The Ultimate Rowing Machine Fitness Guide

Rowing machines are challenging, to say the least. However, they offer one of the best full body workouts you can get. A simple rowing machine may be the single best piece of fitness equipment you can buy.

Let’s take a look at the numerous benefits of using a rowing machine.

1. Aerobic and Cardiovascular Conditioning – As you row, you’ll feel your heart rate increase and your lungs begin to work hard as they strive to provide oxygen to your working muscles. And because you’re working your legs, core, and upper body as you row, your muscles need a lot of oxygen. It’s a fantastic cardio workout.

2. Full Body Strength Training – Rowing engages all the major muscles of your lower body, your core muscles including your back and abdominals, and your arms and shoulders. It also requires your joints to work smoothly through a full range of motion. This strength-training component helps improve bone density, muscle tone and size, and strength.

3. Calorie Burning And Weight Loss – Rowing machines, because they’re full body workouts, can burn a tremendous amount of calories. The calories you burn depend a lot on your intensity and your current weight. For example, a 200 lb. person can burn approximately 405 calories in 30 minutes at an intense pace, while a 150 lb. person would burn approximately 305 calories at the same pace.

4. Low Risk Of Injury – There’s no impact when you’re rowing. It’s a smooth, albeit powerful movement that doesn’t result in impact during any portion of the stroke. This means joints aren’t at risk. This doesn’t mean there’s no risk of injury. It’s important to make sure you use proper rowing form.

5. Compact – While rowing machines certainly aren’t the smallest fitness equipment you can buy, they’re definitely more compact than a weight station. They’re about the size of a treadmill and many rowing machines can be stored on end so they take up less room.

Sounds great, right? Before you run out to buy a rowing machine, let’s take a look at:

1. How Rowing Machines Work
2. How to Compare Rowing Machines
3. Tips to Buying the Rower that’s Right for You
4. How to Bring Your Rowing Machine Home and Use It Effectively (And Safely)
5. How To Create Your Own Rowing Machine Fitness Program

How Rowing Machines Work

An indoor rowing machine is designed to simulate the effort and feel of a boat on the water. Originally designed to help rowing club athletes simulate the rowing movements during inclement weather, the rowing machine, aka ergometer or erg, is now a fitness favorite around the world.

An erg is designed to simulate the same resistance you might feel if you were actually rowing on water. However, not all rowing machines actually use water to provide resistance.

• Magnetic Resistance – Magnetic resistance creates resistance with electromagnets that engage a mechanical brake in the flywheel.

• Air Resistance – Fins on the flywheel provide the resistance. As the flywheel spins faster, the air resistance increases.

• Water Resistance – With water resistance machines a paddle revolves in an enclosed tank of water. The mass and drag of the moving water creates the resistance.

• Hydraulic Resistance – This type of resistance comes from hydraulic cylinders that are attached to the handles of the rowing machine.

There’s no right or wrong type of resistance machine and certainly different people have opinions on which type is best. Different resistance types offer different benefits. For example, hydraulic resistance machines tend to be smaller, water resistance machines best simulate realistic rowing, and magnetic resistance machines are quiet. Test the various types of resistance.

You may find that you prefer some resistance types over others. You’ll likely also notice that some resistance types are bulkier, more expensive, or louder than others. The Concept 2 machines, which are very highly rated and likely to be found in most professional gyms, use air resistance.

While resistance type may be one of the most important factors to look at when shopping for a rowing machine, it’s not the only factor.

For example, here is a comparison of three rowers priced under $500:

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In the over $500 catogory, the rowers have more features and are built more ruggedly:

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When comparing rowing machines, here is the mental checklist you should be doing as you look at the various models:

Size Matters With Rowing Machines – Do You Have Enough Space For The Strokes?

☐ Most Rowing Machines Are Around Eight Feet Long
☐ To Keep It Out Of The Way When Out Of Use, Choose A Model That Can Be Stored On End
☐ Choosing A Model With Wheels Makes It Easier To Move Around
☐ Foldable Machines Are Easier To Store/ Move But Can Be Less Durable

Key Features To Consider:

☐ Is The Machine Noisy? Will That Bother You?
☐ Does It Have A Stationary Seat Or Sliding Seat? Can You Try Some To Find What’s Best For You?
☐ Rowing Machines Can Vary In Price, But It’s Generally Best To Pay As Much As You Can Afford For A Reputable Brand And Durable Machine

Different Types Of Resistance Found In Rowing Machines:

☐ Magnetic Resistance (Usually Quieter Than Other Types)
☐ Air Resistance (Can Simulate Water Resistance Very Effectively)
☐ Water Resistance (Most Realistic Compared To Real Rowing)
☐ Hydraulic Resistance (Can Help To Save Space)
☐ Test Different Types To Find The Right One For You

Extra Features To Look Out For (Depending On Your Needs):

☐ Measurements Of Distance Travelled, Calories Burned, Strokes Per Minute Etc.
☐ Maximum User Weight
☐ You Won’t Usually Find Extras Like MP3 Docking Stations, Video Screens Etc.

☐ Check The Rowing Machine Warranty
☐ There Will Usually Be Different Warranty Lengths For Labor, Parts, Motor Etc.

How to Compare Rowing Machines

We’ve already discussed the different types of resistance and shared a few of the pros and cons of both. It’s a primary consideration; however, it’s not the only one. Let’s explore seven other considerations so you can comparison shop with full knowledge and an understanding of how machines can be different

Size

Where do you plan on using your rowing machine? Rowing machines can be quite bulky. They are long machines because you need the full range of motion to complete each stroke. A general length for a rowing machine is around eight feet long. When in position, that’s a very sizable piece of equipment.

The good news is that they’re not very tall, just a few feet, and they’re not very wide, either. Most rowing machines are about two feet wide at their widest point. Now, if size is a consideration for you, for example you’re planning on using your rowing machine in your living room, consider a model that can be stored on end.

Many have wheels on one end so you can roll it into position and drop it down to the floor. When you’re done with your workout, you can stand the rowing machine back up, assuming your ceiling is taller than eight feet, and roll it back into storage. Some machines fold up.

You may have to weigh durability with your size requirements and decide which takes priority as a machine that folds may not be as durable as one that does not. Note: If you are looking at a model that folds up, make sure to investigate what the maximum weight capacity is. You don’t want to exceed that.

Hydraulic resistance machines also tend to be smaller because they don’t have a flywheel. They also tend to have free motion arms instead of a handle and a pull cord.

Decide where you’re going to use your machine and what size restrictions you have to work with. There’s nothing worse than spending money on a good piece of fitness equipment only to find that it doesn’t fit in your home.

Features

What features does the rowing machine offer and what do you require? Most rowing machines provide the standard information including distance, calories, time, strokes, and strokes per minute workout. Some also provide watts, which helps you evaluate your intensity, as well as pre-programmed workouts, interval timers, and games.

Noise Level

Unlike treadmills and other pieces of fitness equipment, you’ll be hard pressed to find a rowing machine that has an integrated MP3 docking station, a video screen or any other entertainment features. However, that doesn’t mean you won’t want to listen to music while rowing.

And if you live in an apartment or condominium with shared walls, the noise level of your machine may be important. Some rowing machines are quite noisy. If this is a concern for you, look at air resistance machines, as they tend to be the most quiet.

Price

Rowing machines vary from several thousand dollars to just a few hundred. The most popular selling model retails for around $900. Price is almost always a consideration for people; however, remember that a rowing machine gives you a full body workout – head to toe. So you’re getting a lot for your money.

Equipment

Some machines have stationary seats – the seat doesn’t move. Most machines have a sliding seat because that’s how you obtain the full range of motion. Some machines don’t have a handle attached to a cord at the flywheel but rather two arms that you pull back during the drive movement.

There are strong opinions about what a rowing machine should be. Try several different types out and decide for yourself. The less expensive machines tend to have arms and use hydraulic resistance.

Brand Reputation

There are a handful of manufacturers who have been in the business of building rowing machines for decades. They have a solid reputation and a history of excellence. There are also many newcomers to the market. Investigate the company and read the warranty and guarantee information before you buy.

Finally, consider how often you’ll use the machine. If you plan on using it daily, make sure you’re buying a durable model that has a solid reputation in the industry. You want to make sure you get many years, and meters, out of your new rowing machine.

Now let’s explore a few tips, five to be exact, on how to buy the rowing machine that’s right for you.

Buying The Rowing Machine That’s Right For You

Rowing machines can be a significant financial investment so it’s important to make sure you make the right decision for you. Try it out!

There are dozens of different types of rowing machines. Spend some quality time trying out various models, resistance types, and manufacturers. Try rowing machines with a handle and pull cord and try machines that have arms. The best way to know what you like, and don’t like, is to sit down on a handful of different machines and give them a go.

Does The Console Provide Enough Information?

What type of rowing machine fitness program interests you? How do you want to use your machine? For example, will you use it as part of a fitness program that includes other activities or will your rowing machine be your sole piece of fitness equipment? This is important because it affects what type of information you want the console to provide.

For example, if you’re interested in trying out for the rowing club you may want your console to provide an abundance of information. If your rowing machine will be your complete fitness workout then you may want it to provide games and pre-programmed workouts so you can just sit down and row.

Make a list of the information you need your console to provide and then a list of the information or data that you want it to provide. Take this list with you when you’re shopping.

Where Will You Use It?

This may sound a bit silly, but take measurements of where your rowing machine will be positioned before you head out to shop. For example, if you’re going to use it in your living room, measure the space you want to use it in and also measure the space you’re going to store it in.

While you have that tape measure out, you might also want to measure the width of your doors and the amount of cargo space you have in your car. If it doesn’t fit in your car, it’s not coming home with you. Likewise, make sure your desired rowing machine will actually fit in your chosen location at home.

Bells and Whistles

Make a list of the features and functions your rowing machine must have. Number them in order of priority – number one being the most important, two the next most important and so on. Then make a list of the features and functions that would be nice to have. Take this list with you when you shop so you can make sure you’re buying the best erg for your needs.

Research and a Short List

Finally, spend some time researching online or pick up the phone and learn about models that fit your needs and goals. Then head out to the fitness store to try them out. That doesn’t mean you have to buy them at the fitness store.

It’s often more cost effective to order online. What is important is to do your research and create a short list of models to compare. It simplifies the shopping process.

Using Your Rowing Machine Effectively and Safely

Once you have your beautiful rowing machine at home you’re no doubt anxious to use it. Before you sit down and start pulling it’s important to know how to use it safely. If you jump right on without learning proper form, you can injure your back. That should never happen! Let’s walk through the proper form on a rowing machine.

Proper Foot Position

Sit down on your rowing machine and place your feet on the footpads. You’ll notice that they’re adjustable. Raise your foot up and your knees will rise when you’re in the catch position. The “Catch” will be discussed in depth in the next section. However, it’s the point when you’re closest to the flywheel.

Your back is at a 45-degree angle and your arms are bent. If your knees are above your armpits, then your feet are positioned too high. If they’re below your armpits, they’re too low.

You’ll also want to aim to have the foot straps across the widest part of your foot – so that it covers your big toe joint. It should be noted that you can wear shoes when you row but you don’t have to.

The foot straps should hold your foot in place but it shouldn’t be too tight. You do want your heel to be raised during the stroke.

The Components of Proper Form – The Catch, The Drive, The Rest

In the drive (work) phase, the legs initiate the power, and arms remain straight. Then the hip flexors and torso muscles maintain the power through the leg and hip drive.

Finally, the arms finish the stroke with an accelerating pull toward the torso that completes the smooth handoff of power from lower body to torso to upper body. The handle and seat must move together during the drive.

There are three essential movements when you’re rowing. They are the Catch, the Drive, and the Rest. Let’s take a look at each movement in detail and then put it all together.

The Catch – The catch is the phase of your stroke where you’re closest to the flywheel. Your body is roughly at a 30-degree angle forward. Your knees and arms are bent. Your back is straight. Don’t round your back at any point during the stroke.

The Drive – This is the power movement. It’s initiated with your legs, not your back and arms. Push with your feet and move your seat back. Your legs will extend fully. Keeping your back straight, finish the stroke by pulling with the upper body. Your arms will bend as you finish the stroke and your body will be at roughly a 30-degree angle backward. Your heels may come off of the pedals at the end of the drive.

The Rest – The rest is the stage when you return the row bar to the starting position. As you begin to slide forward, your knees will bend. Your back will straighten. Your arms will bend and you’ll once again lean toward the flywheel. There is a tendency to let your knees fall outward at this point. Don’t let that happen. It can cause injury to your knees. Keep them vertically aligned with your feet.

The purpose of the drive is to gain distance. This is the power movement. It should be strong and dynamic. The rest, returning to the catch position, should be relaxed enough that you feel tension when you initiate your next drive. Return to the catch position too quickly and your next stroke will lack power.

Once you have the basic movement down, it’s time to take a look at your monitor.

Understanding The Numbers and What They Mean

Each rowing machine’s console will display a few different numbers. Once you understand these data points, you can begin to test your stroke to see how it impacts the numbers.

This information will help you perfect your stroke for maximum power and improve your overall fitness.

Strokes per Minute – You’ll see a number on your screen that is often displayed with an s/m in the corner. This means strokes per minute. We talk about this number a bit in the next section on fitness programs.

Basically, the fewer strokes you can have per minute the better, assuming you’re also maintaining or increasing your average pace/distance.

For example, 35 strokes per minute is a pretty relaxed pace. Row for a few strokes and try to get that number. Then try to drop it by 10 strokes. You’ll notice that the effort to get 25 strokes per minute is much greater.

Split Time/Pace – This number is usually based on 500 meters. On a Concept 2 rowing machine it’s the big number in the middle of your screen. That’s the pace you’re rowing at right now.

If you can reduce your strokes per minute and your split time, it’s a sign that your form is improving and your stroke is more effective.

You’ll also notice a total time. That’s the amount of time you’ve been rowing. If you’re doing a timed workout, for example rowing for thirty minutes, then that’s your counter. There’s also an average pace.

If you’re rowing for several thousand meters, keep an eye on this number to see how steady your effort is. If it drops you know you’re working harder and if your average pace increases then you know you’re letting up on your effort.

Many machines are also set up for timed intervals, which are discussed in the next section on rowing fitness programs. Become familiar with your rowing machine. You may have games, pre-programmed workouts, and other features that can help you reach your fitness goals.

Finally, before we dive into the next section where we cover some basic fitness programs, let’s take a bit to talk about what to wear when you’re rowing.

What To Wear – Functional Rowing Gear

When talking about functional gear, let’s start from the ground and work our way up.

Shoes – Many fitness experts recommend wearing minimal shoes and even go so far as to recommend the five-finger shoes. This is because some shoes are too stiff. They don’t allow the flexibility your foot needs to finish the stroke. Other shoes may be too flexible and not provide the support you need. Best recommendation is to grab a pair of basic walking shoes and to try it out. Some people do prefer to row bare foot; however this can quickly lead to blisters and hot spots. Remember, there is a strap that runs across the top of your foot and the base of the footpad is often textured.

Bottoms – Shorts or pants are fine. The primary consideration is to make sure your pants aren’t too loose. Fabric can get in the way when you’re rowing. You may want to wear longer shorts if you sweat a lot. This will prevent your seat from getting slick. People have been known to fall off rowing machines from time to time.

Tops – Again, you want freedom of movement here. Tops that are too tight can feel restrictive. Too lose and the material can get in the way or rub and cause abrasions. A t-shirt or a tank top is usually just fine.

Accessories – Consider taking off all jewelry as it can cause issues with your stroke. Some people like to wear gloves when they row. It shouldn’t be necessary. There’s very little movement in your hands. However, if you find you’re getting hot spots, then light gloves are okay. Finally, rowing is a full body movement. You’re going to work hard and sweat. You may want a sweatband to keep moisture out of your eyes.

Now that we’ve covered the foundational movements and attire, it’s time to start working out. Click here to see part 2, which covers basic rowing machine fitness programs.