How To Use A Rowing Machine

People doing a rowing machine workout

Once you have mastered the art of rowing it’s time to explore the settings and functions offered by your machine. Obviously, these features are dependent on the sort of rower you are using but at least some of the following will applicable to your particular machine.


Many rowers use a large wind fan for resistance. By opening or closing the vents on the side of the fan, you can increase or decrease the resistance you experience when you pull on the handle. Some rowers actually use water for resistance and others use a friction brake but the wind fan models are arguably the best. Many people make the mistake of putting the damper/resistance on maximum for every type of workout they do. This is like only ever using one gear when you drive your car or ride a bike. The damper/resistance setting should be adjusted so to maximize your rowing performance and there are several factors to consider here:

  • Speed of your workout – sprint workouts would benefit from a higher damper/resistance setting to give you plenty to pull against. 500 meter sprints, for example, warrant a high damper/resistance setting.
  • Distance – the further you intend to row, the more conservative your damper/resistance setting should be. A high setting will probably cause you to fatigue too quickly. For my recent rowing marathon, I used a damper setting of six however, for 2,000 meter time trials, I’ll use eight. Setting ten is reserved for hard interval training of 1000-meters or less.
  • Preferred stroke rate – depending on your personal preference, you might row at anywhere between 18 and 34 stokes per minute. Taller rowers tend to use a slower stroke rate and shorter rowers use a faster one. A high damper/resistance setting is most appropriate for slower rowing cadences while a faster rowing cadence is usually best achieved with a low setting.
  • Specificity – if you are training for rowing on water, you should set your damper/resistance to match the density of water to make your training as specific as possible. Rowing machines such as the Concept 2 models have a specific function to facilitate this.

Remember, you may need to change your damper/resistance setting periodically during your workout. Your warm up may require a low setting while you go for a higher setting for hard intervals. A steady paced set piece of 5000 meters will require a different setting and then, for your cool down, a low setting is best. The bottom line is you should choose your settings like gears on a bike – select the most appropriate one for what you are doing.

Unit display

Most rowers have a display that will show the duration of your workout and how much work you have done. The work units shown usually include meters, calories and watts. Select the units that are most appropriate to your training goal. If you are working on speed or distance goals, meters are the most useful measure but if you are or interested in weight control, calories will probably be of more interest.

Split times/pacing

Rowers don’t tend to show your speed in miles or kilometers per hour. Instead, they display your time per 500-meters. The faster you row, the lower this figure will become. The display may show your average speed per 500-meters or your current speed – it all depends on the model you are using and the setting you have selected. Some rowers will also show your predicted time for completing the workout you are doing which is a very useful pacing tool.

Distance display

When you hop on most rowers and start rowing, the distance display will be at zero and start increasing. It will then stop when you stop rowing. However, some rowers allow you to preprogram your rowing distance or time so the machine counts downward instead. This is a useful function if you are trying to improve your rowing speed and is also more motivating as you see the distance or time remaining gradually decrease.

Interval timer

Interval training is an effective way to build fitness, make your workouts more interesting and burn fat. Rowing machines often have programmable timers that allow you to set your work to rest periods and even the number of repeats you want to perform. Depending on the model you are using, you may be able to enter interval times, interval distances or combine the two.

Preset programs

Rowers like the Concept 2 have several preset programs that are accessible though a simple push of a button. Some workouts are well-designed interval training workouts while others are standard distances or durations such as 5,000-meters or 30-minutes. This is a nice time saving feature.

Data recording

It’s useful to compare your workouts so you can see how your fitness is improving and while you could just jot you’re the results of your workout down on a piece of paper, some rowing machines record the details of your workout for you. This information can then be exported using a data card or USB lead direct to your computer for storage and subsequent analysis. This is a very handy function if lots of people use the same rower. Some machines also allow you to upload custom workouts using the same date card/USB system.

Heart rate monitor

Many endurance athletes use heart rate monitors to measure the intensity of their workouts. Heart rate monitors consist of a chest belt and display watch. Some rower monitors have a built-in heart rate display or have the facility for you to plug in a receiver so you can see your heart rate more easily. This will save you having to keep looking at your watch during your workout.

The more familiar you are with the settings and functions of your rowing machine, the more you will get from your workouts. Use these functions and settings to customize your rowing training and make each training session as productive as possible.