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November 20, 2022

The Complete Guide to Indoor Rowing Technique and Terminology

Written by Julien Raby

In 1981, rowing brothers Dick and Peter Dreissigacker designed the first Concept2 Indoor Rower. They had two goals: create an adequate simulation of the rowing stroke and provide a valuable measurement of the work accomplished.

These goals led the brothers to create an Indoor Rowing Ergometer. But what was the first rowing machine name, and what’s some common terminology?

The Basics of Rowing Machine Terminology

Understanding the basic rowing terminology is essential before diving into the primary phases of the rowing stroke, typical workouts, and machine components. Here are some of the common terms you’ll hear in the rowing community.

What Is an ERG?

The term ‘ERG’ is short for Ergometer and refers to indoor rowing machines. Ergometer was the first name for early devices and was used by rowing organizations to measure the performance of rowers.

Athletes, coaches, and the US National Rowing Team used ERG Scores to measure an athlete’s potential for real-world competition. Although there are a lot more factors that play into moving a boat on the water, an ERG Score can indicate a rower’s potential for growth.

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Based on our testing, this is the best rower for beginners. For less than 500$, this silent water rower will last you for years. It also comes with a 12-year warranty.

Drag Factor

The Drag Factor is the number set by adjusting the slider or damper on the side of the fan cage. If the number is higher, the workout will resemble rowing a heavy boat. If the Drag Factor is lower, it will be like moving a racing shell. These settings come down to personal preference or workout goals.


HIIT is the acronym for High-Intensity Interval Training and is sometimes referred to as Sprint Interval Training (SIT).

High-Intensity Interval Training provides cardiovascular exercise through alternating periods of intense anaerobic movement with less intense recovery periods. There isn’t a universal standard for a HIIT session. But these aggressive strategies usually last under 30 minutes, depending on the user’s fitness level.


An interval refers to repetitive training sets. For example, 3 x 1000 would be the same as three sets of 1,000-meter rows. The individual would take a short rest between each successful interval. 


The term ‘stroke’ refers to one complete rowing action using four phases: Catch, Drive, Finish, and Recovery. We cover the details of each stage in more detail further in the article. 

Stroke Rate

The stroke rate is the number of strokes an individual can perform in 60 seconds. The stroke rate is essentially the speed of your stroke and how many times you can pull the handle per minute. 

A stroke rate of around 24 to 30 strokes per minute is standard for most workouts. For higher intensity sessions or racing programs, a stroke rate around 36 is expected. 

Split Time

Split time refers to how long it takes an individual to move 500 meters. Split time essentially means the speed you’re rowing at. Smaller numbers indicate shorter times and faster speeds.

The 500-meter split time is used by professional athletes as a performance test and can help gauge progress.

Wattage / Watts

The wattage or watts is the energy an individual produces with each rowing stroke. The higher number of watts, the harder the individual is working. Some workout programs are based on wattage, alternating between high and low-intensity periods. 

What’s the Indoor Rowing Machine Stroke?

Now that you know some of the basic rowing terminologies, you can move on to understanding the basics of the rowing stroke. With the correct technique, indoor rowing machines can help you develop muscle all over your body and improve cardiovascular strength. Here are the basic phases to get you started.

The Catch

The Catch position is the first phase of the rowing stroke where the seat is all the way forward, and you’re at the front of the machine. Your knees will be close to your chest, your abdomen leaned forward, and your arms extended.

The Drive

The Drive is the second phase of the rowing stroke, where you push off the footrests using your heels until your legs are near full extension. It’s known as ‘The Drive’ because you drive power with your legs instead of your arms.

The Finish

Finally, the last phase of the rowing stroke is The Recovery. This step is essentially the first three phases in reverse. It’s essential to move your arms, then your torso, then your legs as you slide forward on the seat. Controlling your motion during The Recovery can help you activate more muscle groups.

The Recovery

Finally, the last phase of the rowing stroke is The Recovery. This step is essentially the first three phases in reverse. It’s essential to move your arms, then your torso, then your legs as you slide forward on the seat. Controlling your motion during The Recovery can help you activate more muscle groups. 

Common Rowing Workouts

So now you understand the basic terminology and the phases of the rowing stroke, but what’s next? Understanding some common rowing workouts can help you determine which programs suit your goals. 

Time Trials

Time trials are a common type of workout program based on rower time settings. These programs require the individual to row a predetermined distance, usually around 2,000 meters.

Some rower time trials require the individual to record rowing distance in a target timeframe, like two minutes, for example. Time trials give the rower a performance test they can use to assess their progress over time.

Pyramid Workouts

Pyramid workouts target select areas, like the number of reps, speed, or intensity, and increase step by step until it peaks. Afterward, the exercise decreases incrementally, like the shape of a pyramid. These programs can help increase endurance and help you get used to working on the machine for longer. 

Tabata Workouts

Tabata workouts, sometimes called Wattage workouts, are centered on a target number of watts an individual can produce based on their body weight. The program was invented by the exercise scientist Dr. Izumi Tabata.

Our Top Pick
Sunny Health & Fitness Obsidian Surge
Based on our testing, this is the best rower for beginners. For less than 500$, this silent water rower will last you for years. It also comes with a 12-year warranty.

Dr. Tabata found that working at 170% of aerobic threshold on ERG machines for intervals of 20 seconds, followed by a recovery interval of 10 seconds, was incredibly effective at improving aerobic capacity. Consider Tabata workouts if increasing your aerobic capacity is your primary goal.

Rowing Machine Equipment

Finally, it’s good to understand an indoor rowing machine’s different parts and equipment. Having a good grasp of the device gives you a holistic understanding of the exercise and can help you identify issues in your form

Foot Pads 

Foot pads are where you place your feet on an indoor machine. Well-designed rowers will have sliding foot pads that can adjust for different foot sizes. Changing the foot pad to your size is essential for correctly placing the straps.

Foot pads can also impact the comfort of a machine, as some rowers might need to adjust the position for knee pain or mobility issues.


The footrests of an indoor machine include the footboard, foot pads, and straps. The footrests are where you strap in on the rowing machine. Common footrest designs include fixed and pivoting options. 

Fixed footrests can be excellent for beginners and individuals who want to maintain the correct rowing position. Pivoting footrests can be better for individuals with flexibility or mobility problems as long as the machine is designed correctly.

Either way, it’s crucial to select an indoor rowing machine that’s high-quality and place the strap across the ball of your foot.


The handles, or bar, simulate the handles of an oar. Machines with high-quality handles include pads and a slightly oval cross-section that provides a better grip. Poorly constructed handles can lead to blisters on the palm of the hand. 


The performance monitor on a rowing machine is the digital display that shows the workout information. Digital performance monitors typically show the meters, time, stroke rate, calories, and other information about your current session. Some higher-end machines allow you to download performance information to your computer or smartphone.


The rail is the central beam that the seat rolls on. Most rowing machine rails are constructed from extruded metal. In some models, the rail design can impact the space between the footrests, the weight capacity, and the rowing intensity.

Some models have dual rails, while other machines have single rails. The rail should be sturdy and well-supported to prevent the machine from moving during a session.

Resistance Mechanism

The resistance mechanism is how the rowing machine creates resistance. There are five different types of rowing machine resistance types available, including the following:

  • Water Resistance Models
  • Air Resistance Models
  • Magnetic Resistance Models
  • Hydraulic Resistance Models
  • Cable/Cord Resistance Models 

Some indoor rowing machines use a combination of two types, like air and magnetic resistance. Each option has different advantages, disadvantages, and best-use cases. Like always, it’s essential to select a machine that suits your needs, preferences, and goals.

Seat and Seat Rollers

As you can imagine, the seat is where you sit on the rowing machine. On the other hand, seat rollers refer to the bearings or wheels that allow the chair to slide. The seat can impact your comfort and form on a machine, so selecting a model that suits your needs is essential. 

Wrapping Up

Now you understand the basic terminology, rowing technique, and components of an indoor rowing machine. With this information, you can take your first steps into the Indoor Rowing Machine World and achieve whatever goal you have in mind—losing weight, increasing endurance, or building muscle!

About Julien Raby

My name is Julien Raby and I’m one of the owner of BoxLife. Here’s my background on LinkedIn if you want more info. I’ve been active pretty much my whole life and I discovered Crossfit about 7 years ago. I want to help you improve your Crossfit performances by giving tips on specific movements, workouts and equipment. You have a question? Get in touch!