Rowing Machine Terminology Explained

Rowing Machine Terminology Explained

Rowing is one of the most effective forms of training because it combines cardio and strength, activating 86% of the muscles in the body on each stroke.  While rowing is simple to learn, a few key terms that have roots in open water conventional rowing are worth learning to understand the language.

The terminology surrounding rowing is used frequently on forums and blogs, so it's worth familiarizing yourself to understand better the content and how to improve your fitness through the vast benefits of rowing.

Quick Cheat Sheet for All the Terminology You Will Need for Rowing Machine?

What Is an Ergometer?

An ergometer, also called "erg" or "ergo" for short, is a device that measures work.  Indoor rowing machines are considered ergometers because they measure the rower's work and train the technique for rowing on water.  

What Is a Flywheel?

The flywheel is connected to the chain (and handle) and creates resistance on each stroke, particularly the drive phase of the rowing stroke.  The resistance of the flywheel simulates the resistance felt while rowing on water using oars.  

Folding Model

Some rowing machines feature folding capabilities for storage.  Folding models can benefit those who don't want to leave their machine out or if ceiling height is a concern for storing on end.  

Dead Spot

The dead spot is the part of the stroke with a drop in resistance. Higher quality rowing machines do not have a dead spot, and you'll feel the tension on the chain through the entire stroke, which will challenge the muscles evenly and deliver a nice training effect. 


The display of a rower is crucial for tracking the metrics of a rowing workout.  Time, distance, and watts are some of the more notable metrics to know.  The display is generally mounted on the front of the machine just behind the flywheel, at eye level for convenience.  


Refers to the action that turns the blade of the oar horizontal.  Feathering comes after the Tap Down, described in detail below.  Both terms are used for on-water rowing, but they can be trained and simulated on an indoor rowing machine.  


Footplates describe the area of the rowing machine where you strap your feet.  During the drive phase of the rowing stroke, you apply force into the footplates, while during the recovery phase, the straps on the footplates keep the feet secured to the machine to initiate the next stroke.   


The handle is attached to the chain, and the chain is connected to the flywheel.  The handle simulates an oar and is used during the rowing stroke to pull against the flywheel's resistance.  A good quality rowing machine handle will have an excellent grip and a slight oval shape to it.   

Heart Rate Programs

Tracking heart rate is an excellent way to monitor how hard you're working during a rowing session or monitor your body's ability to recover after exertion.  Using a wrist or chest strap, you can track heart rate, which transmits the beats per minute to the display monitor.   

Monitoring heart rate allows you to engage in heart rate training programs where the rowing intensity is intended to produce a specific outcome.  You can verify you’re working in fat-burning zones, along with engaging in aerobic and anaerobic training.  


The seat of an indoor rowing machine slides on a rail.  The rail needs to be sturdy and free of debris.  The seat should slide smoothly to and away from the water tank or flywheel.  The rail keeps the entire rowing machine stationary and free from movement during workouts.  

Resistance Mechanism

Rowing machines can create resistance to challenge the user in a few different ways.  Here are the most common forms of resistance with rowers:

  •     Hydraulic 
  •     Magnetic
  •     Water
  •     Air

While all options provide adequate resistance, water rowing machines are noted to be quiet, fluid, and smooth compared to other forms of resistance.  Many rowing enthusiasts enjoy the simulated feel water rowers offer to actual open water rowing. 

Seat Rollers

The seat rollers allow the seat to move up and down on the seat rail.  It's critical to have a seat that rolls quietly and smoothly to maximize enjoyment.  Some rowing models use low-quality bearings that do not move well and create unnecessary noise.  Quality rowing machines do not have this issue.  Quality seat rollers are an overlooked component and critical component of rowing machines.  

What Are The Four Stroke Steps


The catch position is sometimes called the start position.  You're at the front of the machine in the catch position, ready to drive and push the feet into the platform.  Shins should be vertical (or near-vertical) relative to the floor.  Torso should be tall, hands gripping the handle with thumb around the handle, arms straight.  Lean slightly backward, with the torso at 11 o'clock.  

Now you are set up for a successful drive phase.  


The drive phase is the transition from the catch to the finish.  The legs initiate the drive by extending and pushing the body away from the rowing. Very similar to a deadlift pulling a barbell from the floor.  Once the hands move past the feet, the hips swing back, and the torso moves from the 11 o'clock position into the 1 o'clock position.  The final part of the drive sequence involves bending at the arms while the handle is pulled toward the torso.  

The rowing stroke has three mechanisms to produce power:  the legs, hips, and arms.  Rowing is a leg-dominant exercise.  


The finish position is complete with straight and firm legs and the torso angled with a slight backward lean.  Keep the shoulders down and elbows relaxed and pulled into the side body.  


The recovery phase is the exact opposite of the drive phase.  The return to the catch starts with the hands, hips, and legs (in that order).  The legs flex, and the body swings back to the 11 o'clock position.  The key to the recovery is to push the hands away from the body and slide forward until the shins are back to a vertical position.  

Tabata Workouts

Tabata workouts describe high-intensity work followed by a short incomplete rest period.  The idea is to work at the highest possible intensity during the "work" part.  

8 rounds of alternating between:

  •     20 seconds of rowing
  •     10 seconds of rest

A Tabata workout lasts 4 minutes and should be highly challenging.  Rest periods are incomplete, with the amount of work being twice the rest period time.  Tabata training is not for the faint of heart!

Here are more effective rowing workouts to try.  

Tap Down

A tap down uses the palm to push the rower down and take it out of the water.  Indoor rowing machines allow the user to practice tap down technique even though there isn't an oar attached to the machine.  During the recovery phase of the rowing stroke, the handle should drop slightly and move past the knees to FIRST to initiate the next stroke.  This motion simulates removing the oar from the water.  

Time Trials

Set a time or distance to row, then record how long it takes to row that distance.  2,000 meters is an example of a distance.  Rowing for 2-minutes is an example of a targeted time.  You can measure improvements by decreasing the time it takes to row a specific distance or by the distance accumulated by rowing a targeted time.  

Transport Wheels

Many rowers have wheels on the front side that make moving simple.  Although rowing machines are light compared to treadmills and ellipticals, the wheels make relocating your rower a breeze.


A watt is a measure of work or power output over time.  This is the exact measurement used for lightbulbs in your home.  The number of watts on your rowing machine reflects the amount of work the machine receives from you on every stroke.  The more effort you put into the drive, the more power output or watts.  

Know Your Rowing Machine Terminology

Getting familiar with your rowing machine is key to long-term success.  The terminology in this article will give you a head start on the ins and outs of a rowing machine so that you can reduce the learning curve and understand the mechanics, features, and benefits of rowing.  

The GoRowinGo water rowing machine is a premier choice for people looking to develop high-level fitness using an aesthetically appealing cardio machine.  This water rowing machine looks great in any room and will get you fit quickly!

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