the joy of strength training


March 12th, 2008 at 12:46 am

Indoor rowing training

Joining a club is a great way to train for a new sport because you can rely on the club to set your training sessions and you get the opportunity to test your progress in competition settings.

rowing competition

However, you might not always have access to an indoor rowing club and you have to plan your training on your own. I have already covered the basics of indoor rowing technique. Following on from that, this post will help you to structure your rowing training and get the best out of the erg.

But before going into the workouts, you need to know how to set up the rower correctly and how to measure your efforts effectively.

Setting the damper correctly

The damper is the lever at the side of the flywheel with positions marked 1 to 10. You’ll often see people in the gym get on the rower, crank the damper up to 10 and start rowing. Actually this is not really what the damper is for, and higher resistance is not always better.

To understand this, think in terms of real boats. A setting of 10 is like a big heavy boat: it has the potential to cover a given distance faster than a lighter boat, but only if the rower is big and powerful enough to drive it. A smaller and lighter rower will do better in a lighter boat and will be able to cover the distance faster than they would in the heavy boat.

A real racing boat is equivalent to a damper position of 4. Rowers who race on water will do the majority of their training at this setting to replicate the river conditions. For indoor rowing, the most efficient damper position for you will depend on your weight, level of conditioning and what kind of workout you are doing e.g. sprint or endurance.

To set the right damper position, you need to test your ‘drag factor’ by rowing a few fairly hard strokes on the machine. The drag factor will display on the machine as a number between 100 and 150. The British Amateur Rowing Association has a list of recommended drag factors as follows:

  • Lightweight (around 61.5 kg or less) women performance athletes: 125
  • Heavyweight women performance athletes: 130
  • Lightweight (around 75kg or less) men performance athletes: 135
  • Heavyweight men performance athletes: 140

For normal trainees, I would knock 5 off these recommended drag factors. For example, if you are a lightweight woman doing a 5k row, go for a drag factor of 120.

How to set drag factor

Which buttons to press depends on what model of rowing machine you are using. On the Concept2 PM2 machine pictured below, press the RESET and READY buttons simultaneously. The drag factor will appear in the bottom right corner of the screen. On the Concept2 PM3, drag factor is one of the menu options. Row around 10 strokes reasonably hard and adjust the damper lever to get your desired drag factor. For most of my training sessions, I tend to go for a drag factor of 120 – which for me translates to a damper position of 5.

Using Split time

rower displayWhen I first started using the rower in the gym, like many people the numbers I used to track progress were distance, time or calories. These were things I understood – or thought I did. Then someone explained split time to me, which is the number labelled av/500m. This is short for “average time to row 500m” and is the standard method of measuring pace in rowing.

So if you row 2,000m in 8 minutes, your av/500m split time is 2 minutes over that distance. However, at any one point in time you may have been rowing a bit slower or a bit faster than your average. You would probably have started slower and got much faster in the last few hundred metres.

The rower’s readout can give you both your current split time and your average split over the distance. In the picture, my current split is the figure of 1:54 in the middle of the display. The lower that number goes, the faster my ‘boat’ is moving. However, I can only row that sort of split for a couple of minutes, so that would be a sprint for me.

Split time is used obsessively by on-water rowers and people who compete because it gives you the most important piece of information: how fast the boat is travelling. I use split time as my main benchmark, but it is acceptable to utilise calories, heartrate or other measurements as well. Crossfit, for example, often makes use of calories as a rowing measurement in its workouts.

Choosing stroke rate

Stroke rate is measured in “strokes per minute” or SPM. A high stroke rate, e.g. 35 SPM is not necessarily the most effective way to make the boat go faster, especially at medium to long distances. Many workouts will have a prescribed stroke rate range, such as 22-24 SPM.

Stroke rate can also be a matter of personal style or technique. For instance, I tend to row at a lower stroke rate than many lightweight women because I have powerful legs due to my weight training background. So I give an almighty shove with my legs, which generates a lot of power but means I move a little slower.

Standard distances

The most common race distance in rowing is 2,000m. Elite heavyweight men will do this in around 5 and a half to 6 minutes, elite heavyweight women in around 6 and a half minutes. Mere mortals will achieve around 8 minutes, or half a minute either side depending on sex, weight and fitness.

The 5,000m and 10,000m are common long distances. Popular sprint distances include 250m, 500m and 750m.

Putting it all together

rowingAll these settings and numbers might sound rather technical, but once you start rowing it is much easier to understand how all these factors work in tandem because you can see the effect on the computer readout in real time.

For any distance, it is important to pace yourself and not go off too quickly. It is very easily done as when you take your first few strokes on the rower, the wheel feels very light. Be warned, this feeling does not last!

For long distances such as 5,000m, it is advisable to use a slow stroke rate of 20-24 SPM until the last 1,000m or 500m when you can up the rate.

It is also good practice to pick a modest split time and try to stick to it consistently; for example trying to keep to a split of 2:15 for the whole distance, or upping your split every 1,000m. This is trickier than it sounds and is important for good technique.

For sprint distances, it is fine to increase the stroke rate and the damper position as you are not rowing for very long. A 250m sprint will take most people a minute or less. Sprint distances are useful for interval training.

Sample workouts

To train for my first 2,000m race competing at womens lightweight, I used some of the following workouts:

1. Medium distance steady row

3,000m steady row, gradually increasing split as follows:

  • First thousand metres @ 2:20 split, 22-24 SPM
  • Second thousand metres @ 2:15 split, 22-24 SPM
  • Third thousand metres @ 2:10 split, 26-27 SPM
  • Last 250-500m, push as much as you feel able

To replicate this workout, choose your own split but keep the SPM the same.

This kind of session trains you to row at a consistent, steady pace. It’s important to learn how to row at a steady pace because it is so easy to go out too fast and fade halfway through. The first thousand metres will feel very easy but you will start to feel it after the halfway point.

2. Long distance steady row

5,000m or more steady row at a consistent split. This is about getting your base distance in so that you can work on technique and endurance.

To find your steady pace, row 5,000m in any way you can. It will probably take you somewhere between 20 and 25 minutes. When you have finished, note your average split time over the entire duration. The next time you row 5,000m, try to keep to that average split time for the duration.

3. Intervals

1000m or 750m intervals off 4 minutes rest. Aim for a medium stroke rate of around 26-28 SPM and try to get faster with each interval. 2-4 intervals is sufficient when you first start doing these.

4. Sprints

It is useful to do the occasional sprint (especially against a friend) to get the feel of going flat out for a short distance.

Warm up and warm down

As with any workout, it is good practice to warm up and warm down. Spend at least 5 minutes on each. You can also use the stationery bike or cross trainer to warm up and down.

Further reading

Indoor rowing technique

Explanation of drag factor from Crossfit forum

Recommended drag factor settings from the Concept2 website

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  • 1

    Excellent article thanks. I frequent a large chain of gyms where the PTs know little about the rowing machines except to tell their victims to row for 2 minutes & move along to another machine. I love the rower because my knees give me a bit of grief & it’s a great way to get an intence workout. I am 54 weigh 94kg & am 191cm. I currently row 3 times a week for 1 hour with a target distance of 14065m (being 1/3 of a marathon). Can you suggest what other training I can do to increase the distance rowed in 1 hour.

    Rob on April 11th, 2012
  • 2

    I recommend interval training as a way to increase your speed – see the end of the article above for some ideas.

    gubernatrix on April 11th, 2012
  • 3

    […] Taken from Gubernatrix Blog […]

  • 4

    im 15 and it was my first time on the rowing machine, i did 4154 meters in 20 minutes is that good for my age


    tonster01 on June 26th, 2012
  • 5

    Well done! I’ve no idea if it is good for your age – try looking up the results from indoor rowing championships. The Concept2 website has some ranking info at

    gubernatrix on July 4th, 2012
  • 6

    […] Indoor rowing training […]

  • 7

    Thanks for the article, I stumbled across it today looking for information on using a rowing machine. I have been using the one in the gym at work, it is a new modle like your example. Have to admit it was a struggle at first, but I can usually row about 6400m in 30 minutes. (took me a two months to get there.) I am looking for routines and your site has helped.

    Have a great day.

    Peneloope on August 3rd, 2012
  • 8

    hi, great article. thanks for posting it. i have read through it and feel a bit bad asking you to answer further questions but if you have the time i would be very grateful. i recently started rowing in the gym on a concept 2 rower to improve my overall fitness and to complement my swimming (400m in less than 8min) everyday and 3 hour surf session once a week. i am male, 47 years old, 5ft 11in and 182 lbs. i started out with the damper at 10 and rowed 5k with an average spm of 28 and a time of 22min and 22 sec. i have recently lowered the damper to 8 and have been doing this 5 days a week for the last 3 weeks still at 28spm. my intention is to just row 5k each day, no sprints or splits or different routines etc ( as keeping a simple routine will ensure that i continue to row) and my goal is to get my time from 21 min 22 sec to sub 20 min. my question is…….to reach my goal should i keep gong as is and hope that eventualy the improving toning and technique will improve the time or would lowering the damper setting and my spm lead to the sub 20 min regular 5k row sooner? hope this makes sense. thanks for your time.

    paul on August 24th, 2012
  • 9

    I think that a more efficient (faster) way to get to your goal is to focus on your split time, your average time to row 500m (av/500m), which is explained above. It’s like pace in running or swimming. If you can increase your pace, you will decrease your overall time.

    If you want a sub 20 min 5k, your av/500m would need to be 2 mins. So now you know what to aim for!

    The next time you row 5k, note your av/500m at the end – the concept 2 will tell you what this is. Next time you row 5k, try to keep to that same split time for the whole 5k. Once you’ve done that, reduce your target split time slightly, and aim for that.

    This will train you to row at a steady pace, and slowly increase that steady pace. Don’t go all out until the last 200m or so.

    Lowering the damper setting and spm should also help. Follow the advice above about finding your drag factor etc.

    gubernatrix on August 25th, 2012
  • 10

    Thanks for your prompt response. I will follow your advice.

    paul on August 25th, 2012
  • 11

    I am 51 y.o. woman who has just joined gym. I haven’t exercised for at least 5 years due to bad knee. Recently had surgery (arthroscopy and cartilege repair) but told I have grade 3 arthritis and will need new kneecap in 10 years. However I want to get fitter and push myself back to be able to walk without pain. At the gym yesterday for my first ever session I did 10 mins on a bike machine and then did 2000 metres, damper 6, in 10.02 mins. My son, who is a rower, said this was very good, but I would like to know what I should do to gradually improve my strength, fitness and overall health. I am at least 3 stone overweight but 6 foot tall. I used to be very fit. Thank you

    Sue on September 5th, 2012
  • 12

    Hello Sue,
    You should definitely start weight training – this will make your muscles and bones stronger, help your knee to rehab and improve your body composition (muscle to fat ratio). You can also use weights/resistance to do high intensity interval training to burn calories.

    It is best to lose the extra 3 stone as this will be good for your health. You’ll feel better and fitter without that extra 3 stone. And your knees will thank you for losing the weight!

    I recommend that you get some personal training so that you can learn good weight training technique and get a balanced training programme. A good trainer should also give you nutritional advice.

    Good luck!

    gubernatrix on September 5th, 2012
  • 13

    Great post! I’m training for my first ever 2K competition in a few months! So excited! This info will help me so much!! Very much appreciate you sharing your experiences!!

    Carrie on December 11th, 2012
  • 14

    Good luck Carrie!

    gubernatrix on December 11th, 2012
  • 15

    Hi there…new to this site,but for my dragonboat team,i just done a 1000m and my time was 4:28 and for 500m it was 2:08…..Can anyone tell me is this good? or bad?

    Deb on December 15th, 2012
  • 16

    Hi Deb, It depends on whom you want to compare yourself to, I guess. It also depends on your weight and age.
    I don’t know anything about dragonboars but I’d say that on an erg, under 8 mins for 2k is very good for an amateur female lightweight. Under 1.45 for 500m would be good for same.

    gubernatrix on December 16th, 2012
  • 17

    Hi, I’m male, 63 yrs, 75 kg, 5’8″ and erg between 8 -10km daily, and recently clocked up my first 1,000,000 m. I have my own C2 at home and I’ve no coach/trainer to correct faults.

    Having read most of the posts on this great site, I’m now aware that if my average SPM for all distances over 2 km are in excess of 30 – 32, I’m doing something wrong. Bad technique? Short arms & legs? Do you have any suggested remedy, please?

    Leslie on January 17th, 2013
  • 18

    […] Indoor rowing training – weight training, strength, fitness, weights …Mar 12, 2008 … The most common race distance in rowing is 2,000m. Elite heavyweight men will do this in around 5 and a half to 6 minutes, elite heavyweight … […]

    Rowing distances | Kickthathabit on January 23rd, 2013
  • 19

    Hi there. Just come across your wonderful site. Looking for some advice, my ultimate aims are weight loss and increased fitness. Having put on about 4 stone over the last few years I know it will be a good long slog. I have my own water rower at home and am managing to get home from work early enough to have a good long endurance session 3 nights a week. I’ve got up to rowing for an hour with stroke rate around 24-28, heart rate around 140-150 beats per minute and covering 14,000m. Reading some of these posts and other sites seems to suggest that I should build in some interval training. By its nature does this mean I should be doing shorter workouts? Or could I effectively build in variety of paces into a longer 45-60 minute that would still burn a lot of calories through the duration, but help stop my body becoming too adapted to my typical routine. Thanks. J

    Jaime G on February 11th, 2013
  • 20

    Hi Jaime,
    You can do both, i.e. both interval sessions and fartlek sessions where you vary the pace.

    You can do interval training followed by a steady row, but be aware that true interval training is different from just going a bit faster or a bit slower than normal. In interval training, you need to go as hard as possible in the work interval and recover as much as possible in the rest interval for you to get the right training effect from the session.

    So I would keep your interval training sessions separate or do them first.

    gubernatrix on February 13th, 2013
  • 21

    Really appreciate it. I will probably try to do two long sessions a week, and then fit in two shorter true interval training sessions as you suggest above. Thanks for taking the time to reply.

    Jaime G on February 13th, 2013
  • 22

    Hi! I am new to rowing (semi-elite runner)and have just jumped on the machine in the gym the last few weeks as I’m struggling with a badly sprained ankle. The machine seems to treat it well and it’s a great workout. I read your technique page which was very helpful. I’d been rowing easily over 30 s/m for 30 min sessions covering around 7km. I was using the damper at 10 so today I tried the drag factor and dropped it down to 4-5. I think the machine must be clogged as I couldn’t get the drag factor over 85 on any damper setting. It was a great workout trying to hit 22-24 s/m with damper at 5 but I was only going about 2:05/500. 22-24 seemed really slow and I tried to focus on driving back real hard but felt like I was flying off the back of the machine and not really making progress. Any suggestions? Are these machines just warn out/clogged?

    Jesse Regnier on March 17th, 2013
  • 23

    Hi Jesse,
    It could well be your technique- it takes practise, to be able to push very hard with a light resistance. Also it might be hard on the ankle.

    One interesting exercise is to set the damper at 1, take your feet out of the straps and try to get as much power as possible!

    I have done this myself – it’s interesting! Maybe try this after your warm up as a technique drill?

    It is all about leg drive for 3/4 of the stroke and then finishing off with the arms at the end of the pull, so initiate the drive with the legs. You may need to raise your feet so you can drive back horizontally. I have mine on the highest setting.

    If your lower back is rounded and your pelvis tucks under too much, this will make it more likely that you will fly off the seat.

    Also if you are coming too far forward on the recovery, this will pull your pelvis under.

    gubernatrix on March 18th, 2013
  • 24

    Oh wow! I’ve rowed twice for 5000 meters in about 28 min with a stroke rate of 34 and the damper set at 8. I had no clue what I was doing. I’m a 43 yr old lightweight female. But your article has taught me so much. I’m going back to the gym to see if I can get my stroke rate down and my speed increased. I saw a comment about height. Am I foolish for considering this sport if I’m 5’2″? I’m really enjoying the challenge.

    Crissy on March 19th, 2013
  • 25

    Haha, of course not! You may not make the olympic team (!) but you can still do well and enjoy it. Good luck!

    gubernatrix on March 19th, 2013
  • 26

    During a gym challenge I rowed 3029m in the 10 minutes that were allocated. An instructor at gym said that 3000m in 10 minutes for was very good. What kind of times do the elite rowers do 3000m in ?

    Chris on March 31st, 2013
  • 27

    Hi Chris, it’s hard to say as 3,000m isn’t a standard race distance. Generally data is available for 2,000m as that is the standard distance. There are also some events at 500m and 5,000m.
    Have a look on at the results and that will give you an idea of what good rowers are doing for 2,000m.
    Take your weight into account as well. I think for men lightweight is under 75kg.

    gubernatrix on March 31st, 2013
  • 28

    Good article. I’ve done bits and pieces on the C2 rowers for the last couple of years, mainly due to the encouragement from a guy at work (who to be fair is probably “elite” on the things…Does 2kms in 6:30 or so, and regularly does half marathons in ~2 min splits!)

    Anyway, I’ve never really been serious about them, looking at the rower as a good, low impact, all-round workout on days when I’m not playing Touch footy or doing weights etc. Given the above, maybe I should get serious…

    Did 6kms today at 2:12 splits, which was a pretty good workout (certainly left me sweating), but having stumbled across the article, I realised I should actually reduce the damper setting. Like many, I simply left it on 10. Stroke rates are usually around 28 or so. I’ll have to have a go at some of the suggested intervals, as I’d really like to get those splits down to 2 or so over any distance…

    Michael on April 16th, 2013
  • 29

    Hope it goes well! You could try entering some indoor rowing races to give a focus to your rowing as well.

    gubernatrix on April 18th, 2013
  • Rowing: How and Why | on September 6th, 2013
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  • 35

    I tend to train consistantly at damper 10 even though it is way above my natural damper rate of about 5 or 6, with the intention of increasing my performance, ie like a race horse carries extra weight when this weight is removed the horse performs much better. Am I right ?.

    Geoff Wade on April 18th, 2014
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  • 40

    Just started rowing bout 2 weeks is it okay to row with an average 28spm 5008m with a split time of 2:29 for 25min with no stopping. I’m 38 and female wanna increase strength, stamina, endurance & look great & I do lift weights regularly, is this decent? And what should I be aiming for?

    Klm on January 7th, 2015
  • 41

    Just started rowing bout 2 weeks is it okay to row with an average 28spm 5008m with a split time of 2:29 resistance at a 10 for 25min with no stopping. I’m 38 and female wanna increase strength, stamina, endurance & look great & I do lift weights regularly, is this decent? And what should I be aiming for?

    Klm on January 7th, 2015
  • 42

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  • 43

    I just started rowing two days ago. I did a 2000m for 9min29s. It wasn’t very fast. I really enjoyed doing it. I want to make it to a more professional level. I am 27, 5’7″ and weigh 50kg. Am I too thin and do I need to gain some weight? I find what you wrote made it more clear to me how to train myself. Thanks

    Jing on August 25th, 2015
  • 44

    Uhm you say that heavyweight men row 2000m in 5 minutes? Isn’t the world record 5:20-5:30?

    Rob on March 28th, 2017
  • 45

    Hi, you are all very fit people. So to balance this out, I am submitting my first workout time. I am female, 47 years and 44 pounds overweight. As I am worried about my health I bought an indoor rower to get fit again. I just worked out for the first time today and my 500m split was 3 minutes and 10 seconds with a constant stroke of 26 strokes per minute on the 1000m training. I hope this submission helps others that are less fit or not fit at all, as yours truly. Happy New Year everyone.

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