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Rowing: An Effective Workout Option and Its Benefits

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  • Post last modified:September 26, 2023

Curious to discover if rowing is a fantastic workout? In brief, absolutely — so if you haven’t already, it’s about time you familiarized yourself with the indoor rower, otherwise known as the ergometer or rowing machine.

While it may appear daunting initially, rowing workouts are actually more novice-friendly than you may believe — and they offer an incredibly intense workout. Whether you’re getting acquainted with your local gym or contemplating a new piece of equipment for your home, here are all the details on what is certain to become your new preferred fitness machine.

What Is a Rowing Machine?

A rower is a machine that essentially imitates the rowing of a shell (also known as a boat), like those seen in the Olympics, according to Evan Tyrrell, the owner of F45 Training in La Jolla, California. Sounds straightforward enough, but step onto a rower and you’ll quickly realize the workout is demanding.

“The rowing machine is akin to the Swiss Army knife of the gym,” explains Michelle Sosa, an ACE-certified personal trainer, professional rower, and Hydrow athlete. “Its multiple purposes include low-impact workouts, high-intensity sprint intervals, low-intensity endurance development, full-body strength training, core training, heart health, and posture control.” With so much versatility, rowing workouts are accessible to various populations, ranging from complete beginners to individuals recovering from an injury.

How Do You Use a Rowing Machine?

The technique employed when rowing is not always instinctive, but it’s actually quite simple once you get the hang of it. When beginning a stroke from the lowest position, you should extend your legs by pushing out, lean your core backward, and then row the handle toward your chest using your arms, simultaneously pulling your elbows backward. Then, reverse the motion to return to the starting position: Extend your arms forward, allow your core to lean forward (keeping your back flat), and then bend your legs. It may be helpful to repeat this sequence in your mind as a sort of mantra while rowing: “Legs, core, arms, arms, core, legs.”

The most prevalent misconception about rowing workouts is that rowing only engages the upper body, according to Sosa. “The majority of your rowing stroke is accomplished by the legs and core,” she states. A significant portion of the power actually originates from the legs, but it is necessary to keep your core contracted (meaning: engaged) while pushing back and eventually pulling the handles with your hands/arms.

“Rowing is approximately 60 percent legs, 30 percent core, and 10 percent arms,” declares Joseph Ilustrisimo, a personal trainer certified by ACSM. “A majority of the rowing activity will focus on your hamstrings and buttocks, but only if you hinge properly,” he adds, almost like a deadlift.

And let’s not forget about the core in your rowing exercises. “Your core should remain engaged throughout, so you should learn how to dynamically activate those abdominal muscles and experience a sensation of burning throughout,” explains Ilustrisimo.

You can request assistance from a trainer at your gym to demonstrate the correct form, or you can opt for an at-home program with instructional videos for your rowing workouts. Hyrdow rowing machines provide live and on-demand classes led by instructors, so if you are considering adding a home gym equipment, this would be a valuable way to receive personalized guidance on how to operate a rower. “The guidance aspect is crucial for beginners to ensure that you optimize your efforts and perform the exercises safely and accurately,” advises Sosa.

If you would like to try a class that incorporates rowing, you can explore Row House, F45 Training, and Orangetheory Fitness. These studios all provide workouts that integrate the rowing machine into their classes, offering you more real-life information on how to effectively use the rowing machine and how to diversify your rowing workouts for added interest.

What Are the Advantages of Using a Rowing Machine?

What are the benefits of engaging in a rowing machine workout, and why should you consider incorporating it into your gym routine? Here is precisely what makes rowing a beneficial workout and some of the advantages you can anticipate.

  1. Enhance your cardiovascular fitness. Engaging in rowing for even a mere 15 minutes constitutes a significant aerobic exercise, according to Tyrrell. Regular rowing can help boost your stamina and endurance while enhancing your overall cardiovascular health.
  2. Achieve a comprehensive full-body workout. Did you know that a rowing machine engages a whopping 86 percent of the muscles in your body, as stated in a study conducted by the English Institute of Sport?
  3. Enhance lower-body conditioning. Since this workout heavily involves your leg muscles, one of the prime benefits of rowing exercises, as mentioned by Tyrrell, is targeted conditioning to strengthen and improve endurance in your lower body.
  4. Work out with reduced risk of injury. The rowing machine offers a low-impact exercise option, resulting in a lower risk of injury, according to Tyrrell. With decreased chances of injury, you can perform rowing workouts at a high intensity without placing excessive strain on your joints. “More high-intensity exercises like plyometrics and sprinting can sometimes place stress on the body, but low-impact tools such as rowing machines and bicycles are beneficial for the body,” emphasizes Ilustrisimo.

    “You also have numerous factors to alter your rowing exercises, such as opposition, speed, and distance,” he includes.

    Create improved posture. Since the rowing machine primarily utilizes your legs, core, and back, it offers numerous postural advantages and serves as an excellent tool to engage the posterior chain [backside] of your body,” according to Ilustrisimo. It is crucial to work on strengthening your posterior chain to balance your muscle strength, reduce the risk of injury, and correct the common bad posture prevalent in our sedentary society.

    Maintain a workout suitable for beginners. One of the added benefits of rowing workouts is their accessibility to beginners, as mentioned by Sosa. “Beginners can quickly witness and feel results, which is advantageous,” she suggests. However, it is necessary to commit to the workout for more than just a few minutes to achieve this transformation. “Gym-goers often hop on and off a rower within five minutes due to boredom or confusion, forfeiting the potential results,” she explains. To improve your form and get your heart rate up, aim for rowing workouts that last at least 10 to 20 minutes.

    Is Rowing Superior to Other Cardio Machines?

    So, is the rowing machine the reigning champion of the gym? That depends. “No singular machine reigns supreme in all situations, but the rower is a safe option for individuals unable to run or cycle due to joint pain,” states Liz Letchford, Ph.D., a certified athletic trainer and injury-prevention specialist based in Los Angeles. “As long as you maintain proper form, the rowing machine delivers an exceptional full-body workout that enhances both strength endurance and cardiovascular endurance.”

    Unlike other choices for cardio exercise, the rowing machine possesses an advantage as it combines both strength and cardio workouts, notes Tyrrell. “Raising the resistance level during rowing workouts facilitates greater muscle development, while treadmills, spinning bikes, and elliptical machines offer limited potential for muscle-building,” he explains.

    Therefore, rowing workouts provide both the cardio benefits and movements comparable to those performed with heavy weights. “Rowing exhibits similar patterns to deadlifts, seated rows, leg presses, and even calf raises when you push away from the platform,” Tyrrell highlights.

    Could You Utilize the Rowing Machine if You’re Injured or New to Exercise?

    The rowing machine is generally considered safe for individuals rehabilitating an injury or who are new to exercise. “I recommend rowing to individuals of all ages and fitness levels as it can be customized to suit different fitness goals,” suggests Sosa. Here’s what you need to know:

    If You Have an Extremity Injury…

    “Due to its minimal impact, rowing is an excellent option for anyone recovering from an injury, experiencing joint pain or discomfort, or seeking to build strength without excessive strain,” says Sosa.

    For this reason, many athletes (professional or otherwise) incorporate rowing workouts as a significant part of their cross-training or recovery from injury, according to Sosa.

    Nevertheless, if you possess an injury, you must unquestionably consult with your physician initially, she asserts. In accordance with the customary practice, obtain the approval from the individual supervising your treatment before immersing yourself in something novel and unfamiliar.

    If You Have a Spinal Injury…

    “While the rowing machine is a safe movement for most individuals to engage in with proper technique, as the intensity of the exercise escalates, people tend to utilize their lumbar region to propel the motion,” states Letchford. To put it differently, when the going gets tough and your body starts to feel fatigued, your lower back may take on a compensatory role for your weary muscles — and this is undesirable.

    “For individuals who have a tendency to experience a reduction in their core strength when fatigued, this motion could potentially result in a compromised lower back,” she states. “When executed slowly and with control, rowing is deemed safe for the majority of conditions; however, if you have sustained a spinal injury and have an interest in incorporating a rowing practice, it should be done under adequate supervision.” (Consider incorporating these back-relief core-strengthening exercises into your routine.)

    If You’re New to Rowing Workouts…

    Try to refrain from becoming easily disheartened — rowing is a skill that must be acquired. “Rowing can prove to be intricate for certain individuals as well,” says Ilustrisimo. “It does require a certain level of coordination to become accustomed to rowing, but it is akin to riding a bicycle. Once you become adept at utilizing [the rower] efficiently, it will become one of the most effective cardiovascular machines you can utilize.”

    “Novices should bear in mind that the likelihood of adhering to a new routine is greatly influenced by the support system surrounding the activity,” says Sosa. “Rowing alongside a companion — whether it be in person at the gym or virtually on that leaderboard — helps to foster accountability and encourages one to continue returning and exerting more effort.”

    If You’re Expecting…

    “Rowing remains safe during pregnancy until the altered shape of the body interferes with proper movement,” states Letchford. And, as always, consult with your physician to determine if this type of training is suitable for you. (See: How to Modify Your Workouts While Pregnant)

    Can Rowing Comprise Your Entire Workout…Every Time?

    Are you prepared to dedicate yourself to the rowing machine? Great news: Rowing workouts can absolutely serve as your primary exercise regimen, according to Tyrrell. “Rowing delivers an outstanding full-body workout and offers numerous advantageous effects on your cardiovascular health, pulmonary function, and overall well-being,” he states.

    You can also escalate the level of intensity as you progress, meaning you can consistently make the rowing workout more challenging, says Ilustrisimo. “Some individuals may perceive rowing to be overly facile, but rowing machines are exceptional as they allow you to determine the level of difficulty you wish to incorporate into your workout,” he says. “You can execute more forceful strokes or maintain a rapid cadence [strokes per minute].”

    Ready to commence with a rowing workout that blends cardio and strength training? Give this 20-minute rowing machine workout or this innovative rowing circuit workout a try.