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Rowing for Fitness - Meet the Gym's Latest Superstar

Rowing for Fitness - Meet the Gym's Latest Superstar

Reading Time: 6 minutes 18 seconds


DATE: 2019-07-03

If you work in a gym, you're probably already aware that the newest craze in cardio, and working out in general, is the rowing machine. The cycling bike is handing over its crown as the leader in sweaty, high-intensity cardio workouts and group classes.

What people are realizing is that the rowing machine provides a better overall workout. The machine gets much more of your body involved in each stroke, which means you get a big cardio burn as well as muscle strengthening and toning.

Before jumping on the latest fitness bandwagon, it's important to answer some questions:

  • What are the fitness benefits of using a rowing machine?

  • What does good form look like, and can you get hurt if you don't row correctly?

  • How does rowing stack up against other cardio machines?

  • Who should be rowing for fitness and where does it fit into a regular routine?

Benefits of Using the Rowing Machine

There are many benefits of rowing, most obviously the great cardio workout it offers. Really, like any type of cardio, it beats doing no exercise at all. But there are some specific benefits that make this one of the top choices in the gym and explain why rowing is becoming more and more popular.

Rowing for Fitness - And Weight Loss

Rowing is great for overall fitness, but it's useful in more specific ways too. Like other types of cardio fitness, rowing can be a big calorie burner. It gets your heart rate up quickly to improve cardiovascular fitness and burn calories. Rowing can also build muscle, which over time will lead to an even bigger calorie burn.

For a 155-pound person, a vigorous 30 minutes on a rowing machine will burn about 315 calories.[1] To really improve the calorie burn and to support weight loss, use rowing as part of high-intensity interval training, or HIIT workouts. As with any cardio machine, you can create all types of HIIT workouts using a rowing machine.

If you're new to HIIT workouts, check out this ISSA blog post to learn more about these efficient, fat-blasting workouts.

Build Leg Muscle

A big benefit of using a rowing machine is that you get a cardio workout along with muscle development. The resistance of a rowing machine can provide pretty good strength training workout while also causing your heart rate to soar. Rowing is a nearly whole-body workout.

As a lower body workout, rowing hits the big muscle groups. One complete cycle on the machine works your hamstrings, quads, calf muscles, and glutes.

Build Upper Body Strength Too

With the pulling motion of a rowing machine, you'll also get a good upper body strength workout. The first part of the pull-back works your pecs, wrist extensors and flexors, trapezius muscles, deltoids, rhomboids, and triceps. As you pull the handle all the way to your midsection, you'll add in the biceps.

Work on Core Strength

Proper movement on a rowing machine will have you leaning forward and back as you pull and release. This works several core muscles, including the rectus abdominis, erector spinae, and the external and internal obliques.

Learn more here about how cardio and strength training work together to improve cardio fitness while also building muscle.

Enjoy a Low-Impact Workout

For some people, getting on the treadmill or outside to pound the pavement with a run is the ideal way to get in a cardio workout. For others, it just plain hurts. A great benefit of using the rowing machine for a workout is the low-impact nature of the movement. You can take it easy on all your joints doing this exercise. This means less pain and a lower risk of injuries.

How Rowing Compares to Other Cardio Machines

You can do cardio in so many different ways. In the gym, the popular machines for cardio include the treadmill, cycling bike, and elliptical. So, how does the rowing machine compare to these others?

The simplest answer is that the best machine is the one you will use regularly. Or, it's the one your client will use. This, of course, is because everyone is different and each person has their own preferences. What is most important in exercise equipment is what you like and will actually do on a regular basis.

That being said, there are some points to make about which machine provides the best overall workout. The verdict that most experts will give is that the rowing machine wins. Unlike a treadmill and cycling bike, the rowing machine works your upper body as well as your lower body, not to mention your core.

Many elliptical machines have arm movements as well, including variable resistance. However, the rowing machine still involves more muscles and more of your body in each stroke. It is a full-body workout that other machines just can't provide.

Watch Your Rowing Form

Before you put a client on the rowing machine, work on good form. As with any type of exercise, correct form will ensure a more efficient workout and also a lower risk of injury. If you are unfamiliar with or have only minimal experience rowing, try it out for a while and perfect your own form before working with clients.

Good Rowing Form

Getting on a rowing machine and pulling as your bottom slides back and forth isn't exactly difficult. But it's also easy to do it wrong. This is what good rowing form looks like in the four different stages of one cycle:

  • The Catch. This is your starting position. Hold the handles and push your feet flat against the footrest. Your knees should be bent so that your lower legs are nearly perpendicular to the floor. Your back should be straight, core engaged, and your shoulders just forward of your hips.

  • The Drive. With a straight back and core engaged, pull back with your arms and push with your legs. Once your legs are straight, keep pulling back with your arms, and lean your torso back.

  • The Finish. This is the position you are in just before recovering back to the catch. Your legs should be straight and your elbows bent so that the handle is not quite touching your midsection. Your back should be straight, core engaged, and your shoulders relaxed.

  • The Recovery. The recovery stage is the reverse of the drive. Let your arms straighten first, then lean forward at the hips and let your knees bend as you move forward.

Correcting Form Mistakes

Once you get it, good rowing form is easy and becomes natural. But there are plenty of mistakes you or your client may initially make. These can cause injury over time and make your overall workout less efficient. Here are some typical form errors and how to correct them:

  • Hunch back. Start each cycle with good posture, back straight and core engaged, to avoid hunching over and rolling the shoulders.

  • Wobbly knees. Don't let your knees bow outwards. They should stay in line with the hips. Try adjusting the foot straps to keep them on track.

  • Doing everything at once. It's a mistake to pull back with the arms and push with the legs together and with the same force. Start with the legs, and then pull the arms back.

  • Leaning too far back. At the finish, you should not be leaning back too far past 90 degrees. To practice good form, try rowing a few strokes without the foot straps. This will give you better control.

Rowing for Fitness - Take it to the Water

Most people will encounter rowing only in the gym. A rowing machine is a pretty common piece of equipment for gyms, but it's also one that mimics a sport you can actually do for real. Rowing, also known as crew, is a fun and challenging sport. Every benefit you get from the indoor rowing machine you can get outside too.

Many of us will only ever see people rowing on television, usually during the Olympics. But, if you do a quick search you may find that there is a rowing club near you. Crew teams and clubs use boats, also called shells, that are long, narrow, and light. Some are designed for just one person, while others carry up to eight.

Some clubs may rent out boats or have free days during which non-members can try out rowing. Give it a try and put all that hard gym effort to work on the water. Just know that shells are pretty unstable and it's possible you'll tip into the water. If you can't swim, you may want to stick with the gym.

Rowing for fitness is a new, popular trend in many gyms. Just because a workout is trendy does not mean it's any good or right for everyone, but rowing is truly a star. Nearly all of your clients can do this workout safely and benefit from it for cardio fitness, conditioning, endurance, and muscle development.

Want to up your game as a personal trainer? Check out the ISSA's Elite Trainer certification program.


[1]Harvard Health Publishing. Harvard Medical School. (2018, August 13). Calories Burned in 30 Minute for People of Three Different Weights. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/diet-and-weight-loss/calories-burned-in-30-minutes-of-leisure-and-routine-activities

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