Indoor Rowing – an Excellent Full-Body, Low-Impact Exercise

An indoor rower such as the Concept2 Model D Rower is an excellent way to get a low-impact, full body workout. Concept2 rowers are very popular in CrossFit WODs.

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 Concept2 Model D Indoor Rower, which many consider to be the gold standard for indoor rowers (especially in CrossFit).

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

Indoor Rowing – Try Before You Buy Not sure if an indoor rower will be the right choice for you? We recommend you try one out at the local gym or CrossFit box. But please also be aware that some models are better than others. Concept2, who makes the equipment recommended here, has over 40 years experience in building efficient, easy to use indoor rowers – and is considered the gold standard in indoor rowing. If you’ve tried a Concept2, you’ve tried the best. Use Concept2’s handy Indoor Rower Finder to find a gym near you.
As we mentioned previously, indoor rowing is an excellent full-body exercise. But let’s expand on that a bit – exactly what muscles are put to use and what are the benefits of indoor rowing?

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.

Concept2 Model D indoor rower - shown inside

Indoor Rowing Workouts

What’s an ergometer? Modern indoor rowers are often known as ergometers (or an “erg” or “ergo”). An ergometer is a device which measures the amount of work performed. The indoor rower is calibrated to measure the amount of energy the rower is using through their use of the equipment. This can be done because the flywheel is of a known mass and the machine can calculate the speed of acceleration and deceleration.
A key concept for rowing is the stroke rate, measured in strokes per minute (SPM). Because rowing involves the entire body, it is much more taxing than other cardio. It’s important to carefully monitor and abide by a target stroke rate. Keeping the rate between 24 and 30 is recommended for most workouts. Rates up to 36 SPM might be used when racing, but we’re not discussing competitive rowing here.

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, Concept2’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.

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.

References

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.
  • 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.


Indoor rowing is an excellent full-body exercise. It is low-impact. It is popular in CrossFit style workouts, known as WODs (Workout of the Day).

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