An indoor rower (or indoor rowing machine) is an exercise machine that simulates rowing a watercraft.
Indoor rowing is an all-around excellent exercise. First of all, it’s a highly effective full-body exercise, but it’s also a low-impact workout.
But it’s not easy – remember the last time you had to row a boat?
Shown here is the Concept 2 Model D Indoor Rower, which many consider to be the gold standard for indoor rowers (especially in CrossFit).
Want to get the benefits of this low-impact, full-body exercise? Here’s everything you need:
Why is rowing such great exercise? Here’s the reasons:
- Full-body exercise – The indoor rowing machine requires effort from both your upper and lower body. With a lot of major muscle groups in use this is a tough workout. But you can pace yourself, such that this exercise will work for anyone – from novice to athlete.
- Calorie burning efficiency – because it involves your whole body – you can burn a lot of calories. How many calories does an indoor rowing machine burn? It can burn up to 377 in a 30-minute workout. This means efficiency – spend less time working out.
- Low-impact – Indoor rowing involves no jarring impacts to the joints, and doesn’t require extreme mobility. For these reasons, this is an excellent cardiovascular and endurance workout for midlifers. It’s also great for people who aren’t quite ready for weight bearing exercise. And while it can cause some low back strain – using the right form can prevent this.
- Serious aerobic workout – This is a great cardiovascular exercise, it gets your heart pumping and you’ll be breathing hard. Oxygen uptake will be through the roof.
- Space efficiency – With the right machine, it takes a minimum of space – which means you can work out year-round, indoors – and away from the heat or the cold.
The only real downside to rowing? It obviously requires specialized equipment – but we’ll discuss options for that.
Indoor Rowing is a Full-Body Workout
Rowers exercise the rhomboids in the shoulders, trapezius in the upper back, and lats in the mid to lower back. The benefits of a stronger back and shoulders include improved posture as well as a reduction in back pain. But you’ve got to grip the bar or handle with your hands – and that means the biceps, forearms, wrists, and hands all are in on the action. Rowing isn’t an extreme grip exercise – but it’s something that will help you maintain a minimum of grip strength. The pectorals (chest) and abdominals are also used, which helps you develop a stronger core.
For the lower-body – which includes the biggest muscles in the body – the quadriceps in the upper front of the thighs, calves, and glutes (buttocks) are involved extensively.
When we said full-body we weren’t kidding. There’s just no comparison to cardio exercise that only involves the lower body, such as biking, the elliptical machine, or running on a treadmill. This is a calorie-killing, efficient workout.
Indoor Rowing Technique
Here’s a great video from Concept 2 that shows proper indoor rowing technique.
Indoor Rowing Workouts
Power output (measured in watts) is another key measure for rowing. How do you apply more power? Primarily during the drive (The first part of the stroke) – be efficient with your power by engaging your legs at the start, then swinging the back, and then following through with your arms. Applying more power gives you another way to bump up intensity. You can pick up the pace by increasing the stroke rate, or by increasing power, or both.
There are four basics phases to complete one stroke; the catch, the drive, the finish and the recovery. Proper form is always a good idea, but doubly so with the indoor rower – as low back strain can be problematic otherwise. A focus on both mechanics and breathing – and correct rhythm – exhaling on the drive and inhaling on the recovery, is a stabilizing force for the upper body. Do not overemphasize the muscles of the upper body; correct technique is to use the large muscle of the thighs to drive much of the stroke. The angle of the upper body should never be too far forward, nor too far back, both of which will jeopardize the lower back and compression injuries on the knees and hip flexor muscles. For more tips on proper usage and form, Concept 2’s Tips and General Info section is a great place to start.
You can work out by time, distance, calories burned, power, and more. Need some rowing machine workout ideas? How about these:
- Beginner workout – Try 3 minutes at 20 strokes per minute, comfortable effort; 1-minute rest. Then increase the SPM – 3 minutes at 22 SPM, rest, and then 3 minutes at 24 SPM. Rest 1 minute in between each.
- 1,000-meter row – Aim to row for 1,000 meters in total. As a beginner, you will likely have to split this up into segments – aim for a target stroke rate in the 20-30 SPM and maintain that for each segment. It’s ok to slow the stroke rate down a bit on the final segment.
- Sprints – Similar to tabata interval training, try interspersing periods of all-out effort (high stroke rate) with periods of reduced activity (low stroke rate). This effectively means you are doing HIIT style training.
- 5000m with stroke rate changes every 1000m: 26-24-22-24-26 – Row for a total of 5000 meters at a sustainable intensity, varying your stroke rate as follows: row 1000 meters @ 26 spm, 1000 meters @ 24 spm, 1000 meters @ 22 spm, 1000 meters @ 24 spm, and 1000 meters @ 26 spm. This is a form of rower interval training, and is highly recommended.
- The Marathon Row was featured as a CrossFit WOD in 2018. Row 42,195 meters (26.2 miles) for time. This is obviously NOT a beginner workout.
Rowing is a regular feature in CrossFit WODs, including favorites such as “Fight Gone Bad!”.
The standard trial distance for record attempts is 2,000 meters, and times can range from five and a half minutes (the very best elite rowers) to nine minutes or more. If you really get into this, this might be something to aspire to.
Indoor Rowing Tips for Midlifers
At middle age and beyond, it’s important to start conservative and not push the limits too quickly. But don’t shy away from full-body exercise (and intensity) – it’s more important than ever.
- Full-Body Exercise is the Best Exercise – Full-body exercise might sound intimidating, but just as for a beginner, it’s the best exercise. We’re training for longevity and quality of life – so leave no muscle group neglected – and that includes your heart and lungs.
- Nail the Form – Make sure you are using the correct form. Do it right, then do it fast.
- Sprints and Intervals are Excellent for Fat Burning – Research shows that intervals and sprint style training are more effective than prolonged, stead-state exercise for fat burning. It’s also less boring!
- Lose the Ego – Scale your workouts to match your abilities. This isn’t the time to let your ego go out of control. It’s an injury waiting to happen. The smart approach is to scale up to more (and longer) intensity conservatively.
Learn How To Row with Dark Horse Academy
Once you have the rower, it’s easy to get started – just watch a few YouTube clips and start flailing away…
Or, you could enroll in the Launch Your Rowing e-Course from Dark Horse Academy.
This online course, which you can access on your computer, phone, or tablet starts with the basics.
They explain step-by-step how to get the perfect form for rowing – and they explain all the relevant terminology along the way.
What does it include? Lots of of video instruction – and this works great on your phone or a tablet like an iPad.
What drag factor should you use? What’s your 2K time? Exactly what is perfect rowing form anyways?
You can definitely figure this all out (eventually) on your own – but I found this video course to be a fun way to learn – and a great way to get motivated.
I’m happy to say after completing the course – my 2K times have improved greatly.
And perhaps more importantly, I feel like I know what I’m doing – and how I can reach my fitness goals on the rower.
In Summary – Indoor Rowing
Indoor rowing is a fabulous fitness method to have in your arsenal. There is a little bit of a technique learning curve to deal with, and you need the equipment, but we think you’ll quickly grow to love this exercise.
You may also want to read our guide to air bikes, which are also an excellent cardio training tool.
- Calories burned in 30 minutes for people of three different weights
- HOW TO TRANSLATE CALORIES TO METERS (Dark Horse Rowing) – Excellent website on all things related to the rower.
- Enhancement of fat metabolism by repeated bouts of moderate endurance exercise
- Aerobic Interval Training Versus Continuous Moderate Exercise as a Treatment for the Metabolic Syndrome. A Pilot Study
- 4 THINGS YOU CAN APPLY TO INSTANTLY IMPROVE YOUR ROWING (Dark Horse Academy)
Photo and Image Credits
- The Rogue Fitness logo and some product imagery on this page is property of Rogue Fitness and provided by Rogue Fitness.
- We are an affiliate of Dark Horse Academy – because we believe in their product. If you purchase their rowing course after clicking lines in this article, we’ll get a small commission – at no additional cost to you.
- Some additional product imagery is courtesy of Concept2, Inc.
- This website is not affiliated or associated with CrossFit, Inc. CrossFit is a registered trademark of CrossFit, Inc.
Tim is the founder of FitAtMidlife.com – an avid gym rat for 30+ years, he’s a reviewer of many, many shoes – and founder of the Speed Bag Gathering – the world’s only gathering of speed bag punching enthusiasts. See more gym reviews at Tim’s YouTube channel.