Get to know the one gym machine that gives you full-body strength and conditioning training and is easy on your joints. (Seriously why haven't you been doing this before??)

By Dominique Michelle Astorino
February 22, 2020
woman using rowing machine for benefits of cardio and strength workout
woman using rowing machine for benefits of cardio and strength workout
| Credit: fotostorm/Getty Images

Whether you're getting to know the lay of the land in your local gym, or you're considering a new fitness machine for your home, it's time you got to know the indoor rower, also known as the ergometer or rowing machine. While it may look intimidating at first, it's actually more beginner-friendly than you might think—and it provides one hell of a workout. All the deets, here.

What Is the Rowing Machine?

The ergometer is essentially mimicking the rowing of a shell (aka boat), like those you see in the Olympics, according to Evan Tyrrell, owner of F45 Training in La Jolla, CA.

"The rowing machine is like the Swiss Army knife of the gym," says professional rower Michelle Sosa, a 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." Swiss Army knife is right—the rower seemingly does it all.

How Do You Use a Rowing Machine?

The motion you use in a rowing exercise is not always intuitive, but it's actually pretty simple once you dial it in. Here's a handy way to remember how to row: legs, core, arms (on the way out) and arms, core, legs (on the way in). Meaning, when you start from the bottom of a stroke (in the catch position), you should extend your legs, hinge your core, then use your arms to row the handle toward your chest. Then you reverse it to go back to the beginning: Extend your arms, let your core hinge forward, then bend your legs. (You can repeat it in your head as a sort of mantra while you're rowing: Legs, core, arms, arms, core, legs.) A lot of the power actually comes from the legs, but you need to keep your core tight while you push back and eventually pull the handles with your hands/arms.

Sosa notes that the biggest misconception about rowing is that it's an upper-body-only exercise. "The bulk of your rowing stroke is accomplished by the legs and core," says Sosa. (See: Rowing Machine Mistakes You're Probably Making)

"Rowing is about 60-percent legs, 30-percent core, and 10-percent arms," says Joseph Illustrisimo, creator of Let's Dryft in San Francisco (a workout that's half on the rower, half strength training—think Barry's with rowers instead of treadmills). "Most of rowing will be working out your hamstrings and booty, but only if you are hinging properly. It should feel like a deadlift. There's also a large amount of core activation. Your core should be engaged the whole time, so you should learn how to dynamically engage those abs and you should feel a burn throughout."

You can ask a trainer at your gym to show you, or opt for an at-home program with instructional videos. Hyrdow is like the Peloton of rowing machines, so if you're in the market for a home gym addition, this would be a useful way to get some live instruction on how to use a rower. "The instruction piece is critical for beginners to ensure you're maximizing your efforts and doing it safely and correctly," says Sosa.

If you want to try a class that incorporates rowing, you ca try CityRow in New York City, Let's Dryft in San Francisco, F45 Training in multiple locations, and Orangetheory Fitness (in certain locations). These all offer workouts that incorporate the rowing machine into their classes. This would give you more IRL intel on how to properly use the rowing machine and how to vary your workouts to keep things interesting.

Rowing Machine Benefits

Let's break down what you actually get out of using the rowing machine. What are some of the benefits of using a rower, and why would you want to hop on one at your gym?

  1. Burn a lot of calories. Because the rower offers a combo of strength and cardio training, Tyrrell says it's a "super-efficient way to burn calories." Depending on your body weight and how vigorously you're rowing, you could burn between 400 and 500 calories an hour on the rowing machine.
  2. Improve your aerobic fitness. Tyrrell noted that rowing for even just 15 minutes is "a serious aerobic workout." Rowing regularly can help increase your stamina and endurance while improving your overall cardiovascular health.
  3. Get a full-body workout. You'll truly get a full-body workout with a rowing machine. Get this—this machine uses 86 percent (!!) of the muscles in your body. (Just smile a lot during your workout and you might use 100?)
  4. Improve lower-body conditioning. Because you use your leg muscles so much in this workout (contrary to how it might seem, they're doing a majoring of the work in rowing), he noted that targeted lower-body conditioning—building strength and endurance—is among the top benefits. Strong stems, here you come.
  5. Work out with less injury risk. You have a lower injury risk on a rower machine because it's low-impact, says Tyrrell. Plus, because it's of this, you can work at a high intensity without as much wear-and-tear on your joints. "Higher-intensity exercises like plyometrics and sprinting can sometimes be hard on the body, but low-impact tools like rowing machines and bicycles are great for the body," says Illustrisimo. "You also have many variables to change in your workouts like resistance, pace, and distance."
  6. Build better posture. "Since the rowing machine primarily uses your legs, core, and back, it has loads of postural benefits, and is a great tool to engage the posterior chain [backside] of the body," says Illustrisimo. Working your posterior chain is super important for balancing our muscle strength, reducing injury risk, and helping correct the bad posture that's common in our sedentary society.
  7. Keep your workout beginner-friendly. One of the additional benefits is that it's easy for beginners to try, says Sosa. "You see and feel results quickly, which is great for beginners," says Sosa. But you have to stick with it for more than just a few minutes to make this happen. "Gym goers tend to hop on and off a rower within five minutes due to boredom or confusion, foregoing those results," she explains. Stick it out for 10 to 20 minutes to see an improvement in your form and work long enough to get your heart pumping.

Rowing vs. Other Cardio Machines

So is the ergometer the queen of the gym? That depends. "No one machine is better than the other in every situation, but the rower is safe for those who are otherwise unable to run or cycle because of joint pain," says Liz Letchford, Ph.D.(c), ATC, an injury-prevention specialist in Los Angeles. "As long as you maintain strong form, the rowing machine is a great full-body workout that can improve both strength endurance and cardiovascular endurance."

In terms of calories, moderate rowing and moderate cycling burn about the same amount—about 200-300 calories in 30 minutes, according to Harvard Medical School. However, hopping on the elliptical or running might burn more—240-400 calories in 20 minutes—all depending on intensity.

Unlike other cardio options, though, the rowing machine has the edge of being both strength and cardio at once, notes Tyrrell. "The rower lets you build more muscle by raising the resistance level, whereas treadmills, Spinning bikes, and elliptical machines offer limited muscle-building benefits," he says. "A big advantage that I'd like to point out is that you can build muscle while burning fat, whereas slow-paced cardio machines can result in muscle loss."

So you're getting the cardio workout and the aerobic exercise, but you're also doing moves similar to what you'd do with big, heavy weights. "Rowing has very similar movement patterns to deadlifts, seated rows, leg presses, and even calf raises from when you push away from the platform," says Tyrrell.

Can You Use the Rowing Machine If You're Injured or Are New to Exercise?

Most likely. "Rowing is something I recommend to people of all ages with all different fitness abilities, as you can really make it your own, and use it as a means for achieving a number of different fitness goals," says Sosa. Here's the deal:

If You Have an Extremity Injury...

The rowing machine is generally quite safe for those who are rehabbing an injury or on the newer side. "Because rowing has virtually zero impact, it's a fantastic option for anyone who is rehabbing an injury, typically experiences joint pain or discomfort, or is looking to build strength without excessive strain," says Sosa.

For that reason, a lot of athletes (professional or otherwise) use rowing as a huge part of their cross-training or return from injury, he says. However, if you do have an injury, you should absolutely check with your doc first, says Sosa. As per usual, get the go-ahead from the person overseeing your care before jumping into something new and unknown.

If You Have a Back Injury...

"While the rowing machine is a safe movement for most people to do with proper form, when the intensity of the exercise increases, people tend to use their lower back to drive the movement," says Letchford. In other words, when it gets tough and your body starts to fatigue, your lower back may take over to compensate for your tired muscles—and this is no bueno.

"For people who tend to lose their core strength when fatigued, this movement could lead to a compromised low back," she says. "When done slowly and with control, rowing is safe for most conditions; however, if you have a low back injury and are interested in adopting a rowing practice, it should be done with adequate supervision." (Consider adding these back-relief core-strengthening exercises to your routine.)

If You're New...

"Rowing can be complex for some people as well," says Illustrisimo. "It does take a little bit of coordination to get used to rowing, but it is just like riding a bike. Once you can learn how to use it efficiently it will be one of the best cardio machines you could ever use to create a workout that will have you gasping for air but feeling so much better after."

"Newbies should keep in mind that the chances of sticking with a new routine have a lot to do with your support system surrounding the activity," says Sosa. "Rowing with a friend—whether it's in person at the gym, or virtually on that leaderboard—helps you keep you accountable, and coming back and working harder."

If You're Pregnant...

"Rowing is safe for pregnancy until the changing shape of the body gets in the way of safe movement," says Letchford. And, as always, ask your doctor if this type of training is safe for you. (See: How to Change Your Workouts While Pregnant)

Can Rowing Be Your Entire Workout…Every Time?

Are you ready to devote yourself to the ergometer? Does this sound like your new favorite workout? Do you want to use the rowing machine as your entire routine now??

Tyrrell says this can absolutely be your go-to program. "Rowing provides an epic full-body workout, and packs many powerful benefits for your heart, lungs, and overall health," he says. You can also increase the intensity as you improve, meaning you can always make the workout harder, says Illustrisimo. "Some people might think rowing is too easy," he says. "But rowing machines are great because you choose how hard you want to make the workout. You can be more explosive with your strokes or you can keep a fast cadence (strokes per minute)."

Sosa agrees. "Rowing's unique hybrid of high cardiovascular output coupled with full-body strength training can get you into the best shape of your life!"

Comments (1)

February 23, 2020
Age 59, I have used a rowing machine every day, for 95 minutes at a single sitting (low intensity, steady state), for years, and feel half that age as a result. The machine is at home, and it meets all of my conditioning needs. I use a Concept 2 machine, generally considered the gold standard for this machines (though Waterrower is wonderful too). I cannot recommend this exercise highly enough.