I came to the fitness game late in life. It wasn’t until my 50s that going to the gym became a routine. You see, I developed a bit of an obsession. But not one of those problem obsessions like Chinese takeout and romance movies. I became obsessed with the Concept2 rowers that lined the walls of the functional training studio at my gym. While others were hanging from TRX straps, pedaling Airdyne bikes or pushing weight sleds, I rowed and rowed and rowed. When I began rowing (at 240 pounds), I had no idea what I was doing, and I wished I’d had some guidance on pain-free rowing for overweight beginners.
When my form and technique improved, a life-long obsession and love for rowing’s rhythmic strokes followed. Besides helping me go from being clinically obese to a normal weight (60+ pounds lost), rowing consistently (and with good form) made my body leaner, improved my posture and toned my abs and legs. Read more on the benefits of rowing.
If you’re like I was, and want to start a rowing routine while being significantly overweight, you’re in luck. Even very overweight people can do the non-impact, joint-friendly movements of the rower—with a few caveats. What are they? Form, form, form (and some modifications to range in motion). Here, I’ll be breaking down the body mechanics of rowing to help you understand what ideal form looks like. But just as important: listen to your body, make modifications to your range of motion and start off slowly. You’ll have plenty of time to progress to greater distances/faster times once you are proficient in the movements. Check out these beginner’s tips for pain-free rowing as an overweight exerciser.
Rowing 101: Form and Consistency Leads to Mastery
Rowing takes practice and attention to form and body mechanics, especially if your weight reduces your range of motion. Like most beginners, I went through a phase where I bumbled my way through the movements. I had to figure out how the heck to get my 240-pound body to gracefully glide back and forth while exerting a significant amount of force and effort (in a controlled way) to engage in the sequenced muscle movements. It was daunting.
Thankfully, the rowing machines at my gym were always available (that should have been a sign that I had picked a challenging workout)! No one was watching me fumble my way toward proficiency at rowing. I’m here to help all the dabblers and fumblers get consistent at rowing by breaking down some of the pitfalls and form mistakes that all beginners typically make. They can be especially challenging for overweight exercisers because having more fat around the mid-section or hips/thighs/butt can make correct body alignment more difficult to achieve. It may be harder, but it’s not impossible!
I found a diverse group of rowing enthusiasts at the gym: young power rowers, CrossFit aficionados, dedicated rowers (I’m in that category) and dabblers. What separates the dabblers from the dedicated? Form—and patience. Just because you can intuitively get on a machine and use it doesn’t mean you are using it properly. Like running, cycling, swimming and other worthwhile past times, rowing takes practice and attention to body mechanics.
Good Body Mechanics: Key to Injury-Free, Pain-Free Rowing Workouts
Over the years, I’ve developed a set of rowing best practices—form tweaks, equipment adjustments and rules about body mechanics that help keep my body safe and injury-free during workouts. As a result, I have enjoyed weekly rowing for several years now.
With over 85% of muscles engaged during indoor rowing, it’s no wonder that some people initially struggle to find their rhythm and get in the groove with this exercise. Like most things, you can’t just jump on, pull and tug and expect to feel good on a rower; you have to learn some basics about body mechanics. Once you do, you will reap the incredible fitness rewards of rowing: muscle strength and endurance, increased aerobic capacity and fat loss.
Master the Four Basic Movements of Rowing
Let’s start with a review of form; the four basic movements that any rower engages in to complete a stroke correctly are the catch, the drive, the release and the recovery. Master these positions, and you’ll be on your way to truly enjoy rowing and getting the most benefit out of every stroke. For a comprehensive but straightforward explanation, it doesn’t get much better than this one from Dark Horse Rowing.
Watch these and other videos to see good form, then practice a bit. Here’s a brief checklist you can use to check your form during each movement. Remember: your legs give you 60% of the force, the hip swing gives you 30%, and your arms give you 10%.
- Flat back (slight lean forward, so hips are behind your shoulders)
- Full contact with the foot pedal; as you drive, you push off with your mid-foot
- Knees should be underneath the arms
- Loose grasp of the handlebars (no death clutch)
- Push off with mid-part of the foot using the power of the legs
- Straighten legs, open hips and lean back slightly (no further than 11 o’clock)
- Pull the handle in toward the chest last (it will be released immediately)
- Release the handle immediately to return to the catch position
- the recovery should follow a reverse sequence of the drive
- hinge hip forward—bend knees—glide back to the catch position
At first, your focus should be on mastering form and making any modifications you need to feel comfortable on the machine (especially if you are at a higher weight). For example, you may have to adjust the amount of force you can exert during the drive because you aren’t able to come forward enough in the catch to set yourself up for power. Perhaps you have a belly in the way like I did. Or maybe your weight is preventing you from having a full range of motion in your hips so your stroke is slightly shorter. Start where you are. If you are rowing several times per week, your form will improve (and you may lose weight). All of that will improve the efficiency of your stroke, and your range of motion will improve over time.
Body Mechanics: Troubleshooting Tips for Hands, Feet and Back
Once you have the four rowing positions mastered (or at least you feel comfortable with the order), it’s time to build proficiency through practice. You may discover that you need to make some minor changes to your form during workouts to get the most from rowing. While you may feel some muscle soreness in the first week or so of rowing (you are using 85% of your muscles), you shouldn’t feel pain or strain. If you do, please stop the exercise and consult with your doctor. These tips are based on my experience, but everyone’s body is different, and you never want to feel pain when exercising. Once you have the larger body parts working in a coordinated way, the following three body parts may need some attention for pain-free rowing:
If you followed the form used in the beginner video referenced earlier, you’ll notice that hand position should be relatively loose for the duration of the stroke. Since you are using your legs to push and drive the movement (not using the hands to pull on the handle to gain power), you shouldn’t need a tight grip on the handlebar.
Even with good hand position and tension, the palms of your hands can take a beating. For me, blisters that turn into small callouses start to form at the top of my palm (right under the area where my fingers attach). When I first started rowing, I worked up to 45-minute sessions. Over time the small blisters hardened into callouses, and the pain went away. If you are going to row with consistency (at least three times per week), I think you will find that any calluses that develop no longer hurt and reduce in size over time as your hands “toughen up.”
Whenever I stop rowing for a while, the callouses go away, and then the process of toughening up my hands starts again. Here are my tips for handling blisters on your hands:
- Commit to a steady schedule of rowing—long lapses in rowing or sudden increases in rowing sessions can bring on new blisters and calluses.
- Don’t clutch the handle too hard—you don’t need to squeeze the life out of the handle; you should hold it loosely.
- Review videos on proper form. You’ll hear me say this a lot because proper form reduces all negative body mechanics issues and leads to long-term enjoyment of rowing.
- Consider wearing gloves. You can wear gloves intermittently (during longer rows) or when you are easing back into more frequent rows. While I can’t completely avoid the formation of blisters, I can reduce the pain by slowly easing back in by wearing gloves during some rowing sessions. I use ordinary weight-lifting gloves for this, but there are gloves and hand pads made specifically for rowing. Once I’m back to my consistent schedule and calluses have formed, I don’t need the gloves anymore.
Something clicked in my rowing when I started focusing on pushing off for the drive using my legs. Many beginners try to initiative their stroke by pulling on the handle and pressing back, but it’s the movement of pushing off with the legs that should come first. The power comes from the leg and butt muscles, and it’s best achieved when the feet are properly positioned and engaged. Follow these tips for optimal foot placement:
- The foot pedal strap should go across the broadest part of your foot to prevent your feet from being too high or too low on the footplates. Adjust the footplate to achieve this position.
- When you push off (during the drive), think of pushing through the mid-foot area (not the toes or heels) to recruit the most power from your legs. Powerful, fast rowing is the result of engaging leg and butt muscles.
- Let your foot spread and feel the push-off across your foot with slightly more focus on the mid-foot region. This prevents you from using your toes or heels too much during the drive.
Whenever I hear complaints about rowing, they usually start with, “My back hurts when I row.” In my experience, low-back pain is often caused by two things: sitting too far back on your pelvis in the seat and pushing too far back on the drive. Extra weight around the stomach and weak ab muscles also contribute to back pain among overweight exercisers. Here are two videos that will show form modifications for the back: here and here. Follow these tips to reduce the chances of lower-back pain:
- If you have preexisting back issues, see a doctor before starting a rowing workout. Always start with a doctor-approved exercise routine.
- If you are overweight, pair your rowing with an eating plan that will help you achieve a calorie deficit. Losing weight will help your rowing stroke greatly.
- Don’t sit too far back on your pelvis in the seat; doing so can cause an anterior pelvic tilt position, putting too much pressure on your lower back during the drive and release phases of the stroke.
- Make sure your back is not hunched forward in the catch position; you should have a relatively straight back at the beginning of the stroke.
- Push off with your legs, don’t pull with your arms.
- At the end of the drive, don’t lean back more than the 11 o’clock position.
- Pick up (and spread) your butt cheeks before you sit down so that your sit bones are positioned well on the seat. This helps rotate your pelvis into a neutral position (with no tilt). You’ll get a better hinge in the hips, which should alleviate overusing your back muscles.
Form First, Racing Spirit Second (Slow Down)
Who doesn’t want to go faster, have more power and achieve distance and speed goals? It can be motivating to reach your goals, but please hold off on those aspirations until you have mastered form. If you enjoy rowing half as much as I do, you have plenty of time to build and break personal records. As for me, I find looking at my developed traps and strong arms much more motivating than my time.
I also derive a great deal of satisfaction knowing that my proper rowing form ensures that I can enjoy this exercise for years to come. At my gym, I see women in their 70s and 80s on the rower, and I see overweight exercisers getting it done. All of them work on form, adjust their pace and learn how to read their bodies to improve their strokes and achieve their fitness goals.
No matter what your weight, age or fitness level, indoor rowing is an ideal exercise. Try these form tweaks and modifications for pain-free rowing!
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