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Rowing is a popular exercise meant to mimic the motion of rowing a boat by using one of many machines, the most common of which is the flywheel rower.

If you’re interested in burning calories and losing weight, rowing is a great choice.

This article provides an in-depth review of rowing for weight loss, shows the number of calories you’ll burn, and includes a few workout plans to get you started.

To lose weight, you need to develop a calorie deficit. This means that you burn more calories than you take in — normally by controlling your diet and/or expending more calories through exercise.

A modest calorie deficit of around 500 calories per day is usually a good place to start (1).

Rowing on a regular basis is a great method of contributing to this deficit.

Calories burned through rowing

The calories you burn through rowing vary based on a number of factors, including the machine you’re using, exercise intensity, and body size.

As a general guideline, here are the approximate number of calories adults will burn based on body weight and intensity. The chart lists calories burned per 15 minutes, then per hour (2).

Note that these are not exact numbers, as the number of calories you burn is also affected by your age, basal metabolic rate, and health status, as well as the temperature of the exercise environment.

Light
(15 min/1 hr)
Moderate (15 min/1 hr)Vigorous (15 min/1 hr)
135 lb (61 kg)53/214107/427130/519
145 lb (66 kg)58/231116/462140/561
155 lb (70 kg)61/245122/490149/595
165 lb (75 kg)66/263131/525159/638
175 lb (79 kg)70/280140/560170/680
185 lb (84 kg)74/294147/588179/714
195 lb (88 kg)78/312156/623189/757
205 lb (93 kg)81/326163/651198/791
215 lb (98 kg)86/343172/686208/833
225 lb (102 kg)89/357179/714217/867

Keep in mind that varying your intensity changes the number of calories you burn.

May promote fat loss

When you supplement rowing with a proper diet, you’ll probably start to lose weight in the form of fat loss.

Exercises like rowing help mobilize fats in your body so that they can be used as energy (3, 4, 5).

A nutritious diet that provides fewer calories than you burn may also help burn fat. If you’re looking to cut your total calorie intake, try eating more protein and veggies to keep you full, switching to zero-calorie drinks like water, and eliminating processed foods (6).

Studies suggest that a combination of aerobic exercise (cardio) and resistance training (like weight lifting) is optimal for fat loss (6, 7).

Physical activity guidelines from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) suggest that you get at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week (8).

As rowing is predominantly an aerobic exercise, it’s important to tack on resistance training for best results.

Compared with running

While running and rowing are vastly different exercises, you can compare them based on the number of calories they burn. In general, running seems to burn slightly more calories than rowing.

For example, a 175-pound (79-kg) person running at moderate intensity (12-minute mile pace, or 7 minutes per km) for about 1 hour burns around 616 calories, or 154 calories every 15 minutes — versus 560 and 140 calories, respectively, from moderate rowing (2).

As with rowing, the number of calories burned running varies based on exercise intensity and body size.

Notably, running tends to be a higher impact exercise than rowing. This means that rowing may be a better option for people with preexisting injuries or other conditions.

That said, as neither exercise is vastly different in terms of calories burned, you should choose whichever you prefer — or alternate between them.

Summary

Rowing boosts weight loss by providing a significant calorie burn, though you should be sure to pair it with a proper diet. It’s comparable to running in terms of calories expended, though it has less impact on your joints.

In addition to aiding weight loss, rowing supports your health in several ways.

Full body workout

Rowing is a nearly full body exercise, as it stimulates most of the major muscle groups — including your lats (latissimus dorsi), upper back (rhomboids), quads (quadriceps), hamstrings, core, biceps, and forearms.

This puts rowing ahead of other common exercise methods, such as running, cycling, and doing cardio on the elliptical machine, in terms of the extent of muscles worked.

Contrary to popular belief, rowing power is developed approximately 60% through your legs, with the other 40% coming from your upper body (9).

The only major muscle groups not worked during rowing are the chest (pectoralis major and minor) and triceps.

Muscle and strength gains

While rowing is best known for its aerobic (or cardiovascular) benefits, some people claim that it provides muscle and strength gains — though data in this area is limited.

If optimizing muscle growth and strength is your goal, you should add traditional resistance training to your workout plan. Methods include using weights, bands, or body weight in low to moderate ranges of 6–30 reps per set (10).

Rowing workouts tend to use lower resistance and more repetitions than is required to promote optimal muscle gains.

That said, many rowing workouts include resistance training in between rowing intervals. This is the case with CrossFit, as well as other common training methods involving rowing.

May improve heart health

Cardiovascular or aerobic exercises like rowing have repeatedly been shown to boost heart health.

Studies reveal that people who exercise regularly have lower blood pressure, resting heart rate, and LDL (bad) cholesterol, as well as higher HDL (good) cholesterol and a healthier body weight (11, 12).

These positive health outcomes may also reduce your risk of stroke, heart attack, diabetes, and obesity (13, 14, 15).

Rowing 5 days per week for 30 minutes each day easily meets the DHHS’ recommendation to get at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week.

Summary

Rowing offers full body stimulation, potential muscle and strength gains, and improved heart health.

While it may seem fairly straightforward, proper rowing takes a great deal of technique.

Rowing consists of four distinct phases — the catch, the drive, the finish, and the recovery. Here are the basics:

  1. Start by sitting down on the pad and securing your feet with the straps.
  2. Next, turn on the electronic tracker. Some models turn on automatically when you start rowing.
  3. Loosely grasp the oar with your thumbs wrapped around it.
  4. Start in the “catch” position with your arms straight, leaning forward at the hips with your shoulders in front of your hips and your shins close to vertical.
  5. Next, transition to the “drive” position by pushing with your legs and swinging your body back in a vertical position.
  6. Then move into the “finish” position with an arm pull. Your hands should move in a straight line from the flywheel with your shoulders relaxed.
  7. Enter the “recovery” phase by returning to the start position. Let your arms move forward, then tilt your torso forward, and finally bend your legs.
  8. Repeat for the desired duration.

The sequence generally followed when rowing is:

  • legs, back, arms on the catch, drive, and finish phases
  • arms, back, legs on the recovery phase

Rowing technique takes times to develop. As such, practicing on a regular basis is necessary before you transition to more advanced workouts.

Summary

Rowing’s four phases are called the catch, drive, finish, and recovery. This exercise takes substantial muscle synchronization, so give yourself time to master the technique before moving to harder workouts.

After you get the hang of the technique, you can begin incorporating rowing into your exercise routine. Over time, you can build up reps and intensity to burn more calories.

Although it’s common to add other exercises in between your sets, the workouts outlined below solely include rowing intervals.

Beginner rowing workout

When you’re starting out, your goal should be to focus on technique while slowly increasing the intensity of your workouts.

For this beginner workout, you’ll start slow, with only 20 minutes of moderate intensity rowing time. Use this regimen to get used to the rowing rhythm and create a solid foundation to build upon in future workouts.

DetailsTime (minutes)Rate (strokes per minute)
Warmup520
Main workout1024
Cooldown520
Total20 minutes440 strokes

It will take some time to gauge strokes per minute on your own, though most rowing machines calculate this number on their display.

To start, complete this workout 3 days per week until you feel you’re getting the hang of it.

Intermediate rowing workout

This workout kicks up the vigor a notch via intervals with ascending intensity, starting with lower strokes per minute (SPM) for longer durations and ending with higher SPM for shorter times.

Progress to this workout once you’ve mastered the rowing technique on the beginner workout.

Higher intensity workouts like this one can increase your exercise capacity over time.

DetailsTime (minutes)Rate (strokes per minute)
Warmup1020
Round 1 522
Round 2424
Round 3326
Round 4227
Round 5128
Cooldown1020
Total30 minutes766 strokes

This workout provides 15 minutes of intense rowing sandwiched between a 10-minute warmup and 10-minute cooldown.

While only slightly longer than the beginner workout, the intermediate one builds intensity throughout, leading to a higher heart rate and more calories burned.

Now that you have more experience, you may need to perform this workout at least 4 days per week to see progress.

Advanced rowing workout

This advanced workout brings the heat by using alternating intervals of high intensity rowing followed by a rest period.

Research suggests that high intensity interval training (HIIT) can increase your VO₂ max — the maximum rate at which you can deliver oxygen to working muscles — more efficiently than constant intensity exercise (16, 17).

A higher VO₂ max may reduce fatigue, allowing you to exert more effort when exercising or playing sports (16).

Don’t attempt this workout without at least 6 months of solid rowing experience.

DetailsTime (minutes)Rate (strokes per minute)
Warmup1020
Round 1726–28
Rest518–20
Round 2726–28
Rest518–20
Round 3726–28
Cooldown1020
Total51 minutes1,126–1,188 strokes

During rest periods you can row lightly to keep your blood flowing, though you should use this time to prepare yourself for the next set.

Now that you’re advanced, you may need to complete this workout at least 5 days per week to boost your exercise capacity.

Be sure to drink plenty of fluids throughout the workout to stay hydrated.

Methods for increasing intensity

As you become a more advanced rower, you may want various ways to increase the intensity of your workouts.

One of the best methods is by using intervals.

For example, interval training may include working at a higher intensity for a given period, followed by a rest period. You then repeat this cycle for a certain number of reps.

You can also include other exercises between rowing intervals, which is quite common in CrossFit. For instance, you may row for 5 minutes, then do 10 pushups, and repeat.

You can use these methods to increase rowing intensity without greatly affecting the overall duration of your workout.

Summary

Use the beginner, intermediate, and advanced templates above to provide solid rowing workouts. To increase intensity, try using intervals or mixing in other exercises.

A wide variety of rowing machines are available on the market.

The most common is the flywheel rower, which uses a fan blade that spins when the oar is pulled to create more resistance the harder you row.

Another common type is a hydro rower. This machine provides resistance via a water-submerged flywheel that’s said to give a sensation similar to that of rowing a boat.

Yet another kind called a magnetic resistance rower has a magnetic brake system that can be adjusted for resistance levels. This type tends to be the quietest.

Lastly, hydraulic rowing machines provide resistance via a piston filled with liquid or air. These tend to be the most compact and affordable, though they may not allow a natural rowing motion.

Consider reading up on the various models to find the one that best suits you. You may be able to test some of these at an exercise equipment store or your local gym.

Shop for rowing machines online.

Summary

Many types of rowers exist, all with various pros and cons. Before purchasing, investigate several models to see which will be most fitting for your application.

Rowing is a versatile cardio exercise with several benefits, including improved heart health. In addition, rowing promotes calorie burning that may aid weight loss.

If you’re looking to try a new exercise, rowing is a great alternative to running and cycling.

Just make sure you get the hang of the technique before moving on to more advanced workouts.