The rowing machine provides an excellent full-body workout, putting both upper and lower body to work as you mimic the motion of a sweep or crew rower. But to really reap the benefits of a rowing workout, you need to put in the right amount of time.
If you're working out for health, using a rowing machine for 30 minutes a day at a moderate intensity — or 15 minutes per day at a vigorous intensity — is enough. But if you're rowing for weight loss or sports training, you might need to do more.
Rowing for Health
Even though using a rowing machine requires a lot of full-body power, it's classified as a cardiovascular activity. To become and stay healthy, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) recommends that you get a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity cardio exercise per week.
Your rowing can count as either a moderate or vigorous intensity workout, depending on what resistance level you set the machine to and how fast you row. Workout intensity is always relative to your own fitness level — what's very easy for one person might be hard for you, or vice versa.
Because of that, one of the best ways to measure your workout intensity on the rowing machine is the talk test: If you're rowing hard enough that you can chat with the person on the rower next to you, but not sing, you're working at a moderate intensity. If you're rowing hard enough that you can get a word out here and there but not have a real conversation, you're working out at a vigorous intensity.
Remember those recommendations from the DHHS? You don't have to do all that workout time in one fell swoop. Instead, you can break it up throughout the week into however many shorter sessions you like. For example, if you tackle the rowing machine 30 minutes a day at a moderate intensity, five days a week, you'll meet that 150-minute recommendation with ease.
If you only have 15 minutes a day, five days per week, you can still make it work by rowing at a vigorous intensity. And you can always mix and match your rowing workouts with other types of aerobic exercise, such as walking or running, cycling, swimming, hiking, playing field sports or using a stair stepper.
Read more: What Are the Benefits of Rowing Vs. Running?
Rowing for Weight Loss
The DHHS recommendations are for staying healthy — but if you want to lose weight, you'll probably need to row longer than what it takes to meet those minimum recommendations. The DHHS states that you can receive even more health benefits if you double your exercise — 300 minutes (or more) of moderate-intensity exercise per week or 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise. That's also a good place to start on your weight loss quest.
Just as the DHHS's recommendations for health are based on your rowing time and intensity, the number of calories you burn (and thus, how quickly you lose weight) depends on exercise duration and intensity too, along with other factors such as your weight, body composition and genetics.
According to estimates from Harvard Health Publishing, a 155-pound person who puts in a half-hour of moderate-intensity rowing is going to burn about 260 calories. Bump that up to an hour and you have 520 calories; do that five days a week and not only will you meet the DHHS's "doubled" recommendations for extra health benefits, but you'll also have burned more than 2,500 calories.
To lose a pound of fat you must burn about 3,500 calories more than you consume — so this type of calorie burn can put you well on your way toward losing more than half a pound a week.
Research from the National Weight Control Registry shows that the vast majority of Americans who lose weight and keep it off do so with a combination of exercise and a healthy diet. If you reduce your calorie intake by a modest 150 calories per day below maintenance levels, you can set yourself up for losing about a pound a week.
Rowing for Sports Goals
If you're rowing as part of a sports training regimen, your coaching team will help you set appropriate goals. Your body adapts to the challenges you present it with so, as a general rule, if you want to develop endurance you should do long, steady rows. If you want to develop sprint speed, you should do sprint intervals.
And if you're a rower looking to build power for when your coxswain calls out for a "Power 10!" in which you give the 10 most powerful strokes you're capable of, you'll do lots of power strokes in practice.
Even if you're a highly competitive rower, that doesn't mean rowing is the only type of exercise that's worthwhile for you to practice. Cross-training, or working other types of exercise into your routine on a regular basis, helps improve your performance, balance your muscular development, and decrease your risk of injuries. So don't fall into the trap of thinking that time spent on the rowing machine is the only thing that'll count toward your health, fitness or sport goals.
Proper Rowing Technique
You'll only get the benefits from using a rowing machine if you use proper technique. Don't sit on a rowing machine for 30 minutes a day, scooting listlessly back and forth and tugging at the handle. Instead, you're going to use a powerful leg drive, followed by body movement and quick hands — just as a competitive rower would do. Reverse the motion as you return to the starting position — hands first, then a slightly body hinge forward, and finally your legs bend as the seat slides forward.
Concept2, one of the chief manufacturers of rowing machines, offers a series of technique videos that are very helpful to those who want to develop the proper technique. With just a bit of diligent practice, you'll be able to develop the proper technique and get a demanding and effective full-body workout from a machine that takes up relatively little space.
Rowing machines are even a good choice for home use — they're relatively inexpensive and some models can fold up for storage under the bed or in the closet.
- National Weight Control Registry: "NWCR Facts"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Calories Burned in 30 Minutes for People of Three Different Weights"
- University of New Mexico: "The Talk Test"
- Health.gov: "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020: Appendix 2. Estimated Calorie Needs Per Day by Age, Sex, and Physical Activity Level"
- Health.gov: "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020: Appendix 1. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans"
- International Sports Sciences Association: "Understanding and Implementing Cross Training Workouts"
- Concept2: "Indoor Rowers: Technique Videos"