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A beginner’s guide to the rowing machine

NEW YORK — Rowing machines are having a moment. Long the ugly ducklings of the gym, tucked away in forgotten corners, the workout devices are getting a makeover — just like indoor cycling machines did a decade ago.

Rowing is a total body workout that targets the muscles in your legs, back, core and arms.

Rowing is a total body workout that targets the muscles in your legs, back, core and arms.

NEW YORK — Rowing machines are having a moment. Long the ugly ducklings of the gym, tucked away in forgotten corners, the workout devices are getting a makeover — just like indoor cycling machines did a decade ago.

The number of people rowing indoors increased by nearly 20 per cent between 2014 and 2021, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, and the global rowing machine market is expected to exceed US$1.8 billion (S$2.52 billion) in value by 2031. Some attribute this resurgence to CrossFit, which frequently features rowing machines (also called ergometres, or ergs for short) in their daily workouts.

Capitalising on this new wave of enthusiasm, indoor rowing studios have popped up across the country, and fitness equipment companies, like Hydrow, have launched high-tech home machines paired with guided classes, a la Peloton. Speaking of Peloton, the company announced in September that it’s rolling out a rowing machine — with screens and classes similar to its signature bike — as its third piece of branded equipment.

To dedicated rowers, this increase in popularity doesn’t come as a surprise. Rowing is a total body workout that targets the muscles in your legs, back, core and arms. It’s also great for your cardiovascular system because it challenges the heart in multiple ways, said Dr Aaron Baggish, a professor of medicine at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland and the director of the Cardiovascular Performance Program at Massachusetts General Hospital.

“What’s unique about it is that it combines the two fundamental stresses that the heart responds to, which are pressure and volume,” he explained.

Rowing is often used for endurance training, which increases blood volume and, over time, can cause parts of the heart to enlarge so that it can pump more blood. But the movement also involves short bursts of intense effort — similar to strength training — which increases blood pressure and strengthens the heart walls.

Most dedicated athletes show only one change in their heart or the other, depending on their sport of choice. However, Dr Baggish’s research has suggested that the hearts of rowers benefit from both types of stresses.

“It’s something that’s achievable even by people that are going to the gym and just erging a couple of times a week,” he said.

But there is a learning curve when it comes to rowing. Proper form is critical — not only for avoiding injury, but for developing a powerful, efficient stroke and achieving a good workout.

“Rowing in some ways looks very easy, but to get the most out of it, to become efficient, is pretty difficult,” said Mr Aquil Abdullah, a former Olympic rower and an instructor at Hydrow.


The most important thing to keep in mind about rowing is that while it looks like you’re yanking the handle (or oars) with your arms, most of the power comes from your legs until the very end. “Rowing is a pushing sport, not necessarily a pulling sport,” said Mr Neil Bergenroth, a rowing coach in Tulsa, Oklahoma, who has a YouTube channel dedicated to teaching rowing.

A lot happens during a rowing stroke, so the movement is typically broken down into four steps: The catch, the drive, the finish and the recovery.


In the catch position, the seat is slid toward the front of the machine. Your knees should be above your ankles, shins vertical. Your body is angled slightly forward, and your arms are outstretched with hands in front of your feet.


The drive is where most of the power and exertion come from in rowing. Keeping your core engaged, push the machine away with your feet, making contact with both the ball and heel of your foot.

“When you have your heel down, you’re able to engage your posterior chain,” or the muscles along the backside of your body, such as your calves, hamstrings and glutes, said Mr Casey Galvanek, head coach of the US Rowing Association’s Junior National Team system. This helps you to create more power by using more muscles, he said.

Once you’ve pushed about halfway back, with your knees bent to roughly 90 degrees, start to lean back, pivoting through your hips. You should feel your lats — the major muscles in your back — start to engage as you hold onto the handle. Lastly, drive your elbows back to pull the handle into your chest.


At the end of the stroke, you should be sitting up tall with your core tight, legs straight out in front of you. Your body should be angled backward about 30 degrees — think of the 11 o’clock position on a clock face. The handle is pulled in close to your body a little lower than chest height so that the chain is horizontal.

Many experts actually recommend starting the workout in the finish position to ensure your posture is correct from the beginning.


During the recovery, you’re moving back toward the front of the machine to prepare for your next stroke. First extend your arms. Next, tilt your body forward, pivoting with your hips so that your torso moves from 11 o’clock to 1 o’clock on the clock face, and you are leaning forward about 30 degrees. The motion should come from your hips, not your back, and your abs should be engaged.

“Swing or pivot your body with your pelvis instead of rounding over your bellybutton,” Mr Galvanek said. “Hunching will expose your lower back to possible injury.”

Once you’re angled forward, start to bend your legs to move closer to the front of the machine. As you’re going through the recovery, think “arms, core, legs” and move in that sequence. During the drive, the sequence is reversed: legs, core, arms.


Once you have the fundamentals of the rowing movement down, it’s time to put your form to the test. As with most aerobic workouts, a rowing session can either be long and slow (for endurance training) or short and fast (for interval training). If you’re new to the sport, work through the movements slowly to make sure you’re using proper form.

Rowing speed is measured by your stroke rate, which is usually displayed on the machine’s screen. Mr Galvanek and Mr Bergenroth recommended rowing for 20 or 30 minutes at a pace of 16 to 20 strokes per minute when you’re starting out.

As you feel more comfortable and confident on the machine, you can get into interval workouts where you row in shorter, faster bursts. For example, row for two to five minutes at a stroke rate of 20 to 28 strokes per minute, followed by a one-minute break. Repeat this three to five times for a 10- to 20-minute workout.

Another common way to structure interval workouts is by distance, which should also be displayed on your screen. A typical boat race is 2,000 metres, and rowers often talk about their 500-meter split times. A workout Mr Abdullah recommended is rowing for 500 metres, aiming for a time of two or three minutes. Take a 30- to 60-second rest and do it again, repeating four times total to get to 2,000 metres.


If you want to try rowing on actual water, see if there is a rowing club in your area that offers introductory classes or is welcoming new members.

There are two types of water rowing: Sculling, where you use two oars, one in each hand; and sweeping, which is always done with multiple people in the boat and where each person rows with one oar in both hands. Sculling can be done with one, two or four people per boat, and sweeping is performed with two, four or eight people per boat.

Rowing in a boat can be more challenging than on a machine because you have to battle the elements and, in some cases, work with teammates. However, your form should stay the same regardless of whether you’re rowing on dry ground or in the water.

Mr Galvanek said that a common critique of rowers is that they row differently in the water than they do on an erg (or vice versa), but there’s no reason that they should. “You’re getting into the same position; you’re executing those motions; the timing of those motions are the same,” he said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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