Fitness / Strength Training

Rowing 101: Everything You Need to Know to Row

It's the underappreciated, low-impact, total body workout you should be doing.

If your first thought of rowing is a svelte boat cutting through the Charles River near Harvard University and not the machine at your gym, you might be missing out on a remarkable full body exercise.

It’s easy to pass the small, low-to-the-ground machine on the outskirts of the gym, and if you’ve never rowed before, it can be a little awkward at first. But it’s certainly worth trying.

Rowing works muscles from the shoulders down to the calves for an effective, low-impact full body workout.

Check out the Aaptiv app for more low impact or full body workouts.

Get to know the machine and its benefits with our 101 guide to rowing.

What muscles does rowing work?

Rowing works the trapezius, deltoids, and rhomboids of the back, as well as the triceps and pectorals. Like running, cycling, or using an elliptical machine, it also recruits the quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings.

“The huge misconception is that it’s just an upper body workout,” says Candice Kreck of Row Boss Indoor Rowing Fitness in Annapolis, Maryland. “Rowing is actually more legs than anything: 60 percent legs, 20 percent core, and 20 percent arms.”

Who should do rowing workouts?

Anyone, really. Rowing can serve as cross-training for runners, cyclists, or swimmers just as well as it can become your primary cardio and full-body workout. Because its low-impact by nature, it’s an ideal workout for anyone with knee issues.

Also, according to the Harvard Medical School, a vigorous rowing session can burn as many calories as running at 11-minute mile pace.

How do I use the machine?

There are a few different types of rowing machines, but the basis of the movement is the same, regardless of the model. Here’s a three-step sequence behind the perfect stroke:

  1. Sit down toward the back of the seat and strap your feet in to the pedals. Take the bar up from the catch and practice the initial leg drive. “Press through your heels like you’re jumping off the ground,” Kreck says. “You want to be getting a big, steady push.” And as you push back from the catch, be sure to avoid letting your shoulders arch inward. “You want to keep a really flat back, keeping your spine straight and your chest open and not hunched over,” Kreck says.
  2. Once your legs are extended, focus on core movement. The rule of thumb is to move your torso from an 11 o’clock position to a one o’clock angle. You want about three inches of total torso movement during the core phase, Kreck notes. You’re effectively doing a three-inch crunch, using your lower abs to make the movement and keeping the rest of your back flat.
  3. Finally, with your legs extended and your torso leaned slightly back, incorporate the arms. “When you pull the bar into the chest, you want it to come just underneath the bra line, at the top of the rib cage,” Kreck says. Keep your elbows tucked in at your sides to generate power through your back muscles “You want skinny arms—you shouldn’t knock elbows if someone’s rowing right next to you. It’s almost like you’re doing a back contraction as you come all the way back.”

Practice all three of these moves individually, as isolating each stage will help you nail the entire thing. When you put all three stages together, you want the stroke to be on a one-two count.

Exhale during the forceful push/pull phase of legs-core-arms, and inhale during the slower recovery phase of arms-core-legs. For reference, here’s a video from Concept2 Australia that puts it all together.

What does a rowing workout look like?

Once you’ve got the form down, you’re ready to really work. Here’s a sample warm-up and set of intervals from Kreck’s Row Boss workout to give you an idea of how to use your rower for a total body burn.

The 5-minute warm-up
Start with one minute of just leg pushes, followed by one minute of just arm pulls, and then one minute of three-inch ab crunches to get the core activated.

Then, put it all together for two minutes of full strokes. Aim for 22 strokes-per-minute (SPM) for all of these movements. Check your rower’s display. You may have to adjust the settings to get the right numbers, but most machines will display the SPM.

200-meter intervals
Set your rower to display distance (in meters) and SPM simultaneously. Then, begin this ladder workout of 200-meter intervals:

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