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Indoor Rowing (Part 1): Set-up and Basic Guidelines

The popularity of indoor rowing has skyrocketed over the last decade and become a staple modality in gyms, such as Cross-Fit, Row-House, Orange Theory, and 24 Hour Fitness. The rowing “craze” hasn’t happened by accident, as gym owners have specifically targeted indoor rowing because of its low cost, space-efficiency and results. Additionally, best-selling books like Daniel Brown’s, “The Boys in the Boat,” chronicling the quest for a U.S. Olympic rowing Gold in the 1936 games, have spawned a resurgence in a sport that used to draw more spectators than a University of Michigan home football game.

However, oftentimes indoor rowers sit vacant because trainers and coaches have little experience in coaching the set-up of the rower and proper rowing techniques.

This article will discuss the benefits of rowing, basic set-up and guidelines, and the four phases of the rowing stroke; ensuring your clients have a fun, safe and effective workout.Indoor Rowing

Learning Objectives:

  1. Readers will be able to articuimagelate the benefits of a rowing workout.
  2. Readers will be able to articulate how to adjust the Flex Foot, Damper setting and Performance Monitor for a basic rowing workout.
  3. Readers will be exposed to the four phases of the rowing stroke and keys to success for each phase.


Rowing races have dated back to 13th century Venetian sporting events called “regattas.” In 1843 the first American college rowing club was formed at Yale University. Interestingly enough, the Yale-Harvard Regata is the oldest intercollegiate sporting event in the history of the United States.

Indoor RowingEarly indoor rowing machines are known to have existed since the mid 1800’s but the widespread use of indoor rowers didn’t really take off until a couple of elite-level rowers, the Dreissigacker brothers, introduced the Concept2 Rowing Ergometer in 1980.  Although originally designed to offer an alternative for competitive rowers who couldn’t get on the water during their off-season, the indoor rower has become widely used as a fitness modality for its many benefits as highlighted below:

One drawback to indoor rowing is that, similar to learning any new movement pattern, there is a learning curve. However, trainers will find that when they start to break down the biomechanics of the rowing stroke there are many similarities they can draw from traditional strength training exercises, such as the dead lift and seated row.  Before diving into the mechanics of the stroke, lets first go through proper set-up of the indoor rower.


There are three things a trainer needs to know in regard to setting up the rowing ergometer prior to a work out: 1) Damper setting 2) Flex Foot position, and 3) Performance Monitor adjustment.

The damper setting is often misunderstood as a means by which to adjust intensity of a rowing workout. However, it’s the user who sets the intensity based on his or her effort of each pull. Because the rower works using wind resistance, the harder the user pulls, the more resistance will be felt with each stroke - making the workout more challenging. The damper setting affects wind resistance and subsequently the speed of the stroke: the lower the setting, the less wind resistance and faster the stroke. The higher the setting, the more wind resistance and slower the stroke. Both settings can produce excellent results. See images below.

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Damper Setting Max

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Damper Setting Min

The confusion arises when it comes to rowing performance and trying to get ones best time for a particular distance (for instance the 500 or 2,000 meter row). In this case, adjusting the damper is like changing gears on a bike; some bikers prefer to pedal fast with less force on each stroke and others perform better by pedaling slower but putting more force into each stroke. The danger with using a high damper setting is that when rowing with great intensity in conjunction with a high wind resistance (high damper setting), lactic acid builds up quickly, diminishing performance. My experience is that when performing shorter pieces, such as the 500 meter test, a higher damper setting can be used; when performing longer pieces, such as a 2,000 meter or 5,000 meter test, a lower damper setting results in less lactic acid, improving longer distance performance times. When first trying indoor rowing, Concept2 recommends a damper setting between 3-5 (Smythe & Furhmann, 2014). Finally, finding the right damper setting is like a lab experiment. You’re going to have play with different settings, record results and “tweak” as needed. The strategy and science behind damper setting is part of the fun of indoor rowing. Coaches who are empirical, document results and adapt, generate the best results for their clients.

The flex foot is where the feet are fixated and needs to be adjusted according to foot size. To adjust, simply lift the base plates up off the vertical pegs and slide them either forward or backward. When adjusted properly, the anchor strap should secure directly over the ball of the foot for optimal performance.

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Flex Foot Adjustment

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Foot Anchor Strap

The performance monitor is an essential component to indoor rowing and displays quantitative information the coach can use to analyze the performance of each row.

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The performance monitor can display your output in three different units of measurement: boat speed as time per 500 meters, watts, and calories per hour. Boat speed is most widely used among rowers. The time per 500 meters is to a rower what time per mile is to a runner. However, if you are working with clients that are focused on body transformation, the calorie display screen might be more motivating. To change the units, simply toggle through the “Change Units” button on the bottom left of the monitor once you have chosen a workout.  There are multiple workout options using a machine like the Concept2; following are a few choices to get you started:

You can also change the display to show “All Data,” “Force Curve,” “Pace Boat,” “Bar Chart,” or “Large Print.” I recommend the “All Data” screen, which provides the user and coach with the most amount of information; pay special attention to the 500m split time and the projected finish metrics which will give you an idea of intensity and performance relative to previous rows. The performance monitor is like any other cardio machine computer interface, the more you use it, the more familiar and powerful it can become. Part of the challenge and addictive nature of indoor rowing is monitoring results for different rowing pieces and trying to improve on times. Keep in mind that each row is stored in memory and can be found under the “More Options” tab on the main screen menu.

Basic Use

There are four phases to the rowing stroke: The Catch, The Drive, The Finish and The Recovery.

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The Catch

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The Drive

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The Finish

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The Recovery

The Drive phase starts while the shins are in a perpendicular position to the floor, the arms are outstretched and locked and the torso is tilted forward to an 11 o’clock position. This is not dissimilar to the starting position on a deadlift. Similar to a deadlift, the athlete starts the movement from aggressively pushing into the flex foot with his/her feet while the arms stay in a locked position.  As the ankles, knees and hips start to extend, the torso begins to hinge from the 11 o’clock to the 1 o’clock position. Both scapulae retract, and the arms flex bringing the handle to the upper abdomen as the rower moves towards the finish position. It is critical during this phase that the spine stays in a neutral position as energy will be “leaked” out of the system if the spine comes out of neutral (Cook, 2013).

The Finish says it all; the rower must finish the Drive with powerful hip extension, scapular retraction and elbow flexion. The torso should now have rotated around the hips (hip hinge), from the 11 o’clock to the 1 o’clock position. Coaches that have experience with Kettle Bell swings or Olympic lifts understand the importance of hip drive through the finish position. Athletes that stop short of a complete finish leave power on the table, negatively impacting results.

The Recovery is the “special sauce” in rowing. A good recovery should look smooth, controlled and is slower than the drive which allows the rower to recover during this phase. The Recovery phase is the inverse of the Drive; the hips, knees and ankles go into triple flexion, the torso pivots over the hips from 1 o’clock to 11 o’clock as the hands shoot back toward the flywheel in a straight line.

The Catch is a critical transition between the Recovery and Drive phases. The torso is tilted forward to the 11 o’clock position, arms straight and knees bent such that the shins are vertical. The transition from the Recovery to the Catch is much like a punch in martial arts. Bruce Lee often professed that during a punch the muscles should be loose and relaxed until the moment of impact; the moment of impact in rowing is the Catch phase. Keep everything loose and relaxed during the Recovery, at the last second during the Catch, the muscles tighten and begin the powerful energy transfer that follows with the Drive.

Watch the below video for a complete overview of indoor rowing:


Indoor RowingI would like to finish with my personal story regarding indoor rowing. When I joined the San Francisco Bay Club years ago, I needed a good total body warm-up to start my workout; as I surveyed the cardio equipment that was all occupied, sitting lonely in the corner was a Concept2 Indoor Rower. Thus started my personal (some might say “twisted”) relationship with indoor rowing. Not only does indoor rowing allow me to engage in max effort power training without joint stress, it has been an excellent tool for me to burn calories and reclaim some of the aerobic conditioning from my youth. Rowing has also given me a venue in which to compete as an aging athlete (there are many indoor rowing events that can be found at the Concept2 website or through the CrossFit Games). Competing in Indoor Rowing has given me a new focus and ignited a spark in my daily training that I haven’t experienced since my competitive days as a US National TaeKwon-Do Team member. Whether you are trying to gain a competitive edge, get in the best shape of your life or give something new to your clients, use this series of three articles and adjoining videos to give you the tools to properly perform and coach indoor rowing.


Cook (2013). Athletic Body In Balance: Optimal Movement Skills and Conditioning for Performance. Champaign, IL, Human Kinetics (pp. 9-10)

Smythe & Fuhrmann (2014). UCANROW2, Indoor Basic Rowing Class Manual, Houghton, MI.