Over the past few years, you’ve probably noticed growing crowds around your gym’s rowing machines at one point or another. Long and low, they’re usually stashed along a wall or in a corner. And while they used to collect dust, they’re seeing plenty of action now.
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Rowing – both the indoor (machine) and outdoor (boat) versions – has a reputation as a great form of exercise, a total body workout that can up your cardio game.
We talked to exercise physiologist Chris Dempers to learn more about the benefits of rowing, how to do it properly and what not to do so you can avoid injury.
Utilizing the rowing machine for exercise regardless of whether or not you’re anywhere near a body of water has seen a boost in recent years thanks to CrossFitters, Dempers notes. “CrossFit definitely boomed the rowing machine for the Average Joe,” he says.
And all of the reasons that have made rowing a popular choice for CrossFitters make it a great exercise for anyone, even outside the CrossFit landscape.
Like running or an elliptical machine session, rowing is a full-body workout. Start in a seated position on the machine with your knees bent and feet secured on the foot bar (or in straps, depending on the machine). Next, grab the handle which is attached to the flywheel at the front of the machine via a cable.
Then, 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 towards your chest. “You should reach the point where your legs are extended, you’re leaning slightly back and your arms and contracted into your chest,” Dempers says.
Next, glide forward, returning your knees to their bent starting position and extending your arms and the handle forward towards 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 affects how much tension you pull. The higher the airflow, the more tension you get which means a heavier workout.
While it might seem simple, it’s one heck of a workout. “Rowing has both an aerobic aspect to it and also a strength aspect,” Dempers says. “You can adjust the tension of the machine for a heavier pull and you’re still driving through your legs.”
Your back also gets a workout as you shift back and forth on your pulls. “There’s a postural aspect, working on the strength in your upper back,” adds Dempers. “That’s a big thing as we see so many people staring down at computers or phones all day. Improving that upper spine posture is important.”
And that full-body workout means you also burn calories. “It’s up there in terms of burning calories. I’d rank it below running but above an elliptical machine,” Dempers says. “There are certain factors that affect how many calories you burn, like your speed, intensity and resistance. But it’s still a good workout no matter what.”
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,” says Dempers.
But, he adds, you’re not sacrificing your cardio exercises by choosing rowing over something more high-impact like running. “If you’re strictly looking at it as an aerobic exercise to replace something like running, then you can do the rowing machine for half an hour and get a great cardio workout.”
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 above, you can do short intervals between other exercises to keep your heart rate up.
“I think that’s the appeal to rowing,” Dempers says. “You can do it as one longer 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.”
Rowing’s versatility also comes from the physical components of a rowing machine itself. You’ll still need ample space if you want to buy your own machine as most rowers are about 8 feet long (though usually no wider than your body).
While some rowing machines can be heavy, most are lightweight enough to move and even stow away, a big advantage over hefty treadmills and elliptical machines that live in one place.
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.
“Keeping your knees straight and neutral is important,” Dempers points out. “You don’t want them bowing out to the side as you go through your motion as that can lead to hip issues. Just be sure you don’t lock them when you’re pulling back.”
Proper posture is also important and can be a bit harder to maintain with more tension. “Think about balancing a book on your head like in the old posture training films,” he adds. “Keep your shoulders back with your head straight. Don’t hunch down with your shoulders rounded and head down.”
If you don’t keep that proper form, Dempers says, it 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, such as towards your chin instead of towards 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.