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Catch, Drive, Finish and Recover! The Top 7 Benefits of Rowing Machines

This low-impact, full-body workout builds strength and stamina while reducing stress

Person using rowing machine in home gym

Over the past few years, you’ve probably noticed growing crowds around your gym’s rowing machines, also known as “ergs.” Long and low, the machines are usually stashed along a wall or in a corner. And while they used to collect dust, they’re now seeing plenty of action. That’s because rowing has a reputation as a great form of exercise, a total body workout that can up your cardio game.

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If you live near a body of water, the real thing’s a great option. But using a rowing machine isn’t a poor substitute. In fact, you may even get a better workout rowing indoors!

We talked to exercise physiologist Chris Dempers, ACSM EP-C, to learn more about the benefits of using rowing machines, how to use one properly and how to avoid injury.

What is rowing and how do you do it?

Like running or a session on an elliptical, rowing is a full-body workout. But unlike those activities, you don’t have to stand to do it. That means less pressure on your legs and more work for your upper body.

There are four basic motions in a single stroke: The catch, the drive, the finish and the recovery. Dempers breaks down the basics with a step-by-step guide to each:

  • The catch: Start by sitting on the seat, with your knees bent and feet secured on the foot bar (or in straps, depending on the machine). Next, grab the handle attached to the flywheel at the front of the machine with a cable. Push yourself forward enough that your shins are nearly perpendicular to the ground and your upper body is tilted forward about 55 degrees (if you’re not sure what that looks like, think of the way 10 o’clock is positioned on a clock face).
  • The drive: Push yourself back with your legs, using your core muscles to lean your body back in a smooth, controlled motion, while also pulling the handle toward your chest.
  • The finish: Think of the finish as the polar opposite of the catch. Your legs are straight and fully extended. “You’re leaning slightly back. Your arms are contracting into your chest and, ultimately, down toward your solar plexus,” Dempers explains. If your torso was at 10 o’clock before, it should be at about 2 o’clock now. This may be the end of the stroke, but now it’s time to reset for the next one.
  • The recovery: Glide forward, returning your knees to their starting position and extending your arms and the handle forward toward the flywheel. “It should be one fluid motion from start to finish,” Dempers adds. “And then, you repeat the motion for as long as you want your workout to be.”

Using the damper (a lever on the side of the flywheel), you can adjust the amount of airflow into the flywheel which, in turn, affects how much tension you pull. The higher the airflow, the more tension you get, which means a heavier workout.

Row safely

But like every other exercise, you need to make sure you follow the proper form when rowing to get the full benefits and protect yourself from injury. Make sure you:

  • Keep your knees straight and neutral. “You don’t want them bowing out to the side as you go through your motion, as that can lead to hip issues,” Dempers cautions, adding, “Just be sure you don’t lock them when you’re pulling back.”
  • Maintain proper posture. Proper posture is also important and can be difficult to sustain as you add more tension. “Think about balancing a book on your head like in the old posture training films,” Dempers suggests. “Keep your shoulders back with your head straight. Don’t hunch down with your shoulders rounded and head down.”
  • Keep your core engaged. Yes, your arms and legs do a lot of work when you row, but so do your core (abdomen) muscles. They stabilize your body and support your lower back, which improves your efficiency, prevents injury and adds power to every stroke.

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If you don’t keep that proper form, Dempers warns that rowing could lead to issues in both your upper and lower back, as well as back spasms. Shoulder issues are also a risk if you’re pulling higher on your body, like toward your chin instead of your chest.

Keeping these tips in mind will help you maximize your workout and feel good, if a little tired, every time you step off the rowing machine.

What does a rowing machine do to your body?

While repeating the same four-step sequence over and over again may seem simple, it provides one heck of a workout.

“Rowing has an aerobic aspect and a strength aspect,” Dempers states. “Especially when you adjust the tension of the machine for a heavier pull — that works out your legs in a big way.”

Your back also gets a workout as you shift back and forth on your pulls. “Working on the strength in your upper back adds a postural element to rowing,” he continues. “That’s really important because so many people have to spend their days staring down at computers or phones. Improving that upper spine posture is crucial.”

And don’t forget your core! Your abdominal muscles, lower back, obliques, glutes and hamstrings all get a workout during a session on a rowing machine. If you follow proper form, your core will be engaged during every single step of the rowing process. Strengthening those muscles is also key to maintaining stability and building speed.

Health benefits of using an indoor rowing machine

Just going over the motions involved, you’re probably realizing that a full-body workout like rowing can yield big-time benefits for your bod. Here are just a few of them.

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1. Burns calories

“Rowing’s up there in terms of burning calories,” Dempers says. “I’d rank it below running but above an elliptical machine.” Your speed, intensity and resistance all affect how many calories you burn, but it’s a good workout no matter how hard you go.

2. A low-impact, high-cardio option

One of the big benefits of rowing is that it’s a low-impact experience, giving joints a much-needed break. “Because it’s a resistance exercise done in a seated position, you’re not putting as much wear and tear on your back and knees,” shares Dempers.

But he clarifies that you’re not sacrificing your cardio exercises by choosing rowing over a high-impact activity like running.

“If you’re strictly looking at it as an aerobic exercise to replace something like running, then you can exercise on an erg for half an hour and get a great cardio workout,” he says. Your heart and lungs with thank you.

3. Improves range of motion and joint strength

If you struggle with arthritis, you’ve probably heard the phrase “motion is lotion.” It’s true! Staying active helps relieve pain and stiffness while improving joint motion and torque.

4. Improves posture, balance and coordination

You may not think about the way you carry yourself as a strength thing, but it is. Strong core and back muscles help maintain your posture and reduce pressure on your spinal column. And — while the brain is crucial to balance and coordination — so are our muscles. They help us react quickly and prevent falls.

5. Reduces stress

Catch, drive, finish, recover. Catch, drive, finish, recover. Whether you do it on the serene lake, in a quiet corner of the gym or from the comfort of your home, the repetitive nature of rowing can have a meditative effect. Add that to the stress-relieving benefits of physical activity and you’ve got yourself a natural mood booster.

6. An accessible exercise for most people

You control the speed and intensity of a rowing session, which makes it both beginner-friendly and safe for people of all fitness levels. The machine being low to the ground also minimizes the danger (and fear!) of falling. For that reason, rowing is a particularly good choice for older people, those living with visual impairments and people with health conditions like postural orthostatic tachycardia (POTS).

Rowing machines are accessible in other ways, too. They aren’t cheap, but because they offer a full-body workout and variable resistance, they can take the place of multiple specialty machines. Yes, you’ll still need ample space (most rowers are about 8 feet long, though usually no wider than your body). But — while some ergs can be heavy — most are lightweight enough to move or stow away, a big advantage over hefty treadmills and elliptical machines that live in one place.

7. Fits into any workout regimen

Because rowing gives you such a good cardio workout, it’s also flexible in terms of how you fit it into your routine. If you don’t want to make it a long workout as mentioned, you can do short intervals between other exercises to keep your heart rate up.

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“I think that’s the appeal to rowing,” Dempers notes, “you can do it as one long workout or incorporate it into a larger routine, hopping on and off for short bursts. After you do a quick hit, you can easily switch to doing something else, like push-ups or kettlebell swings, then come right back.”

Can you get in shape by just rowing?

Variety may be the spice of life, but sometimes, you just want to settle into an easy, reliable routine. If that sounds like you, rowing might be exactly the combination cardio and strength training activity you’ve been looking for.

But fitness buffs won’t be satisfied just working out on a rowing machine. That’s because indoor rowing doesn’t require you to use each of the three planes of motion.

The three planes of motion are:

  1. The sagittal plane: moving front and back.
  2. The coronal (or frontal) plane: moving left and right.
  3. The transverse plane: rotating movement.

Indoor rowing, like many popular exercises, only requires movement on the sagittal plane. So, you may want to do other activities, too — like yoga or calisthenics — that involve moving in the coronal and transverse planes. Or try rowing in an actual boat, which involves all three planes of motion.

How many minutes do you need to row a day?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends we each get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a week. Just like a treadmill, bike or elliptical, an indoor rowing machine lets you decide the intensity of your workouts.

How much and how often you should use your rowing machine depends on whether you do other forms of physical activity.

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For now, let’s assume the rowing machine is where you get all of your exercise. In that case, you should try to build up to 20 minutes of moderate-intensity rowing a day. As your stamina improves, can play around with the duration and frequency of your sessions. Maybe you prefer a 50-minute, three-time-a-week approach, for example.

Keep in mind that if you’re new to rowing, you may need to start slow in order to maintain proper form. Once you’ve got that down, you’ll need to build strength and endurance over time. And that’s OK. In fact, it’s necessary, for reasons we’ll return to in a bit.

Any physical activity is good physical activity, so if you can only manage five minutes a day on your rowing machine, supplement with other kinds of exercise, so you get (or get as close as possible) to that 150-minute mark.

How soon will you see results from rowing?

Because it’s a full-body workout, the time you spend on an erg translates to visible results pretty quickly — as in within a couple of weeks of starting a consistent rowing practice.

Just be sure to set realistic goals for yourself. Fitness is a process. And if you’re new to rowing machines, it’ll take time to refine your form. Muscle develops slowly over months regardless of the kind of strength training you do. And if you’re hoping to shed a few pounds, keep in mind that the CDC says losing a maximum of two pounds a week is the healthiest and most sustainable approach to weight loss.

Patience is a virtue, but you won’t need much of it. The results you can’t see in a mirror, like increased energy and stamina, will show up quickly. So, go ahead and row, row, row your (land) boat!

Learn more about our editorial process.

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Aerobic Exercise

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