Your Complete Guide to Rowing for Full-Body Exercise

For a low-impact, full-body cardio workout, give rowing a try. Learn about the rowing machine, the benefits of rowing, and more.

Guide to Rowing
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Rowing machines may be slightly more mystifying than the treadmill, bike, or elliptical, all of which you might have used in the past and found pretty intuitive. But if you're looking for a full-body workout that's versatile and beginner-friendly, exercising on an indoor rower might become your new favorite workout.

"An indoor rowing machine mimics rowing on the water, driving force from your quads, pushing on your heels, and using your back to row the handlebar toward you," explains Holly Roser, NASM-certified personal trainer. Rowing machines can be used for many types of workouts and training methods (endurance, HIIT, core, and strength, to name a few).

Want to reap all the benefits of rowing without getting wet? Read on.

What Is Rowing?

Whether your school had its own rowing team, you've spent time near water, or you've simply watched The Notebook a few too many times, you're likely familiar with what the action of rowing looks like. When done in a boat on the water, rowing utilizes your body strength to propel the boat forward or backward using handheld boat paddles.

An indoor rowing machine allows you to move through these "stroke" movements the same way rowers do out on the water. "Through different parts of the rowing stroke, your upper body, core, and lower body (glutes and quads) are all activated and engaged in the exercise," explains Aisyah Rafaee, an Olympic rower, athletic counselor, and Hydrow athlete. This full-body engagement is one of the key benefits of rowing for exercise — with just one machine, you hit all of your major muscle groups for an efficient, low-impact workout.

What to Know About the Rowing Machine

Climbing onto a rowing machine for the first time can be intimidating. But once you understand how to adjust the machine and what all those numbers on the monitor mean, you'll be good to row in no time. To get started, sit on the sliding seat and strap each foot to the footboards. Foot straps should stretch across the widest part of your foot, so take time to adjust if necessary.

Rowing Machine Monitor Metrics

Each indoor rowing monitor will vary slightly by make and model, but there are a few important numbers to understand before getting started.

  • Split time. "Split time refers to the amount of time it will take you to [row] 500 meters at your current speed," explains Roser. This number is useful for tracking your progress over time to see your speed increase.
  • Stroke rate. Stroke rate, or strokes per minute (SPM), tracks the number of rowing strokes you complete per minute. For most people, 24 to 30 SPM is the average, says Roser. This number typically appears in the upper right corner of the rowing machine's display.

Rowing Machine Technique

Once you're strapped in, and your monitor is on, it's time to start rowing. A proper rowing machine stroke moves through three positions:

  • Catch. Also known as the starting position, this is when both legs are bent so that your body is closest to the rowing screen, holding the rowing handle in toward the rowing monitor with arms fully extended. "Shins should be vertical if viewed from the side, shoulders away from ears, and fingers on handles relaxed while hanging on to the handles," adds Rafaee. Imagine that you're about to do a cannonball, but with your back flat (which maintains proper core engagement and helps you avoid lower back injury, FYI).
  • Drive. From the catch position, push off your heels and lean back while holding the handle on each side, pulling your arms just below your ribcage, says Roser. Your knees, glutes (including the rower seat), hands (plus the handle), and shoulders should move together at the same speed for a smooth, fluid movement, says Rafaee.
  • Finish. In this position, legs are fully straightened with the rowing handles almost touching the sternum right below the chest, says Rafaee. Keep feet connected to the footboards, with your back slightly leaning away from the rowing screen.

Learning proper rowing form can take practice. If you're unsure whether or not you're doing it correctly, ask a trainer at your gym to walk you through it. There are also many free instructional videos online that teach indoor rowing techniques.

The Benefits of Rowing

What makes rowing a great workout to try? Here are a few benefits of rowing to expect when you incorporate rowing into your exercise routine.

Delivers a Full-Body Workout

"Indoor rowing works almost all of the muscles in your body," says Rafaee. Research backs this up: A study from the English Institute of Sport measured the effects of rowing training on the body, showing that indoor rowing recruits 86 percent of your muscles for a true full-body workout. With every single stroke, your rowing movement engages your arms, core, and posterior chain (aka your legs, glutes, and back), making this one of the most efficient workouts around.

And if you're prone to slumping at your desk all day, rowing is one of the best posture workouts around. "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," Joseph Ilustrisimo, an ACSM-certified personal trainer, previously told Shape. FYI, your posterior chain is crucial for correcting the bad posture that's a common result of WFH culture — so if you know you're at risk of developing a dowager's hump, rowing a few times a week might help offset that.

Beginner-Friendly

Rowing is a low-impact workout, which means it puts less strain on joints and ligaments because both feet remain grounded on the machine. Using a rowing machine means you're able to go at your own pace while still getting a full-body workout. For those who are new to working out, an indoor rower can be a great machine to start with for these reasons.

On that same note, if you're recovering from an injury or dealing with some lower-body pain, rowing might be a helpful way to get some movement in without risking hurting yourself further (with your doctor's sign-off, of course). With a lower risk of injury, you can add high-intensity rowing workouts to your routine without wearing down your joints, as Shape previously reported. "Higher-intensity exercises such as plyometrics and sprinting can sometimes be hard on the body, but low-impact tools such as rowing machines...are great for the body," Ilustrisimo previously told Shape.

Improves Endurance and Cardiovascular Health

The current Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week for better heart health — and rowing is one way to do so. Rowing provides an intense cardio workout that builds endurance, strength, and power, says Rafaee. Using a rowing machine increases heart rate, which makes the heart work harder to transport blood throughout the body. Regularly activating the cardiovascular system through indoor rowing exercise helps improve stamina and endurance.

The Best Rowing Exercise Tips

Ready to make rowing part of your exercise routine? Here are a few tips to help you get started.

Warm up with rowing.

If you're new to rowing, one easy way to get practice rowing for exercise is to use it as a warm-up routine before moving on to the rest of your workout. Try doing a short row before strength training or lifting to get your heart rate up, suggests Rafaee.

Incorporate row intervals.

Rowing with intervals can be used to intensify any workout. "During your strength training workout, add bursts of two to three minutes of rowing to raise your heart rate every 15 minutes during an hour strength session," recommends Roser. Or, try this 20-minute full-body rowing workout, which incorporates intervals for an extra challenge.

Row for endurance.

Endurance rowing delivers an effective workout and gives you time to focus on perfecting your stroke. To improve endurance, try rowing for 30 minutes using longer (slower) strokes, says Rafaee. (Think: around 24 to 26 SPM.)

The Takeaway On Rowing for Exercise

Whether you prefer rowing as a warm-up or using the cardio machine for HIIT workouts, staying consistent will help you maintain proper rowing form while getting the heart-pumping benefits of rowing. "Rowing can be mentally challenging, especially for beginners, because there is a lot to think about in the rowing stroke — but with consistency, you will get better," says Rafaee.

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