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Indoor Rowing Machine Settings for Beginners

rowing machine settings for beginners

If you’re new to the world of indoor rowing, you aren’t alone. Rowing is very quickly becoming the top-selling piece of home exercise equipment, and there are many good reasons for this.

Rowing workouts are one of the best ways to blast away fat, burn calories, and work your cardiovascular system, just to name a few.

There are as many different rowing machines available as there are users so you might have some questions about your rowing machine and how to use it. Let’s also talk about how to set up indoor rowers and how to find the optimal settings for beginners.

In this article, I will try to cover all the bases, answer the most common questions, and give away a few secrets that I’ve picked up over the years to get the most out of your rowing experience.

Sit down and hold on tight because we’ve got a lot of ground (or should I say water) to cover!

How to Set Up a Rowing Machine

When you sit down in a car that you haven’t driven before, such as a rental car, what is the first thing you do?

You adjust the seat so you can reach the pedals and steering wheel comfortably. Then you adjust the inside and outside mirrors. You might even take a quick look and familiarize some of the controls, such as headlights, wipers, and door locks before you turn the key.

The same is true with your rowing machine.

Elevate Your Rowing Game with Olympic Rower Rachael Taylor’s Form Tutorial:


Take the following steps to set up your indoor rower so that you will be ready to choose a rowing workout and get started.

  1. Sit on the seat. Pull each butt cheek toward the back of the seat. This will automatically put your hips in the proper position.
  2. Place your feet on the foot pedals. Position the strap so that it hits the widest part of your foot and tighten the straps.
  3. Grab the handle on the outermost portion, with your thumb underneath the handlebar. You don’t want to keep a death grip on the handle, just hold it so it won’t slip away from you.

Now that you have your machine ready to get started, let’s talk about some other settings that you may want to consider before you even sit down.

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What Should My Damper Setting Be?

If you have an air rower (such as Concept2) or even a rower with dual types of resistance and one of which is air (such as the Aviron rowing machine), there is a setting called the damper that you will need to adjust first.

The damper is like a window that allows more or less air to reach the fan. The more air that the fan receives, the heavier your boat will feel.

The less air you allow into the flywheel housing, the less drag you’ll feel. If you use different machines to work out, make sure you adjust the damper setting each time.

Many people make the mistake of leaving the damper open so they get maximum airflow and maximum drag factor. This might be fine for a seasoned professional, but for beginners, you’ll definitely want to adjust the damper setting.  Side note:  Read my article on weight categories for rowing if you are interested in starting competitive rowing..

Explore Expert Tips: Top 10 Rowing Machine Insights by Rachael Taylor:


How Should a Beginner Change the Damper?

If you leave the damper completely open, you will be exhausted very, very quickly. This would be like trying to run a 5K with a 40-pound weight on your back.

Each machine is different, so I can’t give you a set number or setting that would be perfect. However, if you own a Concept 2, most people will start off with a damper setting somewhere between 2 and 4. Start off with the damper in the number 2 spot and if you feel your workout is too easy, you can move up from there.

Higher damper settings will give you a harder workout since the flywheel will feel heavier, while lower damper settings mean an easy rowing workout.

The damper setting controls the machine’s drag factor or resistance. Once you’re comfortably rowing at a particular damper setting, you can check the resistance value at that level by selecting Display Drag Factor. Next time you row, you can go directly to that setting.

What Do the Numbers Mean on a Rowing Machine Display?

Depending on which model of rowing machine you have, you will see different numbers on the display, and some of them can be confusing.

Nearly all rowing machines will use metrics such as your stroke rate (or strokes per minute), intensity or speed, distance, time, and calories burned.

You should get used to talking in meters since rowing is measured this way.

Some rowing machines will allow you to toggle between speed units of meters per second, miles per hour, 500- and 2,000-meter split times, power in watts, and calories burned.

The most common metric you will see is time per 500 meters (often written as /500 meters), better known as your split time. Your split time is how fast you can row 500 meters. The lower the number of minutes, the better you are doing.

Some rowing machines will read the distance you have traveled until you stop. Other displays will allow you to set a certain distance in meters (for example, 2,000), and as you start to row, the display will count down until you hit zero.

Interval Training

HIIT or high-intensity interval training is one of the best ways to lose weight and improve your overall fitness level. The idea is to row hard for shorter periods of time, alternate with easy rowing, and as a result, burn more calories than when you perform regular rowing workouts.

Some rowing machines will allow you to set up (or they might have preset HIIT programs) so that you can work for a set number of minutes, then rest for a set period of time.

Not all rowing machines offer this but if yours does, it’s a terrific way to get in a workout without using a timer on your watch or staring at the clock!  

Heart Rate Monitors

Many rowing machines either have built-in heart rate monitors or are Bluetooth-enabled so that you can set up your own. Some models have their own heart rate monitors, such as the Hydrow offers.

The best rowing machines will allow you to use a heart rate monitor that will display your settings on the screen so that you don’t have to keep glancing at your watch (read more on the hardest rowing machine settings).


Heart rate monitors are useful tools for losing weight. By keeping your heart rate in your fat-burning zone, you can burn fat faster. You can find out more details about your maximum heart rate and how to burn fat hereFYI Read My Full Ergatta Fitness Reviews here!

The Rowing Stroke

When it comes to using a rowing machine, if you don’t learn and practice the proper rowing stroke, you might end up with a backache.

There are four phases to a rowing stroke. The proper rowing technique is as follows:

  1. Once your rowing machine is properly set up (see my first paragraph) you should be holding the handle, your knees near (but not touching) your chest. This is called the Catch phase.
  2. Now, push back using your legs (not your back). Don’t completely lock your knees, but they should be fully extended. Pull the handle in a straight line toward you. This is called the Drive phase.
  3. You should be in the final position, which would be handle to the chest, legs extended, the torso straight. Avoid sticking your elbows out to the side or hunching your back. You can lean backward just a bit to engage those core muscles, but don’t go too far. Think of your torso as the hand on a clock. You can lean back to the 11 o’clock position. This is called the Finish.
  4. Now you release the handle and let it glide over your thighs as you return to the start position, which is called the Recovery phase.

Tips for the Proper Rowing Technique

Many newer rowing machines offer beginners programs to help you learn the strokes, such as the ones that Hydrow and Ergatta offer (be sure to check our reviews on both rowing machine brands)

If yours doesn’t offer this feature, you can sign up for a class at your local gym or watch some of the many online videos available.

Here are some of the best tips to help you learn the proper technique:

  • Use a mirror so you can watch yourself as you row
  • Use the video feature on your cell phone to record yourself so you can see your form.
  • Try using just the legs when you start. Once you feel that you have this part down, try pulling on the handle very lightly.
  • The proper rowing stroke is more important than speed. Speed will come with time and experience.
  • Don’t rush! I know you’re excited to start using your rowing machine, but it is VERY important that you take whatever time you need to learn the strokes correctly.
  • Don’t snap your knees into a locked position. You want your legs to be extended, but whipping those knees so that they lock is a sure way to injure yourself.
  • Resist the urge to not pull the handle all the way to your ribcage. This can cause the chain or belt to snap as you row, which is not only annoying but also doesn’t give you the full-body workout you are looking for.
  • Pull your shoulders down and try to relax your neck when you pull on the handle.

Remember that your torso should be straight except for the Catch position. If you keep your back rounded as you row, you will get a nasty lower backache.

The Bottom Line

The more familiar you are with your rowing machine, the easier it will be to operate it.

When you start rowing for the first time, it’s best to take your time learning the rowing stroke. It will help to understand what the numbers on your performance monitor mean, but don’t be too concerned with your strokes per minute or calories burned. Everything will follow after you’ve put down the proper rowing form and technique.

You will quickly discover that rowing is fun and love the way you look in a few short weeks!

Stay safe, friends, and happy rowing!

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