A consistent exercise routine is incredibly important with age, and working out offers several benefits, such as boosting longevity to protect against age-related disease, keeping your body strong and agile and maintaining a sharp mind.
However, your body naturally becomes more fragile as you get older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and thus more susceptible to falls and other types injuries as a result.
The rowing machine is a great piece of equipment to train with as you age because it's a low-impact way to boost your heart health, strengthen your muscles and support an active lifestyle to improve longevity. (More on rowing's benefits for older adults below!)
Here's a 20-minute row machine for seniors, created by Rachel Perlman, CPT, certified personal trainer and performance coach for the training app Future. When rowing, you'll want to pay attention to your strokes per minute (SPM) and rate of perceived exertion (RPE), which is how hard a workout might feel on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being very easy to 10 being maxed out.
Check out more of our 20-minute workouts here— we’ve got something for everyone.
A 20-Minute Rowing Cardio and Strength Workout
- Start off seated on the rower and tightly strap in and secure your feet on the foot plates so that the straps are over the balls of your feet.
- Start off with a warmup for 2 minutes on the row machine where SPM is around 16 to 18 and the RPE is around 3. This should be relatively easy.
- Continue for 2 minutes with a steady row of an SPM around 18 to 20 and RPE at about 4. Intensity is at a moderate level.
- Then, crank it up a notch for a 1-minute power row. The SPM should be around 20 to 22 and RPE should be between 4 and 5. Intensity should be between moderate and high.
- Get off the rowing machine for a quick strength circuit, performing 1 set of 10 reps for each of the following four strength moves below.
- Get back on the rowing machine and do a power row for 1 minute, where SPM is between 22 to 24 and RPE is about a 5 or 6.
- Take a 1-minute break for recovery, but don't stop moving, as your muscles might tense up. Instead, lightly row and recover with a SPM of 16 to 18 and RPE of 3.
- Do another 1-minute power row where SPM is 22 to 24 and RPM is a 5 or 6.
- Take another 1 minute of recovery with a lighter row, keeping SPM at 16 to 18 and RPE around a 3.
- Do another round of strength exercises, repeating the same exact moves with the same amount of reps as before.
- Get back on the rowing machine and perform a steady row for 2 minutes where SPM is around 20 to 22 and RPE is about a 4 or 5.
- Crank up the intensity for a 1-minute power row with SPM at 22 to 24 and RPE between 5 and 6. This row should feel challenging as a final push.
- Cool down with a 2-minute light row, keeping a SPM of 16 to 18 and RPE at about a 2 or 3.
- After you unstrap your feet and get off the rower, you have the option to do a few static stretches for about 3 to 5 minutes. Perlman suggests doing so, as it'll promote optimal recovery and help prevent soreness and injury.
How to Row With Proper Form
It helps to divide the rowing motion into four parts: catch, drive, finish and recovery:
- Catch: Bend your knees as the seat slides toward the front of the machine. Let your arms straighten and hinge gently forward from the hips until — if flexibility allows — your elbows are past your knees. Don't hunch your shoulders forward or push yourself into an uncomfortable stretch.
- Drive: Push the seat back with your legs. As your legs straighten, let your torso hinge slightly back from the hips (as if it were pointing to 11 o'clock on a clock face), then bring your hands in close to your chest.
- Finish: This is the resting position opposite the catch position. Your legs are stretched, your shoulders and back leaning away from your legs and your hands are pulled at the chest.
- Recovery: Perform those movements in reverse: First, let your arms extend, then hinge your torso slightly forward from the hips (to about 1 o'clock on a clock face) and finally, allow your legs to bend as you slide forward to the front of the machine.
You can watch Perlman demonstrate in the video below:
3 Rowing Tips to Keep in Mind
- "In order to lower your SPM, keep your leg drive powerful, but slow down the transition between your strokes," Perlman says. To increase SPM, speed up the strokes.
- "Think to yourself: 'legs, core, arms' for the order of events in a stroke, and think, 'arms, core, legs' when returning to the starting position for the next stroke," Perlman says.
- Keep the handles close to your legs for stronger leg drive and proper posture, and don't let your arms do the bulk of the work. Perlman says rowing should be about 60 percent legs, 20 percent core and 20 percent arms. "This will maximize your stroke rate and drive," Perlman says.
4 Exercises to Do Off the Rower Mid-Workout
1. Biceps Curl
Upper-body pulling muscles, such as those in your biceps, need strength for everyday movements, like holding weighted items or picking up and carrying a basket of laundry up the stairs.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand at your sides with elbows close to your body and your palms facing away from you.
- Keep your shoulders down away from your ears and your chest open. Bend your elbows, lifting your hands until the dumbbells reach your shoulders.
- Lower back down with control to return the starting position.
Avoid swinging your arms by engaging your core and keeping a soft bend in your knees. "Imagine there are magnets on the insides of your elbows keeping them attached to the sides of your body, as this will help isolate the biceps so they can do all of the work," Perlman says.
2. Shoulder Press
Upper-body pushing muscles, including your shoulders, chest and triceps, are important to strengthen because building these muscles will make it easier to push or lift objects overhead, improving functional fitness and good posture. An example of how this pertains to real life is when you're putting away household items in an overhead cupboard.
- Stand tall in with your feet hip-width apart, a soft bend in your knees.
- Lift the weights to your shoulders with your elbows bent at 90 degrees, forearms and palms facing out away from you.
- On an exhale, brace your core and press both dumbbells overhead.
- Lower the weights back to the starting position with control.
Avoid arching your back by bracing your core. Imagine sewing your ribcage closed, and keep a soft bend in your knees, Perlman says.
3. Dead Bug
Dead bugs are an excellent core exercise that focuses on unilateral (single-sided) movement and anti-rotational core strength. This movement is incredibly helpful for assisting the stabilizer muscles in your trunk in order to improve balance and prevent falls.
- Lie flat on your back with both arms reaching straight toward the ceiling.
- Lift your feet off the ground so your legs are bent at a 90-degree angle.
- Keep your lower back in contact with the floor through the entire duration of the exercise.
- Slowly and with control, extend your right leg and left arm away from each other.
- Lower your limbs as far as you can while keeping your lower back on the ground. Fight the impulse to arch your back by tightening your abs, pressing your bellybutton down to anchor your lower back to the floor.
- Exhale as you return your right leg and left arm to the starting position with the same slow, controlled movement.
- Repeat with your left leg and right arm, then return to center again. This counts as 1 rep.
Don't rush. Move slowly and purposefully, maintaining a tabletop position with your knees over your hips to activate your lower abs, according to Perlman.
4. Bird Dog
- Get on your hands and knees with your hands directly in line with your shoulder and knees in line with your hips.
- Look down at the floor and brace your core (tucking your tailbone just slightly) to create a straight line from the tip of your head to your tailbone.
- On an exhale, reach your left arm straight out in front of you until your upper arm is in line with your ear.
- Simultaneously reach your right leg straight behind you, fully extending your knee.
- Pause here for a moment.
- Reverse the motion and return to the starting position.
- Switch sides, reaching your right arm forward and raising your left leg back.
- Pause and then go back to the starting position.
Press into your supporting hand and knee that's on the ground, as this helps activate your obliques and anti-rotational core stabilizers to assist with balance as the opposite sides lift and perform the movement, Perlman says.
The Benefits of Rowing for Older Adults
There are many reasons to add rowing to your workout routine — in general and as you age.
1. It Boosts Heart Health
"Regularly rowing helps strengthen the heart, improve blood circulation and lower the risk of heart disease," says Lalitha Bhowani-McSorley, MScPT, lead physical therapist and owner of Brentwood Physiotherapy Calgary in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
A small February 2023 study published in the International Journal of Environ Research and Public Health found rowing workouts to enhance cardiovascular health and endurance levels in older women, as well as reduce risk factors for heart-related health issues issues.
Rowing also effectively boosts aerobic capacity, or VO2 max. "VO2 max represents the maximum amount of oxygen our body can utilize during aerobic activity and how well our heart and veins can push blood to our muscles and the rest of the body," Perlman says.
2. It's Low-Impact
Rowing is a full-body, low-impact workout, meaning it's great for joint and bone health. "Rowing hits the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, calves, core, chest, arms, shoulders and back," Perlman says.
Strengthening these muscles supports daily functions, such as walking, standing, picking something up off the ground and grabbing something from a high place.
Rowing is performed seated, so there isn't as much impact on your knee joints, either, which tend to be prone to wear and tear and more sensitivity in seniors, Perlman notes.
3. It Strengthens Your Muscles and Bones
Sarcopenia (the loss of muscle mass) naturally happens with age, but rowing helps enhance bone density and prevent sarcopenia from worsening.
A December 2018 review in the BioMed Research International found rowing supports bone health by boosting bone mineral density in older adults.
"Decreased bone density increases risk of falling, physical disability and injury, which can prevent people over 50 from living their highest quality of life," Perlman says.
4. It Improves Your Mental Health and Cognitive Function
Rowing benefits may even extend to mental health and cognitive function. An August 2020 research article published in Perceptual and Motor Skills found rowing to be associated with preserved and enhanced cognitive function in seniors, which may indirectly reduce risk of depression and boost wellbeing, too.
- CDC: "Keep on Your Feet—Preventing Older Adult Falls"
- International Journal of Environ Research and Public Health: "The Time Course of Cardiorespiratory Adaptations to Rowing Indoor Training in Post-Menopausal Women"
- BioMed Research International: "The Effectiveness of Physical Exercise on Bone Density in Osteoporotic Patients"
- Perceptual and Motor Skills: "Physical and Cognitive Performance During Upper-Extremity Versus Full-Body Exercise Under Dual Tasking Conditions"