In the past, rowing machines could only be found in indoor rowing facilities, occupied by Olympic or retired collegiate athletes.
Across the globe, rowing is recognized as one of the best forms of exercise, challenging more traditional exercise machines.
In this article, I’ll list five reasons why rowing is the best form of cardio. My expertise comes in rowing comes from over ten years of participating in the sport at the varsity and collegiate level.
I am pleased to share with you some of the rowing machine benefits and how to navigate the actual mechanics of the rowing machine.
In order to understand the superiority of rowing to other cardio exercises, let’s begin by looking at the targeted muscles in the rowing motion.
- #1 Rowing is a Full-Body Workout
- #2 Rowing Doesn’t Aggravate Sore Muscles
- #3 Rowing Elevates Your Posture
- #4 Rowing Improves Your Cardiovascular Abilities
- #5 Rowing Will Always Push You
- Witnessing the Benefits of Rowing
#1 Rowing is a Full-Body Workout
There are multiple misconceptions about which major muscles are targeted in rowing. Rather than targeting one muscle group, the range of muscle work extends to the entire body, causing full-body muscle stimulation.
The largest producer of indoor elite rowing machines describes rowing as a “coordinated muscle action that involves every large muscle group in the body”.
For a more exact breakdown, rowing activates the quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, and glutes for the lower body and the shoulders, deltoids, back, and lats for the upper body.
Last but not least, engaging your core muscles is essential for maintaining a consistent upright posture that protects you from a back injury.
#2 Rowing Doesn’t Aggravate Sore Muscles
When feeling sore from extensive weight or fitness training, the last thing any athlete would want is to exert more energy through cardio training.
Even though rowing is a full-body workout, rowing will not add to your muscle soreness if executed with the proper technique. Better yet, rowing at a low-moderate intensity with a steady stroke rate will help ease the strain of muscle soreness.
This is because rowing is considered a concentric muscle movement.
The National Library of Medicine states concentric contraction occurs when muscle tension rises to meet the resistance of each stroke and then remains stable as the muscle shortens.
In other words, the muscle is not forced to lengthen in response to exceeding resistance, avoiding the breakdown of muscle fibers that can cause muscle soreness.
#3 Rowing Elevates Your Posture
Rowing is about more than improving your fitness. Rowing is also about improving your posture. Your posture plays a key role in how efficient you will become on the rowing machine.
Poor posture seems to be a pandemic that affects the lives of everyone in the 21st century.
Unlike biking, where you remain in a slouched position, or running, where you can easily overextend your back, an elevated upright posture is mandatory for executing proper form on the rowing machine.
Throughout every stroke on the rowing machine, you will remain in a seated position. Unless you pride yourself on maintaining good posture, the time spent rowing could be the only time in the day when you’re not slouched.
With consistent training on the rowing machine, you could even see improvements in your daily posture.
Proper execution begins with a knowledge of the proper technique and the breakdown of the stroke. The four components of the stroke are the catch, drive, finish, and recovery.
- The Catch
- The first position of the stroke.
- Targets your calves and hamstrings
- The Drive
- The strongest and most important component of the stroke.
- Targets the major muscles of your full-body
- The Finish
- The final position of the drive and finish of the stroke
- Targets your core
- The Recovery
- The recovery rowing motion gives you time to breathe and prepare for the next stroke.
- Even though you should remain engaged in proper form, your muscles should be relaxed during the recovery.
Put together, each stroke should resemble the following motion:
For a more in-depth breakdown of the stroke, check out the Biomechanics of Rowing by Concept 2 Rowing.
#4 Rowing Improves Your Cardiovascular Abilities
One of the most popular ways to measure your cardiovascular performance is a timed 3-kilometer run.
But if you detest running as much as I do, rowing is another aerobic exercise that can measure and improve your cardiovascular abilities through low-impact and high-impact rowing sessions.
Zone 2 Cardio on the Rowing Machine
Examples of low-impact exercise cardio workouts are Zone 2 workouts. In the world of rowing, these workouts are referred to as “steady-state” and are considered one of the best endurance exercises.
The purpose of Zone 2 cardio workouts, or steady state on the rowing machine, is to be able to sustain a pace slightly below your aerobic threshold for over thirty minutes. A simple way to know whether you are in Zone 2 cardio or not is if you hold a conversation while rowing.
Here are some examples of Zone 2 or steady-state workouts that will help improve your cardiovascular abilities and increase your aerobic threshold:
- 2 x 20:00 minutes of rowing with 2:30 minutes of rest in between intervals
- 30-minute row
- 2 x 6,000-meter row with 5:00 minutes of an active rest rowing pace in between intervals
HIIT Cardio on the Rowing Machine
Examples of high-impact exercise sessions are HIIT (high-intensity interval training). Interval training can easily be replicated on the rowing machine for some challenging workouts. Examples include:
- 20 minutes of 30 seconds on, 30 seconds off
- Pyramid row with increased intensity (4 minutes, 3 minutes, 2 minutes, 1 minute, and back up to 4 minutes again)
In the world of rowing, there are “benchmark” rows that are significant in testing your cardiovascular abilities in rowing. The benchmark workouts are challenging distance rows. The most popular benchmark row that every athlete should complete once in their life is a 2,000-meter row for time.
- Additional benchmark workouts that test your cardiovascular abilities include a 5,000 and 6,000-meter row for time.
#5 Rowing Will Always Push You
It is easy to lose motivation in the monotony of other cardio options like biking and running. The repetitive full-body engagement in rowing keeps you focused. It is also harder to slack off and stop in the middle of a row for technical and mental reasons.
Technically speaking, it is almost impossible to lower the resistance on the damper while rowing. This technical detail encourages the rower to push through, unlike in biking when the resistance gear is a short distance away.
Mentally speaking, it is harder to slack off because of the split time glaring at you on the screen. One weak stroke after another could spike your average split.
As you advance in your fitness level, you will quickly learn that the cost of stopping in the middle of the row is greater than pushing through.
If rowing starts to seem monotonous to you or if you think you hit a plateau, go for a new personal best for your 2,000-meter row. I promise you will find new things to focus on after that.
For even more rowing workouts, be sure to check out the Workout of the Day on Concept 2 Rowing.
Witnessing the Benefits of Rowing
Once you incorporate rowing into your workout routine, you will soon understand the global appeal to rowing.
The increase in your rowing potential, rowing technique, and cardiovascular endurance will keep you motivated to reach new levels in your fitness journey.