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How to use a rowing machine, the benefits, and the workouts to try

a girl on a rowing machine
(Image credit: Getty/Cavan Images)

Do you walk right past the rowing machine when you’re in the gym? You really shouldn’t, because it’s a remarkably effective piece of equipment — it builds strength, improves your aerobic fitness, and is a great all-over workout. It’s also easy to use, once you have learned the right technique. Oh, and contrary to what you may have heard, it does not give you an overdeveloped upper body — just a strong one. What’s not to love? 

What are the benefits? 

A rowing machine session delivers a lot, working up to 85% of your muscles, including your legs, back, arms, shoulders, and core. At the same time, it also develops the kind of cardio fitness that will stand to you if you are taking a break from, say, running because of an overuse injury. And when it comes to burning fat, it’s one of the best workouts you can do: Harvard Health (opens in new tab) found that a 125-pound person can burn up to 210 calories with 30 minutes of moderate rowing and a 185-pound person can burn 294 calories (with vigorous rowing, those numbers rise to 255 calories and 440 calories, respectively). Furthermore, because it’s a low-impact activity, you are very unlikely to sustain an injury even if you do an intense workout. 

Another benefit is that you can go as hard or as easy as you like, so as your fitness improves you can up your effort level by, for example, aiming for a specific distance in a set time – watching that digital readout is quite an incentive. Who doesn’t want to beat the clock? And you can adapt a session and challenge yourself in other ways by doing body-weight exercises, such as squats, between efforts. Of course, you can also just sit in, switch off and imagine yourself rowing for a long time along a lazy river, if the mood takes you. Resist the urge to whistle.

a man using a rowing machine

(Image credit: Getty/Thomas Barwick)

How to a rowing machine

First off, using a rowing machine is not primarily an upper-body exercise, though it may look like one, and the word ‘rowing’ suggests your arms are in charge. Instead, your legs should be doing most of the work, with your glutes, core, and upper body doing the rest. (The organization American Fitness Professionals and Associates (opens in new tab) says the rowing stroke when using a rowing machine is 65-75% leg work and 25-35% upper bodywork.) 

Pulling too early with your arms rather than using your big leg muscles to push is a form error many people make early on. Pelé Zachariah, head of performance at Rowbots (opens in new tab) (find Rowbots on social (opens in new tab) here), says other common mistakes in technique include overreaching at the catch (the first phase of the stroke; see below), leaning too far away at the back of the stroke, and neglecting the slow slide for recovery. Here, he outlines good rowing machine technique:

Phase 1: The Catch 

Sit tall, engaging your core, with your shoulders back and relaxed. Keep your arms long and your hips slightly behind your shoulders. 

Phase 2: The Drive 

This phase utilizes the full force of your legs to explosively push away through the footplates. Keep your arms straight for as long as possible, only pulling the handle toward your chest once your legs are fully extended and your hips are slightly hinged (to roughly an 11 o’clock position from your upper body).

Phase 3: The Finish

Be sure to maintain postural integrity — you should have only a slight backward lean at this point. Release your hands quickly once they have touched your chest and only bend at the knees when your hands have passed the knee joint on the return. 

Phase 4: The Recovery 

Once your hands have cleared your knees, initiate a slow slide to return to the catch position, at which point the cycle begins again.

Rowing-machine workouts

Next time you’re in the gym, try one of these Rowbots-designed workouts. There’s something for all abilities and levels of fitness. 

1. Time-constrained workout

You will need to jump off and back onto the rower for this 20-minute blast.

Beginner: 200m row, 8 push-ups, 16 air squats (body-weight squats)

Intermediate: 350m row, 12 push-ups, 24 air squats

Advanced: 500m row, 16 push-ups, 32 air squats

Find your flow and move at a consistent pace from start to finish. Aim to hold similar split times on each rowing effort. Do as many rounds as possible before you reach the point where you’re gasping ‘No more!’. No one is listening, anyway.

2. Recovery workout 

Row from 20-60 minutes (depending on your fitness level) at a pace that feels comfortable. Listen to a podcast or some music (easy on those bpms!) to complement the leisurely rowing action. Get into a groove and lose yourself.

3. Interval workout

500m row

60 seconds’ rest

Do 8-12 rounds

This one will test your physical and mental strength, so get ready to feel the burn and ignore your brain when it screams that you’ve had enough. Set a target time for your first 500m and try to hit that time with each subsequent effort. Do eight rounds if you’re a beginner, 10 if you are intermediate and all 12 if you are advanced.

4. Low-intensity workout

One of the greatest things about the rower is that you can adapt almost any workout to suit your level of fitness or experience. This session is ideal for someone who is new to the gym or has not trained for a while.

Minute 1: 40-second row / 20 seconds’ rest

Minute 2: 40-second elbow plank / 20 seconds’ rest

Minute 3: 40-second row / 20 seconds’ rest

Minute 4: Rest and then repeat

Aim for six rounds, but feel free to scale this up or down depending on your fitness level and ability.

Looking for more workout inspiration? Here are the best treadmill workouts for all levels of runner, and the best Stairmaster workouts to try in the gym. You can also read about what happened when I rowed a mile a day for two weeks.

John is a writer and editor based in London. He was worked for magazines such as Runner’s World, Men’s Health, Women’s Health and Cosmopolitan. A keen runner, what he lacks in ability he makes up for with enthusiasm and excuses.