The Spartan Guide to Indoor Rowing (Plus a Great Workout to Get You Started)

The Spartan Guide to Indoor Rowing (Plus a Great Workout to Get You Started)

Indoor rowing machines are an awesome way to stay fit. (Not to mention a great way to complete the cardio equivalent of a Spartan Virtual Race indoors.) But time and time again, newbies at the gym will hop on a rowing machine and demonstrate some interesting (read: injury-inducing) techniques.

We’re here to fix that and show you how to complete the perfect stroke.

As a disclaimer, different rowing coaches will have differing approaches to a stroke. However, the following core fundamentals are the same across the board.

A stroke is always made up of four fundamental parts: the catch, the drive, the finish, and the recovery. Here’s how each step works, and how it serves the overall stroke.

rowing workout


This is the beginning of your stroke. In this position, you should be sitting towards the front of the machine. Your shins are vertical, but according to the experts at Concept2, they should "not move beyond perpendicular.” Your arms should be straight, your shoulders should be relaxed and tall, and your back should be straight. Then, lean forward slightly at the hips.

The catch loads your legs and prepares you to spring off the footboard. If you were on a boat, this would be when your oar “catches” the water and dips under the surface.


A common misconception is that a stroke’s power comes from a strong pull with the arms. But British Rowing — the sport's governing body — points out that the opposite is true. “The legs should be doing most of the work," creating power with a strong jumping motion. This would be when your oar would push through the water if you were on a boat.

In Concept2’s perfect stroke, you should “start the drive by pressing with your legs, and then swing the back through the vertical position before finally adding the arm pull.” In other words, jump off the footboard and push your legs down. Once they’re flat, pivot your torso back at the hips, and then bring your arms into your chest last.

Related: Master the Bear Crawl: Pro Tips and Video Demo


The finish only lasts a split second when you reach the end of the stroke, but it’s an important step to set up your recovery. In a boat, this would be when your oar emerges from the water.

The handle should be held lightly up against your sternum, just below your ribcage. According to Concept2, while your legs are still down, your “upper body is leaning back slightly, using good support from the core muscles.” A strong core and straight spine are essential to an effective finish here.

Related: The Proper Way to Do Upright Rows


Now, it’s time for a breather. The recovery is when you set up for the next stroke.

From the finish, move your arms away from your chest. After you’ve done that, pivot your torso to an upright position. "Once your hands have cleared your knees,” Concept2 says, “allow your knees to bend and gradually slide the seat forward.” You’ll end up back at the catch with your shins vertical and shoulders relaxed. 

The stroke might seem very technical on paper. But once you master these four steps, you’ll be rowing like a pro. Below is a workout to help you break down a stroke and master every step.

Related: 15 Workouts You Can Do in 15 Minutes

WORKOUT: The Pick Drill

This introductory drill might feel slow, but it’s effective. Start by taking strokes with just your arms, then work in a pyramid as you gradually add more body parts into your stroke. After you make it to a full stroke, remove body parts until you’re back down to just your arms.

Complete 20 strokes of each:

1. Arms 

Sit with your body upright, and your arms out. Do 20 strokes with just your arms.

2. Arms and body 

While keeping your legs flat, swing back your torso once you bring the handle into your chest. Then, sit up after moving your arms out. Do 20 strokes.

3. Arms, body and half-slide legs

Adding onto your arms and body, bring your legs halfway towards the fan, then drive them down. Complete 20 half-slide strokes.

4. Arms, body, half-slide legs, and full-slide legs

Move your legs all the way up to the catch. Complete 20 full strokes. 

5. Arms, body, and half-slide legs

6. Arms and body 

7. Arms

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