Stephanie Thielen by Stephanie Thielen
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When you walk into the cardio section of many health clubs, you’ll typically see row after row of treadmills, elliptical trainers, bikes and steppers. But if you look closer, you might also find a rowing machine or two tucked away in the corner. Rowing machines, also known as ergometers, are not among the most popular cardio machines in most health clubs; in fact, you’ll rarely find more than three or four at any given facility, leading many to believe that rowing simply isn’t a good workout.

In reality, rowing recruits many muscle groups and can provide a total-body, cardiovascular, muscle-building workout that you should consider adding to your weekly exercise routine. Rowing is also impact-free and non-weight-bearing, which makes it even more appealing because you can work intensely without putting added stress on your joints. What follows is a brief primer on rowing technique, along with several rowing workouts to help you get started.

The Rowing Stroke

There are four phases to the rowing stroke: catch, drive, finish and recovery. The catch is the preparatory position that sets up the drive, which is the work portion of the stroke. The finish is an extension of the drive; without this position the body will not have ample time in the recovery phase, which is the rest portion that prepares you for the next drive. When all four phases are blended together, you have a fluid and powerful rowing stroke that targets the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, shoulders, upper back, arms and core.

The Catch: Starting Position

  • Begin seated. Glide the seat forward and strap the feet into the platform while holding onto the handlebar.
  • Keep the arms straight, the upper body leaning forward from the hips (at about 1 o’clock) and the shins vertical.

The Drive: Work

  • Drive energy through the heels and press against the platform with the legs. Move the upper body into a vertical (12 o’clock) position and pull the arms back.
  • The arms should move in a straight line to and from the flywheel.

The Finish: Stabilize

  • Continue moving the upper body back slightly (11 o’clock), engaging the core muscles to stabilize the body.
  • The legs should be fully extended and the handlebar slightly below the ribs.

The Recovery: Rest

  • Extend the arms over the legs before leaning from the hips toward the flywheel.
  • Once the hands clear the knees, bend the knees and gradually slide the seat forward, returning to the catch position.

Rowing Workouts

Rowing workouts can be measured in terms of distance (meters), elapsed time or number of strokes. Before your workout, make sure to set the damper, or resistance, to an appropriate level. Rowing machines typically have a setting between 1 and 10. Note that higher levels of resistance do not lead to a better workout. Begin with a setting between 3 and 5. This might feel light, but a lower setting will require you to be quicker in applying power through the “drive” phase, which will provide you with a more efficient workout.

The following workouts are called pyramids. In this type of workout, you perform a series of work, followed by an easy recovery phase. Each work phase increases in meters, time or strokes until you meet your maximum, at which point you reverse the work phase back to the beginning. Pyramid workouts are a fun way to add interest, focus and goals to your rowing workout.

Begin each rowing workout with five minutes of easy rowing, paying attention to the four phases of the rowing stroke and establishing a rhythmic pattern to the stroke. Get off the rower and stretch or walk for another five minutes. Finish each rowing workout with three to five minutes of easy rowing to bring the body back to a pre-workout state. Focus on slowing down your breathing and heart rate before exiting the rower.

Pyramid Workout #1: By Meters

  • Strive for 24-28 strokes per minute (SPM) during the work phase.
  • The work phase focuses on meters (which do not apply to the recovery phase).

Interval 1

Interval 2

Interval 3

Interval 4

Interval 5

Interval 6

Interval 7

200 meters
Work

300 meters
Work

400 meters
Work

500 meters
Work

400 meters
Work

300 meters
Work

200 meters
Work

1:30 min
Easy

2 min
Easy

2:30 min
Easy

3:00 min
Easy

2:30 min
Easy

2 min
Easy

1:30 min
Easy

Pyramid Workout #2: By Time

  • Strive for 24-28 SPM during the work phase; SPM does not apply to the recovery phase.

Interval 1

Interval 2

Interval 3

Interval 4

Interval 5

Interval 6

Interval 7

1 min
Work

2 min
Work

3 min
Work

4 min
Work

3 min
Work

2 min
Work

1 min
Work

1 min
Easy

2 min
Easy

3 min
Easy

4 min
Easy

3 min
Easy

2 min
Easy

1 min
Easy

Pyramid Workout #3: By Strokes

  • Strive for fluid, continuous strokes with each work and recovery interval.

Interval 1

Interval 2

Interval 3

Interval 4

Interval 5

Interval 6

Interval 7

30 strokes
Work

50 strokes
Work

75 strokes
Work

100 strokes
Work

75 strokes
Work

50 strokes
Work

30 strokes
Work

20 strokes
Easy

30 strokes
Easy

40 strokes
Easy

50 strokes
Easy

40 strokes
Easy

30 strokes
Easy

20 strokes
Easy

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