technique and helping others do the same. 

I’ve seen it all—beginners struggling to find their rhythm, seasoned rowers hitting plateaus, and everyone in between. Trust me when I say I know a thing or two about rowing. 

Now, I’m here to share some invaluable insights with you. In this article, we’ll dive into nine common rowing machine mistakes that could be holding you back from unlocking your full potential. 

But don’t worry—I won’t leave you hanging. I’ll also provide practical tips on how to avoid these pitfalls and improve your rowing experience. So buckle up, and let’s get started on the path to a smoother, more efficient, and more enjoyable row! 

Mistake #1: Incorrect Damper Settings 

First off we’ll dive into the misconceptions surrounding damper settings and discuss the optimal settings for men and women, as well as how to find the right setting for your personal fitness goals. 

Damper setting misconceptions 

One of the most common mistakes I see is the improper use of the damper settings. Many people assume that a higher damper setting (typically ranging from 1 to 10) will automatically result in a more challenging and effective workout. 

However, this isn’t always the case. In fact, higher settings can sometimes lead to incorrect rowing form and even injury, especially for beginners

The damper setting on a rowing machine essentially controls the airflow to the flywheel, which affects the feel of the rowing stroke. A higher setting means greater resistance, simulating the feeling of rowing through heavy water, while a lower setting creates less resistance and mimics the sensation of rowing on a smoother, lighter surface. 

It’s important to understand that the damper setting isn’t a direct measure of intensity or difficulty; rather, it influences the type of workout you’ll experience. A higher setting may help you develop power and strength, while a lower setting is more suitable for endurance training and aerobic conditioning. 

Optimal damper settings for men and women 

While there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to the perfect damper setting, certain guidelines can help you find the right setting for your gender, fitness level, and goals. Generally, a drag factor (a measure of resistance generated by the rowing machine) of around 115 for women and 125 for men is recommended. 

Keep in mind that these are just suggested starting points, and you should adjust the damper setting according to your personal preferences and fitness objectives. Some individuals may prefer slightly higher or lower settings depending on their specific needs. 

How to find the right damper setting 

To find the right damper setting for you, follow these steps: 

  1. Warm up with some light rowing for about 5 minutes to get a feel for the machine and prepare your muscles for exercise. 
  2. Adjust the damper setting to a middle level (around 4 or 5) and row for a minute or two, paying attention to the feel of the resistance and your rowing form. 
  3. Gradually adjust the damper setting up or down, rowing for a minute or two at each setting to gauge the effect on your stroke and perceived exertion. 
  4. Once you find a setting that feels comfortable and allows you to maintain proper rowing form while still providing a challenge, take note of the damper setting and use it as your starting point for future workouts. 

Remember, finding the right damper setting is a personal process, and what works for someone else may not work for you. Be patient and give yourself time to experiment with different settings until you find the one that best suits you. 

Mistake #2: Poor Handle Grip 

A proper handle grip is crucial for maximizing your rowing efficiency and preventing unnecessary strain on your hands, wrists, and forearms. 

Common grip mistakes 

There are several grip mistakes that I’ve noticed over the years, which can negatively impact your rowing form: 

  1. Holding the handle too tightly: A white-knuckled grip will not only cause hand fatigue and discomfort but can also increase the likelihood of developing blisters. Maintain a relaxed, yet secure grip to avoid these issues. 
  2. Gripping the handle with your fingers: Gripping the handle with your fingers alone can lead to discomfort and even injury. Instead, ensure that the handle rests on the base of your fingers, allowing the palm to contribute to the grip. 
  3. Bending the wrists excessively: Overly flexed or extended wrists can place unnecessary strain on your wrists and forearms, increasing the risk of injury. Keep your wrists neutral and aligned with your forearms throughout the rowing motion. 

Proper handle grip technique 

To ensure an effective and comfortable grip, follow these tips: 

  1. Use an overhand grip: Hold the handle with an overhand grip, with your palms facing down. This grip allows for better power transfer and reduces strain on your wrists and hands. 
  2. Space your hands shoulder-width apart: Positioning your hands too close together or too far apart can compromise your rowing form and power output. Aim for a shoulder-width grip, which provides a stable and efficient hand position. 
  3. Relax your grip: Remember to maintain a relaxed grip throughout the rowing motion. Squeezing the handle too tightly can cause tension in your hands, wrists, and forearms, reducing your overall efficiency. 
  4. Keep your wrists neutral: Focus on maintaining a neutral wrist position, with your wrists aligned with your forearms. This minimizes strain and allows for optimal power transfer during the rowing stroke. 

In my experience, mastering the proper handle grip technique is essential for getting the most out of your rowing workouts. By avoiding common grip mistakes and implementing the tips provided, you’ll not only improve your performance but also reduce the risk of injury and discomfort. 

Mistake #3: Early Arm Pull 

This error not only compromises the efficiency of your stroke but can also lead to unnecessary strain on your arms and shoulders. 

Consequences of an early arm pull 

An early arm pull can have several negative impacts on your rowing performance: 

  1. Reduced power output: The rowing stroke should prioritize engaging larger muscle groups, like the legs and core, before the smaller arm muscles. Pulling with your arms too early means you’re not taking full advantage of your more powerful leg and core muscles, ultimately limiting your power output. 
  2. Increased arm fatigue: Relying on your arms too early in the stroke places undue stress on these smaller muscles, leading to quicker fatigue and potentially affecting your overall endurance. 
  3. Imbalanced muscle development: Consistently using an early arm pull can lead to imbalanced muscle development, with your arms becoming disproportionately stronger than your legs and core. This imbalance can negatively impact your overall rowing performance and increase the risk of injury. 

Correcting the early arm pull 

Here are some tips to help you avoid the early arm pull and optimize your rowing technique: 

  1. Focus on the legs-first approach: The rowing stroke should begin with a powerful leg drive, followed by engaging the core and finally, the arms. Concentrate on driving with your legs and maintaining straight arms until your legs are almost fully extended. 
  2. Keep your arms relaxed: During the initial phase of the stroke, keep your arms relaxed and straight. This will help you resist the temptation to engage them too early. 
  3. Sequence the stroke properly: Remember the proper rowing stroke sequence: legs, hips, arms on the drive, and arms, hips, legs on the recovery. This sequence ensures that you’re engaging the appropriate muscle groups at the right time for maximum efficiency. 
  4. Practice drills: Incorporate specific drills into your rowing routine that focus on maintaining straight arms during the leg drive. For example, try the legs-only drill, where you row using just your legs, keeping your arms straight and your body in a forward-leaning position. 

By paying attention to your rowing technique and correcting an early arm pull, you’ll be able to harness the full power of your body and enjoy a more efficient, effective workout. As with any skill, practice makes perfect, so be patient and give yourself time to develop proper rowing habits.

Mistake #4: Relying too much on foot straps 

This may seem like a minor issue, but it can significantly impact your rowing efficiency and even lead to discomfort or injury. 

Why relying on foot straps is a problem 

Overusing the foot straps can cause a couple of issues: 

  1. Hip pain: When you pull the handle towards your body, your heels tend to lift off the footplates if you’re overly dependent on the foot straps. This excessive heel lift places undue stress on your hips and can eventually lead to pain or discomfort. 
  2. Core disengagement: If you’re using the foot straps to stabilize your feet during the stroke, you’re more likely to disengage your core muscles. An engaged core is crucial for maintaining proper form and transferring power throughout the rowing stroke. By neglecting your core, you’re compromising the effectiveness of your workout. 

Solution: Feet-out rowing drill 

To correct this mistake, I recommend incorporating the “feet out rowing drill” into your training routine. This drill involves rowing with your feet outside the foot straps, forcing you to engage your core and use your legs more effectively throughout the stroke. 

How to practice the feet-out rowing drill 

  1. Begin by sitting on the rowing machine with your feet placed flat on the footplates, but not secured within the foot straps. 
  2. Keep your heels in contact with the footplates throughout the entire stroke. Focus on pressing through your heels and engaging your glutes and hamstrings during the drive phase. 
  3. Maintain a strong core and upright posture. This will ensure that you’re stabilizing your body without relying on the foot straps for support. 
  4. As you become more comfortable with the feet-out rowing drill, gradually increase the intensity and duration of your rowing sessions. This will help you develop the necessary muscle memory and reinforce proper technique. 

Tips for mastering the feet-out rowing drill 

Here are some useful tips to help you master the feet-out rowing drill: 

  • Start slow: It’s essential to ease into this drill to avoid losing balance or straining your muscles. Begin with shorter, low-intensity sessions and work your way up as you gain confidence and improve your technique. 
  • Focus on your core: Be mindful of your core engagement throughout the entire stroke. Imagine there’s a string pulling your belly button towards your spine, helping you maintain a strong, stable core. 
  • Monitor your heels: Keep an eye on your heels during the stroke, ensuring they remain in contact with the footplates. This will help you activate your glutes and hamstrings more effectively. 

Expert advice from Cameron Nichol, Olympic rower and founder of RowingWOD 

Cameron Nichol, an Olympic rower and founder of RowingWOD, stresses the importance of learning to row without relying on foot straps. 

According to Nichol, practicing the feet-out rowing drill “will teach you the connection between your feet and the footplates and help you understand how to generate power from your legs without relying on the straps.” 

By incorporating the feet-out rowing drill into your training routine, you’ll develop proper technique, engage your core, and ultimately become a more efficient and powerful rower. 

Mistake #5: Letting the stroke sequence blend together 

One of the most common mistakes rowers make is not paying enough attention to the distinct phases of the rowing stroke. Blending the phases together can lead to a less efficient and less powerful stroke, hindering your performance and increasing the risk of injury. To avoid this mistake, it’s essential to understand and practice the proper stroke sequence. 

Breaking down the rowing stroke sequence 

The rowing stroke consists of four main phases: 

  1. Catch: The starting position where your shins are vertical, arms extended, and your body angled slightly forward. 
  2. Drive: The powerful push of the legs, followed by the hip hinge and then the pull of the arms. 
  3. Finish: The position where your legs are straight, arms are pulled in, and your body is leaned slightly back. 
  4. Recovery: The controlled return to the catch position, reversing the order of the drive – first extending the arms, then hinging at the hips, and finally bending the knees. 

Tips for maintaining a distinct stroke sequence 

Follow these tips to ensure your stroke sequence remains distinct and efficient: 

  • Pace yourself: Avoid rushing through the stroke. Take your time during the recovery phase to allow for a smooth transition between each part of the sequence. 
  • Focus on the legs: The drive should be initiated with the powerful push of the legs, which should account for approximately 60% of the force generated during the stroke. 
  • Engage the core: A strong core is crucial for maintaining proper body posture throughout the entire stroke sequence. Engaging your core will help you maintain the correct body angle during the catch and finish phases. 

Expert advice from Kristin Hedstrom, Elite Rower and Personal Trainer 

Kristin Hedstrom, an elite rower and personal trainer, emphasizes the importance of keeping the stroke sequence distinct: “Each phase has a specific purpose, and blending them together can lead to decreased power output and inefficient rowing.” 

She recommends practicing drills that break down the stroke into individual components, allowing you to focus on the proper technique for each phase. 

Mistake #6: Squatty Potty Row 

I’ve seen many people struggling with what Ben Dziwulski likes to call the “Squatty Potty Row.” Not a huge fan of the name but hey I’ll admit I’m not creative enough to think of anything better so fair play to Ben. 

This mistake involves bending your knees excessively during the recovery phase of the rowing stroke, causing your body position to resemble someone using a Squatty Potty. 

Consequences of the Squatty Potty Row 

The Squatty Potty Row has several negative implications for your rowing performance and overall fitness: 

  1. Limited range of motion: Bending your knees too much during recovery reduces the length of your stroke, which in turn diminishes the power output and overall effectiveness of your workout. 
  2. Inefficient energy expenditure: The Squatty Potty Row forces you to expend more energy on each stroke, leading to faster fatigue and a less efficient workout overall. 
  3. Increased risk of injury: This improper form can put unnecessary strain on your knees, lower back, and hips, increasing the likelihood of injury over time. 

Correcting the Squatty Potty Row 

To avoid the Squatty Potty Row and improve your rowing technique, follow these tips: 

  1. Focus on proper leg extension: When extending your legs during the drive phase, aim for a near-full extension without locking your knees. This will help you maintain the correct body position throughout the stroke. 
  2. Control your recovery: During the recovery phase, focus on maintaining a controlled slide back to the starting position. Avoid letting your knees shoot up too quickly or bending them excessively, which can lead to the Squatty Potty Row. 
  3. Practice good posture: Maintain a strong, upright posture throughout the rowing stroke. Keeping your back straight and your core engaged will help prevent excessive knee bending and promote a smoother, more efficient stroke.
  4. Incorporate drills into your routine: Try specific rowing drills that emphasize proper leg extension and controlled recovery, such as the pause drill. To perform this drill, pause for a moment at the end of the drive phase, focusing on maintaining proper body position before initiating the recovery. 

Mistake #7: Overextension During The Drive Phase 

This error involves collapsing your upper body toward your thighs during the drive phase of the rowing stroke, causing your back to round and your chest to compress against your legs.

Consequences of overextension 

Overextending during the drive phase is problematic for several reasons: 

  1. Inefficient power transfer: A rounded back and collapsed upper body limit your ability to generate and transfer power efficiently through your core, resulting in weaker and less effective strokes. 
  2. Increased risk of injury: Places unnecessary strain on your lower back, shoulders, and neck, increasing the likelihood of injuries and long-term discomfort. 
  3. Reduced breathing capacity: Compressing your chest against your thighs limits your diaphragm’s ability to expand, making it difficult to take deep breaths and maintain proper oxygen levels during your workout. 

Correcting overextension during the drive phase 

To avoid overextension and improve your rowing technique, follow these tips: 

  1. Engage your core: Throughout the entire rowing stroke, keep your core engaged and maintain a strong, stable posture. This will help you resist the urge to collapse forward and maintain a more effective body position. 
  2. Hinge at the hips: Instead of collapsing your upper body, focus on hinging forward at your hips during the recovery phase. This will allow you to maintain a more stable and powerful posture throughout the stroke. 
  3. Keep your chest lifted: As you hinge forward, concentrate on keeping your chest lifted and your shoulders down and back. This will help prevent your upper body from collapsing and ensure you maintain proper form. 
  4. Focus on sequential movement: Remember that the rowing stroke is a fluid, sequential motion. Focus on driving with your legs first, then using your hips and core to transfer power, and finally pulling with your arms. By concentrating on this sequence, you can avoid collapsing forward during the drive phase. 

Mistake #8: Pulling the Handle Around the Knees 

Another rowing faux pas I’ve come across during my years is the act of pulling the handle around the knees during the recovery phase. 

Why Pulling the Handle Around the Knees is a Problem 

There are several reasons why pulling the handle around the knees during the recovery phase is detrimental to your rowing performance: 

  1. Disrupts stroke rhythm: Proper rowing technique requires a smooth, continuous motion. By pulling the handle around your knees, you create an awkward pause in the stroke, interrupting the natural flow and rhythm. 
  2. Increases stress on the shoulders and wrists: The act of maneuvering the handle around your knees places additional stress on your shoulders and wrists, which can lead to discomfort or even injury over time. 
  3. Reduces efficiency: The added movement of pulling the handle around your knees wastes energy and detracts from the overall efficiency of your rowing stroke. 

How to Avoid Pulling the Handle Around the Knees 

To prevent this, follow these tips: 

  1. Sequence the stroke properly: Focus on maintaining a proper stroke sequence by extending your arms first, then hinging at the hips, and finally bending your knees during the recovery phase. This will ensure that your hands naturally glide past your knees without needing to pull the handle around them. 
  2. Maintain a stable handle height: Keep the handle at a consistent height, parallel to the ground during the recovery phase. This will help you avoid the need to lift the handle over your knees and promote a smoother, more efficient stroke. 
  3. Adjust your foot position: If you’re still having trouble avoiding this mistake, consider adjusting the position of your feet on the footplates. By placing your heels slightly higher, you may find it easier to extend your legs without the handle interfering with your knees. 
  4. Practice, practice, practice: As with any skill, improvement comes with practice. Stay committed to refining your rowing technique and focusing on avoiding this common mistake, and you’ll soon find your stroke becoming more fluid and efficient. 

Mistake #9: Rowing too fast 

A common misconception among novice rowers is that rowing faster automatically translates to a better workout. However, rowing at an excessively fast pace can compromise your form and lead to a less efficient workout. It’s important to find the right balance between speed and proper technique to maximize the benefits of your rowing workout. 

The importance of pacing and stroke rate 

The key to an effective rowing workout is to maintain a consistent and sustainable pace. Your stroke rate, or the number of strokes per minute (SPM), should be adjusted according to your fitness level and the goals of your workout. Rowing too fast can lead to poor technique, fatigue, and even injury. 

How to find the right stroke rate 

Here are some guidelines for finding an appropriate stroke rate for your workout: 

  • Beginners: Aim for a stroke rate of 22-26 SPM. This will allow you to focus on proper technique and build a strong foundation for more advanced workouts. 
  • Intermediate rowers: A stroke rate of 26-30 SPM is appropriate for most intermediate workouts, offering a balance between intensity and maintaining good form. 
  • Advanced rowers: For high-intensity workouts or race simulations, stroke rates of 30-36 SPM can be used. However, it’s crucial to maintain proper technique even at these higher stroke rates. 

Tips for maintaining a controlled pace 

To avoid rowing too fast, keep these tips in mind: 

  • Monitor your stroke rate: Most rowing machines have a built-in monitor that displays your stroke rate. Keep an eye on this to ensure you’re maintaining the desired pace. 
  • Practice proper technique: Good rowing form is essential for controlling your pace. Focus on a smooth, controlled stroke that emphasizes power and efficiency rather than speed. 
  • Gradually increase intensity: As you become more comfortable with rowing and improve your technique, you can gradually increase your stroke rate and intensity. Avoid making sudden jumps in intensity that could compromise your form. 

Additional Tips For Successful Rowing 

Beyond avoiding common rowing machine mistakes, here are some extra tips that can help you get the most out of your rowing workouts and ensure you’re on the right track to success: 

Warm-up and cool down 

Just like with any exercise, it’s important to warm up your muscles and joints before starting a rowing workout. 

Spend 5-10 minutes on dynamic stretches, light aerobic exercises, or a slow row to get your body ready for the demands of rowing. 

After your workout, take some time to cool down with static stretches and deep breathing exercises to help your body recover. 

Focus on your breathing 

Proper breathing is essential for maintaining a steady rhythm during your rowing workout. Inhale deeply as you recover and glide forward, then exhale forcefully as you drive back and engage your legs. 

This breathing pattern will help you maintain a strong, consistent stroke. 

Mix up your workouts 

Variety is key to keeping your rowing workouts engaging and challenging. Incorporate interval training, distance workouts, and even hill simulations (if your machine has a damper setting) to target different aspects of your fitness. 

This will not only help prevent boredom but also ensure that you’re continually improving and working on different muscle groups. 

Set goals and track your progress 

Having clear, measurable goals will help you stay motivated and focused during your rowing workouts. Whether you’re aiming to increase your stamina, improve your technique, or hit a specific distance, having a target in mind will make your workouts more purposeful. 

Keep a training log to track your progress and celebrate your achievements. 

Consider working with a coach or joining a rowing community 

If you’re serious about improving your rowing skills and taking your workouts to the next level, consider working with a coach or joining a local rowing club or online community. 

This will give you access to expert advice, personalized feedback, and a supportive network of fellow rowers who can help you stay motivated and accountable. 

Before You Go… 

As you embark on your rowing journey, remember that avoiding these common mistakes can dramatically improve your rowing experience. With better technique and increased efficiency, you’ll find that your workouts become more enjoyable and productive. 

Stay committed to refining your rowing technique and learning from your experiences. It’s through dedication and practice that you’ll truly unlock your full potential on the rowing machine. 

So go ahead, hop on that rower, and put the lessons you’ve learned here to the test! 

Finally, we’d love to hear from you! Share your thoughts, experiences, and any additional tips or tricks you’ve picked up along the way in the comments section below. 

Together, we can continue to grow and improve as a rowing community. Happy rowing, and here’s to a smoother, more efficient rowing experience! 


What are the mistakes while rowing?

The most common mistakes while rowing includes incorrect damper settings, poor handle grip, early arm pull, and pulling the handle around the knees. Avoiding these errors will help you improve your rowing technique and efficiency. 

How do you know if you are rowing correctly?

To ensure you are rowing correctly, pay attention to your technique, including a proper grip, smooth drive and recovery phases, and the right sequencing of leg, core, and arm movements. A fluid and comfortable motion, with consistent exertion throughout the stroke, is a good indicator of proper rowing.

Can you use a rowing machine incorrectly?

Yes, it is possible to use a rowing machine incorrectly, which can lead to inefficient workouts, reduced performance, and even injuries. To avoid this, familiarize yourself with proper rowing technique and be mindful of common mistakes while training on a rowing machine.

How can I improve my handle grip on the rowing machine?

To improve your handle grip, hold the handle with a relaxed grip, making sure your knuckles are facing upwards, and your wrists remain flat. Avoid gripping the handle too tightly or letting it rest on your fingers, as this can cause unnecessary strain and discomfort. 

How can I prevent pulling the handle around my knees?

To avoid pulling the handle around your knees, focus on maintaining a straight line with the handle from the catch to the finish of the stroke. Proper sequencing of leg and arm movements, as well as maintaining a stable core, will help you keep the handle on the right path during the rowing motion.


Sam Watson


Sam is a CPT, Functional Movement Specialist, and content writer. As an ex-collegiate rower, Sam is an expert in the field of rowing and is passionate about helping people move more freely. With a dedication to excellence, Sam is a respected authority in the fitness and wellness community. When she's not working, she enjoys practicing yoga, hiking, and spending time with her two beloved dogs. Sam's expertise and personalized coaching make her an invaluable asset to the Start Rowing community.