woman using rowing machine

Rowing Machine Basics: How to Get Started (and Why You Should)

Jill Hodge sitting on rowing machine

From the moment I first got on a rowing machine (or ERG — short for “ergometer” a device that measures work”) I was hooked. I tried it because it was one of the only machines that didn’t have a long line at the gym. Everyone else was using the ellipticals, treadmills and bikes. This was a few years ago when rowing wasn’t as popular as it is today.

Anyway, I got on, and almost immediately, I felt that the motion suited my body. I was able to do 15-20 minutes during my first few sessions. Over time, I would increase that amount to up to 45 minutes, 4 times per week. Yeah, I became a little obsessed (but in a good way). I love my rowing workouts! Even now, I look forward to rowing, and it has made a huge difference in my weight loss and fitness success. It has helped me lose 60 pounds, build muscle strength, improve my posture and develop a sense of power that I believe every woman should experience.

Is the Rowing Machine Right for You?

Want to learn how to get started? Read on for tips on why rowing is a powerhouse exercise and how even beginners can benefit from this whole-body workout.

If you’ve read my article on finding a base cardio, you know that I believe that a combination of cardio and strength training is best for getting fit. Having a “go-to” cardio exercise that feels right to your body gives you some pleasure and helps you build a sense of mastery. This is important for staying consistent with exercise (and getting yourself on repeat). Rowing is my base cardio. It has benefits that are hard to beat.

Cardio + Strength Training: the Benefits of Rowing

woman on rowing machine
  • Rowing is a full-body exercise, using 85% of your muscles. Few exercises can claim they utilize the same combination of major upper and lower-body muscles—back, chest, biceps, triceps, hamstrings, quadriceps, glutes. The rower targets them all. That’s why you see this exercise at CrossFit gyms and competitions. It works your whole body and offers functional strength gains that are hard to beat.
  • Rowing is easier on the joints while delivering an intense workout. There is no need to worry about knee, leg or foot pain, and overuse injuries are relatively uncommon (if you are using the proper technique—we’ll talk about that later).
  • Rowing works your heart (cardio) and your muscles (strength training) in one shot, making it an efficient, fat-burning workout.
  • People of all ages, sizes and abilities can do indoor rowing. The workout is low impact, so there’s less chance you will get sidelined by injury using the rower. I’ve seen people in their 80s getting it done on a rower (talk about inspiration)!
  • You don’t have to spend hours on the rower. A 15-20 minute workout does the job. Over time, you can vary your intensity, time, and distance to adapt the workout to your fat-loss, weight-loss, or other health goals.

Beginner Rowers: Get Your Technique Down

By now, I hope I’ve convinced you to give the rower a try. Before you do, please take some time to understand these basics. I wish someone had told me this when I first started. I didn’t know what I was doing. I find that many beginners don’t have the form and knowledge about how to use this amazing machine. Here are some steps to get you started:

woman sitting on rowing machine
  • Watch a video (here’s a good one) to learn the proper technique. I think it’s essential to learn the correct motion when starting with a rower. You shouldn’t feel pain in your back, your legs, or your upper body. Fundamentally, it’s important to realize that rowing is an exercise that relies more on power than speed. You use the powerhouse muscles of the legs and butt to push off. I’ve seen too many people focus on pulling the handles. They are using their back, arm and shoulders too much at the start of the stroke. They also tend to move too quickly, neglecting to engage the lower-body muscles. We may associate rowing with racing, but you do NOT need to go fast to reap the health benefits of rowing. Instead of being in competition mode, try to visualize yourself gliding through the water with stealth and optimal body movement and mechanics.  
  • Concentrate on getting your form correct by focusing on the rowing stroke components (the Catch, the Drive, the Finish and the Recovery). Here’s a video that goes over common errors in movement. At first, go for slow, rhythmic movements until you can build some muscle memory and mastery. You will get there—this is not a complex movement, but it does take practice and good form to help you feel your best.
  • Use the monitor or don’t. If you like gadgets—want to know your speed, distance, calories—then use the performance monitor. I tend to focus on the basics (strokes per minute, time and calories), but high-end rowers found in most gyms have fully-loaded consoles that can do everything from offer tailored workouts to track your time/distance stats. If that motivates you, then use them. If not, get on the machine and go for 20 minutes (collect your basic stats) and move on. Don’t let the numbers intimidate you. They will always be there for you when you are ready to use them. Your top priority should be using the machine properly and getting consistent workouts to see some progress toward your fitness goals.

Rowing: Cross-Training at its Best

  • Tap into the rhythm of rowing and enjoy the way your body settles into the movement pattern. Once you’ve gained a little experience, there will be more flow to your workouts. When the recent healthcare crisis hit NYC, I purchased an inexpensive but effective water rowing machine. I like the sound of the water as I move through the stroke. I’ve started to do some slower, rhythmic workouts where I focus on this water sound, and it has become a mindful exercise that helps improve my mood and work my body.
  • Rowing is a great cross-training workout. We sometimes have this all or nothing approach to fitness. I’ll master running (and only running). I’ll focus on rowing (forget about biking). You can have it all. Once you have the basics down with rowing—intersperse your rowing workout with other workouts. Add yoga, dance, the elliptical, running. Whatever you like. Rowing will give you a solid bang for your workout buck, but it isn’t the only exercise around. Be flexible and add it to your other fitness routines when you feel like it.

I hope I’ve given you some good reasons to consider adding rowing to your fitness routine and that it brings you as much pleasure (and results) as it has brought me. If ever there was an exercise that I have put on repeat, it’s rowing. Try it out, and let me know how it’s going. Drop a comment (or share a rowing resource that would be good for a beginner).

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Vicky Weiss-Adler
Vicky Weiss-Adler
8 months ago

Which home rower did you buy?