You can prevent injuries with proper rowing form

Staff writerJanuary 29, 2012 

One of the best pieces of workout equipment at your local gym also is one of the easiest ways to hurt yourself.

The rowing machine, or erg, “incorporates pretty much every muscle of the body, and it’s an aerobic and strength workout at the same time,” said Marsa Daniel, the rowing coach at the University of Puget Sound. “Now that’s efficiency.”

But if you’re going to hop on for a serious pull, you better know what you’re doing.

“It’s not like a treadmill or the (elliptical),” said Jordan Hanssen, a record-setting rower. “It’s not idiot proof.”

If your trainer or Crossfit coach plops you on the erg and asks you to crank out 500 meters as fast as you can, don’t be shy about saying “let’s do something else” if you haven’t first taken the time to learn proper mechanics. A good instructor won’t miss a beat.

Hanssen knows how to row. The strapping University of Puget Sound grad earned a spot in the Guinness World Records in 2006 when he and three friends rowed across the North Atlantic. He and another crew are rowing across the central Atlantic this year.

He remembers seeing a friend blow out his back on the erg. He was pulling 3.1 miles when his form started to deteriorate.

“I wanted him to stop,” Hanssen said. Years later, his friend still suffers with back problems. “There are so many ways to hurt yourself.”

Sometimes Hanssen sees people using bad form at the gym and tries to strike up a conversation to offer some friendly corrections. But often they just “look at you like you are a bit of a schmuck.”

Because rowing isn’t a sport offered by many high schools, Daniel finds herself in the position of molding basketball players and other athletes into college rowers.

Even these fit athletes often make mistakes like not using their legs properly, incorrect sequence of drive and recovering, and “they’re often very stiff, robot-like, rather than fluid,” she said.

“It takes a lot of strokes in a boat or on an erg to learn the proper biomechanics,” Daniel said. “Our new rowers will get the basics down in a few sessions, but it’s usually in their junior year that they break through into a fluid, beautiful rowing style. Training the neuromuscular system takes time, even in the best athletes.”

Getting there requires technical training before taking hard strokes.

“We focus on full-body fitness and strength work off the erg and off the water to ensure our athletes are building balanced strength and flexibility,” Daniel said. Poor low-back or hamstring flexibility, or low levels of full-body strength greatly increase your chances of getting hurt on the erg, she said.

The erg is also an easy way to get hurt because rowing is a motion most of us don’t do regularly.

“It’s not an intuitive motion, and it’s nothing like walking or sitting – the motions we’re most familiar with – so you need to train your motor neurons and muscles using the proper mechanics,” Daniel said.

“When done correctly it’s pretty safe for most populations,” Daniel said. “We have low rates of injury with our athletes at Puget Sound because we ensure proper technique and are smart about when we increase training volume and intensity.”

Once you are rowing smart, then you can pull hard. Then you can start trying to matchup with accomplished rowers like Hanssen. He’s preparing to row 4,000 miles across the Atlantic so you probably don’t want to attempt most of his workouts, but he figures he can pull 500 meters in about 1 minute, 14 seconds.

Something to shoot for, but don’t ruin your back trying to get there.


Some rowing machine training recommendation from Marsa Daniel, rowing coach at the University of Puget Sound:

 • Make sure you are warm. A good gauge: “You’re sweaty before you sit down on the erg,” Daniel said.

 • Be sweaty, but not fatigued, she added. Make sure your first sessions are less than 20 minutes and don’t rely on them for your workout. You are developing technique. For example, she said, spend 15 minutes on the erg, then 45 doing something you’re more familiar with, like the stationary bike. Gradually add to your erg time as your form improves.

 • Learn to use your legs. “The most common misconception about rowing is that it’s all upper body,” Daniel said. “... Your legs are still your primary movers – or at least they should be if you’re doing it correctly.”

 • “Learn the basic body positions of the finish, the catch and the recovery,” Daniel said. “If you get those down well, your drive – the part when you’re driving backwards – will be much improved.”

 • Use good posture to protect your back. Don’t overreach into the catch, she said. “If it hurts, or you feel awkward and super stretched out something is not right,” Daniel said. “Keep your knees just a few inches apart at the catch to contain your catch position and keep your back from over-extending.”

 • Remember to keep your intensity level low while you are learning the mechanics.

Craig Hill’s fitness column runs Sundays. Submit questions and comments via, or

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