Rowing is a full-body workout that burns a ton of calories. But if you're not doing it right, you won't see any of the benefits

By Marnie Soman Schwartz
February 16, 2016

For years, gym-goers ignored the rowing machine in favor of treadmills, elliptical trainers, and spin bikes. But these days, the rower is enjoying a resurgence, with rowing classes and studios gaining in popularity. (Are you familiar with the 12 Stages of a Fitness Class Obsession?) That's because a rowing workout tones your muscles, raises your heart rate, blasts fat, and is an amazing stress reliever, all while being low-impact. Ready to give it a try? Don't fall victim to these common mistakes most newbie rowers make. (If you're going at it solo, try The Full-Body Rowing Workout to Burn a Crapload of Calories next time you're at the gym.)

Being Impatient with Yourself

For most of us, running and biking are actions we can do without really thinking. Rowing, on the other hand, is an unfamiliar action-so don't get upset if you don't quite get the hang of it immediately, says Annie Mulgrew, director of programming at CityRow in New York City. "People come in expecting to get it in the first few strokes, which sets them up for disappointment," she says. "Commit to three classes. It takes a little time and three sessions gives you the opportunity to practice." Once your body gets used to the motions, you'll be hooked.

Sitting In the Back Row

In many fitness classes, there's an unspoken (or even spoken) rule about the front row: regulars only. After all, newbies look to the front of the class for help when they can't see the instructor. But in a rowing class, beginners should sit as close to the mirrors in front as possible says Kelsey Slaughter, a coach at Row House NYC. "The mirror is such a helpful tool, letting you see what the instructor is talking about," she says. So don't be shy-head straight to the front of the class. (Read Why I'll Never Be In the Front Row at SoulCycle.)

Going for Speed Over Power

The point isn't to row as fast as possible, says Slaughter. "We want power over speed," she says. "If you're rowing crazy fast and not really a seasoned rower, you're probably not taking as powerful or efficient of a stroke as you could." Instead, focus on engaging your core and legs so each stroke is effective and powerful.

Not Warming Up

A no-no in any fitness situation, working hard without priming your body keeps you from getting the maximum benefit from your effort, and may even put you at risk for injury. So make sure to get to class on time and pay attention during the warm-up. Doing a solo workout on the rower at your gym? Start with some reverse lunges, pushups, hamstring stretches, and walkouts (otherwise known as inchworms), suggests Mulgrew. Add a push-up when you're in the plank position to help open up your hamstrings, lower back, and chest, as well as fire up your abs.

Slouching On the Rower

Rowing will help with your posture, but you need to sit tall when you're on the machine to get this advantage. Pair rowing with weight training to maximize your postural benefit, suggests Mulgrew. At CityRow, instructors include renegade rows (one of the 13 Simple Ways to Amp Up Your Push-up) to help rowers build upper body strength. When you're rowing on your own, alternate between 30 seconds of high-intensity rowing and 10 renegade rows on each side.

Forgetting About Breath

Like swimming or running, rowing is a rhythmic activity-and syncing up your rhythm with your breath can make it all feel much easier, says Slaughter. "As you drive back, pushing on your legs and letting out power, exhale through the mouth. During the recovery, when you're resetting, inhale through the nose." And whatever you do, "don't forget to breathe!"

Over-Relying On Your Upper Body

"Rowing is an explosive, leg-focused exercise," says Mulgrew. "Pulling in the handlebar is just follow through...the real power of the stroke is from your legs." While it might seem natural to pull with your arms and back, muscling through the stroke with your upper body and not focusing on the lower body (which accounts for 60 percent of the power) will make you feel uncomfortable, with potentially sore neck and shoulders. "Think of it like a deadlift (The One Exercise Every Woman Should Do), or picking up a couch," adds Slaughter. "You wouldn't start pulling with your back or arms-you'd use your legs."