Does Rowing ‘Count’ as Strength Training? (SELF)

Posted: Mar 06, 2023 in In the News

This article originally appeared in SELF on March 6, 2023.


Does Rowing ‘Count’ as Strength Training?

By Tiffany Ayuda

Rowing has always been a great workout. But recently it’s been experiencing a bit of a resurgence in pop culture thanks to the buzz around Peloton’s new rower and the growing popularity of Hydrow’s indoor rowing machine. 

Exercisers are drawn to the gym staple for a bunch of reasons, but there’s one major one. Unlike other cardio machines, such as treadmills and ellipticals, rowing enlists pushing and pulling motions, which simultaneously works your lower- and upper-body muscles while you get your heart rate up. This makes it a great full-body workout—and more than just a cardio challenge.

Which begs the question: Does rowing count as cardio or strength training? While the ask is simple, the answer is a bit more nuanced. Ahead, we explain what exactly rowing is and how an indoor rower can be used to cater to your specific fitness goals. 

First of all, what exactly is rowing?

Before we get into the cardio versus strength debate, it can be helpful to look a little closer at how rowing works. There are two forms of this activity: You can literally row a boat using oars on the water—a sport sometimes known as crew, in which a team of rowers on one boat compete against rowers on another. Rowing the oar into the water provides the real-world resistance that makes each stroke feel so tough.

But more common for exercise purposes is the indoor rowing machine, or an ergometer. With a rowing machine, you sit on a gliding seat with your feet strapped into foot pads in front of you, and you pull a handlebar toward your chest by driving through your legs. This drive creates the resistance. In a traditional air rower, for example, air enters the cage as the flywheel spins with each stroke, so the more air that enters the cage, the harder you have to work to keep the flywheel spinning. 

Air-based rowers also include a damper, which controls the level of wind resistance in the cage, usually on a scale of zero to 10. Think of it as the drag of your boat, Caley Crawford, NASM-CPT, director of training and experience at Row House in Tustin, California, tells SELF. The more momentum you build, the heavier it will feel as you rev it back up. (Some indoor rowing machines, like the Ergatta, do use water for their resistance, though they can be pricier.)

Whether you’re on a boat or on an indoor rower, a proper rowing stroke has four phases: the catch, drive, finish, and recovery, according to the American Council on Exercise. You’ll begin with the catch, or the starting position, with your arms straight and upper body hinging forward slightly at your hips, with your lats and core engaged. The catch sets you up for the drive, the phase where the major work gets done: You’ll press your feet into the foot plates, driving energy through your heels and pulling your arms back. In the finish, or the stabilization phase, you’ll fully extend your legs, pulling your upper body back a bit more, so the handlebar is above your belly button at your lower chest. The recovery phase is the prep for the next stroke: You’ll extend your arms over your legs before hinging at your hips so you can do it all again. 


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