Rowing Workouts

By Sharon Naylor

November 30, 2011 5 min read

Cardiovascular exercise builds endurance, strengthens muscles and can help you lose weight, and rowing is one of the most effective cardiovascular exercises. In addition to the aerobic workout, a rowing session builds muscle in low-impact form, making the rowing machine one of the most popular stations at the gym, as well as a popular purchase for a home gym.

You might think that rowing is an exercise meant to tone just the upper body, including shoulders and arms, but proper form in rowing actually works the quadriceps, hamstrings, back and abdominal muscles, as well. While some gym machines work just the upper or lower body, the rowing machine works both at the same time, creating a more complete workout in less time. According to the Mayo Clinic, while exercising within your target heart rate, you can expect to burn 511 calories during an hour of rowing if you weigh 160 pounds. An hour of rowing burns about 637 calories if you weigh 200 pounds and 763 calories if you weigh 240 pounds.

Rowing machines allow you to use and adjust levels of resistance, increasing the aerobic and muscular benefits depending on your fitness level.

*Rowing Machine Workouts

Before you hop onto a rowing machine at the gym, always seek the guidance of a gym's personal trainer, who can assess your fitness level, advise you on your target heart rate and help you choose the best type of machine for you. Some are manual with hydraulic resistance, and some are electronic -- much like elliptical machines -- with programmable or programmed workouts, timers and other indicators.

Your fitness professional will also help you adjust the machine to your height and reach, and show you how to adjust the resistance. You'll then learn how to position your back and engage your abs as you pull back smoothly and complete the range of motion.

Elizabeth Quinn, the guide to sports medicine, says, "Using the rower safely is an excellent workout, but using improper form can stress the lower back."

*Common Mistakes on Rowing Machines

Novice rowers often make the following mistakes when using a rowing machine without instruction and guidance:

--Leaning too far forward at the start position.

--Leaning too far back at the finish position.

--Jerking the handle back with the arms.

--Pulling using the back instead of the legs.

--Starting without warming up.

--Rowing for too long.

Quinn advises starting out by rowing no more than 10 minutes on your first day, and aiming for a mastery of proper form instead of breaking a big sweat. "Keep the movement fluid and controlled, rather than jerking through each motion. Push with your legs, and avoid hunching forward to protect your back. Keep a slight bend in the elbows and knees, rather than locking the joints at full extension." Technique matters more than strength, says Quinn, especially at the beginning of a rowing training regimen.

As you practice more and build endurance, you might put together a schedule of rowing four times a week for up to 30 minutes.

*Rowing Workouts at Home

Once you master rowing form at the gym, you could decide to invest in a rowing machine for your home. Some fitness enthusiasts buy new machines; some buy used ones from friends who don't use the ones in their basements; and some find free rowing machines through sites such as, where people list items they no longer want and recycle them to those who wish to come get them.

Without a fitness expert at home to observe you, it's essential to maintain proper form as you exercise. If you can position your rowing machine in front of a full-length mirror, that can help you see your own body position and remind yourself to maintain proper back and neck angles.

Keep track of your workout sessions using a fitness journal or chart, advises Ed McNeely, author of five books, including "Training for Rowing" and "Skillful Rowing," and consultant to professional Canadian sports teams. "Training without monitoring your progress is like driving with your eyes closed. You'll get somewhere, but you can't be sure where or what shape you'll be in when you arrive. Through daily monitoring, you will be able to make the fine adjustments to your (training) that allow you to continue to progress and recover at the fastest rate possible."

*On the Horizon

If you find rowing at home to be boring, a new class may be on the way to invigorate your workouts. The ECA One Body One World 2011 fitness convention in New York City revealed that group rowing classes are growing in popularity. Called "indo-row" classes, these high-intensity workouts are much like spinning classes, except everyone's on rowing machines.

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