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5 Rowing Machine Workout Benefits

By Elaine K. Howley, Contributor Dec. 15, 2020, at 10:55 a.m. | Reprint of article in USNews

WHETHER YOU’VE EVER been in a boat or have no desire to ever spend any time on the water, a rowing machine may be the best option of the many types of gym equipment you can use. There are five key benefits you can derive from rowing machine workouts:

  1. It’s a full-body workout.

  2. It torches calories.

  3. It’s very low-impact.

  4. It’s scalable.

  5. It’s versatile.

Full-body Workout Contrary to popular perception, rowing isn’t all about the upper body. Sure, your arms and shoulders will benefit and are likely to get strong and toned. But it’s an even better core and lower body workout if you’re performing the motion correctly. That’s because the power of the stroke comes not from the arms but from your glutes and core.

Engaging all the muscles in your body increases your heart rate, providing a top-notch cardiovascular workout similar to what you might experience when swimming vigorously. While rowing definitely boosts lower body strength, it also offers upper body muscle building in opposition to other common pushing motions, says D.R. Ebner, a physical therapist with the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus. Whereas movements like push-ups and bench presses work the push motion, “rowing works the pull, which can balance out that muscle development” for better overall training and reduced injury risk.

Calorie Torching Because a rowing workout targets the large muscles of the lower body, it can burn calories quickly. Exactly how many calories you burn during your workout will depend on the intensity of the workout and your weight.

But Harvard Health Publishing at Harvard Medical School offers some estimates. According to their report, a 125-pound person rowing at a moderate intensity on a stationary rowing machine can burn 210 calories in 30 minutes. A 155-person can expect to burn about 260 calories in the same time at moderate effort, while a 185-pound person will torch 311 calories in half an hour at moderate effort.

These calculated burn rates are identical to what you can expect to burn when using a stationary bike at moderate pace. Increase the intensity and you’ll increase the calories you burn in the same amount of time. Some rowing machines let you program the computer to alert you when you’ve reached a certain number of calories burned, which can make for a very targeted and precise workout experience. It can also help you know exactly when you’ve burned off a particular food item you ate previously or intend to indulge in later. Low-Impact Because rowing is non-weight-bearing, it’s suitable for people with certain joint issues, such as arthritis that can make it very difficult for them to engage in high-calorie burn workouts like running. “Individuals who have a history of ankle and knee issues could benefit by incorporating a rower” in their fitness routines, says Matt Camargo, director of ProSport Performance at ProSport Physical Therapy and Performance in Southern California. It's important to use the correct from and technique when rowing to avoid injury, especially if you have a history of lower back issues. If you're new to rowing, consider getting guidance from a fitness professional before using the rower. "Like most exercises and machines, too much of anything with poor technique will eventually result in injury. Safe utilization is imperative to ensure there are no setbacks," Camargo notes. Scalable Whether you’re just starting out with a new fitness regimen or are a veteran gym rat, a rowing machine makes a great addition to your fitness routine. You can adjust the resistance on the machine to make the workout harder or easier. And you have near infinite options for ways to structure and program workouts to suit your specific needs and goals. This is why you’re just as likely to find rowing machines in CrossFit gyms and gyms frequented by elite athletes as you are to find them in physical therapy and rehabilitation settings. The rower can serve a very broad spectrum of fitness needs and goals, though Camargo notes that it may be a better option for intermediate to advanced fitness enthusiasts. "Typically those individuals have a decent foundation of body awareness and the necessary physical attributes to perform the rower" in a manner that doesn't lead to injury. If you're new to the rower, get some feedback on your form from a trainer who's well versed in this kind of exercise. Versatile Rowing machines also offer the opportunity for you to perform both high-intensity interval training workouts, which can provide a superlative workout in minimal time. But they’re also great for endurance training through steady-state cardiovascular training. The cardiovascular benefits of a rowing machine workout – whether you’re doing a HIIT workout or longer, slower session – is nearly unparalleled. “It’s pretty open to a large variety of people,” Ebner says. “You can get a wide variety of people of different ages and sizes doing it” because it offers so many different workout levels in a zero-impact format. Use Good Form When you’re using a rowing machine, it’s critical that you maintain good form so as not to develop injuries or overuse certain muscles. “Overuse injuries can be common with these machines, especially as you increase the frequency and volume of exercise too quickly early on in your training program,” says Dr. Michael Nieto, a primary sports medicine physician with Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Orange County, California. Back issues in particular can also be a problem, and Ebner says that if you have a pre-existing injury, such as a knee or lower back injury, use care when starting up with a rowing machine.

Nieto notes that wrist pain and tendinitis can also be a problem for some people. “Wrist pain can be improved with alternating grip position, rest, anti-inflammatory medications and wrist splints.” If you’re still having issues, visit with a doctor for further advice and treatment. It’s also always best to check with your doctor to make sure any health issues, such as heart disease, or injuries won’t interfere with a new workout routine before you start.

Tips to Use a Rower Once you’re cleared for takeoff, use these tips to keep your form on point:

  • Warm up first. Camargo recommends being sure to warmup thoroughly before your rowing workout, using a dynamic warmup routine that incorporates stretching and easy movement to get the body ready for more intense exercise.

  • Focus on posture. Sit up tall and keep your your shoulders back and down, away from your ears. Don’t round your shoulders forward and don’t strain your neck.

  • Gasp the handlebar loosely. Don’t grip the handle bar super tightly, as this can create tension that can lead to wrist, elbow and shoulder issues. Instead, grasp the bar firmly but lightly and flex your fingers periodically throughout the workout to prevent tension from building up.

  • Engage your abs. Engaging your abs as part of each stroke can help protect your lower back from injury and provide more power for your rowing.

  • Drive with the legs first, then lean back. Many people try to do both movements at once, but this can be a recipe for lower back injury. Instead, drive your stroke with the legs and abs and when your legs are extended, then lean back to finish the stroke with your hands.

  • Keep your hands at chest height. You want to pull the handlebar into the chest, essentially in line with the nipples while keeping your shoulders down and elbows pointed out to the sides. Don’t let the hands sag down towards your belly or rise up above the shoulder joint, as this can lead to shoulder issues.

  • Slow your return slide. It’s easy to get wrapped up in your workout and rush the slide back up to the front of the machine, but slowing the slide helps you get the full benefit of each stroke and lets you reset your posture and positioning to be ready for the next pull.

Once you get the hang of it, create a consistent routine of working out on the rower. Camargo notes though that you have to be careful to schedule in some rest time too. “The recovery process is just as important as the actual workouts. The body needs time to repair to come back stronger. Once that adaptation process takes place, that’s where the whole training process can continue and new training goals can be met.”


Elaine K. Howley, Contributor Elaine Howley began writing for U.S. News in 2017, covering breast cancer and COPD. Since ... READ MORE

Sources Matt Camargo, MS, CSCSCamargo is director of ProSport Performance at ProSport Physical Therapy and Performance in Southern California. D.R. Ebner, PT, SCSEbner is a physical therapist with the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus. Michael J. Nieto, MDNieto is a primary sports medicine physician with Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Orange County California.

Tags: exercise and fitness

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