By Lisa Steuer

Looking for a cardio workout that will whip your whole body into shape? The rowing machine in your gym may be a better choice than the treadmill or elliptical. More and more people are realizing the fitness benefits of rowing without ever stepping foot near any water. Rowing combines cardio with resistance exercise, meaning you can actually cut your workout time in half. In fact, rowing activates 86 percent of the muscles, and especially works the core.

Why Rowing?

Rowing is an all-over body workout because it’s cardio that utilizes your back, core and arms, says Tom Sanford, the director of rowing at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York. Tom, who was born into a family with a rowing background, is also the head coach of the varsity women’s team at Marist, having previously served as the men’s coach and helping lead them to their 10th consecutive MAAC championship in 2009. They have also won the championship twice since then.

“[Rowing is] obviously excellent for cardio and you use, in order, your legs and then your back and then your arms. So there are other sports that are good [for fitness], but they usually focus on one or two body parts as opposed to all of them,” says Tom.

The rowing program is pretty strong at Marist, with about 80 men and women rowers, and Tom knows just what it takes to train beginners. “I’ve taught children how to row, and I’m currently teaching an 88-year-old man how to row,” says Tom. “It takes a little bit of patience on the part of the athlete. If they stick with it for a little they’ll definitely see how much they can get out of it.”

In fact, rowing is not only a good workout for those who want to get in shape, it can also increase an athlete’s performance in other sports. “A lot of colleges are now having basketball teams sit on rowing machines to teach them body discipline,” says Tom. He even convinced Marist to purchase four or five rowing machines for the weight room, so he can teach athletes in other sports how to row.

Another positive aspect of rowing is that it increases core strength. It also increases flexibility, balance, and can even be used in rehab for an injured shoulder or back. “I think it’s great, and you can do it forever,” says Tom. “Once you learn how to row, you can do it when you’re 90.”

Prepare to Row

Tom says that rowing can be “deceptively painful.” This is true even for skilled athletes and those who are already in shape. Many people also think that because they have upper arm strength, the rowing machine will be a breeze. But in fact, it’s really the legs that are doing a lot of the work.

It’s important to practice the techniques of rowing before you start (see sidebar “How to Row”). Failure to do so could result in injury. An even better idea is to have someone watch you practice your technique so that you can be sure you are doing it properly. “It’s a fairly easy sport to pick up. But if you don’t do it properly it can lead to lower back issues,” says Tom.

Once you learn the proper motions, it’s best to start out by doing shorter increments. The first couple of times, row 3 to 5 minutes, rest and repeat. Beginners should have a short-term goal of cycling for 30 minutes nonstop. Once you get that down, you can begin a good workout program. Rowing machines (Tom suggests machines from Concept2, because they are most like actual rowing machines) are similar to treadmills in that they will usually keep track of calories and distance, and you can go at certain paces, certain stroke rates and alter the resistance. A lower intensity workout would be 18-22 strokes per minute, while a higher intensity one would be 30-34 strokes per minute.

Rowing Workouts

Before rowing, Tom suggests an active warm-up that includes stretching, running in place or a short jog and jumping jacks. The cool-down is light rowing with no resistance. In addition, Tom always has his athletes do sit-ups, push-ups and planks for core strength. A strong core will help protect the lower back when rowing.

Here are some rowing workouts to try, once you are comfortable with the rowing technique. Experiment with your pace and stroke rate depending on your fitness level. Remember: 18-22 strokes per minute is lower intensity, while 30-34 strokes per minute is more advanced. You can use the rests in between increments to get up and stretch, or you can just rest on the machine if you prefer.


• Row for 3-5 minutes, rest for 3 minutes by stretching. Repeat four times.

• Row in 3-minute intervals, with 1-minute rests. Start with a comfortable pace, and at the next 3-minute interval, try to slightly increase your strokes per minute, and then go back to a more comfortable pace at the next interval. Do a total of four 3-minute intervals.

More Challenging Workouts:

• Row in 10-minute increments for a total of four times, with a 3-5 minute rest in between. 

• 20-minute increments x 3. Rest 3-5 minutes in between.

• 40-minute increments x 2. Rest 3-5 minutes in between.

• Row for 300 meters x 2. Rest 3-5 minutes in between.

Training on a rowing machine

How to Row

Before you make rowing a part of your workout regimen, it’s important to first be comfortable with proper rowing technique so that you avoid injury. The seat moves and your feet are tied to it, and rowing is a continuous motion.

1. Grab the handle while sitting in an upright position, slightly leaning back with your legs straight. The handle should be pulled back so that it’s just above your belly button. This is the “finish” position of a stroke.

2. To start the next stroke, extend your arms, pivot forward slightly (from the hips), and then bring your butt forward by bending your knees (move toward the machine).

3. With your arms still extended, you will reach the “start” position when your chest is a couple of inches from your knees.

4. Start the next stroke by pushing back through your heels as hard as you can.

5. Just before your legs are fully extended, pivot from your hips to a slight lean (80 degrees) and then pull your arms back so that the handle is just above your belly button.

6. Transition right away into the next stroke.

7. Remember each stroke starts with the legs, the back follows, then the arms. Legs, back, arms.