Does Rowing Burn Belly Fat?

A rowing machine provides the next best thing to gliding effortlessly through a river in a sweep rowing boat, drawing your oar smoothly through the water as you pull with the team. The rowing machine lets you enjoy a great full-body workout with almost identical body mechanics, without the need to live within commuting distance of a river or assemble an entire team to row.

Although rowing isn't a magic bullet for belly fat, it can be an very effective component of a fat-loss plan. (Image: svetikd/E+/GettyImages)

Although rowing won't magically spot reduce your belly fat, it can be a very effective component of a fat-loss program that will, with a bit of time, slim you down everywhere — including your belly.

Tip

Rowing isn't a magic bullet for burning belly fat; nothing is. But if you enjoy rowing, it can be a useful component in a comprehensive program to help you burn fat all over — including your belly.

Subcutaneous Fat vs. Visceral Fat

There are actually two types of fat that may accumulate around your belly. Subcutaneous fat is the sort that makes rolls when you sit down or bend over; you can pinch it with your hand. Visceral fat, on the other hand, pads the space between your internal organs. Although having too much of either type of fat poses a health risk, visceral fat is considered a more serious danger and has been linked to increased risk for cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, and, in women, breast cancer and gallbladder surgery.

Regardless of which type of belly fat you're dealing with, physical activities like rowing are a key part of slimming down. However, it's important to be clear that rowing can't spot reduce your belly — or to put it another way, rowing can't reduce fat from only your belly before anything else. In fact, no exercise is capable of doing that; the whole concept of spot reduction is a myth.

What rowing can do is help you burn your stored body fat as energy, especially if you pair it with a nutrient-rich diet that focuses on a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, high-quality lean protein and healthy unsaturated fats.

Your Rowing Workout Program

Every time you sit down to row, follow a simple formula to get the most benefit out of your workout while also staying safe:

First, warm up with five to 10 minutes of gentle rowing, which helps your body get ready for the demands you're going to place on it. Once you're limbered up, aim for at least 10 minutes of continuous rowing at your ideal workout intensity (more on exactly how hard you should work, and how long you should row for, in a minute). And finally, cool down with another five to 10 minutes of gentle rowing to help your body gradually transition back to a state of rest.

Proper Rowing Technique

If you've ever sat on a rower and scooted back and forth, tugging at the handle every so often, you're not alone — this is a common approach. But the proper way to use a rowing machine mimics the powerful leg drive and quick hands of a rower out on the water.

Instructional videos from the rowing machine manufacturer Concept2, paired with just a little practice, are very helpful for establishing proper technique. The high points to be aware of are:

  1. Let your seat slide forward as you sit up straight, hinging at the hips so your shoulders are in front of your hips, with your arms straight and hands beyond your knees.
  2. Keep your core, back, shoulders and arms engaged as you first drive with your legs, pushing the seat away from the flywheel.
  3. As you drive with your legs, open your hips so your body swings back to about 11 o'clock on an imaginary clock face.
  4. As your body swings back, bring your hands in toward your lower ribs, completing the stroke.
  5. Reverse those motions to return to the starting position in one smooth motion: Initiate by releasing your arms forward, then letting your body swing forward and allowing the seat to slide forward as well.

How Much Should I Row?

OK — so you have your rowing machine and a plan. You're ready to hit the (imaginary) high seas in search of a slim belly and a healthy heart. As a general rule, the more you can row, the faster you'll see results. Your body needs some time to adjust to the new challenge, though, so start with a workout that seems manageable to you — even if it's just 10 or 15 minutes — and slowly increase the length or number of your workouts as you get stronger.

A good first goal is to satisfy the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recommendations for physical activity: 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week, or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise. But to lose weight, you'll probably need more exercise — so once you achieve that goal, set your sights on more.

A good next goal is double that amount by getting 300 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week or 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise. Any amount of that can be rowing, but don't be shy about mixing in other workouts to help keep things interesting and prevent you from developing muscle imbalances. Once you start seeing the sort of results you want, you'll know about how much rowing or other exercise you need to burn that excess belly fat away. The exact amount is a little different for everybody.

How Hard Should I Row?

There is some evidence that how you tackle your rowing workout might affect how you lose body fat. A 2017 meta-analysis published in the journal Sports Medicine found that in a total of 39 studies, high-intensity training at more than 90 percent of peak heart rate was most successful at reducing excess fat all over the body, while the researchers note that "lower intensities had a greater effect on changes in abdominal and visceral fat mass."

However, don't get so caught up in a specific intensity or percentage of your heart rate that it causes you stress. Instead, remember that both intensities can be effective at reducing belly fat. So if you want to flatten that stomach, the most important thing of all is to get moving. Start with what you can manage, and then gradually increase the intensity as you get stronger.

If you're in a rush, consider using high-intensity interval training, or HIIT, to pack more work into a shorter time. A 2016 study published in The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness showed that combining HIIT training with more conventional workouts helped participants lose more visceral fat than doing conventional workouts alone.

Tip

The so-called "talk test" is an easy way to monitor your exercise intensity and also track your progress over time: If you're breathing faster than usual but can still carry on a conversation a few phrases at a time, it's moderate intensity. If you're breathing too hard and fast to converse, you've reached "vigorous" intensity.

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