There's a reason why rowing crews — the people in the long, speedy racing shells, with a coxswain barking orders at them from a seat in the back — are so fit. Rowing provides a tremendous full-body workout and packs many powerful benefits for your heart, lungs and overall health.
You can enjoy the same benefits by working out on a stationary rowing machine at the gym — or if you fall in love with this challenging workout, you can even buy your own rowing ergometer to use at home.
It's a Great Calorie Burn
If your fitness goals include slimming down, one of the best rowing exercise benefits is its efficient calorie burn.
Exact energy expenditure varies according to a number of factors, including body composition, overall body weight and how hard you're working out. But even though it's difficult to pin down a precise number outside of a clinical environment, calorie burn estimates from Harvard Health Publishing give you a great place to start:
According to these figures, if you weigh 155 pounds, you can burn 260 calories in a half-hour of moderate-intensity stationary rowing. Bump that up to vigorous intensity and you'll burn about 216 calories in a half-hour. If you weigh 185 pounds, those numbers jump to 311 calories for a moderate workout and 377 calories for an intense one.
Not sure if your workout qualifies as moderate or vigorous? If you rate your exertion on a scale of 0 to 10 —
where 0 is absolute rest and 10 is the fastest sprint you can manage —
moderate activity usually falls around a 5 or 6, while vigorous exertion is usually around a 7 or 8.
As you get more fit, you'll be able to work out harder on your rowing machine before you hit that level of perceived exertion. Some trainers use a rating of perceived exertion scale that ranges from 6 to 20.
Rowing Is a Full-Body, Low-Impact Workout
Not many stationary exercise machines provide you with a real upper-body workout. But when you sit down at the rowing machine, muscles worked primarily include your back, your shoulders and the pulling muscles in your arms, along with your glutes, thighs and even a bit of help from your calves as you push away from the foot platform.
The fact that your feet never leave that platform is a bonus too: Because you're not bouncing or jumping, rowing is considered a low-impact workout, which means it may still be tolerated by people whose joint, bone or muscular health keep them from doing high-impact jumping workouts.
A Rowing Workout Benefits Your Heart and Lungs
Because rowing gets your body's large muscle groups moving repetitively for an extended period, it qualifies as a cardiovascular workout or, if you prefer, an aerobic workout. This type of exercise packs a number of proven health benefits, from boosting your immune system to improving your cholesterol and reducing your risk of many chronic health conditions, including obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and stroke.
If you already have chronic health conditions, an aerobic workout like using a stationary rower can be beneficial to help keep them in check — but if you're under a doctor's care, you should always let your physician know before you begin a new exercise program.
Aerobic exercise has also been shown to boost your mood, and the strength, endurance and overall fitness that cardio provides can even help you stay independent and enjoy better quality of life as you age.
Some Less Scientific Rowing Machine Benefits
Although there's a lot of science to back the health benefits of working out on a rowing machine, there are also some real-world, if somewhat less-scientific, benefits to this particular exercise machine.
Regardless of where you're using your rowing machine, if you manage to find your way into "the zone," the repetitive whir or swish of the resistance mechanism (which may be fan blades using air as resistance or water-filled capsules that offer resistance) can verge on a calming, meditative experience — a nice counterbalance to the burn in your thigh, shoulder and back muscles as you power through the workout.
But the real perks of this type of machine become most obvious if you buy one to use at home. If you happen to live in an upper-floor apartment or condo, having a rowing machine means you can exercise quietly and don't have to worry about your downstairs neighbors complaining about the noise of you jumping around overhead.
Many home-use rowing machines are also built to fold for storage under your bed or in a closet, so they won't take up much space. And because they're easy to move around, you can easily position your stationary rower in front of the television while you watch favorite shows, or pivot it to look out the windows and catch a beautiful sunrise or sunset as you work out.
Watch Your Rowing Form
Although working out on a rowing machine is a good workout, you'll only enjoy its many benefits if you use the proper form. There's a tendency for people who aren't familiar with actual rowing to simply scoot the seat back and forth, tugging on the handle every once in a while, but there's a lot more to proper rowing form than that. If you want to get the most out of your rowing machine, you need to get as close as you can to the same form as a competitive rower.
It helps to divide the rowing motion into two portions: the drive and the recovery. To start the drive, 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. Take care not to hunch your shoulders forward and don't push yourself into an uncomfortable stretch; stick to a pain-free, stress-free range of motion.
From this position, start the powerful drive by pushing 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 body. That completes the drive.
For the recovery portion of the stroke, you 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.
Because rowing can be such an intense workout, using proper technique is vitally important to both avoiding injury and getting the most benefit from your workout. It's worth investing a little time in mastering proper form. Concept2, one of the most prominent manufacturers of stationary rowing machines, offers an excellent instructional video that breaks down proper form.
When you're first starting out, having a mirror nearby can provide useful feedback on your technique. But hands-on help from a trainer is even better, so don't be shy about investing in a session or two to get some in-person help and fine-tune your rowing technique.
- Harvard Health Publishing: Calories Burned in 30 Minutes for People of Three Different Weights
- ExRX.net: Row Ergometer
- Health.gov: Dietary Guidelines, 2015-2020: Appendix 1. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans
- Mayo Clinic: Aerobic Exercise: Top 10 Reasons to Get Physical
- YouTube: Concept2 Technique Video