Rowing machines, like almost all fitness machines, have developed over time, taking their place in the inevitable cycle of fitness trends. As machinery improves and “new” ways to exercise are introduced, long-standing forms of fitness are brought back into (and out of) view.
Rowing machines are currently on an upswing, drawing in consumers and professionals alike. The idea is simple: An individual or a group of participants each mount their own rowing machine, then sweat through a 30- to 60-minute workout designed to mimic the benefits of true water-based rowing.
Why might someone choose rowing over other forms of fitness? The answer is simple: Rowing is tough – and it works. Like cycling, it offers a way to exercise in a group or individually in a relatively low-cost, high-reward format, all while focusing on multiple fitness components.
What Is a Rowing Machine?
A rowing machine is exactly what it sounds like: a machine designed to mimic the workout performed when rowing a boat in the water. Almost all machines come with some sort of monitor to track distance, speed, power, and calories burned. Many are built with a long frame that sits low to the ground, a braked flywheel mounted at the front of the frame, and a handle attached to the flywheel by a rope, chain, or strap. The handle is pulled back toward the user’s body during the rowing movement, and a seat that slides away from and toward the flywheel allows the user to engage the lower body during the “drive” motion of rowing.
Rowing machines provide resistance through one of three mechanisms: magnets, water, or air. In all cases, the resistance is created at the flywheel, making it more or less difficult for the user to pull on the handles and extend the strap, rope, or chain. Magnetic resistance is set by the user and is quieter than the other forms, but its resistance is constant – meaning once it’s set, it remains steady – making it less like “real rowing” than air or water resistance.
The resistance from machines that use air or water is variable, due to the fan-like fins or paddles each unit features. The harder the user pulls back on the handles, the greater the resistance generated as the fans or paddles must work against the air or water to continue rotating.
Using a Rowing Machine
Picture Olympic rowers driving their boats through the water with paddles. The motion takes place in roughly four segments:
- Catch. The catch is the starting position. The rower’s knees are bent, arms and shoulders relaxed, arms stretched out in front of the knees, and hands gripping the paddle handles. The rower’s back is relatively upright and tall, and the paddles reach behind the boat, just dipping or “catching” the water.
- Drive. The drive is the powerful movement that propels the boat toward the finish line. In one movement, rowers press through the bottom of their feet to extend their knees; the core then engages to help lever their bodies backward. Once their knees are straight, rowers continue the backward leverage by pulling the handles in toward their chests, drawing the paddles forward through the water.
- Finish. At the end of the drive phase, the fists are at the chest, the torso is leaning slightly backward, and the legs are fully extended. In water-based rowing, the paddles finish their forward stroke and exit the water, releasing the resistance.
- Recovery. Recovery is the steady and controlled movement that returns the rower to the starting position using little to no resistance. In water-based rowing, this is because the paddles remain outside of the water until the next “catch” phase, so there’s no resistance pulling against the paddles.
The phases and positions when using a rowing machine are exactly the same as these. The only difference is you’re performing the movement on land.
Benefits of Rowing Machines
The health and fitness benefits of rowing machines are much the same as those of water-based rowing, with a few bonus benefits that shouldn’t be overlooked.
1. Improves Cardiovascular Fitness
Whenever you perform sustained exercise that increases your heart rate and breath volume, you’re working on your cardiovascular fitness. Rowing is great for the heart and lungs because it engages every major muscle group of your body. That, in turn, requires your heart to pump more blood to your working muscle tissue to deliver energy and nutrients to your cells while buffering away waste byproducts, including carbon dioxide and lactic acid.
The human body is incredibly efficient, and doesn’t like to exert itself, so when it’s forced to work harder than it’s used to, it makes physiologic adjustments so future exertion feels easier. When your heart pumps and you breathe harder during rowing, your body doesn’t like it, and adapts and changes so that the next time you do the same level of work, it feels a little easier. Just like that, you’ve improved your cardiovascular fitness.
2. Increases Total-Body Muscular Strength and Endurance
Muscular strength and muscular endurance are two different things. In a nutshell, muscular strength is how much weight a particular muscle group is capable of lifting in a single effort – much like a single repetition maximum of a bench press. Muscular endurance, on the other hand, is how much weight a particular muscle group can lift repeatedly over time. For instance, how many times you can bench press 100 pounds, or how long you can ride a bike up a steep incline.
When rowing (as with swimming), you can actually increase both your muscular strength and muscular endurance (although endurance is the primary beneficiary). This is because you’re repeatedly pushing and pulling against resistance for the entirety of your workout, spurring physiologic adaptations that enable a muscle group to continue exerting force without corresponding fatigue. That said, by increasing resistance over time, your muscles will grow and develop, also becoming stronger.
What really makes rowing stand out is that it works your entire body. During the drive phase you’re engaging the major muscle groups of your legs first, then your core, and finally your upper body and back. This repeated exertion helps improve muscular endurance across muscle groups.
3. Low Impact
As long as you maintain good form, rowing is easy on the joints. Because your feet remain in contact with the foot pads and your hands keep contact with the handles, there’s little to no impact being placed on the ankles, knees, hips, elbows or shoulders, all of which are prone to injury. This also makes it an appropriate form of exercise for those who are nursing an injury, or who feel physically uncomfortable during weight-bearing exercises, such as walking, jogging, or certain other aerobic activities.
4. Can Be Performed Individually or as a Group
Just like water-based rowing, workouts performed on rowing machines can be done individually or in a group setting. In fact, group rowing classes are popping up across the country as an alternative to group cycling classes. They’re held much the same way, with high-energy instructors, pumping music, and a loosely choreographed routine set to the beat of the playlist. It’s a fun option for those who want the benefits of rowing, but don’t want to exercise alone.
That said, you don’t have to opt for the group workout. You can purchase a rower for home or grab a seat on a rowing machine at your gym to go at your own pace.
5. Relatively Low-Cost
Whether you buy your own rowing machine or use one at a gym, the investment is relatively low when compared to other cardio equipment. The top commercial rowing machine company in the country, Concept2, sells its popular Model D Indoor Rowing Machine for just $850. Compare that to a high-end commercial group cycling bike, and you’re looking at an $1,800 investment. Compare it again to a high-end commercial treadmill or elliptical trainer, and you’re going to pay well over $5,000.
While these comparisons are based on commercial-rated equipment (equipment designed to withstand high levels of use and abuse), the same price differentials are evident in the residential equipment arena. Some rowers are available for as little as $300, although price and quality are correlated. Do your due diligence to check reviews and feedback before making a purchase.
If you’d rather take classes at your local gym, the cost is likely to vary. If you have to enroll in a specialty facility, you can expect a per-class rate ranging from $15 to $30, depending on your market, the number of classes you purchase, and the gym you attend. If your gym offers rowing classes, you may not have to pay anything to attend, or you may need to upgrade your membership to account for access to group fitness classes.
Not everyone has a lake or river nearby – not to mention a boat. Machine rowers are available at almost all gyms, they’re available year-round, and they don’t require users to wear a life jacket or know how to swim. In other words – pretty much anyone can give them a try.
Rowing is an excellent form of exercise, but it’s not without risks. Poor form can result in injury, particularly to the lower back during the drive phase of the exercise. If you’ve never used a rowing machine before, ask for tips from a trainer to ensure you’re using it properly. And, as with any form of exercise, start slow and work your way up.
Have you tried a rowing class?