You’re exhausted after a three-rep set, and you can’t imagine what would happen to your lungs if you attempted a set of eight squats. You have nightmares about cardio, but you know you’ve got to do it if you want to improve your work capacity — all in the service of lifting more weight.
You’ll get stronger and more cardiovascularly fit in one fell swoop. Even if your instinct is to avoid cardio at all costs, learning about the rowing machine might convince you that the benefits far outweigh the “I don’t wanna.” Regardless of whether you’re a powerlifter, weightlifter, CrossFitter, bodybuilder, or Strongwoman or Strongman competitor, rowing workouts can help you lift heavier for longer.
Benefits of Rowing Machines
Rowing machines can help you get closer to a wide array of training goals. If you’re training for max strength, the rower can boost your work capacity so you can handle a heavier workload in your sessions. Aiming to improve your cardio health? Rowers have you covered.
- Total Body Engagement
- It’s Low-Impact
- It’s Intense (in a Good Way)
- A Stronger Lower Body
- And a Stronger Upper Body
- More Full-Body Coordination
- It Helps With Recovery
- The Rowing Machine is Versatile as Heck
- More Mental Endurance
- You’ll Become a Work Horse
Research has shown that rowing machines engage your body from head to toe — from your elbow, shoulder, lumbar, and knee joints through all their related muscle groups. (1) This brings a whole new level to the idea of full-body training that often just doesn’t happen with other forms of cardio. For example, studies have found that you recruit more muscles while rowing than you do while running. (2)
While you’re rowing, you remain seated instead of having your joints pound on the ground. Because of this, rowing is a more low-impact — and therefore, often more accessible — form of cardio than activities like jogging or climbing stairs.
Research suggests that adaptive rowers can be an effective way for people with spinal cord injuries or diseases to improve their VO2 max and overall body strength. (3)(4) An athlete’s VO2 max is a pretty solid indicator of cardiovascular performance and training progress — so it’s effective, too.
Just because rowing is low impact doesn’t mean you can’t train very hard. By performing interval “sprints” on the rower, you can tap into high-intensity interval training methodologies to really up your fitness level.
HIIT cardio doesn’t rob your gains at all — in fact, the opposite is true. Research suggests that combining regular rowing with heavy strength training can elicit significant improvements in max strength, power, anaerobic endurance, and change-of-direction speed. (5)
When you’re rowing with proper form, you shouldn’t be initiating the movement with a pulling motion. Instead, you’ll lead with a powerful lower body push. This means that if you’re performing short high-intensity sprints, you’ll be learning to push off with your legs very fast and hard.
And if you’re opting for lower intensity, more endurance-oriented training, your legs will be getting in very high repetitions through a big range of motion. It’s almost like you’re squatting constantly, while sitting — think of a leg press, over and over again.
You’ll be developing lower body pushing power while ingraining high-rep lower body training. As a result, positive lower body pushing movement patterns will be ingrained into you. You can get in a high volume of quality lower body moves without using a damaging amount of weight.
Even though the primary motion of rowing actually isn’t based on a pull, you’ll still be massively improving your upper body pulling power. You’ll get in a high amount of horizontal pulling reps with each session — even your short sessions. This will give you a lot of practice at keeping your core engaged while the rest of your body moves in concert.
When you’re performing lifts like barbell snatches or even a squat, your entire body needs to work in sync. Maintaining rigid tension in certain body parts while manipulating a barbell and moving with other muscle groups can be a lot for your body to keep track of. The best way to improve your technique for specific lifts is to practice the moves themselves — but rowing can offer some help.
Like so many complex barbell moves, learning to row properly has a lot to do with timing. By teaching your body to coordinate from head to toe, you’ll be forming connections that your mind and muscles need to work together. This can help translate into both skill and confidence when approaching a complicated lift.
Studies have found that once you get good at rowing, you can perform well even after intensive strength training. (6) This suggests that rowing can be very helpful at cooling down and recovering from lifting. It’s a low-impact way to ease your body out of heavy lifting and transition into the stretching portion of your cool-down. Since it’s such a low-impact (but full-body) activity, you can also use your rowing machine on active recovery days.
Research suggests that rowing in high-powered two-minute intervals and in average-paced 2,000 meter segments produces similar improvements in an athlete’s VO2 max. (7) This means that rowing is an incredibly versatile training tool. You can use it for high-intensity interval training or for longer bouts intended to build endurance. Either way, you’ll be improving your cardiovascular fitness all the same — and getting stronger the whole time.
Whether you’re pushing through a steady 2,000-meter row or blasting through an all-out 200-meter “sprint”, training with a rower takes a lot of mental grit. You need to be very disciplined and confident in order to not overexert yourself — and run out of gas — during your first few strokes. Pacing yourself — whether on the pace of your row or following your program when it calls for lighter sets of deadlifts — requires a lot of self-assurance to avoid burning out on ego lifting. Rowing helps cultivate this mindset.
Even after you’ve set a disciplined pace for yourself, rowing presents a lot of mental challenges. Because you’re using your entire body, it takes a lot of exertion to complete feats like a 2,000 meter row — or even a 500-meter bout. Time can seem a lot slower while you’re rowing, so practicing it will help you develop the kind of mental endurance you need to complete higher rep sets, or even multiple low-rep, very heavy sets.
Work capacity is how much work you’re able to do in a given period of time. One way to think about it is by asking: how much weight can you lift during your session before you’re so fatigued that you need to back off or stop completely? By improving your strength and cardiovascular endurance all at the same time — at varying intensities — you’ll boost your work capacity such that you can lift heavier for longer. And that, over time, can definitely make you a stronger overall athlete.
How to Use a Rowing Machine
The bountiful benefits of a rowing machine won’t matter all that much if you don’t know how to use one properly. It’s okay if it takes you a while to get a feel for the flow of it — but the more you practice with good technique, the more intuitive it’ll become. Here’s how to get yourself started.
Step 1 — Set the Drag
The drag on a rower is often on the right side of the screen, in front of the flywheel.
It might be tempting to crank it all the way to 10, but keep it less than five or six instead. Even high-level rowers perform their 2,000 meter testing with the drag set to five or six.
Step 2 — Place Your Feet and Hands
Strap your feet in. Adjust the sizing so that the strap is secure across your midfoot. Lean forward to grab the handle loosely with both hands.
Rest the handle in the hook of your fingers with straight but relaxed wrists.
Step 3 — Catch
Keep your arms straight and your head in a neutral position. Maintain level shoulders.
Step 4 — Drive
Drive your feet down and explosively straighten your legs.
Keep your arms straight with your shoulders relaxed away from your ears. Lean back slightly as your knees straighten.
Step 5 — Finish
As your knees straighten, transition into pulling with your arms. Keep your core engaged and lean back slightly.
Pull the handle slightly below your ribs. Maintain flat but relaxed wrists and secure but loose grip.
Step 6 — Recovery
Lean forward from your hips toward the flywheel as you extend your arms back to straightening. After your hands pass in front of your knees, bend your legs.
Slide forward gradually in the seat until you return to the catch position. Repeat as desired.
How to Integrate the Rowing Machine into Your Program
Once you’ve mastered the basics, a rowing machine can show up pretty much anywhere in your program. From your warm-up to your finisher, consider adding a rower to your workout to maximize your gains.
When you’re preparing to lift weights, you need a solid mobility routine to activate your muscles. Ideally, this dynamic mobility-based warm-up will also include some full-body, cardio-based activity to get your blood pumping and increase your heart rate. When your body is truly “warmed” up, you’ll be better able to lift with solid form and lessened injury risk. Rowing is a great way to engage your whole body and increase your heart rate without needing to go high-intensity or high-impact.
You can also opt to use rowers for acute recovery after an intense training session. Studies suggest that once you get good at rowing, you can perform well at rowing workouts even after your strength training. (6) And since many lifters prefer to get in their cardio after hitting the weights, this makes rowers a low-intensity but highly-effective recovery and cool-down option.
As a general rule, you want to be mindful of your pacing while rowing. You don’t want to come out of the gate too strong and find yourself out of gas within a few strokes. That said, once you’ve found a difficult but sustainable pace, you can use it to perform interval training as a workout finisher. That might mean finding your pace for 20 second intervals, or 200 meter intervals, or whatever combination suits your training goals.
Looking for a highly customizable cardio machine that can also get you strong — i.e., make you a well-conditioned athlete? The rowing machine is a great way to program an entire conditioning session for yourself, without sacrificing your strength goals.
For higher intensity conditioning, you can row in intervals. If you’re just starting out, don’t feel the need to push for longer than 20 seconds per interval. You can rest for longer than you row if you need to — say, 20 seconds of work to 40 seconds of rest. As you get more advanced, you can push it to two minute intervals, with less rest than working time.
If you approach your rowing at a low intensity, you can even program your rowing machine adventures for steady state cardio. You can build up to rowing for 500, 1,000, and even 2,000 meters at a time. Just keep the intensity low — don’t worry about pushing your pace — when your goal is to build your cardiovascular fitness and endurance.
No matter what kind of athlete you are, the likelihood is you have some interest in being both strong and cardiovascularly fit. The diverse benefits of rowing machines offer you improved work capacity — so your heavy lifting sessions can last longer — and increased full-body strength and coordination. Especially if you hate cardio, you’ll love that you don’t have to row endlessly — or slam your body around — to improve your conditioning. So if a rower is accessible to you, there’s no reason to wait. Lock in your form and get rowing.
- Kang SR, Yu CH, Han KS, Kwon TK. Comparative analysis of basal physical fitness and muscle function in relation to muscle balance pattern using rowing machines. Biomed Mater Eng. 2014;24(6):2425-35.
- Yoshiga CC, Higuchi M. Heart rate is lower during ergometer rowing than during treadmill running. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2002 Jun;87(2):97-100.
- Sawatzky, B., Herrington, B., Choi, K. et al. Acute physiological comparison of sub-maximal exercise on a novel adapted rowing machine and arm crank ergometry in people with a spinal cord injury. Spinal Cord (2022).
- Jeong, Juri et al. “Kinematic analysis of rowing exercise using a motor-assisted rowing machine for rowers with spinal cord injury: a case report.” Physical therapy rehabilitation science 3 (2014): 69-75.
- Thiele D, Prieske O, Lesinski M, Granacher U. Effects of Equal Volume Heavy-Resistance Strength Training Versus Strength Endurance Training on Physical Fitness and Sport-Specific Performance in Young Elite Female Rowers. Front Physiol. 2020;11:888.
- Ian Gee T, Caplan N, Christian Gibbon K, Howatson G, Grant Thompson K. Investigating the Effects of Typical Rowing Strength Training Practices on Strength and Power Development and 2,000 m Rowing Performance. J Hum Kinet. 2016;50:167-177.
- Jensen, K., Frydkjær, M., Jensen, N. M., Bannerholt, L. M., & Gam, S. (2021). A Maximal Rowing Ergometer Protocol to Predict Maximal Oxygen Uptake, International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 16(3), 382-386.
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