3 Rowing Workouts to Mix up Your Routine

The next time you walk into the gym feeling uninspired by the same old workout routine, pass by the treadmill and seek out the unsung hero of the cardio room floor, the rowing machine.

"Rowing is a full-body workout that develops your cardiovascular system and your strength," says Sara Hendershot, an Olympic rower, CrossFit coach, and the co-owner of Project Up and the Rowfficient coaching program. "Plus," she continues, "it's low-impact, without a high risk of injury, and more often than not, the rowing machines at the gym are unused."

If you've ever had to wait around for your turn on a cardio machine, you know this is a big benefit. The trick, of course, is figuring out how to start, but that's not a problem with Hendershot in your corner. Here, she provides the basics to know before getting started, along with three custom rowing workouts she developed to help you start rowing with confidence.

Before You Get Started, Check Your Form

Woman using rowing machine

Samantha Mitchell / Fuse / Getty Images

Even if you've tried rowing in the past, it's worth double-checking your form, especially since using the incorrect form is pretty common. Hendershot offers three "checkpoints" to help you get the movement right.

Legs First

"Many athletes don't realize that during the drive sequence of the rowing stroke, you want your shoulders to remain in front of your hips until your legs are done pushing," says Hendershot.

In other words, you shouldn't lean your torso backward or pull your arms toward your body as you extend your legs. It's a little awkward if you're not used to the action, so Hendershot suggests you add some "legs only" drills to your warm-up, where the angle between your chest and your legs never changes, and your shoulders remain in front of your hips.

Straight Arms

"Your arms are the weakest muscles you use in the rowing stroke, so make sure you're using them the least!" Hendershot says. When you start each stroke, your arms should be long and straight, as though you're reaching for something in front of you.

"What often keeps this from happening properly is that athletes don't prepare their arms early enough in the recovery phase of the stroke. From the 'finish' position, when your legs are straight and your body is angled slightly back with the handle touching your sternum, the first movement you make should be to extend your arms straight before you bend your legs or reach forward."

To practice proper form during your warm-up, add a pause at the end of your finish position to insert a conscious "arms away" movement into your stroke.

Listen to Your Fan

Rowing machines have a fan in their housing that creates wind resistance as you perform each stroke. Hendershot says, "The goal should be to create a big, rhythmic 'vvrrooooooooooom' sound from the fan on each stroke."

It's important to pay attention to the different sounds your fan makes as you adjust your technique. When you hear the correct sound, Hendershot says it's a good sign you've patiently created power using your body weight.

Understand the Monitor

The second thing to think about as you start your rowing workout is what the monitor on your machine is communicating about your workout and progress. Concept2 rowers tend to be the industry standard for commercial machines, so it's a good idea to familiarize yourself with the machine's display and options.

If you're working with a different manufacturer, not to worry. Hendershot says most monitors provide the same basic readings. The indicators you'll want to keep an eye on are the time, intervals, distance, and an option for "single distance."

If you plan on working through the exercise programs provided by Hendershot, and you're using the Concept2 machine, use these steps to get started, "As you set up for your workout, press the MENU/BACK button, then SELECT WORKOUT, and NEW WORKOUT," says Hendershot.

By following these instructions, your monitor will correctly display the information you need to complete each program.

Workout 1: Step 8k

This is the longest workout of the bunch, which you can expect to take between 30 to 40 minutes to complete.

  • Set your monitor for 8,000 meters of work.
  • Increase your stroke rate (the number of strokes you’re taking each minute) every 2,000 meters. This number is displayed in the corner of your screen.
  • Start at 22 strokes per minute for the first 2,000 meters, then shift up to a rate of 24, 26, and 28 for the next three segments.
  • Try to increase your speed each time you increase your stroke rate.
  • This long effort will build in intensity as you go.

Workout 2: 1,000 Meter Repeats

When you're looking for something short and sweet, you can't go wrong with this 3,000-meter challenge.

  • Set your monitor for intervals: Select 1,000 meters of work and three minutes of rest.
  • Complete three 1,000-meter repeats, shifting your stroke rate up at the halfway mark of each.
  • Do the first 500 meters at 26 strokes per minute, then row above 30 strokes per minute for the next 500 meters.
  • Catch your breath during the three minutes of rest before continuing.

Workout 3: 30-Second Sprints

This interval routine isn't for the faint of heart. It's pretty much guaranteed to tax your cardiovascular system and make your muscles burn as you push yourself as hard as you can. After a short warm-up, the meat of the routine will take about 20 minutes.

  • Set your monitor for "intervals: time" and select 30 seconds of work, 90 seconds of rest.
  • Complete 10 intervals of 30 seconds at maximum effort.
  • Try to maintain over 30 strokes per minute during each 30-second interval.
  • If the 90-second rest period feels like too much rest, push harder on the next interval.

By Laura Williams, MSEd, ASCM-CEP
Laura Williams is a fitness expert and advocate with certifications from the American Council on Exercise and the American College of Sports Medicine.