How to Use a Rowing Machine for a Better Cardio Workout

Rowing machines can be confusing for newbies. Here, a breakdown how to use the rowing machine, plus an answer to the question "is rowing good cardio?"

is rowing good cardio? woman using an indoor rowing machine as cardio exercise

Wondering "is rowing good cardio?" The short answer is an enthusiastic "yes!" The rower is an incredible cardio machine not only because you get your heart rate pumping fast, but because you're simultaneously strengthening the muscles in your back, arms, abs, and legs. But if you're a total newbie to the rowing machine, strapping in without doing research first can be incredibly confusing. Seriously, reading all those confusing numbers on the screen without knowing what they mean won't do your body any favors.

Here, a breakdown of the rowing machine's dashboard, decoded by Annie Mulgrew, the director of programming at CITYROW. Below, she explains exactly how to how to use a rowing machine and what all those metrics mean. (Read up on the benefits of using the rowing machine for your cardio workouts.)

Decoding the Rowing Machine Dashboard

the dashboard of a rowing machine

Strokes Per Minute (SPM)

Your speedometer (which reads 25 above) shows the number of strokes (consider these your reps) you perform in one minute. When it comes to your SPM, higher is not better. Always aim to keep your SPM below 30 — pull hard and recover on the way in — and you'll log more meters (think distance covered on water) and work more muscles in less time.

Split Time

Split time means the amount of time it takes you to row 500 meters (which reads 5:31 above). It is affected by speed (SPM) and power (the push of your legs out to extension). To test how it works, try this: Row 500 meters at 26–28 SPM and aim to keep a consistent split time for two minutes. Then drop your rate to 22–24 SPM, and see if you can push hard enough to maintain the same split time.

Timer Button

Press this button, found in the lower left-hand corner, and then the "up" or "down" arrow to set a timer by 30-second intervals. Press the center button and see how many meters you can row in that given amount of time. Try to complete more meters in each interval while keeping the same SPM rate.

Distance Button

Press this button, found in the lower right-hand corner, and then the "up" or "down" arrow to set a distance goal by 50-meter increments. Then press the center button and see how long it takes you to cover that distance at 26 SPM. Recover, then do the same distance in less time.


This shows either how long you have been rowing or — if you selected the timer button — how long you have left to row. It's found in the bottom left-hand corner of the display above.


Similarly, this is either how far you have been rowing or how much farther you have to row (if you selected the distance button). It's found in the bottom right-hand side of the display above.

Total Meters

Total meters means your distance sum over a given session. This metric is found at the top center of the display above.

Total Time

This is how long you've been on the rower (pretty self-explanatory). It can be found in the top left-hand corner of the display above.

Total Calories

Think of this as the force you are exerting on the machine (not the amount of calories you're burning). For example, try to row at a rate of 26 SPM until you hit 10 calories. Rest, then row at 26 SPM again, but lower your split time so you can get to 10 calories in less time. It's at the top right-hand corner of the display above.

Ready to row, but need some more guidance? Try this rowing workout video from CITYROW or this 20-minute total-body rowing workout.

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