Rowing Machine Benefits — Rowing Workouts for Strength and Conditioning

Get to know the one gym machine that gives you full-body strength and conditioning training while staying easy on your joints

Interested in finding out if rowing can provide a robust workout? The answer is a resounding yes. It's high time you familiarize yourself with the ergometer, also known as the indoor rower or rowing machine. Though it might seem daunting initially, rowing exercises are extremely beginner-friendly and they offer an intensive workout. Be it at your local fitness center or for your home gym equipment consideration, here's everything you need to know about this potential new favorite workout machine.

What Is a Rowing Machine?

A rowing machine is a piece of fitness equipment that emulates the action of rowing a boat, and it offers an intensely fulfilling workout. Evan Tyrrell, the proprietor of F45 Training in La Jolla, California, affirms this. Rowers are incredibly multifunctional, being seen as the "Swiss Army knife" of gym equipment, says Michelle Sosa, an ACE-certified personal trainer, professional rower, and athlete at Hydrow. It's perfect for a range of activities including low-impact workouts, high-intensity sprint intervals, stamina training, full-body strength exercise, core training, cardiovascular health improvement, and posture control. Their versatility makes them suitable for a wide array of individuals, from gym novices to people recuperating from an injury.

How Do You Use a Rowing Machine?

Rowing on a machine can seem complex, but it becomes easy once you understand the sequence. From the stroke's initial position, push your legs out to extend them, lean back by engaging your core, and pull the handle towards your chest while drawing your elbows back. To revert to the starting point: Stretch your arms out, allow your core to lean forward (maintaining a straight back), and then fold your legs. Try to remember this sequence: "Legs, core, arms, arms, core, legs."

A common misunderstanding is that rowing is purely an upper-body exercise. However, according to Sosa, most of the rowing stroke is driven by the legs and core. The power primarily comes from the legs, but your core has to stay taut while pushing back and pulling the handles with your hands/arms.

Joseph Ilustrisimo, an ACSM-certified personal trainer, says, "Rowing is approximately 60% legs, 30% core, and 10% arms.” He further adds, "Your rowing will mainly work out your hamstrings and buttocks if you are hinging correctly," much like performing a deadlift.

Your core should remain active during your entire rowing workout. As Ilustrisimo explains, "You need to learn how to dynamically engage those abs, and you should feel a burn throughout."

You can request a gym trainer to demonstrate the correct form or choose a home program with instructional videos for your rowing exercises. Hyrdow rowing machines provide instructor-led classes live and on-demand, which would be beneficial if you're looking for a home gym addition. Sosa emphasizes the importance of instruction for beginners: "It's critical to ensure you're maximizing your efforts and doing it safely and correctly."

If you prefer a class that integrates rowing, consider trying Row House, F45 Training, or Orangetheory Fitness. These studios offer workouts that include the rowing machine, providing more real-world knowledge on how to use the rowing machine correctly and vary your rowing exercises to keep them engaging.

What Are the Benefits of Using a Rowing Machine?

What can you get out of a rowing machine workout, and why would you want to hop on one at your gym? Here's exactly what makes rowing a good workout, and some of the benefits you can expect.

Is Rowing Better Than Other Cardio Machines?

The rowing machine, often overlooked, may be the ultimate solution for those who can't run or cycle due to joint issues. According to Liz Letchford, Ph.D., a Los Angeles-based certified athletic trainer and injury prevention expert, the rower is a safe full-body workout that boosts both strength endurance and cardiovascular endurance, provided you have strong form. Unlike its cardio counterparts, Tyrrell notes that the rowing machine stands out as it offers both muscle-building and aerobic benefits. The resistance level on a rowing machine can be amped up to facilitate muscle growth, a feature that treadmills, spin bikes, and ellipticals lack significant capabilities for. In essence, the rowing machine combines cardio workouts with movements similar to heavy weightlifting practices. The movement patterns in rowing compare to deadlifts, seated rows, leg presses, and calf raises when pushing away from the platform, states Tyrrell.

Can You Use the Rowing Machine If You're Injured or New to Exercise?

The rowing machine is generally quite safe for those who are rehabbing an injury or are newer to working out. "Rowing is something I recommend to people of all ages with all different fitness abilities, as you can really make it your own and use it as a means for achieving a number of different fitness goals," says Sosa. Here's the deal:

If You Have an Extremity Injury...


Rowing is an excellent fitness choice for those recovering from injuries or experiencing joint discomfort due to its low-impact nature," says Sosa. "That's why many athletes, regardless of their professional status, incorporate rowing exercises into their cross-training or injury recovery routines," Sosa continues. Yet, if you are dealing with an injury, it's crucial to get your doctor's approval before trying something new and unfamiliar to your wellness journey. As always, ensure that the health professional managing your care gives you the green light before you dive into uncharted fitness territory.


If You Have a Back Injury...

"Rowing machines are generally considered a safe workout option, provided the exercise is performed correctly. However, Letchford points out that when the effort level rises, individuals often rely on their lower back to propel the movement, particularly as overall body strength starts to wane. This shift in form can put your lower back at risk, especially for those who already struggle with core strength when tired. This could potentially compromise the condition of an already injured lower back," she advises. "While rowing movements can be safely executed at a slow pace and with careful control, for people suffering from lower back injuries who wish to take up rowing exercises, it's strongly recommended to do so under proper supervision." (You might also want to incorporate these back-relief core-strengthening exercises into your routine.)

If You're New to Rowing Workouts...

Don't let yourself get disheartened - mastering rowing takes some time. "Rowing may seem a bit complicated at first," admits Ilustrisimo. "It requires some coordination to get the hang of it, but it's similar to cycling. Once you understand how to operate [the rower] effectively, it could become one of your favorite cardio equipment."

"Beginners should remember that adherence to a new regimen largely depends on the support system linked with the exercise," suggests Sosa. "Working out on a rower with a companion - whether physically present in the gym or virtually connected through a leaderboard - helps maintain accountability, encourages frequent participation and fosters greater effort."

If You're Pregnant...

"Rowing is safe for pregnancy until the changing shape of the body gets in the way of safe movement," says Letchford. And, as always, ask your doctor if this type of training is safe for you. (See: How to Change Your Workouts While Pregnant)

Can Rowing Be Your Entire Workout…Every Time?

Looking to focus your exercise regime around the rowing machine? Tyrrell confirms this is possible and highly beneficial, as rowing offers an intense all-encompassing workout with tremendous advantages for cardiovascular health and overall wellbeing. As you advance, you can up the difficulty level so the workout always remains challenging, according to Ilustrisimo. He dispels notions of rowing being too simple, stating that the user controls the rigour of the workout. He suggests increasing the power of each stroke or maintaining a swift cadence (or strokes per minute). Eager to incorporate rowing into your regular fitness routine? Consider this 20-minute rowing routine or this innovative rowing circuit session.

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