If you’re tired of the treadmill, step off that beaten belt and try a more stimulating endurance challenge: rowing workouts.
“If you take the time to learn rowing technique, it’s one of the best exercises you can do for cardio,” says Jack Nunn, former member of the U.S. Under 23 National Team, U.S. Rowing Masters 2013 Athlete of the Year and owner of Roworx, an indoor rowing training facility in Long Beach, CA. The low-to-the-ground, long machine engages your legs, back, core and arms, delivering an intense full-body cardio experience. Best of all? Rowing won’t put as much stress on your knee and hip joints as running does, meaning that this type of training is ideal for people of all ages, sizes and walks of life.
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Whether you’re ready to vary your gym routine or to row with more confidence during your next CrossFit WOD, we’ve got expert tips on how to maximize your rowing potential, plus three workouts that can torch up to 700 calories each, says Nunn.
Rowing: The Basics
While most people think rowing requires mostly upper-body strength, it’s actually all about the legs, says Nunn. Like a golf swing, the legs and hips do most of the work for creating power during a rowing stroke. In fact, the movement is similar to an explosive power clean in weightlifting that uses your entire body. You begin driving with your legs, engage the muscles in your back and core, and then follow through with your arms, explains Nunn.
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Just like any piece of gym equipment, it’s best to get acquainted with how the rowing machine functions before you go full speed ahead into a workout. Nunn recommends that beginners do three things when they sit down on a Concept 2 rowing machine.
Adjust the foot straps. “Make sure the strap goes across the ball of your foot,” says Nunn. If your feet are placed too high, your legs will also be placed too high, meaning you won’t be taking full strokes. The improper leg position will set you up for an awkward and inefficient stroke. Adjust the foot stretcher where you rest your feet either up or down a few pegs if the fabric strap isn’t lying in the correct spot.
Check the damper setting. Located on the right side of the circular flywheel on a Concept 2 machine, the damper setting is a plastic lever that controls how much air is in the flywheel. Setting the damper to 10 will feel like rowing a heavy boat and will require the most “work” per stroke, while setting it to zero will feel like rowing a sleek, light boat and will require less energy per stroke. You can also think about damper setting like gears on a bike, explains Nunn. “For beginners, you want to make sure the damper setting is anywhere from four to six,” he recommends.
Understand the monitor. The square display is a powerful tool that will give instantaneous feedback during your workout. But with so many possible metrics to use, it’s important for beginners to limit themselves to just the essentials. Two numbers Nunn suggests focusing on are stroke rate (strokes per minute, located in the upper right of the screen) and watts (a measure of workout intensity). A good first goal: Consistently hit your bodyweight (in pounds) in watts, says Nunn.
To get your body warmed up and ready to row, Nunn suggests a 10-minute “Pick Drill.” To pick the stroke apart and wake up the muscles, you’ll begin with simple, partial movements and then work up to the full rowing motion.
Start with your legs straight, body in an upright position, elbows bent so the handle is pulled fully into your chest. Keeping your back and legs straight, extend your arms away from your body, reaching towards your feet, then bring them back to the original position. Shoulders should remain relaxed. Repeat for two minutes.
Next, engage your back. After you extend your arms forward, hinge forward slightly at the hips. Then, keeping your spine neutral, reverse the motion by leaning back from the hips once your body is fully upright, as you pull your arms and the handle into your chest. Repeat for two minutes.
Warming up your legs comes next. After you extend your arms and hinge forward from the hips, bend your knees slightly so your seat rolls halfway towards the flywheel, and your arms extend forward past your feet, grasping the handle. Reverse the motion by pushing with your legs first, then leaning back and finally pulling your arms into your chest. Repeat for two minutes.
Time to take a complete stroke! You may now bend your knees fully so your shins are perpendicular to the ground and your heels lift up slightly. Repeat for four minutes.
Ready to row? Try one of these three conditioning sessions suggested by Nunn. And we’ve got some good news: You don’t even need to time your own intervals. You’ll find all three of these workouts pre-programmed in the monitor of the Concept 2 rower. Read the tips below, do the 10-minute Pick Drill above, then cue up your routine by choosing “Select Workout” from the main menu, then tapping “Custom List” on the rowing monitor, and picking your poison.
Rowing Workout 1: HIIT Sprints (30/30r in Concept 2 menu)
If you’re short on time, these high-intensity intervals will give you a quick sweat fix. Improve your strength and explosive power in just 20 minutes (not including warm-up or cool down). You’ll burn roughly 300 calories in total, says Nunn. Keep your stroke rate between 26 and 32 and always be in control of how fast your legs are moving.
Rowing Workout 2: Pyramid Power (v1:00/1:00r in Concept 2 menu)
Try this intermediate challenge to improve endurance and consistency with your rowing. For each interval, aim to keep the same workout intensity, or pace. You can check this by looking at watts or by changing your units to “time per 500 meters” on the display. Be warned: Just because you’re rowing and resting for the same amount of time doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy! Your hard work will burn roughly 450 calories.
Rowing Workout 3: Lean Leapfrog (v1:00/1:00r in Concept 2 menu)
Compete against yourself during these aggressive bursts. While most rowing workouts are aerobic, this one is anaerobic. Similar to a weight lifting session, you’ll exert your muscles enough to produce lactate, which leaves you with that burns-so-good feeling. Ultimately, an anaerobic rowing machine session will help you increase your power output and endurance because it forces you to tap into the strength of your legs. While paying strict attention to your stroke rate, try to maintain or increase your meters rowed during each “on” minute. This challenging row is 40 minutes and will burn roughly 700 calories, says Nunn.
Want more burns-so-good interval workouts? Try Black Fire with Bob Harper, free for 30 days, at DailyBurn.com.
Originally posted January 2015. Updated February 2017.