Why a Rowing Machine is the Best Choice for Building Strength and Endurance
Rowing was named one of 2022's hottest exercise trends by gym industry experts — and for good reason. Whether you're looking to build muscle, torch fat, or both, hopping on a rowing machine offers one of the best workouts for improving your strength and endurance. In this fitness guide, we'll explore the research behind why rowing is a top recommendation from personal trainers, plus how to get the most out of your next rowing routine.
How Rowing Works Your Body
Unlike many other workout machines, a rowing machine offers a truly full-body workout.
In fact, Dr. Cameron Nichol — a retired Olympic rower for Team Britain and a winner of two silver medals — ranks rowing as the most efficient full-body workout, explaining that it activates 85% of your body's muscles across nine major muscle groups.
And the research backs it up. In one study that analyzed flexibility and strength in major joints like your knees and shoulders, researchers concluded that "significant improvement in every joint was witnessed" and that "all aspects of basic fitness increased significantly."
When rowing, you target the following key areas:
- Your core, including your abdominal muscles and even your hip flexors
- Your lower body, especially your glutes, quads, and hamstrings, which are responsible for generating power on the rowing machine
- Your upper body, including your biceps, deltoids, and lats
What is a Rowing Machine?
Similar to how a cycling machine mimics riding a road bike, a rowing machine simulates the rowing action you'd take when rowing a boat or similar watercraft.
Once seated, you grasp a handlebar attached to a flywheel — it's this flywheel that provides the resistance in your workout, and you can toggle that resistance up or down as needed — and complete a rowing action.
How Do You Use a Rowing Machine?
A rowing machine isn't as intuitive as other machines, such as a bench press machine or bicep curl station. This often leads to poor form, which robs you of the benefits of the rower's full-body routine.
The most common mistake that many people make is putting too much emphasis on generating power with their arms and chest when it really should start in their lower body.
To use a rowing machine:
- Sit on the machine with your knees bent
- Place your feet firmly on the foot pedals, and secure them in place with straps if straps are included
- Grab the handle in front of you, bending forward at the hips
- Push back with your legs using explosive power
- Pull the handle towards your chest as your legs straighten, but not before and not after
- Lean slightly backward as your handle reaches your chest, pulling your shoulder blades together
- Glide back forward, returning to the starting position
It's all about the correct sequence. Typically, beginners will pull the handlebar to their chest too soon or lean back too early. Everything listed above should be happening in a smooth, controlled sequence and in the right order:
- (Beginning) Legs
- (Returning to starting position) Arms
What Are the Benefits of Using a Rowing Machine?
We've already touched on how a rowing machine offers a truly full-body workout and is especially beneficial for your lower-body strength. But that's not the only benefit that makes rowing the best workout for those who want to level up their fitness.
1. Rowing Builds Aerobic Fitness
According to the American Council on Exercise, rowing is one of the top choices for building aerobic fitness. The intense aspect of rowing strengthens every element of your cardiovascular system, including your lungs and heart.
And unlike many other forms of aerobic exercise (e.g., jogging and running), ACE notes that rowing also puts a heavy emphasis on building muscle strength, too.
2. Rowing is Highly Efficient
Don't have time for a full hour in the gym? You're in luck.
Rowing activates every muscle group in your body and in a short amount of time. The short, quick bursts of power required for rowing puts it in the classification of high-intensity interval training (HIIT). One study found that HIIT burns more calories than traditional workouts, and that same study showed that just 15 minutes of rowing and other forms of HIIT can deliver greater improvements in your health and fitness than longer bouts of continuous exercise.
3. Rowing Can Be Its Own Stand-Alone Workout or Serve as an Addition to Your Current Fitness Regime
In an interview, fitness and nutrition coach Hollis Tuttle says that rowing can serve multiple purposes:
- It works great as a warm-up before your regular workout
- It delivers significant benefits as your full workout
- It adds variety to your exercise schedule, keeping you engaged and committed by creating a more diverse workout experience
Tuttle adds that rowing can even be a form of moving meditation, saying that the constant rhythm and focus required by rowing can help you to "zen out." Regular meditative practice can help improve your mental health and reduce your stress (chronic stress, specifically the stress hormone cortisol, is linked with muscle loss, weight gain, and poor workout recovery!).
Frequently Asked Questions About Rowing
1. Is Rowing Better Than Other Cardio or Strength Machines?
Every machine offers its own distinct benefits. But because rowing improves both your cardiovascular health and your muscle health, it is a far more comprehensive choice than machines that target a specific muscle or a specific movement.
That being said, it all depends on your training goals.
For example, if you're a runner, you'll continue to want to hit the treadmill in order to target the specific function you're trying to improve. But even in these cases, weaving in a rowing workout every few days can help you be a more well-rounded runner.
2. Can You Use a Rowing Machine If You Have Injuries or Pre-Existing Health Conditions?
Rowing machines work well for people of all backgrounds and levels of experience. It's highly accessible because there aren't a lot of moving parts or complicated movements. For instance, a study on those with visual impairments found that they could effectively row and reap the benefits of a rowing workout despite their vision loss.
Rowing, unlike alternative machines like treadmills, is also very low-impact. That's important for those with arthritis and other joint issues, or those rehabilitating an injury. However, always talk to your doctor or a similar professional if you have any pre-existing health concerns.
3. How Long Should You Use a Rowing Machine?
Studies have found that HIIT workouts, including rowing, deliver results in as little as 15 minutes. Ideally, you should use it for at least 30 minutes. Keep in mind that more is not always better — it's an intense workout, and you don't have to overtax your body.
How to Get Started on a Rowing Machine
Most gyms have at least one rowing machine. To get started, try this straightforward interval-based workout routine:
- Warm up for five minutes, getting into a slow and steady rhythm and paying attention to the legs-core-arms sequence we noted earlier in this guide
- Get off of the rowing machine and stretch or walk around the gym for 3-5 minutes
- Start interval 1: Row for 200 meters — rowing machines measure your workout by the distance you've rowed — and aim to hit 200 meters in 1:30 minutes
- Do one minute or slow, easy rowing to cool down
- Start interval 2: Strive to hit 300 meters in 2 minutes
- Do a cool-down row for a minute
- Start interval 3: 400 meters in 2:30 minutes
- Do a cool-down row for a minute
- Start interval 4: 500 meters in 3 minutes
- Do a cool-down row for a minute, then repeat intervals 3, 2, and 1 in reverse
- Finish with five minutes of slow, rhythmic rowing
Rowing can be an intense, full-body workout. Fuel up properly to get the most out of your rowing machine. At Tiger Fitness, you'll find an array of best-selling supplements to maximize your workouts. Start with a pre-workout drink to energize you, then wrap up your workout with a protein shake and other recovery supplements. When doing any form of HIIT, it's critical that your body gets the nutrition it needs to push through and recover quickly.