With all the workout options available these days, it can be hard to choose just one way to sweat. Some workouts are great for getting your heart rate up, while others provide a good way to tone and strengthen your muscles.
But what if there was one full-body workout that did it all?
Rowing. It’s one of the best, most complete, full-body workouts that a person can do — and yet so many people have yet to try it because it’s not super easy. Rowing requires a rowing shell (a long, narrow boat), oars, a large body of water, and good weather conditions. Among many other things.
But the benefits are many: rowing can improve stamina and overall fitness and strength, including strengthening the heart. It can also boost immune system function, mood, and even provide a calming, meditative effect on the mind due to its repetitive, low-impact movement and sounds.
You may end up with a few blisters on your hands, but a real rower enjoys a little discomfort. Your arms, legs, and core will be thanking you for the workout and begging for another round.
The rowing machine — aka, the rowing ergometer or “erg” as it’s fondly known by rowers — helps you get that top-notch full-body workout indoors.
But don’t be fooled into thinking the rowing machine is an easy ride just because you get to sit down. Rowing is one of the most intense sports out there. (Trust me, I was a competitive collegiate rower and spent a lot of time cranking it on the erg and in a boat.)
The increasing demand on the heart contributes to the body’s need to circulate more blood, which also leads to a stronger, more efficient heart.
It targets the largest muscles needed for rowing in a boat — your upper back, arms, and shoulders to the quadriceps, glutes, and abdominal muscles — while replicating the movement pattern required.
It’s a uniquely challenging, dynamic workout that helps create a baseline of strength and endurance. Basically, it’s close to the real thing.
And when the weather prohibits outdoor workouts, the rowing machine can become a staple in any training regimen. It provides a workout that’s the most similar to actually rowing. It also helps athletes track power output, estimated distances covered, and stroke rate (how many strokes they take per minute — an important variable in the sport of rowing).
According to Harvard Health, a 125-pound person burns 255 calories in 30 minutes of rowing versus 120 calories burned walking, 180 calories burned downhill skiing, or 240 calories burned while running at a 12-minute mile pace.
But a good workout isn’t all about calories burned. While other sports may increase the calorie expenditure, they don’t have the unique ability to simultaneously address strength and power while being low-impact.
Although less scenic than rowing down a beautiful river at sunrise, 45 minutes on the rowing machine will kick your butt harder than 45 minutes on any other machine. Guaranteed.
It might seem zen and peaceful from afar, but the physical demands of this sport are rigorous. In fact, most people spend much less time on this machine than others simply due to the high physical demand on the body that’s elicited by each stroke.
So you’ll want to start small, with one or two 10-minute sets focused on form and technique before taking on a longer, harder rowing workout.
Most people assume that rowing is a “mostly arms” workout, but they couldn’t be more wrong.
In order to row right, you’ll need to understand the anatomy of a stroke.
Rowing machines have a sliding seat, just like racing shells. Your feet are secured into shoes that don’t move, and your legs are behind most of the power generation with each stroke.
But the legs don’t work alone.
It all begins at the front of the slide where your:
- knees are bent
- back is hinged forward at the hips
- arms are reaching straight out in front of you and your hands are holding the oar handle
This is known as “the catch.” From this position, each stroke moves through a pattern of opening up the body and compressing the body from the big to small muscles, then small to big muscles.
You can watch a slow motion version of how a stroke works here:
It can become almost like a meditation: legs, back, arms… arms, back, legs. It’s an intense physical movement pattern paired with the calming whoosh of the machine as you move.
While the majority of your power comes from the large muscles of the legs (quadriceps, gastrocnemius), the lean of the torso and pull of the oar handle from the arms and shoulders helps follow through with the force generation and momentum that’s required to help move a boat forward (the opposite direction from the direction that you face in the seat).
In the case of the erg, the machine stays stationary. But this visual of what an actual boat would be doing helps explain the rationale for the movement pattern.
Once the legs are straight at the end of the slide, your:
- torso should be slightly hinged backward
- hands are close to your sternum
- elbows bent
- shoulders retracted
This ending position is called “the finish.” From here, the hands move away from the body, the trunk tilts forward again, and the knees bend in one smooth motion that brings you back to the catch.
This combination of movements is how you get it done.
Yes, rowing is a great workout. But form matters.
Because of its rigorous nature, improper form can easily lead to injury if you’re not careful.
Check out this video for a detailed explanation and visual of proper form and technique:
I recommend acquainting yourself with a rowing machine at the gym prior to doing a full workout on it: Get on the machine, strap your feet into the foot plate, practice taking a few strokes, and see how the numbers change.
Then try joining a group rowing class, where the instructors can help break down the anatomy and mechanics of a stroke while guiding you through a fantastic workout.
Be prepared to sweat and feel the burn in every muscle.